For better or worse, the UK’s nuclear submarines still run Windows XP

By: Costea Lestoc
2 minute read

Britain owns four missile submarines: Th HMS Vanguard, the Victorious, the Vigilant, and the Vengeance. They patrol the oceans in order to protect it citizens against a surprise nuclear attack. And while it is reassuring to know what the country does in order to protect the land, the scary part is that each submarine runs Microsoft’s first commercial NT-based operating system installed since 2008.

Each marine has up to eight Trident II missiles and 40 nuclear warheads that could devastate entire countries in the case of war. They’re powered by nuclear reactors that could allow them to remain submerged for a very long time as well, with each warhead able toprotect themselves against enemy submarines using Spearfish torpedoes.

These underwater killers were commissioned in the 1990s. In 2008, Windows XP (branded as Windows for Submarines) was installed on them because it was “cheaper than alternatives”, allowing the United Kingdom to save £22 million. There haven’t been any reported problems, but that doesn’t mean these submarines are safe because Microsoft stopped supporting this operating system in April 2014. Because Microsoft no longer offers security patches for Windows XP for Submarines, the OS is vulnerable to all kinds of viruses. For example, the Iranian centrifuges were infected with the Stuxnet virus which was transferred via USB keys.

The United Kingdom must make some serious investments soon in its IT infrastructure. In 2013, EHI Intelligence estimated that 85% of the 800,000 computers in the National Health Service were running on Windows XP. Instead of purchasing licenses for newer versions, the UK government paid Microsoft £5.5 million to extend support for Windows XP until 2015.

The US Navy is also stuck with Windows XP until next year as the government has extended support until July 2017, after paying $31 million to Microsoft.

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