After Decades, the Air Force Retires 8-Inch Floppies From Missile Control Systems

 

Nuclear-Missile1

After over 40 years, the Strategic Automated Command and Control system (SACCS) no longer runs on venerable 8-inch floppy drives from circa 1972. As of this past June, the entire system has moved to a “highly-secure solid-state digital storage solution.” That’s according to Lt. Col. Jason Rossi, commander of the Air Force’s 595th Strategic Communications Squadron. The federal government, for obvious reasons, declined to say much about the exact methods it uses to network the strategic operations center for the ground-based nuclear arsenal.

The status quo, however, could not have endured indefinitely. Back in 2016, a GAO report drew attention to the fact that the SACCS was still running on an obsolete IBM Series/1 computer, which was first developed in the 1970s. The United States Air Force has defended the system in the past, with references to how its obsolescence can actually be a strength in certain ways. This is true. A system that isn’t connected to the internet and doesn’t rely on anything resembling modern hardware could be harder to penetrate in certain regards. At the same time, however, the age and difficulty of securing replacement hardware mean that the Air Force was previously forced to repair components rather than replacing them. Below, we see a group of USAF personnel attempting to breathe life back into a damaged unit.

Calculon-Resurrection

Defense News has a detailed discussion of how the USAF uses civilians for repair work while airmen handle the component diagnosis and system repairs. If you’re thinking “Wait, I thought we just junked all those floppy drives,” it’s not clear that the rest of the System/1 systems went out with their floppy, eight-inch…. disks.

Look, it was either the above or a joke about a “SACCS of disks.” Also, I’m actually an eight-year-old with a college degree and an unusually large vocabulary. Photo by Wikipedia

According to Defense News, Lt. Colonel Rossi only acknowledged that the Air Force was seeking an overall replacement to SACCS, not that it had already replaced the entire system. How’d they manage to equip the machines with a solid-state storage solution if they haven’t actually retired the computers themselves? I’m genuinely not sure. However, one thing I am sure of is that this is eminently possible. The Series/1 computers supported a substantial number of I/O ports, including standards like RS-232, also known as a serial port. I can’t find any literature on anybody hooking an actual SSD (or, let’s be honest — a USB thumb drive) up to an IBM Series/1, but people have found ways to interface solid-state storage devices with the original IBM PC.

 

To be clear, I’m not actually claiming that somebody jerry-rigged a generic USB thumb drive up to a 42-year-old IBM Series/1. I’m saying that the Air Force is clearly still concerned with the maintenance of these old computers (based on the Defense News article) and that it may well be perfectly possible to connect solid-state storage to a computer that’s this ancient. Hopefully, the replacement procurement process is a bit more formalized than a hobbyist project.

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