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US military uses 8-inch floppy disks to coordinate nuclear operations

CNBC logo CNBC 26/05/2016 Dan Mangan

Maybe they use the '80s flick "War Games" as a training film, too.

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The Defense Department's 1970s-era IBM Series/1 Computer and long-outdated floppy disks handle functions related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft, according to the new Governmental Accountability Office report.

The department's outdated "Strategic Automated Command and Control System" is one of 10 of the oldest information technology investments or systems detailed in the sobering GAO report,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."

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The report shows that creaky IT systems are being used to handle important functions related to the nation's taxpayers, federal prisoners and military veterans, as well as to the America's nuclear umbrella.

"Federal legacy IT systems are becoming increasingly obsolete: Many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported," the report found. "Agencies reported using several systems that have components that are, in some cases, at least 50 years old."

While Defense has plans to update its nuclear-related technology system by the end of fiscal 2017, other agencies are tacking more slowly, at best.

More than 75 percent of $80 billion budgeted for federal IT efforts in fiscal year 2015 was spent on operations and maintenance investment, and such spending has increased in the past seven years, GAO noted.

In contrast, spending on "development, modernization and enhancement" of federal IT systems has declined, according to GAO.

GAO noted that the government plans to require agencies to identify which IT systems need to be updated, and then modify them. But until then, the GAO warned, "the government runs the risk of maintaining systems that have outlived their effectiveness."

In testimony to Congress on Wednesday, the chief technology officer for the Internal Revenue Service said that although the agency continues to operate a number of older IT systems, "it is not our preference to do so."

"Our ultimate goal is to retire all of them as quickly as possible," said Terence Milholland, the IRS tech officer.

GAO pointed out that aging systems include the Treasury Department's "individual master file," which is the authoritative data source for individual taxpayers. It's used to assess taxes and generates refunds. That file "is written in assembly language code — a low-level computer code that is difficult to write and maintain — and operates on an IBM mainframe," the report said.

Treasury's master business file, which contains all tax data on individual business income taxpayers, likewise is written in that same assembly language code, which was first used in the 1950s, and maintained on the old-school IBM mainframe.

While Treasury has general plans to replace the systems, "there is no firm data associated with the transition," GAO's report said.

In addition to Defense, the departments of Treasury, Commerce, Health and Human Services and the Veterans' Administration "reported using 1980s and 1990s Microsoft (MSFT) operating systems that stopped being supported by the vendor more than a decade ago," GAO said.

And the Social Security Administration "reported re-hiring retired employees to maintain its" systems which use COBOL, the computer programming language which was widely used — in the 1970s — according to GAO.

COBOL is also used by the Justice Department in its program to provide information about prison inmates, and the VA, which uses it for employee timekeeping and to track veterans' benefits claims and dates of death, the report said.

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