When it comes to effective technology the federal government has a dismal record. Recently news organizations have been flipping out over a report that noted that the federal government is still utilizing 8″ floppy disks for its nuclear weapons program:
The U.S. Defense Department is still using — after several decades — 8-inch floppy disks in a computer system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces, a jaw-dropping new report reveals.
The Defense Department’s 1970s-era IBM Series/1 Computer and long-outdated floppy disks handle functions related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft, according to the new Government Accountability Office report.
The department’s outdated “Strategic Automated Command and Control System” is one of the 10 oldest information technology investments or systems detailed in the sobering GAO report, which calls for a number of federal agencies “to address aging legacy systems.”
I’m not sure why that report is “jaw-droping.” There is wisdom in updating systems incrementally as key components become obsolete. There is also wisdom in not fixing something that isn’t broken.
This reminds me of the number of businesses and banks that still rely on software written in COBOL. A lot of people find it odd that these organizations haven’t upgraded their systems to the latest and greatest. But replacing a working system that has been debugged and fine tuned for decades is an expensive prospect. All of the work that was done over those decades is effectively thrown out. Whatever new system is developed to replace the old system will have to go through a painful period of fine tuning and debugging. Considering that and considering the current systems still fulfill their purposes, why would an organization sink a ton of money into replacing them?
The nuclear program strikes me as the same thing. While 8″ floppy disks and IBM Series/1 computers are ancient, they seem to be fulfilling their purpose. More importantly, those systems have gone through decades of fine tuning and debugging, which means they’re probably more reliable than any replacement system would be (and reliability is pretty important when you’re talking about weapons that can wipe out entire cities).
Sometimes old isn’t automatically bad, even when you’re talking about technology.