When you see reports about the small, remote-controlled drones that the military uses to gather intelligence and target enemies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s easy to assume that all our weaponry is equally modern. Some significant weapons systems that our military depends on today, though, run on technology that dates back, in some instances, to the Vietnam War era.
The U.S. Navy’s ship-based radar systems and Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment, which maintains that country’s nuclear warheads, use PDP minicomputers manufactured in the 1970s by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Another user of the PDP is Airbus, the French jetliner manufacturer.
The PDP was among the second wave of mainframes called minicomputers because they were only the size of a couple of refrigerators instead of big enough to fill a room.
The F-15 and F-18 fighters, the Hawk missile systems, parts of the U.S. Navy submarine fleet, and Navy fighter test systems on aircraft carriers use DEC’s VAX minicomputers from the 1980s for various purposes, according to Lynda Jones of The Logical Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon, which helps keep these antiquated systems functioning.
The biggest problem with maintaining such ancient computer systems is that the original technicians who knew how to configure and maintain them have long since retired or passed away, so no one is left with the knowledge required to fix them if they break.
Even if someone does know how to fix them, finding replacement parts can be tricky. Stanley Quayle, a computer emulation consultant, has seen contractors desperate to find the parts they need. “I have a prospective customer supporting a U.S. missile defense system that is buying parts on eBay,” says Quayle. “Any parts they do find are as old or older than their system,” meaning they’re sometimes no more reliable than the pieces they replace.