The Nuclear Football

Through most of the Cold War, from the 1960s through the 1980s and on to today, the President of the United States was always accompanied by a specially-selected military aide who carried an ordinary-looking briefcase with the codes needed to launch a nuclear war. This package was known as “the Football”.

The nuclear Football, on display at the Smithsonian

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F Kennedy decided that the American procedures for initiating a nuclear strike needed to be updated. He had been worried that the Soviet leadership might lose control of its nuclear forces and that some subordinate general might, intentionally or accidentally, launch a first strike. And so he asked the Pentagon to institute a set of procedures with which a President’s order to launch the weapons could be issued and verified quickly but securely. The military responded with a system of authentification codes and communications networks to insure that no launch could occur without the specific authorization of the President. Since then, the procedure for launching nuclear weapons has become more complex and stringent, but “the football” remains a central part of the process.

The problem of Presidential command and control had arisen from the very first. When President Harry Truman authorized the US Army Air Force to drop atomic bombs on Japan to end the Second World War, he did not specify the timing or targets, and was surprised when the two bombs were dropped so quickly. After the Nagasaki bombing, Truman issued orders that no further bombs be dropped without his explicit authorization.

At the end of the Second World War, the United States possessed one complete atomic bomb ready for use and was making enough plutonium to potentially produce two more bombs per month. One year after Hiroshima, the entire US nuclear stockpile stood at 9 weapons, and by July 1947 this had grown to only 13 bombs and 34 specially-modified B-29 bombers to deliver them.

In 1949, however, the Soviet Union test-detonated its own atomic weapon (a virtual copy of the Nagasaki bomb). The US, in a panic, ordered increased production of its own nuclear weapons, and a crash program to develop bigger and better bombs and delivery systems, eventually culminating in the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of delivering hydrogen thermonuclear weapons halfway around the world with over one-million tons of explosive power.

In 1950, a plan for nuclear warfare with the Soviet Union, called “OFF-TACKLE”, was prepared by the Strategic Air Command, a section of the US Air Force dedicated to the long-range delivery of nuclear weapons. The plan called for nuclear bombers stationed in the US to move within five days to bases in Britain and staging areas in Alaska and to destroy 123 target cities in Russia over the next 30 days.

In 1950, neither the USSR nor the US had a ballistic missile capable of reaching the other’s territory, so it was assumed that bombers would be the primary delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons. By the end of 1955, however, a large amount of research had been done on the production of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) which could carry nuclear warheads over the North Pole between the US and USSR, and also on mounting a nuclear missile aboard a submarine, which could then approach Soviet shores undetected and reach targets deep inside the country. By 1957, both sides had workable long-range nuclear missiles.

By mid-1959, the US nuclear arsenal had grown to such a level that problems in nuclear planning began to appear, as the introduction of the ICBM complicated the Air Force’s task and the ballistic missile submarine gave the Navy its own force of strategic nuclear weapons. Inter-service rivalry than kicked in, as both the Air Force and the Navy drew up their own target lists, which often duplicated each other. As a result, the military recommended that a Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) be produced, which would serve as the master plan for nuclear warfare. Since it was assumed that worldwide communications networks would be knocked out early in any attack, the SIOP would allow nuclear weapons to be pre-sited and then launched against pre-planned targets as soon as the order came for counter-attack, without the need for continuous communication with the President.

During the Missile Crisis, then, the President’s choice was simple and stark: a “launch” order meant that all of the available weapons would be immediately sent on their way to pre-assigned targets. Kennedy saw this as too limiting and wanted greater flexibility in the number of weapons he could launch and at what range of targets. In response, the SIOP was modified to produce a “menu” of options: the President could now quickly order anything from a single strike with one weapon against a particular city or country, to a selective launch against specified countries and their military forces, or an all-out attack intended to wipe out the entire Soviet bloc’s ability to function. By the 1970s the SIOP listed over 40,000 nuclear targets worldwide. (After the Cold War ended in 1989, the SIOP was renamed “OPLAN 8010”. It presumably has options to target any unfriendly nation in the world.)

Following Kennedy’s instructions, the Pentagon developed a system of command and control designed to insure that nuclear weapons could be launched only at the direct order of the President. The first task was to insure that enough of the highest levels of government (referred to as “National Command Authority”) would survive an initial nuclear attack to be able to launch a counter-strike. A series of secret protective bunkers were constructed for the President, Vice President, cabinet officials, Congress and the Supreme Court, where they would be evacuated in case of imminent attack. Under a program called TACAMO (an acronym for “Take Charge And Move Out”) a series of hardened communications bunkers and command centers were built, including several aircraft (code-named “Looking Glass”) crammed with equipment that would allow communications with the US nuclear arsenal even if the White House and Pentagon were destroyed in an attack.

While at the White House, the President already has access to the Situation Room, from which he can issue orders to the military. But under Kennedy’s instructions, the Pentagon produced a new device that allowed the President to order a nuclear strike from anywhere in the world. Known as “the Football”, this was an ordinary aluminum business briefcase with a leather cover, which was crammed with codes and radio equipment. According to various leaked information, the Football contains a small secure satellite radio set, a printed booklet containing the codes for launching various options under the OPLAN (known as the “Gold Codes”), instructions for activating the Emergency Broadcasting System, an index card with authentification codes, and the locations of all the various secure shelters all over the world which have been set up for “continuity of government”. Specially-selected military officers, rotated among the five branches, carry the Football (it weighs around 45 pounds) and accompany the President at all times–on elevators, during speeches, in the presidential limousine or helicopter, even while he is jogging.

The first known instance of the Football being photographed with the President was in May 1963. When President Reagan visited the Soviet Union in May 1988, the Football went with him (Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev, conversely, was accompanied by his own version, known as “Chemodanchik“–“The Little Suitcase”). According to some sources, there are a number of duplicate Footballs, one of which accompanies the Vice President, another the Secretary of Defense, and perhaps other cabinet officials. Everyone who is assigned a Football also carries at all times a plastic card called “the Biscuit”, which contains a series of numerical codes which are used to verify the authenticity of any launch order and to confirm that it is actually coming from the President (or whatever survivor is now the Acting President). In the event of a sudden emergency, the National Command Authority will be taken aside by the military officer who is carrying the Football, communications will be established with the military command structure, the President’s identify will be verified, and he will issue coded launch orders based on the options spelled out in the war plans. Under the US military’s “two-person” policy, any launch order from the acting President must in turn be confirmed by the acting Secretary of Defense. The entire process takes just minutes.

Today, one of the nuclear Footballs carried during the Clinton Administration is on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

 

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7 thoughts on “The Nuclear Football”

    1. There is something surreal and indeed comedic about the whole thing. One can just imagine the U.S. and Soviet presidents, relaxing after talks, and then beginning to fondly compare their respective footballs (“See? Mine’s actually got an honest-to-god red button!”). Sounds like something out of a movie.

      On a very vaguely related note, the other day it suddenly occurred to me that since South Africa fought in WWII on the side of the Allies, that means we were technically at war with Japan. It just never occurred to me before, because the two countries are so far apart that at the time neither could really have done much to harm the other.

      But I checked on the web and lo and behold, we were at war with Japan. Some sources say we even sent some troops to aid America in the Pacific, but it isn’t clear; I also found sources that say the war ended before the troops saw any action. Perhaps a nice bit of utterly obscure history for a future post… 🙂

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