U.S. Air Force Still Uses 8-inch Floppies in a Computer that Delivers Launch Commands to US Nuclear Missiles

Click on image to view a larger picture

And I thought genealogists were sometimes slow to modernize! Lesley Stahl from the “60 Minutes” news program discovered that the U.S. Air Force still uses 8-inch floppy disks to load data into the communication system that delivers launch commands to US missile forces. That includes missiles with nuclear warheads.

8-inch floppies? I thought they became obsolete in the 1980s.

The article really hit close to me because I worked on that command and control system when I was in the Air Force in the late 1960s and, yes, I used the 8-inch floppies while performing my duties. The smaller 5 1/4-inch disks had not been invented yet and the even smaller 3 1/2-inch floppies were not to be used for more than another decade in the future. I believe the single-sided 8-inch floppies stored about 80-kilobytes although a double-sided version could store about double that. I don’t remember if the disks I used were single or double-sided.

Air Force personnel interviewed in this week’s news report appeared to be in their twenties or thirties and admitted they had never seen an 8-inch floppy disk until they started working on the launch control system.

You can read more and even watch the video of the story on 60 Minutes at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/whos-minding-the-nuclear-weapons/.

17 Comments

Was a most interesting report on 60 Minutes. You just wonder how many more systems are using very old technology to protect and defend the US. Another example is the the B-52 bomber. They were in the air in the 1950’s and still going strong. True that have had many updates but the airframe is old.

Like

If they still do the job does it matter how old the technology is?

Like

The Strategic Air Command was disbanded in 1992. The missiles in the 60 Minutes show are part of the Air Force Global Strike Command.

Like

    Good point! I changed the title. Thanks for letting me know.

    Like

    Imagine. The launch control technology still in use in 2014 was the pride of Curtis Lemay’s Strategic Air Command. The 8-inch floppy disk drives (and the toilets) were built when the Missileer’s grandparents were young.

    Like

Using eight inch floppies probably means the processor is an 8088 and the code is written in Extended Basic. Probably nobody under 75 could figure out how to hack that system.

Like

    More likely Assembly language. At that time, Basic and Extended Basic were considered toys by professional software developers. Assembly was also used for the missile simulation software that ran (then) on the IBM 7094s; Fortran, C, and Java all came along later.

    Like

Where were you stationed Dick? I was attached to FE Warren in a group that monitored seismic activity during the 50’s and beyond. Our mission was to detect the location of the missile hits and of course the many daily earthquakes along with test shots.

Like

Floppy disks (I remember 5-1/4 inch disks) didn’t have a record for longevity. Just due to time, they would drop bits until the disk would fail a CRC test. These were considered the “high tech” replacements for the 8 inch disks still in use by the Air Force.

Incidentally, if a fresh, new second lieutenant gets assigned to a silo, they will see the old, obsolete technology being used and will realize that they are at the end of their military career – no wonder morale bottoms out.

Like

I still have a floopy drive system in the “vault” at our office. It is a Xerox 820-II with dual drive, double sided, double density 8-inch floppies as a separate (“external”?) drive. The computer itself is an 80-character 24-line white-on-black monochrome screen, 64K (!) of RAM and runs the old CP/M software. I think I still have dBASE II by Ashton-Tate (remember that, there never was a dBASE One; or for that matter, neither was there an “Ashton”) and an early spreadsheet application. I may have to fire it up if all these viruses and security holes keep showing up in Windows!

Like

Dick, Early 60’s I was at SAC HQ, Omaha, NE in the main teletype center. Used old punch tape – could end up 6-10 ft long (I don’t remember the “official” name – way too far back). But I find it absolutely unbelievable that USAF is still using floppy disks!!!

Like

I have a box of 8″ floppies, although I’ve never used them. They were my mom’s from an old Xerox computer she used in her publishing business. My real question is how much is the military paying for new 8″ floppies which probably haven’t been mass-produced in decades?

Like

    The 8″ floppies probably haven’t been produced in ANY quantity in decades. I’ll bet that the Air Force would pay you a thousand dollars EACH for your disks. After all, the USAF is a captive market.

    Like

I’ve got a box of those floppies, too. Right next to my box of carbon paper.

Like

pierreclouthier May 1, 2014 at 5:07 pm

Look at it this way: the taxpayers got their money’s worth. These systems have paid back the investment in their development, many times over. At least in this case you can’t accuse the military of not being frugal :o)

Like

Perhaps there is lesson here – if it’s not broken, why fix it. After all, it will only be used once ( but I hope never ).

Like

Leave a Reply

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,568 other followers

%d bloggers like this: