The "Nuclear Football" Goes to Japan
May 27, 2016
Joe Cirincione / Defense One & Michael Dobbs / Smithsonian Magazine
When President Obama visits Japan -- and the site of the first targeted nuclear detonation -- he will have the power of 22,000 Hiroshimas on public display in the suitcase his aide carries with him. This is the "nuclear football" that allows any US leader to launch 975 nuclear warheads within five to 12 minutes. Each warhead is 6-30 times more powerful than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. Within 30 minutes of launch, hundreds of millions of people would be killed.
The Nuclear Football Goes to Japan
Joe Cirincione / Defense One
(May 24, 2016) -- When President Barack Obama goes to Hiroshima May 27, it will also mark the first visit by the nuclear football.
The "football" -- officially known as the president's emergency satchel -- is the briefcase carried by military aides who follow US presidents wherever they go. It contains the codes and commands for launching nearly 1,000 nuclear weapons within minutes. [See "The Real Story of the "Football" That Follows the President Everywhere," below. – EAW.]
It took 5 hours and 30 minutes for a B-29 bomber to fly from the island of Tinian to Hiroshima, 71 years ago, and drop the first nuclear bomb in history. At Hiroshima this week, Obama will have at his fingertips the ability to launch the equivalent of 22,000 Hiroshimas in about 30 minutes.
The United States maintains about 975 nuclear warheads on "hard alert," according to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. This includes 435 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, with as many warheads, and 120 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, carrying some 540 warheads, for a total of 555 missiles with 975 nuclear warheads.
Each warhead is between 6 and 30 times more powerful than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
The ICBMs can be launched within 5 minutes; SLBMs in about 12 minutes. It takes each missile 30 minutes or less to reach its target. The total yield of this force is about 330 megatons, or 22,000 Hiroshima bombs.
This is an insane level of destructive power. If ever exercised, it would end human civilization.
It is not even the total US nuclear force. There are 6,000 more warheads on other missiles, on bombers, in reserve, or awaiting dismantlement.
The president's visit is one more chance for him to restore some sanity to America's nuclear posture. But he may pass up the opportunity.
The visit to Hiroshima is rich in symbolism and political import. His aides, however, have indicated it will be light on substance. It is not the place, some say, to make a detailed policy speech.
Nor will this be the president's last chance to change nuclear policy. He will have other opportunities, most importantly in his speech to the United Nation's General Assembly in September.
Still, Hiroshima will be the emotional endpoint to the nuclear policy efforts he began in his Prague speech seven years ago. Will he make the most of this moment?
Obama has said that he will only make brief remarks and speak on the nature of war in general. President Abraham Lincoln's remarks at Gettysburg were also brief, a mere 10 sentences. He also spoke on the nature of war in general. You can say a lot in a short time.
At a minimum, Obama should reaffirm his vision of the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. There are many in Washington who do not agree with this goal, including his appointees at the Pentagon. It will be important to assert, as he did in Prague, the catastrophic risks nuclear weapons present. He could affirm, as he did in Berlin three years ago, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe."
This would be powerful. But he should do more. The president could take a few steps to reduce the risks of nuclear disaster.
* He could, with one sentence, end the requirement that our nuclear weapons be ready to launch within minutes. This is an obsolete Cold War doctrine that has no place in the 21st Century.
* He could take a least 50 ICBMs off of alert. These are the weapons scheduled for deactivation under the New START treaty. He could take them off alert now, and ask the Russians to make a reciprocal step, starting a process that could pull us back from the nuclear brink.
* He could take a small step to stop the $1 trillion in contracts he has ordered for a new generation of nuclear weapons by canceling the $30 billion new nuclear cruise missile – the least necessary and most destabilizing of the suite of new weapons now planned.
* He could pledge go to the United Nations Security Council and seek new resolutions against all nuclear tests and increasing our ability to detect such tests.
* Finally, he could encourage all members of Congress to visit Hiroshima. Before they spend $1 trillion on thousands of new weapons, they should experience what just one small nuclear bomb can do.
Even after taking these steps, this small nuclear briefcase will still control enough power to destroy most human life on the planet.
Before he passes the football to his successor, Obama shouldn't fumble his chance to reduce the risk that it will ever be used.
The Real Story of the "Football"
That Follows the President Everywhere
Michael Dobbs / Smithsonian Magazine
US Military officer carries a bag known as the 'football,' which carries nuclear launch codes
(October 2014) -- It is the closest modern-day equivalent of the medieval crown and scepter -- a symbol of supreme authority. Accompanying the commander in chief wherever he goes, the innocuous-looking briefcase is touted in movies and spy novels as the ultimate power accessory, a doomsday machine that could destroy the entire world.
Officially known as the "president's emergency satchel," the so-called nuclear "Football" -- portable and hand-carried -- is built around a sturdy aluminum frame, encased in black leather. A retired Football, emptied of its top-secret inner contents, is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
"We were looking for something that would demonstrate the incredible military power and responsibilities of the president, and we struck upon this iconic object," says curator Harry Rubenstein.
Contrary to popular belief, the Football does not actually contain a big red button for launching a nuclear war. Its primary purpose is to confirm the president's identity, and it allows him to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, which monitors worldwide nuclear threats and can order an instant response.
The Football also provides the commander in chief with a simplified menu of nuclear strike options -- allowing him to decide, for example, whether to destroy all of America's enemies in one fell swoop or to limit himself to obliterating only Moscow or Pyongyang or Beijing.
Although its origins remain highly classified, the Football can be traced back to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Privately, John F. Kennedy believed that nuclear weapons were, as he put it, "only good for deterring." He also felt it was "insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization."
Horrified by the doctrine known as MAD (mutually assured destruction), JFK ordered locks to be placed on nuclear weapons and demanded alternatives to the "all or nothing" nuclear war plan.
A declassified Kennedy memo documents the concerns that led to the invention of the Football as a system for verifying the identity of the commander in chief. The president posed the following chilling, but commonsense, questions:
"What would I say to the Joint War Room to launch an immediate nuclear strike?"
"How would the person who received my instructions verify them?"
According to former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, the Football acquired its name from an early nuclear war plan code-named "Dropkick." ("Dropkick" needed a "football" in order to be put into effect.)
The earliest known photograph of a military aide trailing the president with the telltale black briefcase (a modified version of a standard Zero-Halliburton model) was taken on May 10, 1963, at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
Since 1963, the Football has become a staple of presidential trips, and was even photographed in Red Square in May 1988, accompanying President Ronald Reagan on a state visit to the Soviet Union. (Reagan's Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, was accompanied by a military aide who was clutching a very similar device, known in Russian as the chemodanchik, or "little briefcase.")
A recurring complaint of presidents and military aides alike has been that the Football, which currently weighs around 45 pounds, contains too much documentation. President Jimmy Carter, who had qualified as a nuclear submarine commander, was aware that he would have only a few minutes to decide how to respond to a nuclear strike against the United States.
Carter ordered that the war plans be drastically simplified. A former military aide to President Bill Clinton, Col. Buzz Patterson, would later describe the resulting pared-down set of choices as akin to a "Denny's breakfast menu." "It's like picking one out of Column A and two out of Column B," he told the History Channel.
The first unclassified reference to the existence of the Football is contained in a formerly top-secret memorandum from 1965 obtained by the National Security Archive of George Washington University.
Tasked with reducing the weight of the Football, a senior defense official agreed this was a worthy goal, but added, "I am sure we can find strong couriers who are capable of carrying an additional pound or two of paper."
For the Football to function as designed, the military aide must be nearby the commander in chief at all times and the president must be in possession of his authentication codes. Both elements of the system have failed on occasion.
According to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, Clinton mislaid his laminated code card, nicknamed the "Biscuit," for several months in 2000. "This is a big deal, a gargantuan deal," the general complained in his 2010 autobiography, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior.
An even closer brush with disaster came during the attempted assassination of Reagan in March 1981. During the chaos that followed the shooting, the military aide was separated from the president, and did not accompany him to the George Washington University hospital. In the moments before Reagan was wheeled into the operating theater, he was stripped of his clothes and other possessions.
The Biscuit was later found abandoned, unceremoniously dumped in a hospital plastic bag. It seems unlikely that a crown or scepter would have been treated so cavalierly.
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