In the 1983 movie WarGames, NORAD’s computer system is so sophisticated that it becomes sentient and assumes control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The film leaves its viewers pondering the wisdom of trusting the fate of the world to soulless technology.
Fortunately, the prospect of NORAD’s computers becoming that advanced was not much of a concern at that time. Until 2019, the system that guards against — and could usher in — Doomsday operated with 8-inch floppy disks.
In January 1968, the Pentagon began using a computerized system for coordinating its nuclear arsenal. Known as the Strategic Automated Command and Control System (SACCS), it allows the U.S. Strategic Command to transmit orders regarding nuclear weapons, using Emergency Action Messages (EAM). Since the 1970s, SACCS has operated off of an IBM Series/1 computer system.
SACCS had been scheduled for an upgrade for a while. The primary reason was the difficulty of finding needed parts for the long-obsolete system. The program was written in assembly language code, further limiting its usability. According to a report from the Government Accounting Office, servicing SACCS for 175 users cost $5.6 million for the fiscal year 2016.
Just because something is low-tech does not necessarily mean it cannot be useful in national defense. The U.S. Navy has revealed that it prefers to use $20 Xbox controllers instead of the $40,000 ones originally installed on its submarines. The low-tech aspect of SACCS may not have been inexpensive, but it had one important feature: security. Something that old is exceedingly difficult to hack.