U.S. Military Will Stop Using Floppy Disks to Operate Its Nuclear Weapons System

Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Schlabach shows off a floppy disc used in the launch control center at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base for a Seeker video
Screenshot: Seeker (YouTube)

The systems used to control the United States arsenal of nuclear weapons rely on outdated computers. But the Department of Defense is updating at least one part of the archaic technology—the floppy disk storage systems.

A 60 Minutes segment in 2014 presented a tour of a nuclear control center, revealing to the public that the computers that would take a nuclear launch order from the President rely on 8-inch disks invented nearly half a century ago.

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Defense tech news site C4isrnet reports that the Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS)—the communication infrastructure that transmits emergency action messages for nuclear command centers—is ditching the floppy disks. Lieutenant Colonel Jason Rossi, 595th Strategic Communications Squadron commander, told C4isrnet the SACCS is upgrading to a “highly-secure solid state digital storage solution.”

U.S Strategic Communications did not immediately respond to a Gizmodo request for comment on the report.

As C4isrnet points out, the Government Accountability Office wrote in 2016 that the SACCS operates on an IBM Series/1 computer from the 1970s, and the Pentagon planned “to update its data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals by the end of fiscal year 2017.”

The system’s use of outdated technology helps keep it secure. “You can’t hack something that doesn’t have an IP address,” Rossi told C4isrnet. “It’s the age that provides that security.”

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But the old system is increasingly difficult to maintain. Rossi told C4isrnet that, when SACCS components like microchips or microboards break, there usually aren’t replacements available, so technicians have to fix the parts, sometimes spending hours working on the items under a microscope. Most of these specialized repairs are done by civilian technicians since few young service members have the skills to maintain the hardware.

So, we’re trading a secure but high-maintenance system for one that’s up-to-date and less of a pain in the ass. Here’s hoping it’s as “highly secure” as the Pentagon says it is.

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Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo