American Football

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

 Copyright © 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire ___________________________________________________________

Dec. 1, 2010

 American Football

           This Football team is only five people. They are known by the unobtrusive title of “Whitehouse Aide”. They are commissioned officers in the Armed Forces, one from each of the major services, including the Coast Guard. Their command center is a small office within the Whitehouse called the “Military Office”. They are tasked to always be near the President, sometimes in an adjacent room or in another car in the motorcade. (At least most of the time – it turns out the Football has been fumbled a few times!).

          They carry a Titanium suitcase made by Halliburton, covered in black leather and weighing about 45 pounds. It’s known as “The Football” among the Whitehouse Staff, but the official title is the “President’s Emergency Satchel”. The nickname supposedly came from an early version of the nuclear war plan, the SIOP – Single Integrated Operational Plan, which was code named “Dropkick”. The satchel first appeared in public after the Cuban Missile Crisis, trailing President Kennedy like the proverbial Albatross. When Soviet missiles were being installed in Cuba, it became clear the President had to be able to make nuclear war decisions even when away from the Whitehouse.

Military Aide carries the Football

          Contrary to mythology, the Football is not handcuffed to the aide’s wrist. It’s only a leather cinch which he can wrap around his hand for security. The Aides have access to open the Football at any time, and apparently do so often to study the contents. They must be totally familiar with the information contained therein and must be ready on an instant’s notice to assist the President in accessing the contents and making critical decisions as the world hangs in the balance. Ironically, the President cannot open the suitcase by himself. Only the Aide and the Military Office Director have the combination. We know these things because several former Aides have spoken about the duties and events surrounding this strange game.

          You don’t join the team without an exhaustive vetting. It can take a year or more to examine an individual’s background to get into the game. The security clearance is a very special level called “Yankee White”. A former director of the Whitehouse Military Office, William Gulley, has written a book (in 1980) called “Breaking Cover”, wherein he discusses aspects of team play, like the contents of the mysterious suitcase.

          He says there are four major items inside the Football. A black binder (9×12 in) contains options for retaliation against an enemy attack. Its 75 loose-leaf pages are printed in black and red. Retaliatory options are shown in red, listing possible responses, ranging from a single Cruise Missile to a total attack from the Triad of land-based ICBMs, Aircraft, and Submarine launched missiles.

          A second black book contains information on secret locations around the country where the President can be taken in an emergency. It is assumed that, if there is time, the safest location is airborne in Air Force One or similar Boeing E-6B craft. This requires he be lifted by helicopter to Andrews and thence into the aircraft. This flying command center is code named “Looking Glass”, with communications to all major war centers and the Triad. An armed forces General Officer must be on board at all times. This command center can launch missiles independently, and has done so in a test launch into the Pacific. The implication here is that, in the event of the demise of the President, lower level officers of General rank have the power to launch nuclear weapons on their own cognizance! During the Cold War of the 1980’s, there was a Looking Glass aircraft aloft at all times around the clock. The public media now report that Looking Glass is no longer airborne but instead, since the Berlin Wall era, now sits on ground alert.

Contents of the Football

           The third item in the satchel is a manila folder with ten stapled pages containing, in Gulley’s words, “a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System”. It is doubtful whether this item is still only ten stapled pages. Communications options have exploded since the 1980’s. Now the options include satellite communication (SATCOM), very high frequency communication (VHF), and, to the submarine fleet, very low frequency transmission (VLFT). In addition, the satchel must have its own transmit/receive capability of unknown capability, since it has been photographed in the past with an extended antenna.

          It is questionable whether the Emergency Broadcast System can be effective in these times. This is a radio network of commercial stations across the U.S. which would broadcast emergency messages to the civilian population. A very high altitude enemy nuclear explosion would release an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) which could destroy all radio communications equipment across the nation. This phenomenon was first observed in the Pacific nuclear tests of the 50’s, and is still not well understood. The government some time ago started a program wherein commercial broadcast stations were to shield themselves and their equipment from such a burst. It is unclear whether this has occurred, and how effective it might be.

          VLFT low frequency communication to the submerged vessels of the submarine fleet is also problematic. To receive messages deep under the water surface, normal radio transmission is blocked by sea water. Instead, a very low frequency sound wave is used. This sends information very slowly because of the long wavelength of the signal. It is likely therefore that a system of simple code words has been established, telling the submarine captain to go to war alert, surface for instructions, launch etc.  I do not believe Looking Glass could issue such communications directly while airborne, to the sub fleet. This would probably occur as a relay via VLF stations located on both coasts of the United States. A sonic network already exists underwater, code named SOSUS.

          The fourth item, according to Gulley, is a plastic card, containing the identifier code the President would use to insure he was the proper person to issue the nuclear war commands. This plastic card, nicknamed the “Biscuit”, is the size of a 3×5” index card, and could be broken in half to see the code contained within, (and to insure the card has not been tampered with by non-authorized persons). But this is not sufficient to launch a nuclear retaliation.

          The Defense Department has initiated a two-person rule.  the Rule says:

“A system designed to prohibit access by an individual to nuclear weapons and certain designated components by requiring the presence at all times of at least two authorized persons, each capable of detecting incorrect or unauthorized procedures with respect to the task to be performed.”

          In the case of the President, the second person designated is the Secretary of Defense. He must verify that the launch order given by the President is a valid one before the military takes action. This places an unusual constraint on the system and raises questions about the rapid response requirement. Is the SECDEF always quickly available (within several minutes) and aware of Presidential war actions? Is he always physically nearby? If the biscuit code word is deemed not sufficient identification, how will SECDEF verify from a remote location? The implication here is that there exists some sort of rapid emergency communication system between the two when they are physically separated. There are several of these high priority systems set up but they are said to rely upon electrical “telecommunications”. These could be vulnerable to the Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) of an enemy detonation. If the Presidential order is not communicated to the second no launch could occur …

 (to be continued …) 

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