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What's up with DEFCON, anyway?

ETA1:(Needless to say, I really do welcome corrections and additions to this information! I'm trying to figure it out myself and collect the information for the use of others. But I know that I've been digging for only a short amount of time and likely haven't found all the info there is to be found.)

After a recent mini-discussion in barkley's LJ, I was moved to go and find out a few more facts regarding the Defcon system. This came up because on Stargate recently, they used it (in "Full Alert"), and then in "Reckoning", in one scene the Defcon indicator-thing was quite visible on the wall behind Jack, and it could be seen to be on Defcon 5 (which is the lowest level). This prompted some discussion because at the time, the galaxy was under serious threat of annihilation, and it's reasonable to ask, "so how come the Defcon level was at its lowest setting?"

My initial guess was that the Defcon (which stands for "Defensive Condition") system is a real-world military thing, which means it isn't SGC-specific, and that its levels mean certain things about the state of the entire US military's alertedness and preparedness. What I've been able to discover since then is bearing this idea out. The SGC alone cannot go to Defcon 3, for example, without the *entire* US armed forces being put on that level of alert -- and obviously, if that happens, the world notices, and that affects the state of alert of other countries and militaries. The Defcon level is not raised lightly.

ETA2: (I'm now finding a few indications, although not yet verified, that it *may* be possible for a Defcon to be declared that is specific only to a theatre of operations. If that's true, and if you define the SGC as its own theatre... which you certainly could... then the example below from S4 might make sense, and it would mean looking at the question that started this, the Defcon level in "Reckoning", in a slightly different way.)

This is how it has been depicted on the show. "Full Alert" showed the Defcon level increasing in response to threats against the US in general on Earth (i.e. Russia). The SGC of course was involved directly in that situation -- but the SGC being a branch of the military would have reflected an increased Defcon level even if the threat had nothing to do with anything the SGC does.

What's interesting to me is that the Defcon levels have almost achieved the status of folklore -- the public is widely if vaguely familiar with the fact that the system exists and denotes levels of seriousness, but what it *really means* is more guessed-at than known for sure. Some people believe that Defcon 1, for example, is "all out war" or "nuclear war" -- but while that *might* not be inaccurate, it may also not be as simplistic as that. The language of the system itself defines Defcon 1 as "maximum force readiness". "Readiness" may indeed mean "imminent preparedness to launch nuclear strike", but it doesn't necessarily mean "strike launched".

In order to understand what the Defcon system means in relation to the show "Stargate", it is probably useful to refer to what the actual Defcon levels were for certain real-world events, to which we can relate.

Defcon 1 -- has never been used to date.

Defcon 2 -- has been declared only once to date: the Cuban missile crisis in 1962

Defcon 3 -- has been declared only three times to date: the Cuban missile crisis (on its way to Defcon 2); the 1973 Yom Kippur war; and on Sept. 11, 2001.

Defcon 4 -- is peacetime but with a heightened level of intelligence and security measures; it would be reasonable to assume that in the past 3 years, we have been at Defcon 4 at various points.

Defcon 5 -- peacetime.

(It would be a reasonable question to ask whether the recent SG ep "Reckoning"'s depiction of the Defcon level as being at 5 was accurate, therefore. It's still a good question. Apparently, discovering what level the US is at, at any give time, lately, is a little difficult.)

In the history of the show, the Defcon system has been used in this way (these were the only examples I could find, so far, though if anyone else has others to mention, please pipe up):

S3, "Nemesis" -- as the Asgard ship (controlled by Replicators) starts to come in for a crash-landing, the US goes to Defcon 3 (and according to Major Davis, who reports this to Hammond, "The Russians have gone on alert as a response".) As the ship enters the atmosphere, Hammond picks up the phone (to whom? Joint Chiefs, or President?) and says, "I recommend going to Defcon 2", which he seems to feel is the proper level to "Deploy all available assets to intercept the alien ship."

S4, "Entity" -- the SGC is put on lockdown ("quarantine") due to the Entity, and is at Defcon 2. (Frankly, this sounds like an outright mistake to me, given what we know about how the system works in the real-world.) (Or... maybe not. Maybe it *is* possible, depending on how the SGC is defined. Am running into indications that specific theatres may be at higher Defcon levels than the U.S. generally.)

S7, "Lost City" pt. 2 -- US goes to Defcon 1 when Anubis attacks the planet (am not sure, to tell the truth, whether it went to Defcon 1 before or after one of our carrier groups was destroyed from space, or just when the battle in Antarctica started, or what).

S8, "Full Alert" -- imminent threat of launch of Russian nuclear strike leads to Defcon 1.

Here's a good overview:



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 1st, 2005 12:05 pm (UTC)
Defcon 2 -- has been declared only once to date: the Cuban missile crisis in 1962

Defcon 3 -- has been declared only three times to date: the Cuban missile crisis (on its way to Defcon 2); the 1973 Yom Kippur war; and on Sept. 11, 2001.

Fascinating. When we were chatting abou tthis the other day I completey wasn't thinking about the Yom Kippur War.

Defcon 4 -- is peacetime but with a heightened level of intelligence and security measures; it would be reasonable to assume that in the past 3 years, we have been at Defcon 4 at various points.

Hell, I wonder when we haven't been at 4 these past three years.
Mar. 1st, 2005 12:12 pm (UTC)
Well, the Yom Kippur war is obviously the trick answer.

And I would never have guessed that we *only* got as far as Defcon 3 on 9/11 -- but I have found multiple citations that indicate this (it was declared by Gen. Richard Myers in the Pentagon, btw, not by the president), and absolutely nothing that indicates that it was increased to Defcon 2 at any time.

I too would guess that we are more likely to be at Defcon 4 now, than at Defcon 5... but who knows? I'm perfectly willing to believe that the show got it wrong... or something. The problem is that the US's general Defcon level (as well as the Defcon level for specific theatres of operation -- see edit in post) is somewhat considered a matter of security, itself. Because obviously, going to a higher Defcon level is telling other watchers something that you might not want them to know. (As you and I were speculating -- there are times when it could be a provocation in and of itself.)

Although really, I would have said that public knowledge of our being at Defcon 4 (minimally) ever since 9/11? Really ought to rate a big, "Duh".
Mar. 1st, 2005 12:18 pm (UTC)
I was about to ask you if you'd gotten any more info about who can change levels and in which directions that order can flow and such.

I expect that we might possibly have gone to Defcon 2 during 9/11 if there had been an actual nation we could identify at the time as being responsible/the ongoing threat. As it was, events were too confusing and nonspecific at the time, and our response was more...forensic? Like, "What happened here?", rather than "Prepare for X situation."
Mar. 1st, 2005 12:30 pm (UTC)
I've run across some quotes from folks at, like, NORAD, who said that the situation on 9/11 was like *nothing* they had ever seen before. Because there was that necessity of internal examination rather than external examination. (Not watching the skies for missiles coming in from outside US borders, but watching the entirety of US airspace for a diffuse possible threat.)

I think that what probably kept the US from going to Defcon 2, then, is that by the time the situation had been evaluated (hell, not even Defcon 3 was declared *immediately* -- I was running into reports that they were still kind of dithering over that, after the second tower was hit, and just prior to the Pentagon itself being hit) enough, it was determined that everything was successfully grounded. Hypothetically, though -- had Defcon 3 been declared the moment the second plane went into the Tower, I could have seen things going to Defcon 2 when it was determined that there were planes in the air that should be the targets of pre-emptive airstrikes. But the problem, as you point out, is that things were so confused that by the time they realized there were other planes *to* target, the threat was over (the strikes had either been made or been averted, and then, nothing else was in the air).

Or, perhaps I am still misreading the use of the system, and everything that "needed" to be accomplished on that day could be accomplished at the level of Defcon 3.

Oh -- I hadn't really found firm quotes that I felt good about, regarding who can declare what and when and what the flow is. But in general, the impression I got from what I saw while looking around was -- it's the president or the Joint Chiefs. Defcon 3 on 9/11 was declared by Gen. Myers, not by the president (which was a sticking point in the report of the 9/11 commission, which was pointing out this factually, as apparently the White House had vaguely indicated that *it* had declared the Defcon level, when it had not).

Also ran across, but would like to verify, the idea that theatre commanders can declare a Defcon for their theatre. (So, forces in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan can be at a different Defcon level from the U.S. in general.)
Mar. 1st, 2005 02:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, interesting! Thank you.
Mar. 1st, 2005 04:13 pm (UTC)
this is fascinating. and it makes me think about how difficult it would be for the sgc to compartmentalize their situation from the rest of the country (and planet). how long before they'd have to explain to someone whey the levels had gone up at say...3am on a tuesday when nothing 'on earth' was going on?

which makes me think about the methods and capacity they would have for actually keeping the stargate a secret. and how that secret might begin to be revealed.

Mar. 10th, 2005 03:47 am (UTC)
Hey, wouldn't the US have been at Defcon 1 for the first time ever when the SGC fucked with the Russians that time? Huh.

Round my old way, Defcon 1 was an annual rave in the old Sekrit Nuclear Bunker.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )