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Nuclear football

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Briefcase used by the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers
Briefcase used by the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers

The nuclear football (also known as the atomic football, the President's emergency satchel, the Presidential Emergency Satchel,[1] the button, the black box, or just the football) is a briefcase, the contents of which are to be used by the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room. It functions as a mobile hub in the strategic defense system of the United States. It is held by an aide-de-camp.

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On the 8th of November in 2017, American secret service agents and their Chinese counterparts were involved in a brief altercation over the American 'nuclear football'. While entering China's Great Hall of the People, a Chinese agent blocked President Trump's aide tasked with carrying the football, only for Chief of Staff and retired US Marine Corps General John Kelly to announce, “We're moving in”, and brush past the Chinese guards. A guard grabbed Kelly, who quickly shoved the guard off, and immediately a US secret service agent tackled and subdued the Chinese guard. Though the scuffle was over in a flash, it highlighted the importance of this little black briefcase that must always accompany the president no matter where he goes. But just what is inside that top secret briefcase? Hello and welcome to another episode of The Infographics Show- today we're asking, what is the nuclear football? The head of the Chinese security detail would go on to apologize for the misunderstanding, as apparently the guards had not realized that the aide carrying the nuclear football must always be within easy reach of the US President. While some might think the American response was an overreaction, it only takes a moment to see it from the Secret Service's point of view to see why they felt the need to respond immediately and with overwhelming force. The US President had just been removed from the nuclear football while within a foreign nation, and a nation to boot who is a potential nuclear adversary. Were something to happen to the US President while he was away from the football, and China launched a preemptive first strike against the US, there would be no way for America to respond in time with its own weapons. A far-fetched scenario to some, but US Secret Service agents must constantly entertain the most extreme possibilities as potential realities every single day, for that is the only way to avert a potential, and surprise, catastrophe. Thus it is standard operating procedure that the nuclear football never be removed from the immediate physical vicinity of the US President. So just what does the nuclear football do exactly, and what's inside it? This nuclear command and control tool is officially known as the President's emergency satchel, and is an aluminum briefcase encased in black leather. Details are difficult to ascertain given the extreme secrecy of the device, but it is widely believed to be bulletproof and resistant to explosive damage. It weighs approximately 45 pounds (20 kg) and is equipped with powerful satellite communication gear to ensure the president is always in contact with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As nuclear arsenals grew in the Soviet Union and the US, it became clear that the nation to launch first would have an immediate and possibly war-winning advantage. Such a first strike might even render the defending nation unable to launch its own nuclear counter-attack, making the possibility of a nuclear first strike extremely attractive to the aggressor. With ICBMs moving at thousands of miles an hour, it became vital that the President of the United States be able to order an immediate nuclear counter-attack in the case of sudden war. Yet after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John F. Kennedy posed several questions to his staff, doubting the effectiveness of the current nuclear command system. His most pointed question however was, “How would the person who received my instructions verify them?” This one question led to a complete rethinking of how the US President was to order a nuclear attack or retaliation, and highlighted a major flaw in the systems set in place for the President to do so while out of the White House. Thus the modern iteration of the nuclear football was born. A mobile device, the nuclear football contains satellite communications gear that lets the President be in contact with the Joint Chiefs of Staff no matter where in the world he is. It also contains four individual items: The Black Book as it is known, contains all retaliatory options available to the President. This can include a full-scale nuclear response against one, or all of America's enemies, or a limited response which might be just a single cruise missile strike with a low yield warhead. It is rumored that attack plans also include an option to launch a no-harm nuclear strike high above a nation in the atmosphere, delivering an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out most of a nation's electrical infrastructure. If you're a fan of conspiracy theories, it might also include a plan to nuke the Reptilian aliens hiding out on the dark side of the Moon. A second book contains a listing of classified presidential shelter locations, or places that the President could be taken to in case of a major nuclear emergency. These are typically hardened locations deep underground that can survive direct nuclear strikes. A manila folder with eight or ten pages that give a description of the procedures to initiate and use the Emergency Alert System, both for early warning and for post-strike communications with the nation. Lastly, a three-by-five-inch card with printed authentication codes. These codes ensure to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the person ordering a nuclear attack is indeed the US President, and while they typically stay within the football, some US Presidents such as President Reagan actually preferred to physically carry his in his pocket. During the assassination attempt against Reagan, when he was rushed to the hospital not only was he physically separated from the football, but as his clothes were cut off in surgery, the nuclear codes were haphazardly discarded by medical staff and later found stuck in his shoe. But just how does the football actually work, what process would the President have to undergo to launch a nuclear strike or retaliate against one? Firstly, only the current President of the United States is authorized to launch any form of nuclear attack- whether that's as a retaliation, or an escalation during the middle of a full-blown war. Should the President be incapacitated or killed, that responsibility falls to the Vice-President, and so on down an established chain of command. Second, the President is patched in to a conference call with his top civilian and military advisors, whom all recommend a course to follow. If enemy launches are detected, this call can last as short as 30 seconds. Communications between the President, his advisors, and top military leadership are all relayed via the US's Milstar satellite network- a highly jam-resistant constellation of satellites that keeps US forces linked together around the world. As a redundancy or in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, US military forces could still use the TACAMO airborne communications system to stay in contact- basically a fleet of airplanes packed with communications gear that is also extremely resilient to jamming, the TACAMO communications system was designed to keep a nation ravaged by nuclear war in contact with its military forces around the world Once an attack plan has been decided on by the President, the senior officer in the Pentagon war room must authenticate the President's identity by issuing a challenge code using the military alphabet, such as Charlie November. The President then references his authentication codes card, known as “the biscuit”, and reads the appropriate response. An Emergency War Order is then broadcast to all US nuclear alert forces via several communications networks, to ensure receipt. The order is typically about 150 characters, or the length of a twitter message, and contains the specific war plan to execute, launch time, and authentication codes needed to unlock the missiles before firing. Seconds later, crews around the world based in missile silos, alert hangars, and submarines deep under water all open locked safes which contain sealed authentication-system, or SAS, codes which are prepped by the National Security agency. They compare their SAS codes with those contained within the launch order to verify the authenticity of the launch order. Any discrepancies whatsoever will result in a no-go, or no launch/release of nuclear weapons. When launched from a submarine the Captain, executive officer, and two other senior officers authenticate the order. About 15 minutes later, the missiles are ready for launch. Land-launched ICBMS are housed in underground silos with five launch crews each controlling up to 50 missiles. Each launch crew is made up of two officers and the individual teams are housed miles apart from each other in highly secure underground complexes to ensure their security. Each team receives their orders and compares their SAS codes with those sent by the war room. Once authenticated, the crews enter the war plan number into their launch computers which re-targets the missiles from their peacetime targets in the middle of the ocean to their war time targets on land. At the designated launch time, the crews all turn their launch keys simultaneously which sends five “votes” for launch to the missiles. Because the missiles need just two “votes” to launch, failure to authenticate or mutiny by three other crews will not stop the launch of all 50 missiles. Missiles launched from airborne platforms follow a similar method, with their individual SAS codes being verified against those sent by the war room. During the Cold War the US and Russia both kept nuclear alert forces in the air at all times, 24/7, 365 days a year- and these crews would then immediately proceed on a vector to their assigned targets. Once SAS codes are authorized, missiles are immediately fired. Anywhere from five minutes to 15 minutes after a Presidential order is given, intercontinental ballistic missiles will be blasting off into the sky to rain death down on their assigned targets, and once released there is no way to recall them, disarm them, or reprogram their trajectories. The responsibility of carrying the nuclear football is staggering, as is the responsibility of the man entrusted by the US to use it properly. While many have criticized the entire system, and one senior American general was even discharged for asking, “How do I know the President giving me the order to fire my weapons is sane?”, it remains the best system for ensuring continued nuclear deterrence. Think you could handle the responsibility of handling the nuclear football? Should there be some way of ensuring the current US President is actually sane enough to order a nuclear strike? Also, be sure to check out our other show USA vs The World - Who Would Win? Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time.



According to a Washington Post article, the president is always accompanied by a military aide carrying a "football" with launch codes for nuclear weapons.[2] The football is a metal Zero Halliburton briefcase[3] carried in a black leather "jacket". The package weighs around 45 pounds (20 kilograms).[4]

In his book Breaking Cover, which was released on August 11 of 1980,[5] Bill Gulley, the former director of the White House Military Office, wrote:[4]

There are four things in the Football. The Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Alert System, and a three-by-five-inch [7.5 × 13 cm] card with authentication codes. The Black Book was about 9 by 12 inches [23 × 30 cm] and had 75 loose-leaf pages printed in black and red. The book with classified site locations was about the same size as the Black Book, and was black. It contained information on sites around the country where the president could be taken in an emergency.

A small antenna protrudes from the bag near the handle, suggesting that it also contains communications equipment of some kind.[4]


Video describing the United States' nuclear launch authorization process

If the president (who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces) ordered the use of nuclear weapons, he would be taken aside by the "carrier" and the briefcase would be opened. A command signal, or "watch" alert, would then be issued to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president would then review the attack options with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and decide on a plan, which could range from a single cruise missile to multiple ICBM launches. These are preset war plans developed under OPLAN 8010 (formerly the Single Integrated Operational Plan). Then, using Milstar, the aide, a military officer with Yankee White security clearance, would contact the National Military Command Center and NORAD to determine the scope of the pre-emptive nuclear strike and prepare a second strike, following which Milstar/Advanced Extremely High Frequency or Boeing E-4Bs and TACAMOs would air the currently valid Nuclear Launch Code to all nuclear delivery systems operational. Where a two-person verification procedure would be executed following this, the codes would be entered in a Permissive Action Link.[citation needed]

Before the order can be processed by the military, the president must be positively identified using a special code issued on a plastic card, nicknamed the "biscuit".[6] The United States has a two-man rule in place at the nuclear launch facilities, and while only the president can order the release of nuclear weapons, the order must be verified by the Secretary of Defense to be an authentic order given by the president (there is a hierarchy of succession in the event that the president is killed in an attack). This verification process deals solely with verifying that the order came from the actual President. The Secretary of Defense has no veto power and must comply with the president's order.[6] Once all the codes have been verified, the military would issue attack orders to the proper units. These orders are given and then re-verified for authenticity. It is argued that the President has almost single authority to initiate a nuclear attack since the Secretary of Defense is required to verify the order, but cannot legally veto it.[7][8][9]

The football is carried by one of the rotating presidential military aides, whose work schedule is described by a top-secret rota (one from each of the five service branches). This person is a commissioned officer in the U.S. military, pay-grade O-4 or above, who has undergone the nation's most rigorous background check (Yankee White).[10][11] These officers are required to keep the football readily accessible to the president at all times. Consequently, the aide, football in hand, is always either standing or walking near the president, including riding on Air Force One, Marine One, or the presidential motorcade with the president.[11]

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum has pointed out that the operational plan for nuclear strike orders is entirely concerned with the identity of the commanding officer and the authenticity of the order, and there are no safeguards to verify that the person issuing the order is actually sane.[12] Notably, Major Harold Hering was discharged from the Air Force in late 1973 for asking the question "How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?" under Richard Nixon.[13]


The football dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, but its current usage came about in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when John F. Kennedy was concerned that a Soviet commander in Cuba might launch missiles without authorization from Moscow.[10] Kennedy asked several questions related to the release of US nuclear weapons. These were:

  1. "Assuming that information from a closely guarded source causes me to conclude that the U.S. should launch an immediate nuclear strike against the Communist Bloc, does the JCS Emergency Actions File permit me to initiate such an attack without first consulting with the Secretary of Defense and/or the Joint Chiefs of Staff?"
  2. "I know that the red button on my desk phone will connect me with the White House Army Signal Agency (WHASA) switchboard and that the WHASA switchboard can connect me immediately to the Joint War Room. If I called the Joint War Room without giving them advance notice, to whom would I be speaking?"
  3. "What would I say to the Joint War Room to launch an immediate nuclear strike?"
  4. "How would the person who received my instructions verify them?"[14]

An Associated Press article stated that the nickname "football" was derived from an attack plan codenamed "Dropkick".[4] The nickname has led to some confusion as to the nature—and even the shape—of the device, as the leather bag or "jacket" in which it is carried appears large enough to contain an actual football.

During their presidencies, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan preferred to keep the launch codes in their jacket pockets.[15] Congressman John Kline served as a colonel in the United States Marine Corps and carried the football for Presidents Carter and Reagan.[16]

The coded card was separated from Ronald Reagan immediately after the 1981 assassination attempt against him.[17] He was separated from it when his clothing was cut off by the emergency department trauma team. It was later discovered lying unsecured in one of his shoes on the emergency department floor. This led to an urban legend that Reagan carried the code in his sock. Reagan was separated from the rest of the football as well, because the officer who carried it was left behind as the motorcade sped away with the wounded president. On occasion, the president has left his aide carrying the football behind. This happened to Nixon in 1973; after Nixon presented Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev with a Lincoln Continental at Camp David, Brezhnev unexpectedly drove with Nixon off the retreat onto a highway while leaving Nixon's Secret Service personnel behind, separating Nixon from the football (and his security detail) for nearly 30 minutes.[18] Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush,[19] and Bill Clinton have also been separated from the football.[17]

Recent times

As the football is required to be near to the president at all times, the aides carrying it frequently appear in press photographs.[20] In February 2017, on the occasion of North Korea firing a nuclear-capable Pukkuksong-2 ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan,[21] a guest at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago posed for a photo with the military aide carrying the Football, posting the image to Facebook and identifying the aide by his first name.[22] U.S. military officials clarified that it was neither illegal nor against proper procedure for the officer to appear in such a photo, although they admitted that the situation was strange.[20]

On November 8, 2017, when President Trump made an official state visit to China, U.S. military aides carrying the football were reportedly involved in a brief tussle with Chinese security officials, after the latter tried to bar the former access to the Hall of the People auditorium. According to Jonathan Swan, the political correspondent behind the report, wrote: " no point did the Chinese have the nuclear football in their possession or even touch the briefcase. ... [T]he head of the Chinese security detail apologised to the Americans afterwards for the misunderstanding."[23]

See also


  1. ^ McConnell, Dugald (November 18, 2016). "Wherever President Trump goes, nuclear 'football' to follow". CNN. Retrieved February 11, 2017.
  2. ^ Eggen, Dan. "Cheney, Biden Spar In TV Appearances". The Washington Post, December 22, 2008. Accessed December 16, 2009.
  3. ^ Warchol, Glen (June 5, 2005). "Security: Sleek, sexy and oh, so safe / Utah company's attaché case is a Hollywood staple". The Salt Lake Tribune. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d Associated Press. "Military aides still carry the president's nuclear 'football'". USA Today, May 5, 2005. Accessed December 16, 2009.
  5. ^ Goodreads listing. Accessed October 16, 2018
  6. ^ a b Hacking Nuclear Command and Control, p. 10.
  7. ^ Beauchamp, Zack (August 3, 2016). "If President Trump decided to use nukes, he could do it easily". Vox. Retrieved February 11, 2017.
  8. ^ Blair, Bruce (June 11, 2016). "What Exactly Would It Mean to Have Trump's Finger on the Nuclear Button?". Politico. Retrieved February 11, 2017.
  9. ^ Broad, William J. (August 4, 2016). "Debate Over Trump's Fitness Raises Issue of Checks on Nuclear Power". The New York Times. Retrieved February 11, 2017.
  10. ^ a b "The Football" – article
  11. ^ a b Stephen P. Williams. How to Be President. Chronicle Books. ISBN 0811843165.
  12. ^ Rosenbaum 2011
  13. ^ Rosenbaum, Ron (February 28, 2011). "An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age – Maj. Harold Hering and the forbidden question that cost him his career". Slate. Retrieved February 13, 2012.
  14. ^ Trachtenberg, Marc, 1999, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963, Princeton: Princeton University Press
  15. ^ Reagan, Ronald. An American Life. p. 257.
  16. ^ Anderson, Nick (July 13, 2009). "Key Republican Ready to Roll Back Testing Mandates of 'No Child Left Behind'". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 11, 2017.
  17. ^ a b "Clinton drops nuclear football". BBC News, April 26, 1999. Accessed December 16, 2009.
  18. ^ The Soviet Image. Inside the Tass Archives. p. 188.
  19. ^ Pullella, Philip. "Bush's nuclear 'football' in Vatican hallowed halls". Reuters via The San Diego Union-Tribune, June 4, 2004. Accessed August 18, 2010.
  20. ^ a b Hennigan, W.J. (February 13, 2017). "Social media is freaking out about a photo of the man who holds the nuclear football. The Pentagon is not". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  21. ^ "North Korea conducts ballistic missile test". BBC News. February 12, 2017. Archived from the original on February 12, 2017. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  22. ^ Shelbourne, Mallory (February 13, 2017). "Mar-a-Lago guest takes picture with nuclear 'football' briefcase". The Hill. Retrieved February 13, 2017.
  23. ^ "Chinese and US officials scuffled over 'nuclear football' during 2017 President Trump visit". The Guardian. February 19, 2018. Retrieved March 10, 2018.

Further reading

External links

This page was last edited on 26 February 2019, at 04:26
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