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Empty Quiver
"I don't know what's scarier, losing nuclear weapons, or that it happens so often there's actually a TERM for it."
Giles Prentice, Broken Arrow

Nukes are very powerful things, capable of doing untold damage in the wrong hands. So of course, when a nuke shows up in fiction, you can just bet it will end up in the wrong hands.

The trope name comes from a US military code phrase, meaning any situation involving the theft or seizure of a functioning nuclear weapon. The accidental loss of a nuclear weapon is also included in this trope, though the military uses a different code phrase for it (Broken Arrow).

See also Artistic License - Nuclear Physics and A Nuclear Error.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

     Anime & Manga  

    Comics 

    Film 

  • James Bond:
    • Thunderball - one of the earlier examples. The original novel version might be the earliest example, making this the Trope Maker. It was remade in the 80's as the non-canon Never Say Never Again, which is the same basic plot.
    • Goldfinger (in the original novel by Ian Fleming) the warhead of a Corporal Intermediate Range Guided Missile is stolen (in exchange for a million dollar bribe) so Goldfinger can blast open the vault of Fort Knox. Supposedly it's one of the new 'clean' warheads with little fallout.
      • In the film version it's inverted, the bomb is a purposely 'dirty' one and is meant to contaminate the gold as any that survives the blast would be radioactive for decades. Thus causing a massive financial panic making Goldfinger's own gold reserves multiply in value instantly, but also causing chaos and upheaval on behalf of the Chinese Communists who supplied the nuke.
    • Octopussy - although it's a rogue Soviet General providing the bomb free of charge.
    • The World Is Not Enough: A nuclear weapon is stolen, but instead of being detonated, it's made into a dud. The other half of the plutonium is used to create an improvised bomb by forcing a nuclear submarine to have a meltdown..
  • John Woo's Broken Arrow - the title of the film is the term for a nuclear weapons accident which they tried to portray it as to cover up the real plot. However Broken Arrow does sound cooler.
    • The use is correct at first: Broken Arrow refers to an accidental event that involves the loss of nuclear weapons, warheads or components, but which does not create the risk of nuclear war. Like the jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component from a crashing aircraft. Once it becomes clear that the accident was actually part of a plot by the Big Bad to steal the warheads and use them on US soil, then it's an Empty Quiver.
  • Used in Austin Powers International Man of Mystery:
    Dr. Evil: Shit. Oh hell, let's just do what we always do. Hijack some nuclear weapons and hold the world hostage. Yeah? Good! Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that a breakaway Russian Republic called Kreplachistan will be transferring a nuclear warhead to the United Nations in a few days. Here's the plan. We get the warhead and we hold the world ransom for... one million dollars!
  • Outland. Although not a plot point, the temporary disappearance of some nuclear detonators is used to highlight the apathy and incompetence of the company police on the space-mining colony.
    Sgt. Montone: We're talking about nuclear detonators here. You don't just 'lose' them and then 'find' them again. You lose your comb and then find it, but not nuclear detonators.
  • Frantic (1988). The MacGuffin for which Harrison Ford's wife is kidnapped turns out to be a krytron — a small electronic switch used in ICBM separation or the detonators of nuclear devices.
  • Get Smart, in the 2008 movie, when KAOS gets a nuke and threatens to blow up Los Angeles with it.
  • The Soldier (1982). A Renegade Russian KGB agent steals plutonium and uses it to make an atomic bomb to blackmail the United States by threatening to detonate it in the Saudi oilfields unless the US forces Israel off the West Bank. The Heroes R Us group takes over an ICBM (using plans and equipment prepared by the CIA in case the President went insane and ordered a nuclear strike — a case of being literally Crazy-Prepared) and get the KGB Big Bad to back off by threatening to launch on Moscow.
  • Whiteout. Murder is committed over the cargo of a Soviet plane downed during the Cold War. However what everyone assumes to be nuclear material actually turns out to be uncut diamonds.
  • The Peacemaker: A shipment of Russian warheads scheduled to be decommissioned is stolen and the theft is covered up by detonating one of them on-site.
  • In Stargate, the nuke O'Neil brings along ends up in Ra's possession.
  • The Mouse That Roared has a tiny European nation declare war on America, hoping to be quickly defeated and then have their economy boosted by America's post-war help. Except their invasion force manages to steal a nuclear weapon, forcing America to surrender.
  • G.I. Joe: Retaliation opens with the Joes being sent to stop the theft of a nuclear warhead from Pakistan. The mission goes wrong and the warhead ends up in the hands of COBRA.
  • The Made-for-TV Movie Royce has a top-secret elite group known as Black Hole being disbanded after the end of the Cold War and the reduced need for their services. The titular character (played by James Belushi) is happy to retire, until he learns that the rest of the team are angry at losing their jobs and feel betrayed by their government after many years of service. They hatch a plot to intercept and steal a number of Ukrainian nuclear weapons in the process of being handed over to Russia. Royce decides to stop them.

    Literature 

  • In Wednesday's Wrath, Mack Bolan discovers a plan to rob White Sands of nuclear & chemical weapons during a range demonstration. A Dept of Defense strategist had become obsessed with an "unbeatable" war game he'd developed involving a similar scenario, and when his superiors told him to drop the matter decided to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Phoenix Force (an '80's action/adventure spin-off series of Mack Bolan, written by Gar Wilson) novel The Fury Bombs.
  • The first few Track novels by Jerry Ahern are based around a neo-Nazi plot to use a hundred stolen nuclear weapons to blackmail the world.
  • From Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears:
    • The novel featured an air-dropped Israeli nuclear weapon lost during the Yom Kippur War, later found in a Druze farmer's field in Syria, and refurbished with the help of an East German scientist. The movie doesn't get as detailed about it.
      • According to the movie, the weapons is US-made and secretly given to Israel, but the plane carrying it crashes. This is confirmed when Ryan asks a member of the cleanup crew if he can tell where the nuclear material came from. The man recognizes the signature pretty quickly and can even narrow it down to a specific reactor.
    • And the whole crises is made worse because the CIA had been getting some disinformation from one of their spies in the USSR indicating that that they had "lost" some of their nukes: something Jack Ryan found hard to believe, because those aren't something that you just lose.
  • The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean. The villains steal the latest mini-nuke from the United States, and plan to use it to destroy all evidence and witnesses after their robbery of a gold shipment. Though why they don't just sell the nuke...
  • Three nukes are the weapons of mass destruction that are claimed to have been stolen by terrorists in John Ringo's Unto the Breach, to the US president, instead of the actual theft, due to the sensitive nature of the stolen material. Not really a subversion, though, as the reader is aware from the start about the real WMD that's been stolen, as the theft scene is at the very beginning of the book.
  • The original Ian Fleming novel on which Thunderball is based is probably the first and most definite example of the trope. It is, however, subverted in that the nuke in question is British (while the code is American), and the terrorists attempt to portray it as an accident, that is, a "Broken Arrow" situation, instead of "Empty Quiver".

     Live Action TV  

  • 24 - Literally every other season. Though Season 8 was technically a dirty bomb. The terrorists only successfully detonate it in Season 6 though.
  • Doctor Who, in both Battlefield and "World War Three".
  • The Professionals. A white supremacist group steals enough plutonium to make an atomic bomb in "Stakeout".
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E. reunion movie "The Fifteen Years Later Affair."
    "You may consider your organization as having come of age, Mr. Kemp. THRUSH is now a nuclear power."
  • A season 8 episode of NCIS titled "Broken Arrow" dealt with a long lost hydrogen bomb that had been discovered by a major company, and the team had to prevent the company's head from selling the nuclear material to terrorists.
    • NCIS: Los Angeles had a nuke stolen in order to make billions, as even the possibility of a nuclear explosion would send the stock exchange into a nosedive, allowing the bad guys to cash in. Since the episode was called "Empty Quiver" it wasn't that hard to guess what was stolen.
    • JAG also had an episode entitled "Empty Quiver" where a nuclear missile disappeared during transfer to a submarine. Subverted when it was discovered that, through a series of minor missteps (including a short blackout due to transferring to ship's power), the missile was ejected into the harbor. JAG investigator Sturgis Turner notes that while it was an accident, it was very likely all of the sailors involved would never serve on any combat ship again.
  • A less dramatic version was in an episode of the Australian series Police Rescue — a motor accident involving a lab courier leads to a vial of radioactive material going missing. It turns out a kid has stolen it, and the protagonists are able to track him down in time to stop him breaking it open to see what's inside.

     Tabletop Games 

     Video Games  

  • Every Metal Gear Solid game:
    • Metal Gear Solid: FOXHOUND hijacks Metal Gear REX with the threat of firing its railgun-launched nuke if their ransom demands aren't met.
    • Metal Gear Solid 2: Dead Cell steal Arsenal Gear with the intent of detonating its experimental nuke in the air over Wall Street, destroying The Patriots' information network there.
    • Metal Gear Solid 3: American defector delivers a tactical nuke to a GRU Colonel. He test-fires it on his own troops at the end of the first act. There's also The Shagohod, but that's not stolen.
    • Metal Gear Solid 4: Ocelot retrieves REX's forgotten railgun and its armed nuke to destroy The Patriots orbital command satellite.
    • Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker has the nuke 'legally' owned by the villains. It's then Kaz who steals it and attaches it to ZEKE to use as MSF's deterrent, and since we all know where Big Boss ended up...
  • The Modern Warfare series thrives on this concept.
  • Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter involved the president's nuclear football being stolen. The sequel involved two nukes being stolen.
  • Wild ARMs 2 has a situation like this, where the leader of one country excavates an ancient nuke in order to intimidate the absurdly powerful terrorist organization that's currently running amok all over the planet. Three guesses as to who ends up swiping the nuke and whether or not it actually gets used.
  • In Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars's Nod campaign, Act III revolves around a combination of this, an Alien Invasion, and Kane living. Note that the theft is accomplished in two parts: first, hijacking the warheads by force using the aforementioned alien invasion as cover and then pretending to team up with the local GDI garrison against the aliens while secretly stealing the launch codes. And then you get to nuke (a GDI base near) Sydney.
  • Mass Effect 1 has a minor mission where you track down a probe the Alliance sent out during the First Contact War, that had been equipped with a nuclear warhead. It turns out to have been stolen by terrorists.
    • In the third game, there's also the turian bomb on Tuchanka that Cerberus uncovers and tries to detonate.

     Real Life  

  • This website has a list of nuclear bombs which are believed to have been lost at sea.
  • In 1966, a B-52G collided with its KC-135 refueller off the southern coast of Spain, the KC-135 exploding and the B-52 breaking up. Of the four nuclear weapons being carried at the time by the bomber, three dropped on land near the fishing village of Palomares, Spain, and the remaining one fell in the Mediterranean Sea. All four devices were eventually recovered, though the conventional explosives of two of the three that fell on land detonated, contaminating the area with weapon grade plutonium.
  • Note that all above examples are technically cases of a Broken Arrow, because the losses of nuclear devices were accidental. Empty Quiver denotes an intentional theft, and there is no confirmed cases of such an event wherever it might be.


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alternative title(s): Dude Wheres My Nuclear Weapons
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