In the Atomic Age, Is the Nuclear Football the Ultimate Form of Nuclear Deterrence?

In the Atomic Age, Is the Nuclear Football the Ultimate Form of Nuclear Deterrence?

by James Walton

"I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

Joe Biden, 2023

Have you ever thought of the nuclear bomb as a weapon of peace?

Granted, that may sound like a bombastic question considering the fact that between 129,000 to 226,000 people were incinerated or radiated to death by Fat Man and Little Boy in Japan–to say nothing of the environmental damage caused by nuclear tests.

And yet this fallout, both literal and figurative, taught the executive branch a valuable lesson: now that doomsday was a real possibility, they needed to be able to authorize a nuclear attack at a moment’s notice. That is why, today, the president carries a “nuclear football”–or portable briefcase containing nuclear launch codes–everywhere he goes.

nuclear football

In this atomic age, one may well wonder what keeps nuclear-armed countries away from each other’s necks. We are, after all, approaching a century of peace between global powers.

Granted, there have been proxy wars, like the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, but direct conflict has heretofore been avoided. The fact that this has been possible, even with tensions between NATO and Putin at their height, proves once again that nations understand mutual assured destruction all too well.

We can attribute this to a variety of factors–improved diplomatic relations, increased international trade and travel, better communication, and a more connected world–but, at the end of the day, our president still carries that nuclear football because nukes are the ultimate form of nuclear deterrence.

a gathering of politicians in suits

Well, the president doesn’t carry it himself.

Instead, presidential military aides carry the large briefcase, and these aides are on a top-secret rotation, recruited from all six branches of the armed forces. And while their official title is “military aide,” they can also lay claim to one of the craziest government professions on their CV: the presidential emergency satchel bearer.

(That’s not an official designation, mind you, but don’t we all get creative on the job hunt?)

Table of Contents

  • 01

    What’s in the Briefcase?

  • 02

    The Nuclear Football’s Origins Under Eisenhower

  • 03

    Putin has a Nuclear Football?!

  • 04

    Kamala Harris Also Has a Nuclear Football?!?!

  • 05

    When Presidents Fumble the Football

  • 06

    Final Thoughts

  • 07

    Frequently Asked Questions

What’s in the Briefcase?

The “nuclear football,” as it’s colloquially called, is a 45 pound behemoth that is filled with a number of interesting things.

But before we get into the contents, let’s first address the suitcase’s immense weight.

No doubt this aspect of the nuclear football is strategic. Just imagine, after all, a thief trying to hobble away with a 45 pound kettlebell. Theft would be nearly impossible, even if you could swing and rack the presidential nuclear kettlebell.

With all that weight to account for, it should come as little surprise that there is more inside the briefcase than just a blinking red button with a glass cover.

As a matter of fact, there is no red button, since–as it turns out–the planning of a nuclear strike involves a lot more than just a single button press. (Cartoons be damned!)

President Ronald Reagan

So, what’s in the bag?

First–according to Bill Gulley, former director of the White House Military Office–the president will be able to peruse a book of retaliatory nuclear-strike options.

And since the commander-in-chief’s safety is paramount during a nuclear war, there is also a list of classified locations for the president to seek shelter in, should the nukes start flying.

The American people, meanwhile, will be alerted to the attack using the protocols for the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS), also in the briefcase.

This raises the question: if the EBS system is ever utilized, and your local news anchor warns you of an impending attack, what will you do? Do you have a shelter-in-place location, or a bunker to keep you safe from nuclear fallout?

Risk it for the Biscuit

It’s a good thing that our presidents are not burdened with toting around the 45 pound nuclear football. Instead, the POTUS carries a small, credit card-sized piece of plastic that is just as important as the weighty briefcase.

The “biscuit,” as it is referred to, is a small, top-secret document that contains the nuclear codes. Between this card and the nuclear football, a nuclear strike can be initiated from nearly any location.

But what are the nuclear codes, exactly? 

Well, it's very simple: the term "nuclear codes" refers to a set of authentication codes that are required to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in the United States. These codes are used to verify the identity and authority of the person giving the order to launch a nuclear strike—namely, the president. In other words, the nuclear codes prevent unauthorized use of our nuclear arsenal: a very important provision, given the stakes.

Mind you, the exact details and specifics of the nuclear codes are highly classified, so information is limited. With that said, we do know that the nuclear codes typically consist of a series of alphanumeric characters that are unique and changed regularly, for security purposes.

Armed with the biscuit and the codes it contains, the president alone has the authority to launch a nuclear strike. However, there are legal and procedural safeguards in place to ensure sound decision-making.

The Nuclear Football’s Origins Under Eisenhower

Captain Edward “Ned” Beach Jr., a submarine officer and naval aide to President Eisenhower, was the inventor of the nuclear football. Since then, every president has been given a roughly fifteen-minute brief on the nuclear football and its capabilities.

Captain Edward “Ned” Beach Jr.

It is hard to believe that one naval officer had the foresight to put together a “payload” that could be carried close to the president at all times, giving him the ability to carry out a nuclear strike. Don’t forget, after all, that these were the early days of the Cold War and the atomic age that changed everything.

In light of this, we can't help but wonder: what thoughts weighed on the mind of Ned Beach Jr.? What horrors kept a man like him up at night, driving him to create ten of these nuclear briefcases to present to the then-president of the United States of America?


Putin has a Nuclear Football?!

According to some historians, 1983 was the most dangerous year in the Cold War.

This is because, in November of that year, NATO conducted a military exercise known as Able Archer to simulate a nuclear war with Warsaw Pact countries. Though it was part of a routine, annual military drill, the Russiansalready on edge—interpreted this exercise as a cover for a first strike.

Remember that the Russians were still coping with the shock of President Ronald Reagan taking office. Compared to the more diplomatic Nixon, Reagan entered the office like Mike Tyson. In many ways, it was a good cop, bad cop scenario, and the bad cop was launching a massive military exercise simulating a nuclear attack on Russia.

Vladimir Putin with the Cheget

As such, the first appearance of the Cheget, or the Russian equivalent of the nuclear football, named after a mountain in the Caucasus region, was in 1983. According to sources, the contents of the Cheget are very similar to our own, most notably including a transmitter to the central military command of Russia’s general staff.

The Russian Cheget from the early 1990s on display at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center in Yekaterinburg

Note that Putin shares the same level of authority when it comes to calling in a strike using the Chegeta thought that might have you checking the shelf life on those NBC filters.

MIRA Safety filter


Kamala Harris Also Has a Nuclear Football?!?!

If the president of the United States is incapacitated, and the need to order some type of nuclear strike occurs, the veep is never far from his or her own nuclear football. Like that of the chief executive, the vice president’s “football” is also in a briefcase and carried by military aides.

To research an article like this, you expect to find things that will give you pause. That said, nothing will inspire in this author more insomnia than the thought of Kamala Harris discussing nuclear war with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When Presidents Fumble the Football

Let this section serve as a reminder that people are people. No matter what kind of title they have in front of their name, and no matter how high the stakes may be, each person is still fully capable of the same kind of moronic mistakes that we all make.

President Barack Obama

With this in mind, here are a few moments from history when sitting presidents fumbled the nuclear football.

  • During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the nuclear football underwent a number of changes, making it more sturdy and secure. And, according to unconfirmed rumors, his biscuit underwent a transformation of its own–during the cleaning cycle. Not sure what was on his mind at the time, but Carter is said to have sent his suit off to the cleaners with the biscuit still inside!

  • Through no fault of the fortieth president, another biscuit was lost. In this instance, the biscuit was dumped into a plastic bag at the hospital following the assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan.

  • While the circumstances aren’t completely clear, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Clinton made the incredible claim that “the nuclear football codes were actually missing for months!

  • Donald Trump’s 2017 visit to China got a little animated when Chinese agents aggressively tried to prevent the nuclear football from entering the Great Hall of the People. Though a little scuffle involving Chief of Staff John Kelly ensued, the misunderstanding thankfully ended quickly.

Final Thoughts

Since the advent of the atomic age, a number of massive changes have taken place. In particular, the explosions that ended World War II turned the world upside down, and for the first time, mankind realized that we had the power to bring about our own extinction.

This ushered in the Cold War–and an attendant arms race that spawned a generation of survivalists who prepared for a world ending nuclear exchange. Due to the credibility of this threat, they stockpiled food, built bunkers, and–of course–read Cresson Kearny.

Meanwhile, in the corridors of power, our leadership realized that having the ability to order a nuclear strike at a moment’s notice had become a necessity. And, per the question that we posed at the beginning, you could argue that the nuclear football is as much a deterrent as anything else.

After all, the nuclear football is a tool that enables the POTUS to exercise control over the country's nuclear arsenal, thereby strengthening the credibility of the US' nuclear deterrence strategy.

By having the nuclear football within reach at all times, the commander-in-chief is able to demonstrate the ability to swiftly and decisively respond to a nuclear threat or attack. This immediate access to nuclear capabilities reinforces the deterrence message by conveying the US' readiness and resolve to retaliate with devastating force, if necessary.

In this way, the nuclear football reinforces the concept of mutual assured destruction, because the option to enact swift and severe retaliation is always but a few feet away. Thus far, this has proven to be effective enough to stave off nuclear war between the US and Russia.

Let’s hope it stays that way.

Frequently Asked Questions

How close is the President to the nuclear football at all times?
What is the official title or name of the nuclear football?
Has the nuclear football ever been used in a real-world scenario?