Here's How The President's Nuclear Football Really Works

With the looming threats of climate change, the coronavirus, fruitless decades-long wars, widespread political instability, errant asteroids, and the myriad other perils that threaten our earthly existence, it can be easy to forget the doomsday devices we unfortunately invented in the last century. In fact, in January 2021, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the doomsday clock that it maintains as a warning to how close we are to "nuclear midnight" to just 100 seconds away to apocalypse by way of bombs we never should have invented in the first place. The Bulletin states that "if humanity is to avoid an existential catastrophe — one that would dwarf anything it has seen yet — national leaders must do a far better job of countering disinformation, heeding science, and cooperating to diminish global risks." In other words, we're all doomed.

Ever since 1962, the President of the United States of America has done his job to ensure that we don't all die in awful mushroom clouds of radioactive fire, while simultaneously preserving the possibility of such a terrible fate. According to Smithsonian Magazine, that's when the executive branch started using the notorious "nuclear football," a black briefcase carried near the president's person at all times, just in case he needs to launch a nuclear attack. Let's take a look into how the president's nuclear football really works and see how well it protects us from mutual destruction.

The president could launch a nuclear missile within minutes

Although the nuclear football isn't a big red button that could instantly launch a nuclear weapon, the super-complex process can be carried out within minutes of the president's decision. Business Insider reports that once the president has made the decision to call a nuclear strike, a meeting is held with high-ranking military advisers. The meeting is conducted via a secure telephone line if the president is traveling. After this counsel, if the president still desires to strike, the order must be verified via a challenge code read to the president, who will authenticate it with the "biscuit," a laminated card containing the corresponding response to the challenge code.

The next step is for the Pentagon to send an encrypted message to the pertinent launch crews. The crews "vote" for the nuclear launch by simultaneously turning their keys. Although each crew has five keys, only two are required to initiate a launch. This scenario could play out within minutes of the president's decision to open the nuclear football. Nukes fired from submarines must be approved by the captain, executive officer, and two other officers onboard in order to launch. This process could get atomic bombs ready to fire within 15 minutes of the president's order. Despite these numerous checks and balances in the complex process, the nuclear football enables the president to get the end of the world started in the time it takes you to cook a bowl of Maruchan

Epic presidential nuclear football fumbles

Being the head of the U.S. government naturally lends the president an air of greatness, and this can sometimes distract us from the fact that the Commander in Chief is just as human as the rest of us (except for the ones who may or may not be Reptilians, but that's another matter). And as the old adage reminds us, folly is in our nature. However, when simple human negligence could result in the deaths of — well, everybody — presidents should be making sure they're taking the utmost caution. This, unfortunately, isn't always the case.

According to the BBC, former President Bill Clinton left the football behind after a Nato summit meeting in 1999. Gerald Ford once left it on Air Force One after arriving in Paris for an economic summit. And Jimmy Carter once left the biscuit in his suit when he sent it off to be dry-cleaned. Smithsonian Magazine notes that the biscuit was left unguarded in a plastic bag in a hospital corridor when doctors removed President Ronald Reagan's clothing to treat him for a gunshot wound after a failed assassination attempt in 1981. Hopefully we can one day live in a world where the nuclear football is not necessary. Until then, we'll have to just hope future presidents are a little more careful with the high-tech harbinger of death than these historical butterfingers.