The President's nuclear football: The most powerful briefcase in the world

20 January 2021, 09:43 | Updated: 20 January 2021, 09:52

A White House military aide carries the nuclear "football"
A White House military aide carries the nuclear "football". Picture: Getty
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Wherever the US President goes a military aide is only ever a few feet away, carrying a briefcase with the ability to launch the US nuclear arsenal.

The American nuclear “football,” officially known as the Presidential Emergency Satchel, first came into use in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's understood President John F. Kennedy was worried about the security surrounding the launching of a nuclear weapon.

US security officials created a briefcase that would give the president the means to quickly receive information and authorise a nuclear strike.

But with the inauguration of Joe Biden later today for the first time, the outgoing president will not hand off the black leather case to the incoming president.

However, for the first time, the outgoing president, Donald Trump, will not hand off the black leather case to the incoming president. Typically, the handoff takes place at the inauguration ceremony at the US Capitol.

Because Trump plans to be in Florida when Biden is sworn in, the handoff will happen differently. It will be the first time in the nuclear age that a sitting president has not attended his successor's inauguration.

A US official revealed to reporters that a military aide will join outgoing President Donald Trump on his trip to Florida with one of the nuclear footballs, and Mr Trump will retain sole authority to launch a nuclear strike until 11:59:59 a.m. Wednesday.

Another military aide with a second nuclear football will hand over the authority to Biden once he is sworn in, the official said, and the military aide with Trump will bring the football back to Washington.

The football for President Biden will be on hand for him at noon Wednesday.

The briefcase is never far from the US President.
The briefcase is never far from the US President. Picture: Smithsonian Institute

The Football does not actually contain a button for launching a nuclear war. Instead, it contains a series of codebooks with commands which can be communicated to the Pentagon.

It is understood the Football also provides the President with a simple menu or pre-planned nuclear strike options, for example allowing him to select a country or city to target.

When a President is sworn into office they are presented with a plastic card which contains the nuclear codes, the card is referred to as "the biscuit," and a nuclear strike cannot be launched without it.

During President Donald Trump’s visit to China in 2017, Chinese officials tried to stop the military aide carrying the football from entering the auditorium in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, although the situation was quickly resolved.

The Football is always carried by a uniformed, and armed, military officer shackled to their wrist.

Each of the five branches of the US Uniformed Services supply a mid-ranking commissioned officer to carry the most powerful briefcase in the world.

A second Football is kept close to the Vice President, while a backup resides at the White House.