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Historically, an army could have days, weeks, or even months to prepare for war. 

However, with the development of intercontinental missiles and nuclear weapons, the time for preparation was reduced to hours or even minutes. 

In light of these changes, it was necessary to develop a system that allowed for rapid mobilization and readiness. 

Learn more about the DEFCON system, and the history of its level changes, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In 1957, the United States and Canada announced the creation of the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD. Their mission was to monitor the skies above North America, primarily to detect incoming Soviet bombers or missiles.

As part of the development of the command, they created a warning system so they could mobilize defense forces at a moment’s notice.

However, the first system put in place was very confusing and complicated. It consisted of three readiness levels and subdivided into eight conditions.

This was quickly replaced in 1959 with a simplified alert system of five different levels of readiness. This was known as the Defense Readiness Condition or DEFCON. 

The DEFCON system allowed for military units around the world to quickly adopt a state of readiness regardless of what conditions might develop on the world stage. 

The DEFCON levels are numbered one through five. Contrary to popular belief, the lowest state of readiness is DEFCON 5. 

If someone says they are going to go DEFCON 5, what they are really saying is that they are going to stand down. 

So, what does each DEFCON level represent? 

DEFCON 5 is the lowest state of readiness. As I write this, that is the current DEFCON level. Hopefully, when you listen to this, it will also be at DEFCON 5. 

DEFCON 5 has been the default state of readiness since the end of the Cold War. 

When drills are conducted, there are exercise names used in place of DEFCON levels, so there is no confusion as to orders executed during the exercise versus actual operational orders. The exercise name for DEFCON 5 is FADEOUT. 

DEFCON 4 was a common level of readiness for ICBM sites during the Cold War. It is defined officially as “Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures”. 

DEFCON 4 might be announced if there is an airstrike and there are concerns about possible retaliation at a military base. Things might go on higher alert, but most people would have no clue that anything was different. 

The exercise term for DEFCON 4 is DOUBLE TAKE.

DEFCON 3 is a much higher state of readiness. This is something that very rarely happens. Pilots might be in flight suits on standby with their orders. Soldiers in missile silos might close the blast doors. 

Whereas most people, even military forces might not even notice DEFCON 4, almost everyone in uniform will be aware of  DEFCON 3. 

The exercise term for DEFCON 3 is ROUND HOUSE. 

If things get to DEFCON 2, it’s pretty bad. DEFCON 2 is the next step to war. 

At DEFCON 2, there are bombers in the air. The president is probably in Air Force One or is on their way to a safe location. 

Everyone in the world with access to electronic media will probably be aware of whatever is happening if things get to DEFCON 2.

The exercise name for DEFCON 2 is FAST Pace.

DEFCON 1 is basically a nuclear war. At DEFCON 1 there would probably be air raid sirens going off, the emergency broadcast system is probably blaring, and everyone would be asked to go to a shelter. 

Any and all contingency plans for any level of government would be implemented. 

The exercise name for DEFCON 1 is COCKED PISTOL.

I should note that the DEFCON levels only apply to nuclear war, not normal conventional military conflicts. 

Also, DEFCON levels are not necessarily global. Specific regions, or branches of the military, can be placed at different DEFCON levels. 

In the 60 years that the DEFCON system has been in place, there have only been a handful of times where the DEFCON level has been placed at 3 or higher. 

DEFCON 3 was declared on October 25, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War between Israel and several Arab countries. 

The United States was concerned about Soviet involvement in the war on the side of their Arab allies. They wanted to make a sudden and dramatic gesture to indicate to the Soviets that they were serious and that they would prevent such an action.

They did this by putting all US forces at DEFCON 3. Reports from soldiers serving at the time indicate that most of them assumed that it was a drill, but when there were no officers around to observe, they knew something was up. 

US forces gradually stood down over the next few days and weeks, with the last forces going off DEFCON 3 on November 17. 

The second use of DEFCON 3 was in 1976, but it was limited to forces in South Korea. This was in response to the Demilitarized Zone Ax Murder incident which will be the subject of a future episode. Few people outside of South Korea even knew this happened, and DEFCON 3 status was only for a single day.

The third and most recent time DEFCON 3 was reached was on September 11, 2001, after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. All US forces worldwide were placed at DEFCON 3. 

While the DEFCON system wasn’t developed for terrorist threats, it was the only tool available to put global forces, especially military bases, on alert and to get them to secure their perimeters.  

In the first few hours after the attack, there was a great deal of confusion, so raising the DEFCON level was the easiest way to put everyone in a state of readiness.  The word also went out that DEFCON 2 was a possibility, but that never happened. 

Have things ever escalated to DEFCON 2? 

The answer is yes, and it has happened twice. In neither case, however, was a global DEFCON 2 level established. 

The first time was during the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 16, 1962. NORAD and the Strategic Air Command were placed at DEFCON 2 and all other forces worldwide were placed at DEFCON 3. 

All forces stayed at this level until November 15, when they stood down and the crisis was over.

The only other time forces were put at DEFCON 2 was in 1991 at the start of Operation Desert Storm. This applied only to forces in the Middle East who were in the theater of combat.

As for DEFCON 1, that thankfully has never happened, and hopefully, it never will. If it ever does, I’m sure you won’t need a podcast to tell you it happened.