In an antisemitic tweet that I will not link here, a certain narcissistic celebrity garnered a lot of attention for grossly misusing the DEFCON system. If you’ve ever mistakenly referred to it as “Death Con” instead of DEFCON, you’re not alone. All most people know is that the term corresponds to a sense of preparedness — but how exactly does it work? For instance, the U.S. is currently at DEFCON 3. What does that mean, and what DEFCON level is ideal in the first place?
Here’s what to know about DEFCON so you can invoke it without looking like a fool. I write this with the hope that you’ll use this knowledge in good faith, and not in a dangerous antisemitic rant.
What does DEFCON even mean?
DEFCON stands for “defence readiness condition.” It’s a five-level system that indicates the current status of alert used by the U.S. Armed Forces. The system was created during the Cold War and is directly related to the threat of nuclear attack.
DEFCON levels are set by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and are not necessarily consistent across military branches. Although the official DEFCON level is not available to the public, unofficial (but historically accurate) DEFCON levels are reported a day or so later at defconlevel.com.
What are the different DEFCON levels?
DEFCON levels range from 1 to 5, designed to correspond to situations where there is a possibility of military action against the U. S. or our allies. Here’s a breakdown of what the different levels entail, according to the Department of Defence Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms:
DEFCON 5: Normal, lowest state of readiness.
DEFCON 4: Regional tensions requiring greater vigilance; no U.S. force involvement. Increased intelligence watch and analysis of the political/military situation in the area of tension.
DEFCON 3: Increased regional tensions with possible U.S. force involvement. Increase in force readiness.
DEFCON 2: Hostile action is possible; serious threat to U.S. forces or U.S. allies. Further increase in force readiness.
DEFCON 1: War is imminent. Maximum readiness, immediate response.
What does DEFCON look like in action?
Since the DEFCON system was invented in 1959, there have never been any DEFCON 1 declarations. Here are some instances of what the DECFON levels actually look like in practice:
The first time the DEFCON level was raised to 2 was during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. entered DEFCON 3. It was lowered to DEFCON 4 three days later on Sept. 14.
Currently, the U.S. is at DEFCON 3 due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Although it sounds counterintuitive to some, DEFCON 5 is the normal level of peacetime readiness, while DEFCON 1 is the most severe level of imminent war readiness.
If you’re lightheartedly using the levels to describe a personal situation, you’d use DEFCON 1 to really get your message across. For instance, your kid complaining from the back seat that their stomach hurts might be DEFCON 3; you need to be on alert to pull over soon. Your kid vomiting in the backseat is DEFCON 1; the damage is done. So if the country were truly at DEFCON 1, you’d be reading this from a bomb shelter.
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