Does the Pentagon Need a Better Plan if the 'Nuclear Football' Goes Missing?

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An airman with the 841st Missile Security Forces Squadron participates in a recapture and recover exercise in a T-41 trainer Jan. 30, 2019, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. This training helps the nuclear deterrence mission by instilling confidence in our allies that Malmstrom is a steward of nuclear weapons. (Airman 1st Class Jacob M. Thompson/U.S. Air Force)

The Pentagon's Inspector General is evaluating whether the Defense Department has done adequate planning in the event the emergency satchel known as the "Nuclear Football," an integral part to launching a nuclear strike, goes missing.

In a letter dated July 19, the IG's office said it has begun reviewing the existing plans to alert top officials and take action in the event the briefcase is lost, stolen or somehow compromised. 

The communications systems and codes needed to launch weapons from the nation's nuclear arsenal are stowed within the briefcase.

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"This evaluation will also determine the adequacy of the procedures the [Defense Department] has developed to respond to such an event," the letter states. 

The office will consider revisions to its current playbook for a situation where the Nuclear Football goes missing, Randolph Stone, Assistant Inspector General for Evaluations for Space, Intelligence, Engineering and Oversight, said in the letter.

Multiple briefcases exist. Both the president and vice president are always accompanied by the "football." A "designated survivor" -- someone in the presidential line of succession chosen to stay at a secure location -- also is given a briefcase during events that require both the president and vice president to attend, such as the presidential inauguration, in case of disaster.

During the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, then-Vice President Mike Pence and his Secret Service team were seen on security camera footage fleeing down a flight of stairs as rioters broke into the building. A military officer holding the backup nuclear football accompanied the vice president, as seen in footage played for lawmakers during former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate in February. 

CNN reported at the time that top officials from U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nation's nuclear weapon stockpile, said they were unaware of just how close rioters got to Pence and his security detail -- roughly 100 feet from where he was sheltering in place, said Stacey Plaskett, delegate to the House of Representatives from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Plaskett served as an impeachment manager during the trial. 

Lawmakers earlier this year lobbied for President Joe Biden to relinquish his sole authority to order the launch of nuclear weapons, stating that one person should not possess such an enormous responsibility. 

Nearly three dozen Democrats said that the commander in chief should consult the vice president and speaker of the House before ordering an attack. But experts have argued that such a change would waste precious time if an adversary has already made the first move.

The IG's office did not disclose how long the evaluation will take. 

-- Steve Beynon and Patricia Kime contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Related: Dozens of House Democrats Call on Biden to Give Up Sole Nuclear Launch Authority

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