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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But, as we know from subsequent news events, such as the regional DEFCON change before Desert Storm in 1991, the concept of Defense Conditions as a cookbook response to crisis remains a live concept, about which outsiders don’t know the details.

In a way, that goes for insiders too: Bruce Blair says U.S. leaders don’t know the effects and implications of DEFCON hikes. That includes Kissinger, who during the October 1973 war was near the height of his authority. “Kissinger didn’t know of the specific operations implemented at DEFCON 3,” Blair says. “He had no clue about that.” Blair explains that worldwide DEFCON orders set out “pre-scripted actions, putting hundreds of thousands of people into motion.”

If a future White House authorizes a DEFCON change and then has second thoughts afterward, Blair says, its only course of action is to rescind the DEFCON hike, restoring previous conditions; worldwide DEFCONs can’t be fine-tuned.

Meanwhile: So far, so good. DEFCON exercises serve to keep the military sharp, and the occasional escalations haven’t accidentally triggered a world war. And what would thriller writers do without them?

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