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Going DEFCON 6: Not What You Think It Means

Business Insider reports [1]that “Steve Deace, an influential conservative Iowa talk show host” has been making profound declarations that, should the Supreme Court strike down anti-gay marriage laws, “It’s going to raise the issue to Orange Threat Level, it’ll be DEFCON 6…” In the first instance Mr. Deace is likely referring the now defunct color-coded threat warning system instituted in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, where orange was second only to the red warning of an imminent attack. On the second concern, Deace completely mangles the DEFCON warning system, and so gives us an opportunity to get our nuclear war metaphors straight once and for all.

DEFCON is short for DEFense CONdition, and according to the Encyclopedia of the Cold War [2], “The DEFCON system is divided into five different alert levels with detailed, if ambiguous, descriptions and expected actions by military forces at each threat level.” Mr. Deace’s first error is that DEFCON scales from 1 to 5, not 6. To be charitable, though, he likely knew this and was making an exaggerated claim for effect. What then, is DEFCON 5? Again from the Encyclopedia of the Cold War, “DEFCON 5: Normal peacetime readiness The lowest alert level in the DEFCON system…” DEFCON 5 is as low as alerts go, and is the traditional status for most military forces. Anytime someone threatens to go DEFCON 5 on you or a loved one, then, readily take them up on their offer as amity should shortly be restored.

Alert is raised from there with progressively lower numbers. DEFCON 4, the lowest alert we have seen since 9/11, represents “Normal, increased intelligence and strengthened security measures,” but readiness really ramps up at 3. At DEFCON 3, “Increase in force readiness above normal readiness…base security [is] tightened and intelligence-gathering intensified [and] other changes to the configuration of military forces are made,” including the arming of nuclear war-heads.

The highest we have ever been is DEFCON 2, “Further increase in force readiness but less than maximum readiness.” Parts of the military were raised to DEFCON 2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, where “nuclear weapons … were loaded and could be used at the discretion of surprisingly low-level officers,” according to the aptly titled book DEFCON 2: Standing of the Brink of Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis [3].

DEFCON 1: “Maximum force readiness” has never been reached as far as we know. That is a blessing, as “At this DEFCON level US military forces are ready to be deployed, including preparation for full-scale thermonuclear war.”

Where does this leave Steve Deace and his claim of DEFCON 6 for exaggerated effect? Going from 1 as full-scale thermonuclear war, and 5 as normal peacetime, 6 would seem to be peace on earth, goodwill to man, with the possible escalation to rainbows spread across the land. Let us hope that such is the power of the Supreme Court.

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#1 Comment By W.E.B. Dupree On March 27, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

I say take it all the way to DEFCON 11.

#2 Comment By Zathras On March 27, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

Did he just sleep through Wargames?

#3 Comment By Polichinello On March 27, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

It’s a common mistake. Deace is hardly the first to get the number order reversed, nor will he be the last.

#4 Comment By Mr. Patrick On March 27, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

What does it mean that America’s been at war for 11 years, but never been at DEFCON 1?

#5 Comment By Victory over Eurasia On March 27, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

His Defcon is the Spinal Tap version – it goes all the way to 6!

#6 Comment By Glaivester On March 27, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

What does it mean that America’s been at war for 11 years, but never been at DEFCON 1?

That we have never been in a position where we were considering the use of nukes.

#7 Comment By Guy Azbell On April 25, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

In the late 70s i was stationed at Fort Carson CO. Cheyanne Mountain which is where N.O.R.A.D. Is located is where i lived and worked, i can tell you the military takes security pretty serious, we had alerts and drills but never with the exception of a few events ever been beyond Def~con 3 i think the Iranian hostage crisis moved it lower but not below 4, America is a very weakend country right now we are depending on our nuclear deterant way to much in my opinion because we have a commander in cheif who is bent on doing away with that deterant then with no draft and a very small military due to budget cuts we are exposing the peaple of this country to unessasary risk, if the population knew what is being done to the defence of our country i beleive it would not be very good for those who beleive the enemys of our land do not see what we are doing. At the same time Russia and China are doubleing or trippleing there defence budgets as well as upgrading there nüclear arsenal, just my 2 cents worth: RVing to the great northwest!!