America's Nuclear Missile Silos Are Still Using Floppy Disks

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 28 2014 7:11 PM

Why U.S. Nuclear Missile Silos Rely on Decades-Old Technology

You'd probably expect to encounter all sorts of crazy technology in a U.S. Air Force nuclear silo. One you might not expect: floppy disks.

Leslie Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes reported from a Wyoming nuclear control center for a segment that aired on Sunday, and the Cold War-era tech she found is pretty amazing. But it also makes sense. The government built facilities for the Minuteman missiles in the 1960s and 1970s, and though the missiles have been upgraded numerous times to make them safer and more reliable, the bases themselves haven't changed much. And there isn't a lot of incentive to upgrade them. ICBM forces commander Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein told Stahl that the bases have extremely tight IT and cyber security, because they're not Internet-connected and they use such old hardware and software.

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While on the base, missileers showed Stahl the 8-inch floppy disks they use as part of launch commands for the missiles. Later, in an interview with Weinstein, Stahl described the disk she was shown as "gigantic," and said she had never seen one that big. Weinstein explained, "Those older systems provide us some, I will say, huge safety, when it comes to some cyber issues that we currently have in the world."

The Air Force is planning to spend $19 million on launch control center improvements in 2014, and is seeking $600 million for additional upgrades next year. At least in Wyoming, replacing the analog phones in the base seems like job one, since 60 Minutes reports that the missileers struggle with how unreliable they are. In controlling some of the most dangerous weapons in the world, it's an odd balance between tech that's obsolete enough to be secure, but still current enough to, you know, actually work.

Previously in Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

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