Late on the night of October 24, 1973, a national security team in the Nixon administration authorized a DEFCON 3 alert for U.S. forces worldwide. Setting aside the larger geopolitics, the initial triggering event, on October 6, was Egypt and Syria leading a surprise attack on Israel. For the first few days, the tide of war favored the attackers: Israel sustained horrific aircraft and armor losses as Egyptian armor and infantry surged across temporary bridges over the Suez Canal, then broke through huge sand barriers on the Israeli side. Syrian tanks overran Israeli fortifications on the Golan Heights and looked likely to drive straight into Jerusalem. Israeli losses were so grave that soldiers were authorized to attach nuclear warheads to the nation’s Jericho missiles.
The crisis pulled in the Soviets, who had been supplying advisers, ammunition, and equipment to the Arab nations for years, and the Americans, who had been giving foreign aid to Israel.
Each country shipped arms to its chosen side, but in a matter of days, Israeli jets and ground forces stopped the invaders and blocked the Egyptians from retreating west across the Suez Canal.
Wanting to build on its spectacular gains, Israel stalled the rollout of a cease fire resolution from the United Nations. Now the Soviets and their Arab allies were the ones pressing for a halt to hostilities. After two weeks, the crisis was less about battles on the ground and more about the roles of the United States and the Soviet Union: Would the Soviets send in “peacekeeping” troops to relieve the Egyptian Third Army? U.S. intelligence reported that the Soviets had put seven airborne divisions on alert, a move that, along with a change in aerial resupply traffic, seemed to indicate troops were on their way.
Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Secretary of State, feared that the arrival of Soviet ground troops in a Middle East war would lead to a dangerous spiral of moves and counter-moves. He wanted a sudden, dramatic gesture—suggesting the United States was willing to go to the brink of world war—to prevent the Soviet intervention. The decision to go to DEFCON 3 was made by Kissinger and his advisory team, the Washington Special Actions Group.
The resulting Pentagon order told commanders to pull out their DEFCON 3 plans and carry them out. In such circumstances, commanders have authority to take extra actions in the interest of readiness and defense…within limits.
For Bruce Blair, then a Minuteman missile officer on duty in an underground launch control capsule at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, the first news of the DEFCON came over the Primary Alerting System, a voice network connecting all SAC installations to headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. It started with a warble tone by loudspeaker, and a verbal alert to prepare for a coded message.
Blair and his fellow officer got out their binders and grease pencils, and learned that DEFCON 3 was now in effect: After verifying the message with all launch centers in the squadron, each pair of officers made sure the blast doors were closed. Each officer opened a safe and took out a launch key and the Sealed Authentication System code card, laying them on the console for quick use. The items remained on the console for the duration of the alert, including shift changes. Why the preparations? “A little less time would be necessary if [these actions were] done in advance,” Blair explains. “An officer might forget the combination to the padlock on his safe. Also the procedure puts you in the right frame of mind.” After the men’s shifts finished and they returned to quarters, orders confined Blair and his colleagues to their homes as long as the alert lasted—in this case, two days.
Steve Winkle was a 28-year-old Air Force captain, trained to navigate for B-52Ds operating out of Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. When the DEFCON order came down and the alert klaxon blew, he was on a porch overlooking the airfield. As other crews on alert raced from their barracks to the aircraft, he noticed that the normal gaggle of officers who watched such practices were absent; it was such a common sight that the men at Andersen had a name for the phenomenon: a Gathering of Eagles.
“Then we got a phone call, told to report to the briefing room,” Winkle recalls. “Till then it was ‘Here we go, another exercise.’ With the exception that no commanders were there to watch, we didn’t see the difference. Then in the briefing room the lights went out and we heard ‘SAC is in DEFCON 3.’ The room went totally silent. To be crude about it, you could have heard a fish fart.” After the intelligence briefing was over, the next job was to increase the number of B-52Ds available to launch. Winkle’s flight crew prepared two more bombers and handed them over to alert crews, then stood alert on the third bomber.