The Blue Screen of Megadeath?
Fifty years ago, if you asked the average person to rate the imminence of nuclear Armageddon on a scale of one to ten, it's likely the response would have been quite high. If you posed the same question to the average person today, you'd probably be more likely to get a strange look — or a psychiatric hold — than a 9.5. And yet, the world would be a much less exciting place without the ever-present possibility of nuclear annihilation — or at least the Royal Navy seems to think so.
What, you may be asking, leads us to this startling conclusion? Is the Admiralty antagonizing "rogue nations"? Have they been handing out Big Red Buttons™ to the fourth form? Indeed not — that would be far too straightforward — not to mention likely to crop up during Questions to the Prime Minister. No, the Senior Service's latest plan to send us all into the hereafter à la Dr. Strangelove involves that grand old standby for causing trouble, everyone's favorite game of closed-source roulette: Microsoft Windows.
According to BAE Systems, the defence contractor responsible for the project, the installation of the Royal Navy's Submarine Command System Next Generation has been completed, with HMS Triumph and HMS Tireless receiving their finishing touches earlier this month, some six months earlier than expected. The Submarine Command System Next Generation, for those who may not be familiar with UK military technology, is a stripped down version of Windows XP — the same Windows XP that can be found perpetually crashing on desktops around the world. BAE's press release extolled the cost-savings of using Windows, claiming a UK £22 million savings in support costs over the next ten years by using commercial "off the shelf" software, presumably compared to a custom-built application. Training costs are apparently also reduced by the market dominance enjoyed by Windows: because Windows is so widespread, sailors are likely to have existing experience with it, eliminating the need for Windows-specific training. If that weren't enough, it's beloved by the crews — Captain Pat O'Neill head of the MOD’s Submarine Combat System Group: "This is a fantastic achievement....I know how much they like SMCS NG."
The system is now installed on all of the UK's submarines, including the lone Swiftsure-class boat, all seven Trafalgar-class subs, and — most frightening of all — the UK's four Vanguard-class submarines. Installing Windows for War in the latter class of boats is particularly worrisome as the four Vanguard-class subs — HM Submarines Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, and Vengeance — comprise the United Kingdom's nuclear fleet. Not the nuclear-powered fleet — all of the UK's subs run on nuclear power — the nuclear deterrent fleet: Each Vanguard-class boat is outfitted with sixteen Trident II SLBMs, a combined per-sub capacity for launching 128 independently-targetable nuclear warheads. (It should be noted that while each submarine can in theory launch 128 warheads for a combined total of 512, estimates place the UK's nuclear arsenal between 160 and 200 warheads. The Trident missiles are the United Kingdom's only nuclear weapons system.) At least one of the boats is always at sea on patrol, armed with 48 warheads estimated at 80-100 kilotons each, as a permanent nuclear deterrent.
Around this time last year, we reported on the U.S. Army's efforts to build a state-of-the-art — state-of-the-future, really — system to control everything from communication to unmanned drones to missile launches, and to use Linux to do it. The project's designers were quoted as specifically saying they rejected Windows because they didn't want to be beholden to Microsoft — apparently the thought of having missiles bricked by Windows Genuine Advantage mid-combat didn't go over so well. Being beholden to Microsoft's development whims isn't the only worry, however — Windows isn't exactly known for its security record, nor is Microsoft particularly upfront about security flaws. According to reports, BAE's response to concerns about security was that all the security problems "were tended to during the modification." Famous last words if we've ever heard them.
We can't speak for anyone else, but the thought that somewhere floating out there are two hundred nuclear warheads under the control of Windows XP scares the living daylights out of us. If anyone needs us, we'll be building a bunker in the back yard before one of the boom-boom boats throws a blue screen of death and blows us all to kingdom come.
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