How Easy Is It to Drop an Atomic Bomb?

The nuclear football
The nuclear football (also known as the atomic football, the president's emergency satchel, the button, the black box, or just the football) is a briefcase, the contents of which are to be used by the President of the United States to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room. Smithsonian Institute / Wikimedia Commons

While it is true that the President of the United States, as Commander in Chief of the military, has the exclusive authority to order the use nuclear weapons, he or she cannot actually do so by simply hitting the mythical “big red button. Before launching an attack, the President of the United States must act according to a specific timeline, detailed step-by-step here. 

Background: Why Just the President? A Need for Speed

Flashback to the Cold War. Continued stressful years of atomic diplomacy culminating in the frightful 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis had convinced U.S. military commanders that the then Soviet Union was likely to launch – without warning – a nuclear “first strike” intended to disable America’s nuclear weapons.      

In response, the U.S. developed technology capable of instantly detecting missile launches anywhere in the world. This gave the U.S. the ability to launch its land-based missiles very quickly in a so-called “launch under attack” mode before they could be destroyed by incoming Soviet missiles.

To be successful, this retaliatory strike system – still in use today – requires that the decision to launch U.S. missiles be made no more than about 10 minutes after the enemy launch is detected. Based on the average flight time of incoming enemy missiles, the entire decision, order, and launch process must be completed in less than 30 minutes.

In order to meet this extreme time constraint, the system was designed to leave what will probably be the most important and possibly the last decision in human history to one person – the President of the United States. 

Nuclear Launch Authority

All orders for U.S. military operations, including orders for the use of nuclear weapons, are issued under the authority of a Department of Defense protocol known as the National Command Authority (NCA). Authorities assigned by the NCA apply to the use of the entire U.S. “nuclear triad” of strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The NCA is comprised of the President of the United States, along with the Secretary of Defense. Under the NCA, the president has the ultimate command authority. The Office of the Secretary of Defense is responsible for carrying out the Secretary of Defense’s policies by assigning the military departments, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Unified Combatant Commands. Should the president be unable to serve, his or her NCA authority transfers to the Vice President of the United States or the next person designated in the order of presidential succession.

While the President of the United States does have the unilateral authority to order the use of nuclear weapons at any time for any reason, a “two-man” rule requires that the Secretary of Defense be asked to concur with the president’s order to launch. If the Secretary of Defense does not concur, the president has the sole discretion to fire the Secretary. While the Secretary of Defense has the authority to approve the order to launch, he or she cannot override it.

Despite the president’s ultimate authority, the decision to use nuclear weapons is not made in a vacuum.

Before ordering a launch, the president is expected to initiate a conference call with military and civilian advisers worldwide to discuss available options and alternatives. Along with the Secretary of Defense, key participants in the conference would probably include the Pentagon’s deputy director of operations, a command-level officer of the National Military Command Center – the “war room”—and the director of the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska.

While some of the advisers might try to convince the president not to use nuclear weapons, the Pentagon must ultimately follow the commander-in-chief’s order.

The ‘Nuclear Football’ and the Launch Timeline

Remembering that it takes about 30 minutes for an enemy ICBM to reach any target in America, the president’s nuclear weapons launch conference may seem too time-consuming. However, it can be completed in less than one minute. Unfortunately, the desperate atmosphere increases the risk of a lunch based on a false warning.  

If the president is in the White House at the time, the conference call is placed from Situation Room. If the president is on the move, he or she will use the famed “Nuclear Football” a briefcase containing a secure, dedicated communications device which confirms the president’s identity, and “the biscuit,” or “black book” listing the codes required to actually launch the missiles. The Football also contains a simplified menu of nuclear strike options allowing the president to strike just some or all enemy targets. The Football is carried by an aide who accompanies the president whenever he or she is away from the White House.

It should be noted that much of the public information about the Nuclear Football comes from declassified Cold War documents. While many details about the modern Football remain secret, it is still believed that its contents could, at least in theory, be used by a president to launch a pre-emptive “first strike” rather than a launch in response to an enemy attack.

The Order to Launch is Issued

Once the decision to launch has been made, the president calls the senior officer in the Pentagon’s war room. After confirming the president’s identity, the officer reads a phonetic “challenge code,” such as “Alpha-Echo.” From the biscuit, the president must then give the Pentagon officer the proper response to the challenge code. Like the nuclear launch codes, the challenge and response codes are changed at least once daily.

Officers in the Pentagon war room transmit the orders to launch, called the Emergency Action Messages (EAMs), to all of the four worldwide Unified Combatant Commands and to each launch crew. This message contains a detailed war plan, the launch times, the launch authentication codes, and the codes the launch crews need to unlock the missiles. All of this information is encrypted and entered into a message of only about 150 characters, or a little longer than a tweet.

The Launch Crews Swing into Action

Within seconds, the land-based and submarine ICBM crews receive their specific EAM launch orders. At this point, no more than 3 minutes have passed since the president first learned of the enemy attack.

Each squadron of high-alert, launch-ready ICBM missiles is controlled by five, two-officer launch teams located in separate underground centers spread miles apart.  

After receiving their EAM orders, the land-based ICBM crews are capable of launching their missiles in no more than 60 seconds. The submarine crews are able to launch in about 15 minutes, depending on their location and depth at the time.

Onboard the submarines, the captain, the executive officer, and two other offices must authenticate the launch order. Orders sent to submarines contain the combination to an onboard safe containing a “fire control” keys needed to arm and launch the missiles.

The launch crews first open safes containing “sealed-authentication system” (SAS) launch codes issued by the National Security Agency. The crews confirm that the SAS launch codes match those included in the president’s order.

If the SAS codes match, the launch crews use a computer to unlock, arm and program the missiles’ for their targets by entering codes contained in the SAS message.

Each of the five launch teams then removes two “fire control” keys from their safes. At the exact time designated in the SAS message, the five crews simultaneously turn their two launch keys sending five launch “votes” to the missiles.

Only two “votes” are required to launch all of the missiles. As result, even if three of the two-officer crews refuse to carry out the order, the launch will proceed.

Missiles Launched

Only about five minutes after the president decided to launch them, America’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads are flying toward their targets. Within about 15 minutes of the decision, the submarine-based missiles will join them. Once the missies have been launched they cannot be recalled or re-targeted.

The rest of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, such as bombs carried by aircraft, cruise missiles, and missiles on submarines not in range of enemy targets will take longer to be deployed.