During Donald Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, one detail will pass unnoticed by most viewers – a man in the background with a black leather briefcase.
He will arrive with Obama, and leave with Trump – bringing with him the capacity to launch America’s vast nuclear arsenal.
The 45-pound leather suitcase – known as the ‘football’ – has accompanied every American President for decades.
Within it is the power to put nuclear weapons into the air in less than five minutes.
What is in the box?
The suitcase contains communications equipment to contact America’s nuclear forces – on submarines, in bombers and on launch sites around the world.
To activate it, Trump will need a card – known as ‘the biscuit’ – which identifies who he is, and authorises him to order single or multiple nuclear weapon launches.
If Trump decides to launch (when he’s away from command centres such as the White House), he will be taken aside by the aide to discuss options.
Contrary to popular myth, there is no ‘big red button’ – instead, the equipment is designed to work like an authenticator, proving that the President is who he says he is.
What happens next?
Bruce G. Blair, a former Minuteman missile-launch officer and research scholar at Princeton told Bloomberg, ‘Before initiating military action, the president convenes a conference with military and civilian advisers in Washington. If travelling, the President is patched in on a secure line. The consultation lasts as long as the president wishes, but if enemy missiles are heading toward the U.S. and the president must order a counterstrike, the consultation may last just 30 seconds.’
Once President Trump has ordered a launch, a short code is transmitted to launch sites – where crews will then authenticate them against sealed codes provided by the National Security Agency.
The order has to be ratified by the Secretary for Defense, to confirm that it’s real – but this is to confirm Trump’s identity, rather than to confirm that the order is a good idea.
How quickly could nuclear weapons be launched?
America’s nuclear defence system was designed during the Cold War – when it was critical that missiles could be launched in minutes, to prevent launch sites being destroyed by incoming Soviet missiles.
Blair says, ‘About five minutes may elapse from the president’s decision until intercontinental ballistic missiles blast out of their silos, and about fifteen minutes until submarine missiles shoot out of their tubes. Once fired, the missiles and their warheads cannot be called back.’
Where would they go?
President Trump would be presented with a range of strike options – from a single nuclear missile up to an all-out attack.
The targets would be based on the U.S military’s highly classified OPLAN documents – offering several ‘strike options’ against states thought to be armed with nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction.
Presidents can customise the list of targets – and the weapons used to strike them, from America’s ‘triad’ of nuclear forces (bombers, submarines and missiles)
There are still a huge number of nuclear weapons in active service – for instance, the Arms Control Association estimates that Russia has 7,700 weapons in service, of which 1548 are deployed on missiles and at air bases.
In a ‘small’ nuclear war – with 100 weapons detonated – hunger and disease would run rampant in countries affected by the bombs.
A 2013 study by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War suggested that two billion people would starve in the wake of a (relatively small) 100-bomb war.