Articles

Here's the story behind the Commander-in-chief's nuclear 'football'


The military aide with 'the football.' (Photo: Business Insider)

In the shadowy world of nuclear operations, seconds count. America's nuclear warriors train daily to deliver awesome firepower in less time than it takes to microwave a slice of pizza.

The United States introduced the atomic bomb in 1945. The Soviet Union followed suit in 1948. An arms race ensued, with each side trying to top each other in destructive power. The nuclear triad, a triumvirate of submarines, bombers, and long-range missiles, was the pinnacle of that arms race.

The name of the game in nuclear strategy is survivability. And that's what the triad was designed to achieve. Quiet submarines can hide beneath the waves. Bombers can escape to the skies in the event of an incoming attack. And hardened intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs, are so numerous it would require a massive nuclear first-strike to neutralize all of them.

So what does it take to unleash nuclear hell? The massive power lies in the hands of one man, the President of the United States. It's a responsibility that Harry Truman, who ordered the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said was the most difficult of his Presidency.

In the entire United States military, nowhere is the chain of command thinner than the nuclear command and control network. In a normal military unit, there are two dozen degrees of separation between the National Command Authority and the warfighter. In the shadowy world of nuclear operations, there's perhaps 2 or 3. When the decision is made, the order shoots like a bolt from the blue to bomber, missile, and submarine crews. When they launch, only the bomber crews have the option of recall.

President Kennedy lamented the responsibility. He thought it "insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization."

After the US-Soviet arms race hit its apogee during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy reportedly asked a few common sense, but insightful, questions about the nuclear chain of command. He wanted to know how he would order the Pentagon to launch a nuclear strike. And he was curious how nuclear crews would know the order came from the President.

The answer became one of the most visible signs of the President's authority, the nuclear football. It's a briefcase carried by a rotating cast of President's military aides, officers from each service handpicked for their competency.

The football's small size, power, and mystery have created something of a mythos around the non-descript briefcase. The term "finger on the button" has become synonymous with awesome responsibility. And the assumption is that the football has a big red button inside, one where the President hits when he wants to unleash Armageddon.

The reality isn't nearly as sexy. The football is in some ways like many briefcases. It holds documents. The term football came from the original nuclear war plan, code-named Dropkick by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The thinking was that in order to execute a dropkick, you need a football.

The contents are highly classified. But former military aides have revealed a few key details about the football's mysterious contents. It contains, most importantly, the authentication codes to America's atomic arsenal. Those authenticators are the classified realm's holiest of the holy, quite literally the keys to the nuclear kingdom. The briefcase also contains a menu of retaliatory options for the President. Contrary to popular belief, there's more to nuclear war than a massive retaliatory blow. Whether to hit big or hit small is the President's alone.

Along with the football, the President carries with him a small identification card with a series of codes on it. The codes verify his identity, and must accompany the football's authenticators and war plans when ordering a nuclear strike.

Almost every President has a football fumble. During LBJ's tenure, a military aide was stunned when he discovered six months' worth of changes to nuclear procedures were not in the briefcase. When Reagan was shot, his special identification card was stuck in a small plastic hospital bag along with his other personal effects. George HW Bush once left his military aide (and associated football) behind after a tennis match. So did President Clinton. His military aide had to spring several blocks back to the White House, football in tow.

During the heyday of the Cold War, the Soviets also had a small satchel that accompanied the General Secretary. The Russian version had an electronic device that generated an unlock code. During the 1991 coup, conspirators seized both the Russian football and Gorbachev's aide. The device was reportedly sabotaged by loyal officers during the coup, leaving the fading Soviet Union without access to their nuclear forces.

In America's case, the invention of nuclear weapons created an anomaly in US history. The Presidency was devised to operate under a series of checks and balances. It was the Founding Father's way of restraining executive power. Nuclear launch authority has no such check and no such restraint. The power is the President's alone, and today remains perhaps the most awesome responsibility in history.

NEWS
Michael Selby-Green

Britain is no longer a 'tier one' military power

Theresa May asked Britain's defence secretary to justify the UK's role as a "tier one" military power, causing dismay in the Ministry of Defence. Underlying the statement is a realisation that the UK can no longer economically compete with top powers, defence experts told Business Insider.

"It's a reflection of our economic status — times are tough," said Tim Ripley, a defence analyst, adding: "It's all about money... if you don't have money you can't spend it."

The Prime Minister questioned defence secretary Gavin Williamson on whether money for the military should be reallocated to areas like cyber, and if Britain needed to maintain a Navy, Army, Air Force and nuclear deterrent all at once.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This Microsoft training fast tracks veterans into sweet tech careers

Solaire Brown (formerly Sanderson) was a happy, gung-ho Marine sergeant deployed in Afghanistan when she realized her military career was about to change. She was tasked with finding the right fit for her post-military life – and she knew she wanted to be prepared.

Injuries sustained during mine-resistant vehicle training had led to surgeries and functional recovery and it became clear Brown would no longer be able to operate at the level she expected of herself as a Marine.

Like many of the 200,000 service members exiting the military each year, Brown knew her military training could make her a valuable asset as an employee, but she was unsure of how her skills might specifically translate to employment in the civilian world.

Enter Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA), a program Microsoft started in 2013 to provide transitioning service members and veterans with critical career skills required for today's growing technology industry.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH
Dave Smith

This video of a drone with a flamethrower will haunt your dreams

Watch the video in the tweet below. Are you experiencing both amazement and fear? You're not alone.

This video has been making the rounds on Twitter recently, but it was actually filmed a little over a year ago. According to Gizmodo, an electric-power maintenance company in Xiangyang, China, had been using these flame-throwing drones to burn off garbage and debris from electrical wires.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This band hires vets — especially when they go on tour

As veterans re-enter the civilian workforce, many struggle to make the transition. This is why opportunities (ahem — touring with famous heavy metal bands) for employment are so important. Five Finger Death Punch has made it a mission to offer such opportunities.

Keep reading... Show less
NEWS
Christopher Woody

Soldiers at the border are doing grunt work to stay out of trouble

National Guard troops deployed to the border in Arizona are puttering around doing administrative and maintenance work in order to keep them out of potentially dangerous situations and to allow the border patrol to focus on working in the field.

Troops have been deployed to the border in the past — both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama sent troops there under similar circumstances — but the ones currently stationed in Arizona are even farther from the border than past deployments, according to a Politico report, and have no involvement in law-enforcement activity there.

President Donald Trump has called for up to 4,000 troops from various states to deploy to the border from Texas to California. Only about 200 Arizona National Guard soldiers have been put to work there, less than one-third of the 682 who have been authorized to deploy.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

This Brazilian trainer thinks it can replace the Warthog

Brazil has had a decent aerospace industry centered on Embraer, a conglomerate that made everything from airborne radar planes to trainers. However, that industry has gotten a little too full of itself lately. They think one of their trainers can replace the A-10.

Now to be fair, this trainer, the Super Tucano, is doing some attack work with the Afghan Air Force and is a contender in the Air Force's OA-X program, advancing to a fly-off with the AT-6. Two other contenders, the AT-802 and the Textron Scorpion, didn't make it to the fly-off. Stinks to be them, but honestly, could any of them really replace the A-10?

Keep reading... Show less

Here's how working out every day can save you money

It's no secret that service members don't make a whole lot of money compared to the intense workload they face every single day. Since this lack of funds can limit things we like to do during our days off, we have to find little ways to compensate our cash to make sure we pay our bills.

Every few weeks, veterans should sit down and create a budget plan and adequately manage their incoming cash flow. These charges typically account for rent, groceries, and entertainment. The costs add up quickly, and it doesn't feel like there's much left over to put in savings.

But what if we told you that you can save some real coin if you just decided to it start hitting the gym on a daily basis?

Would that potentially blow your mind?

Keep reading... Show less

Migrant children in the US might be moved to military bases

The Trump administration is considering housing up to 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on military bases in coming months, according to lawmakers and a Defense Department memo obtained by The Washington Post.

In a notification to lawmakers, the Pentagon said that officials at the Department of Health and Human Services asked whether beds could be provided for children at military installations "for occupancy as early as July through Dec. 31, 2018."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) addressed the issue on the Senate floor on June 21, 2018.

Keep reading... Show less