What Is The Nuclear Football (The Briefcase That Can Destroy The World)?

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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.

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