What are DEFCON levels? This system of identifying threat levels that the United States military may need to respond to is a system intended to communicate a specific level of required military readiness for an attack which may include nuclear weapons.
DEFCON levels are specifically tied to the likelihood of a nuclear threat, and since current laws of armed conflict do not prohibit the use of or development of nuclear arms, the Defense Department relies on the DEFCON system as a means to keep troops ready to meet the needs of an armed conflict or the threat of one that may include the use of nukes.
DEFCON Versus DEF CON
When discussing DEFCON, we’re not talking about things related to the DEF CON hacker convention that has been an important part of the hacker community for twenty years but rather to a graduated scale of military readiness that was established during the Cold War and is still used today.
FEMA.gov, the official website for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a list of federal acronyms and their definitions. The FEMA definition for DEFCON is that it simply stands for “Defense Condition” but that oversimplifies things a bit.
The Five DEFCON Levels
Defense Conditions, or DEFCON levels, are listed on a scale from five to one with five being “peacetime” and the top of the scale, DEFCON One being in a state of “maximum readiness.” The five DEFCON levels are:
DEFCON 1: Maximum military readiness for “immediate response” to threats or attacks
DEFCON 2: Military forces stand ready to deploy and fight in six hours or less
DEFCON 3: Select forces are ready to deploy in 15 minutes
DEFCON 4: “Above normal readiness”
DEFCON 5: “Normal”
One thing that’s important to remember about DEFCON levels is that they are also tied to specific nuclear threats. DEFCON 2 is considered just “a step away” from nuclear war, while DEFCON 1 indicates that a nuclear attack is imminent or underway.
The other DEFCON levels are designed to increase readiness up to a level that is appropriate to the threat levels without the immediate threat of a nuclear attack, but assuming a threat may still exist.
Older DoD documents from the 1990s indicate the use of something known as EMERGCONs which are specific national threat levels that reflect the reaction to an ICBM attack or potential attack.
A U.S. Navy Information Sheet for Surface Warfare Officer School Command includes the following guidance on the use of EMERGCONs:
“EMERGCONs are national level reactions in response to ICBM (missiles in the air) attack. By definition, other forces go to DEFCON 1 during an EMERGCON.” What are these EMERGCONs?
Defense Emergency: Involving a “major attack” on overseas U.S. forces or allies, “allied forces in any area, and is confirmed either by the commander of a unified or specified command or higher authority or an overt attack of any type is made upon the United States.”
Air Defense Emergency: Involves an emergency where there is an attack on the United States, Canada, or military installations in Greenland “by hostile aircraft or missiles,” which may be probable or in progress.
What DEFCON levels Are Not
The DEFCON system should not be confused with a more contemporary, but discontinued alert system known as the Homeland Security Advisory System, introduced by the Bush administration in 2002. This was a color-coded system that included the following levels:
- Red: Severe threat or risk
- Orange: High risk or threat
- Yellow: An elevated, significant risk
- Blue: A “Guarded” or general risk
- Green: Low risk
In general, during the time this color coded system was used, America was generally in Orange or Yellow.
Also Not To Be Confused With…
Defense Conditions are not the same as other threat warnings used or previously used by the DoD. The following are completely separate from DEFCON:
Force Protection Conditions (FPCONS) are used by military bases and consists of FPCON levels including “Normal” plus:
Of these, Alpha and Bravo indicate threats that may or may not play out, while Charlie and Delta indicate an elevated likelihood of a terrorist attack or attacks. The highest level would indicate having intelligence or other indicators that an attack may be imminent.
FPCONS are a localized tool rather than a blanket readiness condition for the entire DoD; individual military bases will have varying levels of FPCONS depending on the current threats, mission requirements, and other variables.
Information Operations Condition (INFOCON) is a cybersecurity version of threat level indicators. A 2006 DoD publication titled, “Department of Defense (DOD) Information Operations Condition (INFOCON) System Procedures” explains that INFOCON was created in 1999 and uses a readiness-based approach rather than a threat-based one. Cyber Operations Condition (CYBERCON) is named as the replacement for INFOCOM.
Watch Conditions (WATCHCONS) are a system used between the Department of Defense and South Korea related to surveillance or reconnaissance measures involving North Korea:
- WATCHCON 4: “Normal peacetime”
- WATCHCON 3 “Important threat”
- WATCHCON 2 “Vital” threat
- WATCHCON 1 Used in wartime
Global Versus Localized Defense Condition Levels
DEFCON levels are not a world-wide, globally accepted type of threat warning system. These levels are used by the United States military and not all DEFCON level changes affect or require the use of the entire military or DoD. Some changes to DEFCON levels may be appropriate for a specific unit, base, or mission while the rest of the DoD remains at a different level.
There has, according to the Smithsonian magazine Air & Space, been no global DEFCON level change higher or more severe than DEFCON 3. While it’s true that DEFCON 2 was reached during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and again during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, these levels were not changed on a global scale.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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