Contrary to what cartoons may have you believe, there’s no giant red button that detonates America’s land-based nuclear missiles. They’re actually operated by -- wait for it -- old-school computers that run 8-inch floppy disks.
On a recent tour of one of the nation’s Air Force nuclear missile facilities in Wyoming, Leslie Stahl of CBS' "60 Minutes" made the surprising discovery about the archaic state of technology inside the facilities. Dana Meyers, a 23-year-old missileer working at the facility, told Stahl of the floppy disks: "I had never seen one of these until I got down in missiles."
In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. government built several facilities like the one Stahl visited to operate and conceal its Cold War-era Minuteman missiles. Most of the technology hasn’t seen a hint of upgrade since then. For example, the missileers use analog phones for communication, as shown in the CBS report. The computers that would receive a launch order from the president to deploy one of the missiles are Internet-free, bulky and painted a retro-inspired muted yellow.
But Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, who oversees three nuclear bases, told Stahl that keeping the older system has its benefits. “A few years ago we did a complete analysis of our entire network,” Weinstein said. “Cyber engineers found out that the system is extremely safe and extremely secure in the way it's developed.”
Check out the full CBS report here.
Currently, there are 450 Minuteman missiles –- each "20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima," CBS notes -- buried beneath U.S. soil that could be deployed in a mere matter of minutes.
“Those are 450 ICBMs still capable of reaching targets around the world as quickly as you could have a pizza delivered to your door. This represents countless megatons of thermonuclear material -- enough to turn the world into what journalist Jonathan Schell once warned would be a ‘republic of insects and grass,'” author Gretchen Heefner wrote of the missiles in her 2012 book, The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman In The American Heartland.
During an audit of the nation’s nuclear weapon security in March 2014, the U.S. Department of Energy noted “that irreplaceable nuclear weapons CM [configuration management] information is degrading” in the outdated facilities. "Specifically, film media and microfiche are being lost due to degradation, and radiographs are beginning to stick together causing extensive damage and making the data unrecoverable," the audit revealed.
It’s estimated that upgrading the operating technologies would cost the government $350 billion over a decade, News.com.au reports. Considering the Pentagon just slashed the military’s budget for 2015 to pre-World War II levels, the update is likely very far down on the to-do list.