The DEFCON level today is currently 3 (updated May 2022).
What Does DEFCON Stand For?
DEFCON, which stands for the Defense Readiness Condition, is an alert state used by the United States military. The United States joint military command and the joint chiefs of staff developed DEFCON to designate five levels of military readiness.
What Are DEFCON Levels?
DEFCON is a system for identifying threat levels. It communicates the specific level of required military readiness for potential attacks, which may include nuclear weapons. DEFCON levels range from 1, maximum readiness, to DEFCON level 5, the lowest state of readiness.
DEFCON levels are specifically tied to the likelihood of a nuclear or “snap count” threat. Since current laws of armed conflict do not prohibit the use or development of nuclear arms, the Department of Defense relies on the DEFCON system to keep troops ready to respond to nuclear threats during an armed conflict.
The Current DEFCON Level in the U.S. Today
Due to the uncertainty at the Ukraine border and the tensions between Russia and NATO, the DEFCON in the United States is at DEFCON 3 as of March 1, 2022. DEFCON will not return to 5 as long as the conflict continues between Ukraine and Russia.
How DEFCON Levels Work
Defense Conditions, or DEFCON levels, are listed on a scale from five to one, with DEFCON 5 being “peacetime” at the top of the scale, and DEFCON 1 being in a state of “maximum readiness.”
The five DEFCON levels are:
- DEFCON 1: Maximum military readiness for “immediate response” to threats or attacks
- DEFCON 2: Military forces stand ready to deploy and fight in six hours or less
- DEFCON 3: Select forces are ready to deploy in 15 minutes
- DEFCON 4: Above normal readiness with an increase in the gathering of intel and strengthening of security measures
- DEFCON 5: Normal or lowest state of readiness
What Is the DEFCON Meaning of Each Level?
The meaning of DEFCON levels is specific. DEFCON levels range from DEFCON 5 – the baseline for the military in peacetime – to DEFCON 1 – the most severe level of readiness.
|Readiness Condition||Exercise Term||Readiness||Description|
|DEFCON 1||Cocked Pistol||Maximum readiness. Immediate response.||Nuclear war is imminent or has already started|
|DEFCON 2||Fast Pace||Armed forces ready to deploy and engage in less than six hours||Next step to nuclear war|
|DEFCON 3||Round House||Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes||Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness|
|DEFCON 4||Double Take||Above normal readiness||Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures|
|DEFCON 5||Fade Out||Normal readiness||Lowest state of readiness|
One thing that’s important to remember about DEFCON levels is that they are also tied to specific nuclear threats. DEFCON 2 is considered just “a step away” from nuclear war, while DEFCON 1 indicates that a nuclear attack is imminent or already underway.
The other DEFCON levels are designed to increase readiness up to a level appropriate to the threat level, without the immediate threat of a nuclear attack but assuming a threat may still exist.
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?
- 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 is made upon the United States.
- Air Defense Emergency: An emergency where an attack on the United States, Canada or military installations in Greenland “by hostile aircraft or missiles” may be probable or in progress.
Printable Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) Level Charts
What DEFCON Levels Are Not
The DEFCON system should not be confused with a more contemporary but discontinued alert system known as the Homeland Security Advisory System, introduced by the Bush administration in 2002. This was a color-coded system that included the following levels:
- Red: Severe threat or risk
- Orange: High risk or threat
- Yellow: An elevated, significant risk
- Blue: A “guarded” or general risk
- Green: Low risk
Defense conditions are not the same as other threat warnings used or previously used by the DOD.
For example, military bases use force protection conditions (FPCONS), including “Normal” plus:
Of these, Alpha and Bravo indicate threats that may or may not play out, while Charlie and Delta indicate an elevated likelihood of a terrorist attack or attacks. The highest level would suggest having intelligence or other indicators of an imminent attack.
FPCON is a localized tool rather than a blanket readiness condition for the entire DOD; individual military bases will have varying levels of FPCONS depending on the current threats, mission requirements and other variables.
Information Operations Condition (INFOCON) is a cybersecurity version of threat-level indicators. A 2006 DoD publication titled “Department of Defense information operations condition (INFOCON) system procedures” said that INFOCON was created in 1999 and used a readiness-based approach rather than a threat-based one. Cyber Operations Condition (CYBERCON) replaced INFOCOM.
Watch Conditions (WATCHCONS) is a system used between the Department of Defense and South Korea related to surveillance or reconnaissance measures involving North Korea:
- WATCHCON 4: “Normal peacetime”
- WATCHCON 3: “Important threat”
- WATCHCON 2: “Vital” threat
- WATCHCON 1: Used in wartime
DEFCON Level History
DoD introduced the first DEFCON military alert system after creating the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) with Canada. DEFCON had three readiness levels early on: normal, increased and maximum. Then, DOD divided these three levels into eight alert conditions before simplifying it to its current system.
What Is the Highest DEFCON Level Ever Reached?
DEFCON 1 indicates the most severe and dangerous situations, including imminent nuclear war involving the U.S. or one of its allies.
The Thule Air Force Base in Greenland initialized DEFCON 1 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 of DEFCON 2 and 3 several times.
- Attack on the Twin Towers: On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States entered DEFCON 3.
- Operation Paul Bunyan: On Aug. 18, 1976, the U.S. also issued a DEFCON-3 alert.
- The Gulf War: The U.S. initiated a DEFCON-2 warning on Jan. 15, 1991.
- Cuban Missile Crisis: The U.S. also issued a DEFCON-2 alert on Oct. 22, 1962.
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.
Global and Localized Defense Condition Levels
The United States military uses DEFCON levels, but they’re not a worldwide, globally accepted type of 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. 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 on a global scale.
Is the DEFCON Level Public?
No. Unless you are in U.S. government intelligence circles, you can not view the current 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.
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. However, the information doesn’t come from a government agency, so it’s unreliable for day-to-day strategic planning.
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.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
|MOPP Protection Levels||What Is OPSEC?|
|Health Protection Condition Levels (HPCON)||What Is Information Warfare?|
|Defense Security Service (DSS)||Defense Counterintelligence & Security Agency|