US nuclear emergency messaging system still uses floppy disks

US nuclear emergency messaging system still uses floppy disks
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The Defense Department’s system for sending emergency messages to nuclear forces is made up of aging technology that runs on a 1970s-era computer system and uses 8-inch floppy disks. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) made the finding in a broad report highlighting the billions of dollars the government spends every year to maintain largely outdated information technology (IT). 

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“Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete,” the report concluded.

The Defense Department’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System was one of the most egregious examples highlighted in the GAO report. In a footnote, the GAO had to define “floppy disk,” noting that modern flash drives hold the equivalent storage of 3.2 million floppy disks. 

To the Defense Department’s credit, the report noted it started a full systems replacement in March that should be finished by 2020. The floppy disks will be replaced with secure digital cards by 2017. 

"The system coordinates the operational functions of the United States’ nuclear forces, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers, and tanker support aircrafts, among others," the report said. "For those in the nuclear command area, the system’s primary function is to send and receive emergency action messages to nuclear forces."

The GAO report concluded that agencies across the government are spending far too much on operation and maintenance of aging IT instead of modernization and enhancements. 

In 2015, $80 billion was spent on government IT. The large majority of it, $61 billion, was spent on operation and maintenance. That share has increased since 2010. 

The report also found that nearly $1 billion in IT operation and maintenance investment has been labeled as high or moderate risk. 

Agencies say the increased spending is due to a number of factors. They say after a system is replaced, much of the cost shifts to maintenance and operation. They also say that rising costs are associated with marinating aging infrastructure that might need outdated expertise to operate. 

“Legacy systems may become increasingly more expensive as agencies have to deal with the previously mentioned issues and may pay a premium to hire staff or contractors with the knowledge to maintain outdated systems,” according to the report. 

The report notes the government has started tracking spending for things such as cloud storage or shared services, which are recommended to improve government IT. But the report criticized the federal government — specifically the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — for not setting specific targets for that spending. 

The report made more than a dozen recommendations. One of the highest priorities is for the OMB to finish guidance that will require agencies to identify IT that needs to be replaced or modernized. 

“However, OMB did not commit to a firm time frame for when the policy would be issued,” according to the report. “Until OMB’s policy is finalized and carried out, the federal government runs the risk of continuing to maintain investments that have outlived their effectiveness and are consuming resources that outweigh their benefits.”