DEFCON Levels

Updated: August 28, 2022

Table of Contents

    The estimated DEFCON level today is currently 3 (updated May 2022), according to the DEFCON Level Warning System, a private open-source intelligence analysis organization. The organization said that the current level is due to uncertainty at the Ukraine border and tensions between Russia and NATO, the organization said.


    The Defense Ready Condition (DEFCON) system indicates “situations of varying military severity (status of alert),” according to the Department of Defense “Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff developed the system in 1959 to “ensure timely, accurate and clear direction of commands” and to achieve “greater effectiveness of U.S. forces in preparation for execution of contingency or emergency war plans,” according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff memo, “Uniform Readiness Conditions.”

    DEFCON levels range from DEFCON 5, normal, to DEFCON 1, maximum readiness. Each indicates appropriate actions that commanders can take in response to the threat level, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff memo.

    What DEFCON Levels Mean

    The Joint Chiefs of Staff memo describes the five DEFCON levels like this:

    Readiness ConditionExercise TermSituationDescription
    DEFCON 1Cocked PistolWar is imminent.Maximum readiness. Immediate response.
    DEFCON 2Fast PaceHostile action is possible. Serious threat to U.S. forces or U.S. allies.Further increase in force readiness.
    DEFCON 3Round HouseIncreased regional tensions with possible U.S. force involvement.Increase in force readiness.
    DEFCON 4Double TakeRegional 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 5Fade OutNormal readinessLowest state of readiness

    Printable Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) Level Charts


    EMERGCONs

    Emergency conditions, or EMERGCONs, are specific national threat levels that reflect the reaction to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack or potential attack, according to documents published by the Navy’s surface warfare officer (SWO) school command.

    What are these EMERGCONs?

    According to the Navy’s SWO school command, there are two EMERGCONs:

    • Defense Emergency: A defense emergency involves a “major attack” on overseas U.S. forces or allies in any area, confirmed either by the commander of a unified or specified command or higher authority, or an overt attack of any type on the U.S.
    • Air Defense Emergency: An emergency where an attack on the U.S., Canada or military installations in Greenland “by hostile aircraft or missiles” are probable or in progress.

    Note: “Other forces go to DEFCON 1 during an EMERGCON,” according to the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project.


    What DEFCON Levels Are Not

    The DEFCON system should not be confused with the National Terrorism Advisory System – which replaced the Homeland Security Advisory System in 2011 – or other threat warnings the DOD uses or has used in the past.

    These systems indicate the risk of terrorist attack in the U.S., according to the Department of Homeland Security:

    • The National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) alerts provide the public with information about terrorist threats. You can find the most up-to-date alerts on the NTAS website. “These alerts include a clear statement that there is an imminent and/or elevated threat to the public,” according to DHS.
      • Imminent threat: A verified, specific and impending terrorist threat against the U.S.
      • Elevated threat: A verified terrorist threat against the U.S.
    • The Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS), introduced by President George W. Bush in 2002, was a color-coded system that included the following levels:
      • Red: Severe threat or risk
      • Orange: High risk or threat
      • Yellow: Elevated, significant risk
      • Blue: “Guarded” or general risk
      • Green: Low risk

    The U.S. has not used the HSAS since 2011.

    • Force Protection Condition is the system U.S. military bases use. A Defense Logistics Agency article lists these in increasing order of threat level, as:
      • Normal
      • Alpha
      • Bravo
      • Charlie
      • DeltaFPCON Charlie indicates that a threat or terrorist act “occurs within the commander’s area of interest,” and Delta indicates a terrorist attack has occurred or specific installations have received a threat, according to the DLA article.FPCON is a localized tool, not a DOD-wide readiness condition. Individual military bases set varying levels of FPCONS depending on current threats, mission requirements and other variables.
    • Information Operations Condition (INFOCON), created in 1999, is a cybersecurity threat-level indicator. INFOCON takes a readiness-based approach rather than a threat-based one, according to a 2006 DOD publication titled “Department of Defense Information Operations Condition (INFOCON) System Procedures.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff introduced the Cyber Condition (CYBERCON) system as a future replacement for INFOCON in 2015, according to a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction.
    • Watch Condition (WATCHCON) is a system that “basically expresses a combatant commander’s concern about a potential threat and the ability to provide future warnings,” said Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby in a 2021 press briefing.There are five WATCHCON levels, according to GlobalSecurity.org:
      • WATCHCON 5: Normal conditions
      • WATCHCON 4: Normal conditions with a potential threat
      • WATCHCON 3: Increased threat
      • WATCHCON 2: Significant threat
      • WATCHCON 1: Clear and immediate threat of attack

    DEFCON Level History

    Here are some of the most significant DEFCON level changes in U.S. history.

    What Is the Highest DEFCON Level Ever Reached?

    The Thule Air Force Base in Greenland initialized DEFCON 1, imminent war, once on Oct. 5, 1960, according to Pulitzer winner Annie Jacobsen’s “The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency.”

    According to Jacobsen, a full moon caused the Greenland ballistic missile early warning system to mistakenly pick up several hundred incoming missiles from Russia with a 99.9% certainty of attack.

    Instances of DEFCON 2 or 3

    The U.S. initiated threat levels DEFCON 2 and 3 several times, according to the National Security Archives. These instances include:

    • Paris Summit Collapse: In May 1960, Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates tried out the new DEFCON system as a precaution following the collapse of the Paris Summit.
    • Cuban Missile Crisis: The U.S. issued a DEFCON-2 alert on Oct. 24, 1962. Most of the armed forces were 16 DEFCON 3, but U.S. strategic nuclear forces were at DEFCON 2.
    • Operation Paul Bunyan: On Aug. 21, 1976, the U.S. issued a DEFCON-3 alert in response to an attack by North Korean forces.
    • Middle East War: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger issued a DEFCON-3 alert in Oct. 1973 during the Middle East War.

    The DEFCON Level Warning System website describes more recent instances when the U.S. reach DEFCON 2 or 3:

    • Persian Gulf War: The joint chiefs of staff declared DEFCON 2 on Jan. 15, 1991, during the opening phase of Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.
    • Attack on the Twin Towers: On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States entered DEFCON 3, following the attack on the World Trade Center.

    Global and Localized Defense Condition Levels

    Though the United States military uses DEFCON levels, it’s not a globally accepted threat warning system.

    Not all DEFCON level changes affect or require the use of the entire military or DOD. Some changes to DEFCON levels may be appropriate for a specific unit, base or mission, while the rest of the DOD remains at a different level.

    According to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine, no global DEFCON-level change has been higher or more severe than DEFCON 3. While the United States reached DEFCON 2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991, these levels did not change globally.

    Is the DEFCON Level Public?

    No. Unless you are in U.S. government intelligence circles, you cannot view immediate changes to the DEFCON level. Because of the possibility of panic among U.S. citizens, actual minute-by-minute changes in DEFCON are only available to high-ranking military personnel and government officials.

    How Can I View the DEFCON Level in Real Time?

    Only top-level intelligence personnel, government officials (like the president of the U.S.) and high-ranking military personnel can view the DEFCON level in real time.

    You can find the DEFCON level (within a day or so) online at the DEFCON Level Warning System, a private open-source intelligence analysis organization. Bear in mind this information doesn’t come from a government agency, so it’s unreliable for day-to-day strategic planning.


    About The Author

    Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News


    Related Articles
    MOPP Protection LevelsWhat Is OPSEC?
    Health Protection Condition Levels (HPCON)What Is Information Warfare?
    Defense Security Service (DSS)Defense Counterintelligence & Security Agency
    Written by MilitaryBenefits