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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,Read more
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.