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Floppy Nukes: How the U.S. Government is Failing at IT

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the United States reveals that, medicine far from rocking cutting edge hardware and software, Uncle Sam is decidedly behind the times.

Nuclear warheadReading about how the United States government conducts certain activities is similar to pressing one’s face against the window of a sausage factory: It’s often very disturbing to know how certain things are done.

 

Just like when an IT professional encounters a sentence like this one:

 

“The Department of Defense uses 8-inch floppy disks in a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation's nuclear forces.”

 

Yep — it’s creeping heeby jeebies time, folks, but not because Skynet is coming ... unless it’s writing itself in assembly code.

 

The above nugget came from a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) looking at the current state of Uncle Sam’s IT infrastructure. The GAO’s report does little to inspire confidence in the government’s ability to properly invest in modern IT systems.

 

The GAO report, an 87-page document released to the public in May, paints a pretty clear picture of the decrepit state of U.S. government information technology. In 2015, the government had an IT budget of over $80 billion for the year. The Feds spent 75 percent of this budget on operations and maintenance of legacy systems, and only 25 percent on modernization, development, and replacement activities.

 

In fact, the amount of money being spent on development and modernization has decreased by $7.3 billion over the last seven years. The ancient, doddering systems like the one operating America’s nuclear arsenal mentioned above are devouring most of the Fed’s IT budget in upkeep and operation costs.

 

According to the GAO report, “Federal legacy IT investments are becoming increasingly obsolete: Many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported. Agencies reported using several systems that have components that are, in some cases, at least 50 years old.”

 

Fifty years. That would be 1966: Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California, and the first episode of Star Trek debuted on NBC. Also the Department of the Treasury used an assembly language program running on an IBM mainframe as the authoritative data source for individual U.S. taxpayers.

 

Oh wait, they’re STILL USING that system today. The GAO report states, “The [Treasury] agency has general plans to replace this investment, but there is no firm date associated with the transition.” Sorry, citizens, maybe next year we’ll upgrade everything to COBOL.

 

The government IT property for nuke management mentioned earlier in this article is actually known as the Strategic Automated Command and Control System. An impressive name ... for a program that runs on an IBM Series/1 computer from the 1970s, and employs 8-inch floppy disks. Here are the mundane tasks this system is responsible for:

 

“Coordinates the operational functions of the United States' nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts.”

 

And maybe it gets used for lunchtime games of Zork, as long as there’s no immediate need for tactical nuclear deployment.