What Is the Nuclear Football and How Does It Work?

(Last Updated On: July 25, 2019)
What Is a Nuclear Football?

In the United States, the nuclear football is a briefcase that enables control over the use of nuclear weapons. It’s also known as the atomic football, the President’s Emergency Satchel, or “the button”. It’s only intended to be used by the President of the United States, and his military aides carry it around while he’s away from the White House.

Contrary to what some people may think, it’s not a button that has the ability to instantaneously blow up the world. It’s a briefcase that can only be accessed by the US President and enables communications with the military force from remote locations, in the case of emergency situations that require action.

Further reading: A List of Nuclear Weapon Countries

The History of the Nuclear Football

Formulated during the Cold War when America and the Soviet Union decided they needed a more effective means of control over nuclear missiles, the nuclear football first came into use following the Cuban Missile Crisis. After years of speaking out against the use of nuclear weapons, in 1962 President John F. Kennedy demanded to have the nuclear football follow him everywhere. The importance of a “civilian authority” like the President to watch it, rather than a high-ranking government official was emphasized and implemented, because nuclear weapons had a greater level of intensity. 

Since the time of former President John F. Kennedy, every US President has been in charge of the nuclear football. While the briefcase is typically protected with strong security, there have been incidents where the code (that enables access to its full features) or the briefcase itself has temporarily gone missing or unaided. For instance, former President Bill Clinton accidentally left behind the briefcase after rushing to leave a meeting, Ronald Reagan lost his code when it dropped out of his shoes after being shot, and Jimmy Carter forgot the code in his suit after sending it to the dry cleaners.

What’s In the Football?

Now that you know what the nuclear football is, you’re probably wondering what’s in it. The briefcase contains war plans and procedures that are prepared in the case of an emergency, options to retaliate, location sites, and authentication codes. Despite popular belief, it doesn’t contain a button that will blow everything up. There are procedures that must be followed, along with consultations.

To learn more about what constitutes a national emergency, check out this article.

How the Nuclear Football Works

As previously mentioned, the football is designed for the President of the United States and can only be fully activated using a certain code that they’re provided with. In the case of an emergency, the President will send a command signal to the military. This will enable communication with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon to determine if the command will be processed. If yes, the President will need to input his unique code to confirm his identity. With a “two-man process”, the command must be confirmed by the US Secretary of Defense to confirm the President’s identity and enable moving forward with the process. While he doesn’t have power and must comply with the choice being made, the Secretary is responsible for confirming it is the President who’s opening the briefcase. 

The process isn’t automatic, so there’s no need to worry about behavior that stems from impulsive actions or the bias of one man. When the President decides it’s time for military action, the military takes the time to evaluate the situation and talk among others to determine what the most suitable decision would be. They don’t just loosely follow commands without evaluating the situation.

How the Football is Carried Around

The presidential military aides, who have undergone intensive training, background checks and are commissioned officers in the military, are responsible for making the football accessible to the US President at all times. They follow a secret rotation schedule where they swap the football so that one man is carrying it at once.

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