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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Our lives in their hands

For many people a reluctance to adopt the latest technology is excusable. After all, who has the time to keep upgrading programmes and as for Windows 10, seriously why would I want to abandon my trusty operating system.

There are times though where one assumes that the most up-to-date technology is being used and find an icy-cold shiver running down one's back when the contrary is proved to be true.

Such a moment came to me when I saw this article in The Times, in which they report that the Pentagon is still using floppy discs designed in the 1970s for some of its nuclear force’s functions:

The report by the Government Accountability Office said it was one of a number of worryingly outdated “legacy systems” still in use that are in desperate need of upgrading.

According to the study the US Defense Department spends $61.2 billion (£41bn) a year on operations and maintenance of ageing technologies.

The figure is more than three times over its “development, modernization and enhancement” spending.

The Pentagon command and control system that "coordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts,” runs on an IBM Series/1 computer and uses 8in floppy disks.

That type of computer was first used in 1976, when Gerald Ford was in the White House. When asked why they were using near obsolete technology, the Pentagon offered a simple solution.

“This system remains in use because, in short, it still works,” spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Valerie Henderson told agency AFP.

“However, to address obsolescence concerns, the floppy drives are scheduled to be replaced with Secure Digital devices by the end of 2017,” she added.

“Modernisation across the entire Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) enterprise remains ongoing.”

Given that floppy disks first came into use in the late 1960s but were largely obsolete by the turn of the millennium this does not generate confidence in our safety. But just in case you might think that everything is under control, perhaps it is worth reflecting on how up-to-date the Russian systems are.
This gives me reassurance. Much better to have a stable system than to replace it for replacement's sake (for something that WILL be worse)! And they are sorting out the disk problem. All sounds very sensible.
That's all fine so long as there is a supply of 8" floppies. There is a company in the US still making them, but for how long?

As to the USSR relying on old technology, there are two examples of that paying off. Their astronauts did not have to rely on fancy designs of ball-point pens to write notes in zero gravity; they used pencils. And their fighter avionics based on old-fashioned valves (vacuum tubes) are more resistant to nuclear electromagnetic pulses than transistors.

However, Western strategists had a rude awakening as to Russia's current military technology in Syria recently.
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