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

10 July 2023, 14:17 | Updated: 10 July 2023, 14:23

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 Joe Biden 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.

The nuclear football is a leather-covered titanium business case that weighs 40 pounds. It is secured with a cipher lock and contains a variety of secure phone capabilities and written options for launching nuclear strikes that the president may authorize.

A U.S. Air Force military aide carry "The Football" off Air Force One
A U.S. Air Force military aide carry "The Football" off Air Force One. Picture: Getty

The president authenticates his identity with codes found on a small plastic card he carries with him. In case the president is incapacitated or has died, an identical nuclear football is assigned to the vice president.

In the event of a devastating threatened attack on the US, the president – or vice president as his backup – would confirm his identity to the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon over a secure phone by reading codes from the Sealed Authenticator System card – also known as the 'biscuit' – that he is supposed to carry with him at all times.

Military leaders and White House national security advisors would then brief the president or vice president on the nature of the threat and the options for retaliating. If either man wanted to consult the written options, he could do so.

He then would choose a retaliatory option and his command would be read back to him. Once he confirms, the command center would use the military's launch authorization codes to release nuclear missiles.

A US military Presidential aide carrying case known as the football, which contains nuclear release codes
A US military Presidential aide carrying case known as the football, which contains nuclear release codes. Picture: Getty

But, US lawmakers of the current president’s own party have previously asked President Joe Biden to surrender that unilateral power.

The letter, led by Representatives Jimmy Panetta and Ted Lieu, both from California, called for officials, such as the vice president and speaker of the House, to concur with a launch order before it can be issued.

The letter, which was sent to the White House in February 2021, “proposes several alternatives to investing the president with the sole, unchecked and final authority to order the use of nuclear weapons."

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.

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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.