How Putin’s “nuclear football” really works

Everywhere President Joe Biden goes, he is accompanied by a nondescript briefcase. Though harmless in appearance, the black briefcase contains the power to destroy civilization as we know it. The leather case is better known as “nuclear football,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin has his own version of the briefcase.

Carried by one of six rotating aides, the American Nuclear Football — officially called the Presidential Emergency Satchel — acts as a mobile strategic defense center in the event the President needs to authorize a nuclear strike while outside of the White House command centers. The nickname “nuclear football” reportedly came from an early plan to start a war called “Operation Dropkick,” and every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has traveled with a briefcase in tow.

Contrary to popular belief, in US nuclear football there is no button to launch nuclear weapons. According to former White House Military Bureau Director Bill Gulley’s 1980 book break coverthe briefcase contains authentication codes, a list of safe bunkers for the President, and instructions for using the emergency transmission system.

Ever since Putin ordered his military to attack Ukraine at the end of February, various experts have been warning of the possible use of nuclear weapons. Those concerns have grown as his military campaign struggles on, raising questions about Russia’s nuclear processes, including Putin’s version of a nuclear soccer ball.

The Russian portable nuclear hub is also included in a briefcase, although known as “Cheget”. Named after a mountain in Russia’s Caucasus region, Cheget is also always close to Putin. Not as much is known about the Cheget as its American counterpart, but Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty wrote that the Kremlin briefcase first saw action in 1983.

Nuclear Soccer
In this combination image, Vladimir Putin (left) arrives in France with one of his aides carrying the nuclear briefcase, 2019. A White House military aide (right) carries the “nuclear football” as he exits the White House. (Getty Images)

The Special Operations Forces Report (SOFREP) team said the Cheget also does not contain a nuclear launch button, but transmits launch orders to the Russian General Staff Central Military Command. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also have their own backup command system called the Perimeter, also known as the “Dead Hand”, which allows them to bypass immediate command posts and initiate the launch of land-based missiles. The perimeter is said to have been created in case the Russian president and his deputies are all knocked out by a first strike.

Although there are no known instances of a US President using a nuclear football, the Cheget has had surgery at least once. This happened in 1995 when Norway launched a rocket for a scientific study of the Northern Lights, which Russian radars detected.

An erroneous message that the missile was fired by a US submarine was relayed to Moscow, and then-President Boris Yeltsin opened the Cheget for the only time in history.

“I actually used my ‘little black suitcase’ with a button for the first time yesterday, which is always with me,” Yeltsin said afterwards, according to former CIA military analyst Peter Vincent Pry’s 1999 book fear of war. “I immediately contacted the Department of Defense and any military commanders I need, and we followed the path of this missile from start to finish.”

Yeltsin said he and his military leaders found that the Norwegian missile’s trajectory showed it flying away from Moscow. They then decided not to shoot it down. (Some Russian officials have disputed this account, saying that Yeltsin’s use of the Cheget in 1995 was exaggerated and that there was no actual danger.)

Below are photos reportedly taken of some Chegets over the years and shared on Twitter by Stephen Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Shortly after the 1995 incident, it was discovered that Norway had properly notified Russia before launch, but the information was not transmitted to the early detection radar stations. Perhaps due to the possibility of such communication errors, the Kremlin should not entrust any single person with the power to launch nuclear weapons. The SOFREP team pointed out that an executive order signed by Putin in 2020 sets the rules for Russia to use nuclear weapons.

Among the conditions in the order, which allows Russia to use nuclear weapons, is that “reliable data” “show a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies.” Likewise, evidence that nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction are being used against Russia or its allies can be used as justification, as can when a country attacks “critical government or military locations” or when Russia’s “very existence” is threatened. in danger.”

As for what Putin has available to have activated at his cheget, data released by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in early 2022 shows that Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. However, SOFREP believes there could be serious problems with Russia’s entire nuclear network.

For one, according to the SOFREP analysis, the Russian early warning radar system is not in the same condition as under the Soviet Union. Perhaps only 50 percent of its stations are still operational, meaning a first strike by another country would be difficult for Russia to detect, let alone respond to in a timely manner.

In addition, most of the weapons in the Russian arsenal are probably more than 30 years old. Nuclear weapons require constant care and maintenance to function. The Russian missiles in silos would need to be protected from extremes of temperature and humidity, and even from rodents entering them and chewing on the cables, according to SOFREP. Given the general state of the Russian military, SOFREP believes it’s fair to wonder how well these weapons have been maintained.

Despite this, Russia still possesses a huge amount of nuclear weapons. However, given that no one in Russia can reportedly order a nuclear strike, it is unlikely that Putin’s nuclear football would play a major role in any potential war games.

Sean Spoonts is the Editor-in-Chief of SOFREP. He is a former Navy submarine operator and search and rescue aviator. How Putin’s “nuclear football” really works

Rick Schindler

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