The Nuclear Football (also called the President's Emergency Satchel, The Button, The Black Box or just The Football) is a specially outfitted black briefcase used by the President of the United States of America to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. Adopted to permit the President to make a nuclear-attack order while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room, it functions as a mobile node in the strategic defense system of the United States. While exact details about the Football are highly classified, several sources have provided information about the bag, its contents, and its operation.
The football's specific contents are highly classified, but it holds a secure Communications satellite
(SATCOM) radio and handset for communication, and any other materials that the president would rely on should a decision to use nuclear weapons need to be made. These include summaries of various predetermined attack options (commonly referred to as the "playbook") as well as plans to handle the national emergency that would follow a nuclear attack and retaliation. These materials are generated by, respectively, the National Security Agency
, the United States Strategic Command
(attack options), and the United States National Security Council
(security/continuity-of-government plans). Contrary to popular belief, the Football does not contain the daily revisions of the nuclear launch codes (known as the "Gold Codes
") which are typically kept on the president's person, but rather is a means by which the president can decide upon nuclear attack options and transmit that decision. The attack options provided in the football are part of the Single Integrated Operational Plan
(SIOP), which contains different scenarios that involve the use of nuclear weaponry.
Some accounts specifically assert that the case contains equipment and protocols for activating the Emergency Alert System (EAS). This is a logical assumption since, by the Federal Communication Commission's own official description, the EAS is designed to allow the president to address the nation within ten minutes of a national emergency, regardless of location.
The case itself is a metallic, possibly bullet-resistant, modified Zero Halliburton briefcase which is carried inside a black leather "jacket." The entire package weighs approximately 40 pounds (18 kg). A small antenna, presumably for the SATCOM radio, protrudes from the bag near the handle. Another common misconception is that the Football is handcuffed to its carrier. Rather, a black cable is employed that loops around the handle of the bag and the wrist of the aide.
The Nuclear Football functions as the primary "trigger" for the United States nuclear arsenal
. According to experts, if the President, who is commander-in-chief
, must order the use of nuclear weapons, he would be taken aside by the "carrier" and the briefcase would be opened. At that point, the aide and the president would review the attack options and decide upon a plan, such as a single cruise missile
or a large ICBM
launch. Next, using the SATCOM radio, the aide would make contact with the National Military Command Center
or, in a post-first-strike situation, an airborne command-post plane (likely a Boeing E-4B
). Before the order would be processed by the military, the president must be positively identified using a special code issued on a plastic card, nicknamed the "biscuit
." Once all the codes had been verified, the military would issue attack orders to the proper units.
The Football is carried by one of the rotating presidential military aides (one from each of the five service branches), who occasionally is physically attached to the briefcase. This person is a commissioned officer
in the U.S. military
, pay-grade O-4
or above, who has undergone the nation's most rigorous background check
). These officers, who are armed, are required to keep the Football within ready access of the president at all times. Consequently, an aide, Football in hand, is always either standing or walking near the president or riding in Air Force One
, Marine One
, or the presidential motorcade
with the president.
The Football dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower
, but its current usage came about in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis
, when John F. Kennedy
worried about the commander-in-chief's ability to authorize a nuclear attack. First, he was worried that a nuclear attack order would be given without his permission. Second, in an era without cellular telephones, Kennedy felt that he would be unable to make and communicate a nuclear attack decision unless he was at a location hardwired to the Pentagon
. The result of these concerns was an overhaul of America’s nuclear weapons command and control system, including the invention of a remote node for the decision-making system. This node was the Nuclear Football.
- During their presidencies, Jimmy Carter always carried the launch codes in his jacket, while Ronald Reagan preferred to keep the launch codes in his wallet..
- It has been suggested that the nickname Football was derived from an attack plan codenamed "Drop-Kick."
- On occasion the president has left his aide carrying the Football behind. This happened to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and, most recently, Bill Clinton on April 24, 1999. In none of these cases was the integrity of the football breached.
- In his book Dereliction of Duty: The Eyewitness Account of How Bill Clinton Compromised America's National Security, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Buzz Patterson writes of his experiences as one of the individuals that carried the Football for President Clinton.
- The Football played a major role in the 1999 movie Chain of Command where pro-Taiwan independence extremists (along with the President of Taiwan himself leading the operation) try to steal the football to launch a nuclear attack against China using the United States' ICBMs. This results in the attack and destruction of Beijing and then Washington, D.C. in retaliation. Later, both China and the United States narrowly avert a full scale nuclear attack on each other once the United States regains control of the football. Although the movie portrays the football as having a very advanced laptop computer inside with both thumb print and eye retina scans of the President needed to verify himself, the actual security measures for the real Football are unknown.
- The Football played a major role in the plot of the fourth season of the television program 24, where terrorists led by Habib Marwan searched the wreckage of the destroyed Air Force One. Jack Bauer later recovered the briefcase along with code book. Though one nuclear weapon was captured and launched towards Los Angeles, California, a U.S. Marine F/A-18 Hornet fighter destroyed the missile shortly before impact.
- The Football makes a brief appearance in the film Air Force One, when a terrorist hijacking of the President's plane results in the activation of a new football back in the White House as a precautionary measure (the terrorists were not interested in the Football).
- The Football played a small role in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, where it served as the activation unit for the Arsenal Gear. In the Game, the Football is shown to require periodic entry of Biometric data relayed by the Nanomachines in the President's body in order to function, to prevent the President from being forcibly coerced to activate it.
- The Football (and its Russian counterpart) was featured in the climactic sequence of the film The Sum of All Fears.
- The Football played a small role within the pilot episode "Yankee White" of NCIS. Terrorists plotted to take out the ball carrier to cause the president to resort to a back-up Air-Force One. Once on the backup plane a reporter/terrorist would break into the gun locker and attempt to assassinate the president.
- The Football was used in a side story of an episode of JAG, when Lieutenant Bud Roberts was selected to carry it for George W. Bush. Bud went to use the bathroom, and accidentally was left behind. He had to run a few blocks back to the White House.
- The Football appears in the film Deterrence where the president uses a pair of biometric binoculars to verify the launch code relayed to him.
- The Football appears in the 1983 film adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Dead Zone, carried by President Greg Stillson.
- The Football appears in the 1997 film The Peacekeeper where terrorists steal the device. The film (with dubious accuracy) shows that only the carrier has the key to prevent a Presidential assassination or a nuclear holocaust.
- The Football played a major role in one episode of the television series, Seven Days. In the episode, the president's military aide is left behind and forced to make his way back to the White House. He is mugged and the Football is stolen, and a nuclear missile is accidentally launched. In keeping with the series' standard format, the main character goes back in time seven days to prevent this from happening.
- The Football plays a large role in the Tom Clancy video game Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter when Mexican rebels manage to steal it, compromising the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
- The Football appears in the Matthew Reilly novel Area 7 where it is stolen by a rogue military unit attempting to stage a coup to force the President into participating in a Battle Royale style game.
- The Football appears in the graphic novel Watchmen where it is depicted as a football shaped case handcuffed to President Richard Nixon.
- The Football appears in the fourth episode of the fourth season of Lexx. It is camouflaged as an American football.
- The Football appears in the 2008 movie Get Smart, a double agent carries the case to launch a nuclear attack on Los Angeles during a concert of Beethoven's Ninth.
- The Football appears in the 2008 movie Swing Vote when the acting president tries to persuade Bud Johnson to vote for him by showing him The Football whilst giving him analogies about war using football terms.
- The Football appeared in the novel The Kid Who Became President, by Dan Gutman.