Five years ago, Ars Technica reported on how shocked the CBS News program 60 Minutes was to find that 8 inch floppies were still used to store data for operating the Air Force's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) command, control, and communications network. The system, once called the Strategic Air Command Digital Network (SACDIN), relied on IBM Series/1 computers installed by the Air Force at Minuteman II missile sites in the 1960s and 1970s. Five years ago, the Air Force offered the view that the hardware (which virtually everyone thought was long obsolete) provided a cybersecurity advantage. I can see their point to some extent; certainly nobody is going to casually leave an 8" floppy disk in the men's room as has been done with a USB drive.
Today, the Air Force is singing a different tune.
[T]he service has completed an upgrade to what is now known as the Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS), as Defense News reports. SAACS is an upgrade that swaps the floppy disk system for what Lt. Col. Jason Rossi, commander of the Air Force’s 595th Strategic Communications Squadron, described as a “highly secure solid state digital storage solution.” The floppy drives were fully retired in June.The IBM Series/1 computers remain, however, in part because of their reliability and security.
Air Force officials have acknowledged network upgrades that have enhanced the speed and capacity of SACCS' communications systems, and a Government Accountability Office report in 2016 (28 page pdf) noted that the Air Force planned to "update its data storage solutions, port expansion processors, portable terminals, and desktop terminals by the end of fiscal year 2017." But it's not clear how much of that has been completed.When I think of electronics from the '60s and '70s, my thought isn't "reliability" so much as "end of life". I have some 1960s radios, in case you're wondering how I know. Electronic components are often referred to as having a bathtub-shaped reliability curve; steep walls on both ends and a long flat bottom between the walls. When the parts are first put into service, they go through a short period of "infant mortality" failures as various problems (both in fabrication of the parts and of assemblies they're in) cause the components to fail. This is followed by a long period in which the failure rate is quite a bit lower and parts fail essentially at random. Finally, parts wear out and fail - literally dying of old age - and the bathtub side curves upward again. These computers should be well into these later failures, but they do get constant attention from folks very experienced with these computers; probably the greatest living experts on these systems. I'm guessing they need this attention. Along with lots of spare parts.
Civilian Air Force employees with years of experience in electronics repairs handle the majority of the work. But the code that runs the system is still written by enlisted Air Force programmers.
For those who have forgotten what 8" floppies looked like - or never saw one. These were pretty much considered obsolete when I first had a computer that I worked on as a technician in the late 1970s. Our first computers around the house used 5-1/4 floppies that just were a smaller version of these, before the 3-1/2" floppies in a hard plastic case. So, so long ago...