America Still Controls Nukes With Floppy Disks

Want to launch a US nuclear missile? You’ll need a 1970s-era floppy disk handy.

It’s hard to believe these magnetic, 8-inch data storage devices are what’s propping up the most fearsome weapons humanity has ever created.

But the Department of Defence is still relying on this technology to coordinate key strategic forces such as nuclear bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to a new government report.

The floppy disks help run what’s known as the Strategic Automated Command and Control System, an important communications network that the Pentagon uses to issue launch orders to commanders and to share intelligence. 

And in order to use the floppy disks, the military must also maintain a collection of IBM Series/1 computers that to most people would look more at home in a museum than in a missile silo.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the military’s reliance on seemingly archaic tech: back in 2014, the US Air Force showed CBS’ 60 Minutes one of the top-secret floppy disks that helps it store and transmit sensitive information across dozens of communications sites.

So to hear from the Government Accountability Office that the Pentagon has still not phased out the technology – and doesn’t plan to until the end of fiscal year 2017 – is remarkable.

Still, there is a major reason – other than simply being behind the times – for the military’s continued use of floppies: Sometimes, it says, low-tech is safer tech, because it can’t be hacked.

That may come as a surprise at a time when digital technologies have almost completely superseded analog ones – heck, some companies literally give away USB flash drives these days because they’re so cheap. 

It highlights the yawning gulf between consumers and government – and sometimes huge differences between branches of the US military.

But more importantly, it reveals how urgently the government needs not just newer technology, but technologically savvy people who can think differently.

The military’s investments in cybersecurity illustrate how some parts of the Department of Defence have made deep commitments to technology, even as other parts, such as America’s nuclear forces, have lagged behind.

The US Navy and Air Force are both highly interested in autonomous drones. Unmanned vehicles have the potential to lurk quietly underwater and survey the enemy, or to supplement human pilots in the air.

The Pentagon aims to install upgrades to its systems over the next year.

And there are good reasons – even seemingly obvious ones – for doing so.

But just as upgrading your laptop’s operating system on the first day can come with unexpected bugs, our nuclear commanders appear to take a similar caution to embracing the latest and greatest. Perhaps that’s for the best.