Defcon Five

"DEFCON 5 means 'no danger', DEFCON 1 is a crisis!"

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 ) 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 nuclear 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), the Gulf War also led to forces in the Middle East reaching DEFCON 2, 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. It's important to note that DEFCON levels can be limited to geographical regions, DEFCON 2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Gulf War were limited to the affected regions. The highest that the worldwide DEFCON level has ever risen to is 3.

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 [probably] one way trip to enemy territory. 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: Lowest state of readiness - this is the normal state of readiness in peacetime. Code name: FADE OUT
  • DEFCON 4: Increased intelligence watch and strengthened security measures. Code Name: DOUBLE TAKEnote 
  • DEFCON 3: Increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness. Air Force ready to mobilize in 15 minutes - this is the first truly "shit is about to get real" phase of the levels. Code Name: ROUND HOUSE
  • DEFCON 2: War is imminent. Armed Forces ready to deploy and engage in less than 6 hours - this is the highest level ever reached in history. Code Name: FAST PACE
  • DEFCON 1: Nuclear war is imminent. Code Name: COCKED PISTOL

It should be pointed out that alert levels mean different things to different forces. An armoured division in the US is going to take several weeks at best to move and engage an enemy (unless the Russians are hitting Long Island right now), even at DEFCON 1. On the other hand, Nuclear Missile forces; designed to launch at a moment's notice are essentially at DEFCON 1 at all times; even if the current status is DEFCON 5.

Other nations have similar alert systems.

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 801 T.T.S. Airbats start with DEFCON I, counting up to DEFCON V and beyond, with the final episode named DEFCON VI.
  • Used correctly in the last episode of Yukikaze. The FAF fleet goes to DEFCON I as they approach the Passageway to evacuate Fairy... which is guarded by a literal wall of JAM.

    Comic Books 
  • 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 The 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.
  • In X-Men (1991) #2, this is used correctly by Nick Fury, who warns Storm's Gold Strike Force that the US has gone to DEFCON 1 in accordance to the Magneto Protocols, as they are preparing to fire a nuclear-powered laser at Asteroid M due to the fact that Magneto had stolen a collection of nuclear missiles salvaged from a submarine he destroyed years earlier.

    Films — Animated 
  • Played for Laughs 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.
  • Actually used correctly in Inside Out. When the emotions inside Riley's dad's head note the possibility of a conflict with his daughter, they raise the alert level in his head to "Defcon 2".

    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.
  • In Canadian Bacon, Defcon 4 means "imminent nuclear attack."
  • 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.
  • In Independence Day, the president says, "We may need to upgrade to Defcon 3", which could either be correct or incorrect. Either way, no one could accuse them of screwing up.
  • Averted in Salt, In the White House's bunker, one of the President's Cabinet correctly changes the Defcon level from '4' to '2'.
  • Averted in Thirteen Days, where General Taylor specifically mentions that the US is not at war until DEFCON 1. The context is that President Kennedy was furious with the general for putting SAC forces up to DEFCON 2 in spite of his orders to only stand up to 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. Word of God originally believed they got it wrong when they wrote the story.

  • 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".

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • Lampshaded by 30 Rock:
    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.
  • In Community:
    Dean Pelton: From this moment, people, we are at DEFCON 4, if that's the highest DEFCON, and if high DEFCONs are worse than low ones.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Poison Sky, Colonel Mace uses the correct term when he declares that NATO has gone to DEFCON 1 to meet the Sontaran threat.
  • Used correctly in Stargate SG-1, such as the episode Full Alert. The progress from condition to condition is treated with appropriate gravity.
  • In the The Big Bang Theory episode "The Lizard-Spock Expansion", Leonard describes Howard's situation with the Mars rover as "Defcon 5". Sheldon corrects him, using the page quote, and the conversation gets derailed into a discussion of the merits of the Star Trek films.
  • Used mostly correctly in one episode of Supergirl: Defcon 5 was used at the beginning and was elevated to Defcon 2 after a nuclear missile was launched at National City. Given that there was an actual inbound missile that was minutes from impact, the Defcon level probably should have been set to 1 rather than 2, but it was still using the correct order of escalation.
  • In The West Wing before President Bartlet delivers the State of the Union, he runs over what to do in a nightmare scenario with his designated survivor, the Secretary of Agriculture. Namely, he should get the military together, make the proper command assignments, and take the US to Defcon 4. The entire government could explode, but what's left would be pretty relaxed, all things considered.

  • Platinum Blonde's 1983 hit "Standing in the Dark" contains the line "Defcon 5 / We're ready to explode.".
  • Nox Arcana's Zombie Influx album contains the track "Defcon Six." I guess you could say the humans are all at peace with each other...
  • Power Metal band Vicious Rumors has a line in the song Warball -
    Situation Def Con Five
    No one gets out of here alive
  • Done correctly in the track Defcon Zero by ParagonX9 of Newgrounds.
  • The Cheap Trick song Man-U-Lip-U-Lator includes the line "full alert, DEFCON 4."

  • Averted in Ruiner Pinball; the peacetime at the start of the game is DEFCON 5, and the player must raise it to DEFCON 1 and start World War III.

  • During ABC's pre-debate coverage of the third Democratic presidential primary debate in 2015, one of the people on TV mentioned Hillary Clinton's campaign going to DEFCON 7 over the data breach from the Bernie Sanders campaign.

  • Played with in the radio adaptation of Good Omens. When the four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse power up the nuclear exchange that will end the world, all relevant indicators go to DEFCON 5 — because the Horsepersons have decided that having the indicators stuck on "normal peacetime conditions" while conditions become increasingly abnormal will increase the confusion.

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • Ron White had a joke about his mother calling him about a change in the "Heightened State of Awareness." He came up with a simple change.
    Ron: Here's my solution for the Heightened State of Awareness. 1. Go find a helmet. 2. Put on the damn helmet.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Used correctly in Twilight Struggle, which is to be expected for a game set in the Cold War. The level restricts where on the map aggressive actions are allowed (at DEFCON 4 coups and realignments are generally banned in Europe, at 3 add Asia, at 2 add the Middle East), and if the DEFCON ever falls to 1 the nukes fly and the loser is whoever's turn it was.

    Video Games 
  • In Act of War, and its Spiritual Successor Act of Aggression, the US tech tree is represented by the DEFCON system. At DEFCON 3 (the starting level) they're limited to basic infantry and light armor units; DEFCON 2 they break out the heavy armor (including the mighty Abrams tank) and attack aircraft; at DEFCON 1, the special forces come to the front lines and Tactical Nuclear weapons are authorized for use.
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2: Yuri's Revenge uses it correctly in the intro cinematic (considering the situation that the Big Bad is about to set off psychic superweapons that will mind-control everyone on the planet), with a background voice stating "we are now at Defcon 2".
  • Critical Path, an interactive movie adventure game which takes place after World War III makes this mistake in the backstory Apocalyptic Log. Kat states "We're on DEFCON 5" when describing that a major attack has occurred, signalling the beginning of WWIII.
  • 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).
  • Counter Spy uses the scale correctly as the overarching threat in the game. Both sides start at Defcon 3, and they go up as you get detected by cameras, allow the guards to radio in after spotting you, or die. If a Defcon is raised again when it's at 1, the game turns into a Timed Mission where the player has to get to the end immediately and shut down the launching nukes. Fail to do this? Game Over!
  • Averted in Kaiju A Gogo. The game correctly counts down to One as your kaiju rampages longer and stronger forces are brought in to try and beat it back.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops, it changes levels correctly at various points within the campaign until the final mission in which it is lowered to Defcon 1. It is also reversed in the zombies level "Five", where the player has to lower the DEFCON rating from 1 to 5 to open the way to the Pack-a-Punch machine.
  • Used more or less correctly in Lemmings, with the level title "We are now at LEMCON One". The title is fine, but the only problem is, this is midway through the Fun levels, and not really very threatening at all.
  • Done correctly in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The Americans go into Defcon 3 when NORAD detects unidentified targets, and move onto Defcon 2 when they're confirmed to be multiple Soviet ICBMs targeting the west coast, and the Americans prepare their own missiles in response.
  • Averted in the Cold War campaign on Rise of Nations, which has a global threat meter that starts at DEFCON 5 and is represented by a meter with one single green light. Any reckless act of aggression will decrease the DEFCON level, represented by your on-screen meter displaying yellow and red lights. When the DEFCON level hits 1, both blocs will be able to launch all the nukes they have, possibly resulting in nobody winning if both sides have enough to wipe out each other.
  • Averted in Tropico 4, where a mission requires you to keep tabs on the DEFCON number. This number goes down if you fail a quest or get hit by ill-intentioned foreign parties, but you can increase it by organizing a Pan-Caribbean Summit among other things. You want to keep the DEFCON level as high as possible, and if you hit DEFCON 1, the world goes to war and you fail the scenario.

    Web Animation 
  • Parodied in the flash cartoon BadGuys, where one of the characters activates an alarm and shouts "Go to Defcon 62!"

  • During a Crossover between the webcomics It's Walky! and Fans!, a strip was originally drawn with this error. When readers pointed this out, the strip was corrected, with a note of thanks added to those who mentioned the error (though it was not included later in the Strip Archive).
  • Used correctly in Freefall. Clippy is known to be carrying several software weapons, so when his owner is trying to calm things down after a near-crisis, he gives the order "We are at DEFCON five. Archive and lock all offensive software."
  • Bug Martini: Nerdbug (correctly) declares Defcon One, to which Bug tries to dramatically apply topical cream.

    Web Original 
  • Unskippable highlights the way that getting it wrong is bad for dramatic tension with more informed players when looking at Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2.
    Paul: (sarcastically) Oooh, Defcon 4. Just so you know, Defcon 4 is not that scary. The US is currently at Defcon 3.
    Graham: Defcon 3 is worse, by the way.
  • The Young Turks have a running gag of mocking people who invoke this trope with the Sarcasm Mode declaration, "Defcon 28 is imminent!"
  • Averted in Zhirinovsky's Russian Empire: DEFCON 1 is used to indicate America is ready to attack the UIS if they try to invade Kosovo.

    Western Animation 
  • In American Dad!, Stan keeps a colour coordinated terror alert system on his fridge, which he'll adjust according to his paranoid delusions.
  • 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."
  • Santa's Workshop gets it right in Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas, of all places. The code for catastrophe is "Elf-Con 1".
  • Code Monkeys gets it right in the episode "Trouble in the Middle East", as a US general explains what they think Khakistan is up to, with every ImpalaVision game console stolen, an animation on the top of the screen correctly goes from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1.
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • 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 threatened to go to DEFCON 6 if California's ban on same-sex marriage was overturned, which if taken at face value meant he intended 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.