While this disco-era technology may seem rather outdated, it has long protected America's nuclear arsenal from hackers.
With the defense industry being a prominent pusher of advances in technology, one would think the U.S. Air Force ran a tight, ultra high-tech ship. According to Forbes, however, they’ve relied on obsolete eight-inch floppy disks to run internal communications for years — until now.
According to Lt. Col. Jason Rossi, the vintage framework — which includes the capability of launching nuclear missiles — has served the Air Force well. Nonetheless, the branch has left the past behind as of June and shifted to a “highly-secure solid-state digital storage solution” instead.
While using old, analog technology might appear counterintuitive, the Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS), or encrypted online chat system for the Air Force, did run virtually glitch-free for decades.
As Rossi, the commander of the 595th Strategic Communications Squadron (SCS) in Nebraska which manages and reviews daily SACCS communications, asserted: “You can’t hack something that doesn’t have an IP address.”
SACCS essentially controls a vast network of deep, underground missile silos that are interconnected by untold amounts of secure cabling. According to Wired, SACCS, in turn, has run on IBM’s Series/1 computers and equally vintage floppy disks.
“This is how we would conduct nuclear war,” a senior U.S. Air Force operator said, “on eight-inch floppy disks…it is old and it is very good.”
According to defense news site C4isrnet, SACCS is protected against outside voyeurs. Unlike AOL Instant Messenger, the SACCS chat system is capable of receiving an order from the president to launch nuclear missiles from silos across country.
“I joke with people and say it’s the Air Force’s oldest IT system,” said Rossi. “But it’s the age that provides that security.”
For those who’ve been at the 595th SCS for a while now, the Dr. Strangelove-era system is a familiar and reliable beast.
“I have guys in here who have circuits, diodes, and resisters memorized,” said Rossi. “They use a TO [technical order] to make sure they’re right, but these guys have been doing it for so long, when the parts come in, they can tell you what’s wrong just based on a fault code or something.”
“That level of expertise is very hard to replace. It’s not sexy work. It’s soldering irons and micro-miniature microscopes.”
The disadvantages of this technology, have begun to rear their heads. The younger generations who are more comfortable with modern IT infrastructures, for instance, have trouble managing SACCS and repairing its faulty components when necessary.
“Any electronic repair is going to take a lot of work,” said Robert Norman, a civilian Air Force employee with four years of experience in fixing SACCS electronics. “I shouldn’t say it’s difficult, [but] unfortunately a lot of the newer electronics are plug and play.”
Typically, when one piece on a more modern system breaks, the entire thing gets replaced. With SACCS, any broken component is simply repaired — but it requires hours to do so, and an ever-increasingly rare group of people who know what they’re doing.
“The challenges get a little larger when we’re actually repairing them down to component level,” said Norman.
The work is so specialized and narrow in its popularity that the Air Force hired civilians to help rather than teach their own employees because it would take years of training.
“A lot of young folks aren’t exposed to this kind of system and it usually takes quite some time for everyone to get trained up and to be able to work with an older system like this,” said Senior Airman Aaron Mentch, a network technician who’s worked on SACCS for a year.
A 2016 report to Congress finally addressed the need for a complete overhaul of the communications system.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office claimed that “updated data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals” would be implemented by 2017.
Clearly, the permanent retirement of floppy disks in June indicates this is being done, albeit on a rather delayed timeline. With the world changing at a rapid pace, however, taking time to ensure new systems are secure above all else is paramount.
The goal here is to have whatever modern system is put in place to be just as glitch-free and hacker-proof as its charming, disco-era predecessor.
After learning about the U.S. Air Force retiring its vintage nuclear command computer and floppy disk system, read about Stanislav Petrov, the man who singlehandedly prevented nuclear armageddon. Then, learn about the Peacekeeper missile, the nuclear weapon so deadly it had to be banned.