The Nuclear Football (also called the Atomic Football, President’s Emergency Satchel, The Button, The Red Button, The Black Box, or just The Football) is a black briefcase meant to be used by the President of the United States of America to authorize a nuclear attack while away from fixed command centers, such as the White House Situation Room. It functions as a mobile hub in the strategic defense system of the United States. The President is always accompanied by a military aide carrying a “football” with launch codes for nuclear weapons.
It is a metallic Zero Halliburton briefcase carried in a black leather “jacket.” The package weighs 40 pounds (18 kg). A small antenna protrudes from the bag near the handle. A black cable is employed that loops around the handle of the bag and the wrist of the aide.
There are four things in the Football. The Black Book containing the retaliatory options, a book listing classified site locations, a manila folder with eight or ten pages stapled together giving a description of procedures for the Emergency Broadcast System, and a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes. The Black Book was about 9 by 12 inches and had 75 loose-leaf pages printed in black and red. On the ‘vital’ page listing possible responses to a nuclear attack, retaliatory options appear in red” and were labeled: ‘Rare, Medium or Well Done.’ The book with classified site locations was about the same size as the Black Book, and was black. It contained information on sites around the country where the president could be taken in an emergency.
If the President, who is Commander-in-Chief, decides to order the use of nuclear weapons, he would be taken aside by the “carrier” and the briefcase opened. Once opened, a command signal or (watch) alert is issued to the Joint Chiefs. 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. These are precoded, preset war plans, developed under the SIOP, or Single Integrated Operational Plan, which at one time represented the entire joint US/UK plan for “disassembling” the USSR by means of nuclear weapons. It is unclear if it uses SATCOM or VLFT (very low frequency transmission), or VHFT (very high frequency transmission). 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.” The United States has a two-man rule in place, and while only the President can order the release of nuclear weapons, the order must be confirmed by the Secretary of Defense. Once all the codes had been verified, the military would issue attack orders to the proper units. These orders are given and reverified for authenticity.
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 (Yankee White). 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. There are three such ‘footballs’ in existence — the first travels with the President, a spare is kept at the White house and the third is with the Vice President.