In some movies, the phrase "Defcon 5" is used to refer to the highest state of alert.
This is incorrect, and this trope is about the misuse of these terms. Defcon 5 (codename "FADE OUT"note These codenames are used during exercises to avoid confusion with the real deal) is the lowest state of alert, aka completely tranquil peace time. Defcon 1 (codename "COCKED PISTOL") is the highest, referring to a confirmed state of war. The use of nuclear weapons is authorized here, but they will still require unlock codes from high authority. The highest state reached for the Strategic Air Command in US history was Defcon 2 (codename "FAST PACE", during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but the Gulf War led to forces in the Middle East reaching Defcon 1, for obvious reasons — i.e., actually being at war. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 saw a brief period at Defcon 3 (codename "ROUND HOUSE", with some forces in the Middle East being at 2), as did 9/11. Currently the Defcon level is at 5.
The UK did once operate a 'Queen's Order' level which escalated from 1 to 5, QO1 being the peacetime default and QO5 meaning (at the time) that the V-bombers had started their one way trip to Russia. The current system, dubbed the UK Threat Levels, doesn't use numbers at all, instead ranking the current likelihood of attack on a scale from Low to Critical (its most recent predecessor, the now-defunct BIKINI scale, used colours). However, these levels do not correspond to US Defcon levels - for example, the UK reached a "critical" Threat Level in 2006 and 2007. Thus, there is currently no real UK equivalent. Other countries have their own status levels, in some cases where this trope is played straight, in others they use phrases or colours instead.
For the Record
DEFCON 5: Normal peacetime activities
DEFCON 4: Increased readiness levels, mainly more intelligence and surveillance
DEFCON 3: Military begins deployment.......this is the first truly "shit is about to get real" phase of the levels
DEFCON 2: War is to be considered imminent, make all preparations
DEFCON 1: War is to be expected at any moment, weapons loaded with anticipation of orders to shoot.
Compare with The War on Terror, for the color system that is often parodied for its vagueness.
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Anime and Manga
In Macross Plus, when the Big Bad activates Earth's defense grid, astonished operators gasp "The system's at Defcon Five!", while armed satellites reorient themselves.
The episode titles in Aozora Shoujotai start with DEFCON I, counting up to DEFCON V… and beyond, with the final episode named DEFCON VI.
One Justice League of America issue had a rather glaring example; after seeing a city attacked by some kind of aliens and he himself was set aflame, resident angel Zariel responded by shrieking "We are now at Defcon Five!" Lord knows what needs to happen in The DCU for Defcon 1… A few issues later, a Reality Warper turning the cars into goblins and a bank into a giant living monster was referred to as Defcon Four.
One issue of Avengers has Iron Man announcing a situation is at Defcon 1000, due to the sudden appearance of Thanos. Even more egregious given Iron Man used to be U.S. Secretary of Defense, not to mention the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Films — Animated
Half-averted in Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. When Cornholio talks into the red phone, the person in charge of the Defense Control Center becomes concerned and goes to Defcon 4 (from 5). However, this incorrectly sets off the Red Alert klaxon and everyone scrambles around as if this meant war was imminent.
Ultimate Avengers: The Defcon is raised to 4 when aliens are spotted, and then "raised" again to 5 once the aliens actually begin to attack military installations.
Films — Live-Action
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: "I have to crack this guy. I mean, this is Defcon Five, and I have to do something truly appalling. It's not funny." Which possibly makes sense in this context, since Ben is doing everything he can to keep the relationship peaceful while Andie is trying to get dumped.
Undercover Brother: "That's Right! It's goin' to the streets. Hey y'all! It's revolution up in this Bitch! Set the alarm for Defcon 5! It's on, baby... it's on!"
In Crimson Tide, Defcon 2 is the level at which the USS Alabama is authorized and directed to launch its nuclear missiles at Russian military targets, particularly land-based silos that are prepping to launch themselves. Contrast to WarGames, in which no strikes were ever authorized. This might be intentional, though, as the US is not at war with another nation—the nukes are aimed at a General Ripper who's commandeered a Russian nuclear base, not Russia in general.
It went through the scale properly:
The mission started at DEFCON 4 when the Russian general command lost control of the base to the General Ripper.
DEFCON 3 was invoked when the Russian launch codes were compromised, i.e. Launch Possible.
DEFCON 2 was when fuel trucks were parked at the silos, i.e. Launch Imminent.
Done correctly in The Santa Clause 2, of all places, where the North Pole's "Elfcon" warning system goes from five to one.
The horrible 1980's cold war film Defcon 4 incorrectly gave Defcon 4 as the highest state of alert. The fact that they couldn't even be wrong in the usual manner was not the worst thing about this movie.
The 2007 Transformers film handled this in an interesting fashion. The Secretary of Defense announces the country was now at "Defcon Delta, our highest alert level." The oddness is reconciled given the depth of cooperation he received from the United States armed forces: in the real world, Threat Conditions Alpha through Delta are used in the military to denote the likelihood of a terrorist/surprise attack (as opposed to a general state of hostilities and war), with 'Alpha' meaning 'remotely possible' and Delta meaning 'attack imminent or has just taken place'. Most likely, it was kept as "Defcon" in the film because that's what people would recognize.
Averted in Thirteen Days, where a general specifically mentions that the US is not at war until DEFCON 1. He also gets angry with a general for going to DEFCON 2 in spite of his orders to go DEFCON 3, as the US now looks more aggressive than he wanted.
Completely and utterly averted in WarGames. JOSHUA causes the US to go to DEFCON 1, which is correctly stated to be a state of nuclear readiness, and when JOSHUA is stopped and the day is saved, it is moved to DEFCON 5.
In Cryptonomicon, the narrator refers to "some very high Defcon level, the one just short of all-out nuclear exchange." Its vagueness prevents it from falling down either way.
Terry Pratchett uses it metaphorically in Witches Abroad: "Asking someone to repeat a phrase you'd not only heard very clearly but were also exceedingly angry about was around Defcon 2 in the lexicon of squabble."
Also using metaphorically and correctly in Stephen King's non-fiction essay Head Down (about his son Owen's championship-winning Little League season) there is a scene where King is driving his son and a few of his friends back from a game. One of the boys really, really needs to take a leak. They find a gas station "just as [his] bladder is going to DEFCON-1".
Top Gear got it wrong too, where Clarkson stepping up his Bugatti Veyron (the world's fastest-ever production car) to no-spoiler fast mode took him from Defcon 3 to 4. Clarkson has also announced that it's time to go to 'Defcon Stig' once.
Upheld in the Angel episode "Dad". Lilah refers to Wolfram and Hart as being at "Defcon, like, a thousand" over Connor's birth, Lilah being a civilian lawyer who apparently knows nothing about the military. What she was trying to say was that they were at DEFCON 1.
Done in an episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete with Little Pete's "LOVECON" alerts, with 5 being the highest level of "danger" (i.e., lovesickness).
Parodied in Chuck: "We're at Defcon 1, or 5, or whichever means HURRY!"
In one episode of The Office (US), Michael Scott declares DEFCON 10 because he is afraid of an upcoming meeting with Jan. Later in the episode, he "increases" it to DEFCON 20.
In Mad Men (season 6 episode 1), Peggy knows the correct usage but she is annoyed by Burt Peterson who gets it wrong twice. First he uses DEFCON 4 as a synonym for a crisis and then when told he has it backwards he says they are at DEFCON 0.
Liz: Listen up, jagweeds, it's go time. We are at Defcon Five here! Toofer: The lowest level of defense preparedness? Fantastic.
Chicago Fire manages to avert this in the aptly named episode "Defcon One." The episode focus on the serial arsonist upping his campaign against Firehouse 51. In a sub plot line, a rival bar starts to actively sabotage Herrman's bar. When he mentions they just went to DEFCON 5, Otis quietly mentions that is in fact the lowest level.
By Any Means 1x06: Charlie is trying to persuade Jessica to take things easy, telling her "It's like that whole DEFCON thing. You have DEFCON 1 then DEFCON 2 - you don't just start at DEFCON 5, do you?" She corrects him: "Yeah, actually you do - you start at DEFCON 5, work your way up to 1!"
In the Tremors episode "Night of the Shriekers", Burt Gummer is ironically scolded for inappropriately going to Defcon Five over the presence of Shriekers by someone who is treating the Shriekers as no threat.
The aptly-named Defcon correctly goes through the entire scale as part of regular gameplay. The game starts at Defcon 5 (which is the phase where you place your assets on the map), non-nuclear attacks become available at Defcon 3, short-range nuclear attacks are available at Defcon 2, and ICBM nuclear launches are only authorized once the game has reached Defcon 1 (and continues until most of the nukes in the game are launched).
Parodied in the flash cartoon BadGuys, where one of the characters activates an alarm and shouts "Go to Defcon 62!"
A version of this in Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, has an alert system that starts at 'DefDump 5' and correctly gets lower as the situation intensifies.
Semi-correct in The Penguins of Madagascar, when Skipper briefly considers declaring "Defcon Red", (the coordinating color to Defcon 2). When Marlene asks what that means, Skipper says "Classified. Just hope you never live to see one, sister."
X-Men: Evolution: Defcon 4 at the Xavier Institute means that the entire mansion is now in multi-layer steel-doors-all-around lockdown. Nothing gets out or in, and anything that tries to get in gets blasted by laser cannons.
Beavis And Butthead Do America gets it right. When Beavis winds up in the Oval Office and picks up the Red Phone - as Cornholio - he accidentally convinces the Pentagon to go to DEFCON 4, from DEFCON 5.
According to some accounts of the 1981 shooting of Ronald Reagan, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wanted to go to DEFCON 2. He believed it meant a low state of military readiness, slightly higher than DEFCON 1, which to him meant tranquil peacetime.
A conservative radio show host has threatened to go to DEFCON 6 if California's ban on same-sex marriage is overturned, which if taken at face value means he intends to just give up.
American bases in the Pacific have a similar system, Tropical Cyclone Condition of Readiness, or TCCOR, designed to give personnel and their families time for last-minute preparations before a major storm hits. TCCOR 4 means winds in excess of 50 knots are expected in 72 hours or less. Each successive TCCOR state indicates a further level of preparedness you should be at (you should have all of your lawn furniture and trash cans tied down or brought inside by TCCOR 2, for example), and by TCCOR 1, all non-essential personnel should be at home, in an emergency shelter, or if they live in a low-lying area, staying some place else for the time being.