These are the steps to follow right before you hear “Incoming!”

An Israeli armored brigade approaches the Golan Heights to relieve forces under Syrian attack on day two of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. U.S. fears that the Soviet Union would send troops to assist Egypt and Syria sparked a DEFCON level increase. (Corbis/David Rubinger)
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Winkle and fellow crew members waited out the event on base, staying close to the alert barracks. Out on the ramp, separate security crews guarded each aircraft, which were, in the parlance of SAC, “cocked”: nuclear bombs loaded; fueled; and carrying aboard the highly classified war orders known as combat mission folders.

According to a cold war recollection posted on the website fb-111a.net by former FB-111A pilot Ed MacNeil, the combat mission folders posed a real problem during the alert for his two-man crew at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. Summoned by phone at 1:30 a.m., MacNeil left his home and was at the base long before the 5:30 target briefing. He and his navigator received their combat mission folders at 7 a.m. The folder triggered special security requirements: Until the bomber was formally on alert—when it would be guarded by base security—no person could hold a folder without another officer present as escort. It was the equivalent of the “no-lone zone” that governed custody of nuclear weapons.

The FB-111A had a crew of just two men, so under military rules MacNeil and his partner had to hold tight to the highly classified folders, each keeping the other in sight at all times. This meant they could not catch any sleep. One could not go to the bathroom without the other. “Rest was becoming critical because if the crisis worsened, the next logical step would have been to disperse some of the alert aircraft to other air fields to keep from having ‘too many eggs in one basket,’ ” wrote MacNeil, who died last year. “We had had less than two hours sleep in the previous 36 hours, the weather both at Pease and at the dispersal base was near minimums and the aircraft was heavier than I had ever flown it. I was becoming uncomfortable with the odds.” At 6:30 that evening, the bomber was ready. Security took over and MacNeil could finally get some rest.

The worldwide DEFCON 3 alert had little immediate effect on U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean, which were already at a high operational tempo and “nose to nose” with the warships of the Soviet Fifth Eskadra, according to Robert Rubel. Then a lieutenant and now dean of the Naval Warfare Center at the Naval War College, Rubel arrived on the carrier USS Independence during the crisis, fresh from A-7 transition training. Part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, the Independence was positioned south of Crete and close to Soviet air resupply routes. The presence of the ship sent a message about America’s commitment to Israel while also serving as a “lily pad” to refuel tactical aircraft en route to Israel and guarding the American aerial resupply line.

During the day, the principal assignment for Rubel and his comrades was to fly around to inspect the sources of radar returns picked up by an E-2 Hawkeye checking on activity in the Soviet fleet. While orbiting over the opposition at 15,000 feet, he says, “our job was to keep an eye on the decks. If we saw the smoke of a missile launch, we’d send a Zippo report back, as in ‘Hey, World War III is on.’ The idea was that we’d get that report out before we died.

“It was a crappy situation,” Rubel adds. One problem was that the U.S. fleet had no long-distance anti-ship missiles comparable to those on the Soviet ships. “And all their [warships] had surface-to-air missiles.” Having only unguided 500-pound bombs, the A-7 pilots planned to descend on the Soviet ships “like [Douglas Dauntless pilot Wade] McClusky dive-bombing on the Japanese carriers at Midway.”

The worldwide DEFCON hike ended on October 26: The Soviets did not attempt to land troops in Egypt, peace broke out, and Kissinger’s team allowed the U.S. fleet to separate from the Fifth Eskadra in late October, whereupon tensions rapidly fell. In mid-November the fleet stood down from DEFCON 3.

DEFCONs can be focused more narrowly than the 1973 “Worldwide, no exceptions” order. The Joint Chiefs and White House can order DEFCON changes that are specific to one arm of the military or to a geographic command during a crisis. A vivid example of the latter occurred in August 1976, when U.S. Forces–Korea bumped up to DEFCON 3 at the direction of the Ford White House. The preparations pulled in an armada of B-52s from Guam, fighter-bombers from the USS Midway carrier group, F-111Fs from Idaho, and F-4 Phantoms from as far away as Florida. Events moved very quickly, and received little press attention outside Korea.

The 1976 DEFCON hike that centered on the Korean DMZ was different not just because of its geographic focus, but also because it had a specific military action in mind. According to Air Force historian Jerome Martin, the 1976 Korean crisis “was an interesting event in which the DEFCON change did the two things that are normally expected: It improved the readiness of the forces that might be employed, and provided a strong signal of U.S. concern and potential intent to act militarily.”

The visible effects of shifting from DEFCON 4 to 3 included increased SR-71 reconnaissance flights and hundreds of trucks moving artillery and ammunition to fortified bunkers near the DMZ. Nike-Hercules missile bases there shifted from air defense to ground targeting: Their job would be to destroy North Korean radar sites.

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