Briefcase of Armageddon (And How a U.S. Nuclear Barrage Would Be Carried Out)

By nearly every measure, the Office of President of the United States is the most powerful position in the world,  its holder presiding over not only the world’s largest economy but also its third-largest military and largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. The United States Nuclear Stockpile currently stands at 3,800 warheads, distributed among the three branches of the “nuclear triad”: Minuteman land-based ballistic missiles, Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bomber aircraft armed with free-fall bombs and air-launched cruise missiles. To ensure that this apocalyptic arsenal can be deployed at a moment’s notice, anytime and anywhere in the world, the President is at all times accompanied by a device known as the Presidential Emergency Satchel or ‘nuclear football’  – the world’s deadliest piece of luggage.

The need for a mobile system for authorizing nuclear strikes emerged in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Prior to this, a nuclear strike by bombers or missiles stationed in the Soviet Union gave the President at least a half hour’s warning – plenty of time to reach a safe command centre like the White House Situation Room or Site R, the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in Pennsylvania. But the Soviet placement of short-range missiles in Cuba – and later submarines stationed off the American coast – shrank this response time to less than 15 minutes. Worse still, American nuclear doctrine at the time was based on the principle of “massive retaliation” – a single all-or-nothing response using nearly every weapon in the arsenal. This horrified President John F. Kennedy, who later stated:

“It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.”

In response, Kennedy drafted a memo asking four pointed questions about the nation’s nuclear command-and-control system:

  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. 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?

In response to Kennedy’s criticisms, Captain Edward Beach, former naval aide to President Dwight Eisenhower, invented the nuclear football, which first entered service around May 1963.

Though various models have been used over the years, the current football is housed in a 45-lb aluminium briefcase manufactured by Zero Halliburton, typically carried in a black leather bag or “jacket” to make it less conspicuous. The device’s strange nickname is derived from an early nuclear war plan codenamed ‘Dropkick, ’ though confusion regarding the exact nature of the football has lead to a number of movies and TV shows erroneously depicting it as being literally football-shaped. The football is carried by a Presidential aide-de-camp specially selected for the task. These carriers are drawn on a rotating basis from the six service branches the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force – and are always a commissioned officer with a pay grade of O-4 or above. To ensure that the football is always within easy reach, the carrier accompanies the President wherever they go, including aboard Air Force One and Marine One and even in elevators. Since 1963 dozens of officers have carried the football, including future U.S. Congressman John Cline. The first woman and the first Coast Guard officer to carry the football was Lieutenant Commander Vivien Crea, who served under Ronald Reagan. The role is considered both an honour and a supremely stressful position, as Bill Clinton’s former carrier Robert “Buzz” Paterson recalls:

“You’re always kind of on edge.I opened it up constantly just to refresh myself, to always be aware of what was in it, all the potential decisions the president could possibly make.”

Though typically referred to in the singular, there are actually three nuclear footballs. One follows the President, another follows the Vice President in case the President is incapacitated, while a third is kept stored at the White House in case either of the others are damaged or lost. Following an election, the incumbent President retains use of the nuclear football until precisely noon on Inauguration Day, whereupon it is handed over to the President-Elect. In the case of the outgoing President not being present at the inauguration, as occurred in 2021, a second football is given to the President-Elect and  at noon the outgoing President’s nuclear launch codes are electronically deactivated.

But what is actually inside the football? Contrary to popular belief, the football does not actually contain any sort of “button” for launching nuclear weapons directly. Rather, it is one part of a larger system designed to confirm the President’s identity, allow them to select the appropriate level of nuclear retaliation, and securely communicate their orders to the military. According to William Gulley, director of the White House Military Office under Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter:

“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 Broadcast System, and a three-by-five-inch card with authentication codes. The Black Book was about 9 by 12 inches 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.”

 In photographs, a short antenna can be seen protruding from the football, indicating that it also contains some kind of secure communications device.

If the unthinkable happened and a nuclear strike against the United States was detected, the process of ordering a retaliatory strike would go something like this. First, the President would be pulled aside by the football carrier while a secure communications line is established with the National Military Command Centre at the Pentagon. The President would then break open the “nuclear biscuit,” a small plastic card in printed with the so-called “Gold Codes,” a series of two-letter call-and-response codes designed to confirm the President’s identity. Once connected to the Pentagon’s Deputy Director of Operations, the President would receive a series of challenge codes, to which they must provide the proper responses off the biscuit. These codes are updated daily by the NSA, and for added security several of the letter pairs printed on the biscuit are intentionally meaningless, forcing the President to memorize which ones are relevant. While originally carried in the football itself, from Jimmy Carter onward most Presidents have preferred to carry the biscuit on their person, though this greatly increases the risk of it being lost – something which has happened on several occasions. Jimmy Carter once lost his biscuit when one of his suits was sent off for dry-cleaning, while Ronald Reagan was separated from his biscuit following his 1981 assassination attempt when his clothing was cut away by paramedics. In 1998, when President Clinton’s football carrier asked him for his biscuit so he could provide an updated version, the President couldn’t find it, triggering a frantic weeks-long search. The nuclear football itself has also been “fumbled” or separated from the President on several occasions, including an amusing incident in which Peter Metzger, one of Ronald Reagan’s football carriers, was directed into a different elevator by a colleague and tricked into thinking he had missed the Presidential motorcade. In a later interview, Metzger admitted that his heart was racing “like a gerbil in a cage” until he realized he was the victim of a practical joke.

But apart from the obvious security breach such mishaps represent, they also have the potential to severely disrupt the entire nuclear command-and-control structure. If a President is unable to confirm their identity, the Pentagon will then contact the Vice-President, who has a nuclear football of their own. Constitutionally, however, the Vice-President cannot make executive decisions on behalf of the President without the President’s express permission unless the President is dead or otherwise incapacitated. This means that the Vice-President would be forced to contact the President – who isn’t able to confirm their identity anyway – before making any decisions, wasting precious time in the process.

But if all goes to plan and the President’s identity is confirmed, the President would open the football and go over retaliation options with either the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One booklet in the football contains a list of authorized targets, classified into three categories: nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; military-industrial facilities; and leadership redoubts like government offices or emergency bunkers. These targets are based on OPLAN 8010, the United States’ master nuclear strategy. While much of this plan remains highly-classified, it is known that five countries are currently authorized for nuclear strike: Russia with 510 targets, China with 130, North Korea with 72, Iran with 60, and Syria with 43. These targets, in turn, can be targeted with multiple combinations of 2,000 nuclear weapons – 900 of which can be launched at a moment’s notice. These strike options are listed in a separate book, and grouped into three intensity levels: Limited, Selected, and Major Attack Options – or what William Gulley has dryly referred to as “Rare, Medium, or Well Done.” In addition to the booklets, these attack options are also summarized on a single cartoon-like sheet which Michael Dobbs, former military aide to Bill Clinton, once compared to a “Denny’s Breakfast Menu.” This sheet  was introduced by Jimmy Carter, who found the detailed lists too complicated to analyze in the few minutes of decision time available in an emergency.

Once the President selects a strike option, this is relayed via the secure Milstar communications satellite network to the Pentagon, which then converts the order into a 150-character authorization code for transmission to US nuclear forces. In the event ground-based command centres are destroyed by a first strike, the U.S. Strategic Command maintains a fleet of airborne communications platforms known as “Looking Glass” or TACAMO, short for “Take Charge and Move Out.” At least one TACAMO aircraft remains airborne at all times, and is in constant contact with every U.S. missile silo, air base, and nuclear submarine. If a land-based missile launch is authorized, the launch codes are transmitted to five two-man launch crews stationed around the country, controlling a squadron of 50 Minuteman missiles. Each team opens a safe containing Sealed Authentication Codes or SAS, and if these match the codes sent by the Pentagon, the team enters the strike option selected by the President into the missile guidance computer, re-aiming them from their peacetime targets in the middle of the ocean to their new wartime targets. The five teams then retrieve launch keys from their safes and, at a designated time, turn them simultaneously to authorize the launch. Only two “votes” are needed to launch the missiles, making mutinies unlikely. A similar system is used aboard ballistic missile submarines, with only two votes from the Captain, Executive Officer, and another designated two-man team being required to authenticate a launch order.

By now you may have noticed that while this system goes to great lengths to confirm the President’s identity, includes no means of evaluating the President’s state of mind nor any checks and balances on their authority. And indeed, this is by design. As Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces the President has sole authority over the nation’s nuclear weapons, and is not required to consult with Congress or any other government department prior to authorizing their use. While military officials such as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense are required to confirm that a nuclear launch order has in fact come from the President, they do not have veto power and are constitutionally obligated to follow the President’s orders. If the President is killed or otherwise incapacitated, this unilateral authority passes down the Presidential chain of succession, to the Vice President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President of the Senate, Secretary of State and so on. This effectively means, according to journalist Ron Rosenbaum, that:

“Any president could, on his own, leave a room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million (or more than that) would be dead.”

Short of a full military mutiny, the only constitutional means of preventing a President from authorizing a nuclear strike is to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, which allows the Vice President, cabinet heads, and Congress to declare the president disabled or unfit to execute the duties of the office. But within the military, the President’s nuclear veto is so sacrosanct that to question it is considered nearly tantamount to treason. This is evidenced by the case of Minuteman missile crewman Major Harold Hering, who in 1973 asked the following question during a training exercise:

“How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”

Hering was immediately pulled from training and given an administrative discharge for “failure to demonstrate acceptable qualities of leadership.” When Hering appealed the decision, the Air Force maintained that the lawfulness of a launch order was beyond the executing officer’s “need to know.” To this, Hering replied:

“I have to say, I feel I do have a need to know, because I am a human being. It is inherent in an officer’s commission that he has to do what is right in terms of the needs of the nation despite any orders to the contrary. You really don’t know at the time of key turning, whether you are complying with your oath of office.”

Yet despite his appeal the Board of Inquiry upheld the decision and discharged Hering from the Air Force. He later became a long-haul truck driver and a counselor.

While giving the President unchecked authority to use nuclear weapons might seem like a disaster waiting to happen, it is important to understand the basic tenets of U.S. nuclear doctrine. For the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile to serve as an effective deterrent, it must be capable of being deployed quickly – at least within the 15-30 minutes it typically takes for a nuclear missile to reach its target. Otherwise an enemy would be able to use a preemptive strike to decapitate the U.S. leadership and destroy its ability to retaliate. At the same time, however, the nuclear arsenal must be protected against unauthorized use by rogue military officers. The only way of achieving these two goals simultaneously is to give the President sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. However, this system is based on the assumption that the American people will always elect a stable, rational Commander-in-Chief; thus, in light of the actions of a recent President, some have begun to question inherent security of America’s nuclear command-and-control system.

Meanwhile, the world’s second-largest nuclear power, Russia, also uses a version of the nuclear football. Known as Cheget, the Russian nuclear briefcase was first introduced in the early 1980s during the administration of Yuri Andropov, and is issued to the Russian President, Minister of Defense, and Chief of the General Staff. Like the American football, Cheget contains nuclear launch codes, a list of authorized targets, and a radio transceiver connected to a special military command-and-control network code-named Kavkaz. In addition to transmitting launch codes, Cheget is also capable of receiving signals from the Kavkaz system, allowing the military to directly alert the President to a potential threat such as a missile launch. When an alert is received, all three holders of the Cheget must enter their individual launch codes in order to authorize a retaliatory strike – a process which takes around 20 minutes. However, unlike the United States, Russia has long maintained a command structure which grants commanders in the field the authority to launch nuclear strikes in extreme circumstances – such as the decapitation of the Russian leadership. Indeed, fear that a Russian officer in Cuba might independently authorize a missile launch was among the many factors which lead President Kennedy to create the nuclear football system.

While it is unclear whether the American nuclear football has ever been opened, the Cheget has been activated on at least one occasion. On January 25, 1995,  the Olenegorsk early-warning radar station in Murmansk, Russia, detected an object rising quickly over the Barents Sea, its speed and trajectory matching that of an American Trident submarine-launched missile. At first the radar operators dismissed the contact, reasoning that an actual American attack would involve multiple missiles. However, they soon realized that if the missile detonated in the upper atmosphere, it would generate an electromagnetic pulse of EMP and cripple the entire defence system, leaving Russia vulnerable to a second wave of missiles. An alert was thus sent out on the Kavkaz system, reaching President Boris Yeltsin, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and Chief of the General Staff Mikhail Kolesnikov in the Kremlin. All three men opened their Cheget suitcases and began entering their launch codes, while meanwhile the radar operators watched as the single contact split into three – the telltale signature of multiple warheads being released from a missile. But just as Yeltsin was preparing to authorize a retaliatory strike, the missile suddenly veered off-course and headed North, falling back into the Barents sea. Realizing that the contact had been a false alarm, Yeltsin called off the attack. The missile was later revealed to be a Black Brant research rocket launched from Norway as part of an experiment to study the Northern Lights. The Norwegians had informed the Russians of the launch weeks before, but somehow the Kremlin had not gotten the memo. So far as we know this was the first and only time the Cheget has ever been activated – a close call made all the more frightening by the fact it occurred a full four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War may be long over, but so long as nuclear weapons exist the threat of armageddon will remain a real – if remote – possibility.

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Bonus Fact

Because the command-and-control apparatus is so abstract and disconnected from the death and destruction it can unleash, it has long been argued that world leaders may not fully grasp the implications of using nuclear weapons. In a March 1981 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Roger Fisher, a professor of Law at Harvard University, suggested a unique – if gruesome – solution to this problem:

“My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. Its reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”

Expand for References

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Burr, William, The Creation of SIOP-62: More Evidence on the Origins of Overkill, National Security Archive, July 13, 2004, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB130/

 

Ambinder, Marc, Why Clinton’s Losing the Nuclear Biscuit Was Really, Really Bad, The Atlantic, October 22, 2010, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/10/why-clintons-losing-the-nuclear-biscuit-was-really-really-bad/65009/

 

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Applewhite, Scott, Military Aides Still Carry the President’s Nuclear ‘Football,’ USA Today, May 5, 2005, https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-05-05-nuclear-football_x.htm

 

Merrill, Dave; Syeed, Nafeesa, & Harris, Brittany, To Launch a Nuclear Strike, President Trump Would Take These Steps, Bloomberg, January 20, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2016-nuclear-weapon-launch/

 

Beauchamp, Zack, If President Trump Decided to use Nukes, He Could Do it Easily, Vox, August 3, 2016, https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/2016/8/3/12367996/donald-trump-nuclear-codes

 

Blair, Bruce, What Exactly Would it Mean to Have Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button? Politico Magazine, June 11, 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/06/2016-donald-trump-nuclear-weapons-missiles-nukes-button-launch-foreign-policy-213955

 

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Rosenbaum, Ron, An Unsung Hero of the Nuclear Age, Slate, February 28, 2011, https://slate.com/human-interest/2011/02/nuclear-weapons-how-cold-war-major-harold-hering-asked-a-forbidden-question-that-cost-him-his-career.html

 

Jeffries, Stuart, The ‘Nuclear Football’ – the Deadly Briefcase That Never Leaves the President’s Side, The Guardian, August 22, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/22/nuclear-football-donald-trump

 

Cohen, Zachary, How Trump Will Hand Off the “Nuclear Football” to Biden, CNN, January 19, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/19/politics/trump-biden-nuclear-football-inauguration/index.html

 

Benac, Nancy, Nuclear “Halfbacks” Carry the Ball for the President, The Seattle Times, May 7, 2005, https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/nuclear-halfbacks-carry-the-ball-for-the-president/

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