US nuclear warheads are operated by 8in floppy disks

26 May 2016

More attention is being drawn to the antiquated operating systems that certain US defence programs rely on, most notably, the floppy disk-supported nuclear warheads.

“The operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts […] run on an IBM Series/1 Computer – a 1970s computing system – and uses 8in floppy disks.”

So reads a new US governmental report into the need to update ‘legacy’ technologies that are, somewhat amazingly, still in place.

Considering the country has almost 5,000 nuclear warheads, that’s some amount of responsibility on pre-Reagan technology. Worse still, the components are so old that finding replacement parts when wear and tear takes its toll is proving far more difficult now.

Many people won’t be fully aware of what floppy disks are, fewer still aware of 8in precursors of the ‘relatively’ portable successors.

In 2014, a 60 Minutes report looked into this, with Last Week Tonight presenter John Oliver spreading the word with an entire segment on nuclear weapons on the back of that.

Looking through 26 separate agencies, $61bn is spent on out-of-date technologies, with the number “steadily” increasing.

A dozen agencies are “moderate or high risk” at this stage, while even some of the ‘modern’ software used, such as 1990s Windows systems, are not supported anymore. Many haven’t been for quite some time.

The Department of Defence is one of those agencies using operating systems that “stopped being supported by the vendor more than a decade ago”.

“This system remains in use because, in short, it still works,” Pentagon spokeswoman Lt Col Valerie Henderson said.

“However, to address obsolescence concerns, the floppy drives are scheduled to be replaced with secure digital devices by the end of 2017.”

Warhead image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic