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

In some movies, the phrase "Defcon 5" or Defense Readiness Condition 5 is used to refer to the highest state of alert for the United States Armed Forces.

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 TAKE
  • 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: Conventional warfare is imminent. Armed Forces ready to deploy and engage in less than 6 hours — this is the highest level ever reached in history.note  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 & 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.

  • 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.

    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.

    Films — Animation 
  • 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.
  • Interestingly averted in Inside Out. When Riley's family is at the dinner table and Riley's Anger starts to act out, causing Mr. Anderson to get angry, and his Anger takes it to DEFCON 2, after which another outburst from Riley cues "Putting The Foot Down" (being sent to her room). Further, they don't declare Defcon One when they Put The Foot Down, suggesting his "nuclear option" is more serious.
  • 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 
  • In By Dawn's Early Light, not only does USAF General Renning use the "this is a drill" practice names for Defense Conditions COCKED PISTOL (DEFCON 1) and ROUND HOUSE (DEFCON 3); by going from COCKED PISTOL to ROUND HOUSE on his authority, Renning just ordered the reduction of defense readiness when there are Soviet nuclear missiles actively flying towards the United States at that moment! (Odd also is the board, the drill names are also present upon the prop instead of numbers and DEFCON 5 is named APPLE JACK instead of FADE OUT, DEFCON 4 is named SNOW MAN instead of DOUBLE TAKE, DEFCON 3 is named COCKED PISTOL instead of ROUND HOUSE, DEFCON 2 is ROUND HOUSE instead of FAST PACE, the movie's name for DEFCON 1 isn't named in dialog and not lit up on screen to be visible.)
  • In Canadian Bacon, Defcon 4 means "imminent nuclear attack."
  • The 1985 Canadian post-apocalyptic film Def-Con 4 incorrectly gave Defcon 4 as the highest state of alert.
  • 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.
  • In Independence Day, the president says, "We may need to upgrade to Defcon 3", and does order it in the extended cut, which could either be correct or incorrect. Either way, no one could accuse them of screwing up.
  • Transformers (2007) 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.
  • 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!"
  • WarGames averted this trope, though Word of God thought they had it wrong in the DVD commentary. Includes the memorable line:
    General Beringer: Flush the bombers. Get the subs on launch mode. We are at DEFCON 1.
    • And at the end of the movie, when everyone's cheering and the day has been saved:
      Beringer: Major Lem, take us 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.
  • Averted in The Sum of All Fears. It gives a detailed description of what happens during the escalation to DEFCON 1.
  • Terry Pratchett, unsurprisingly given his background, gets this right in Witches Abroad, writing "Asking someone to repeat a phrase you'd not only heard very clearly but were also exceedingly angry about was around Defcon II in the lexicon of squabble", with the implication that this means they're nearly at the point where it erupts into an all-out row (DEFCON 1).

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Generally averted in Battlestar Galactica (2003). The Colonial Fleet uses Condition One as the highest level of alert readiness. However, in the episode "Pegasus", Adama commits this error after the eponymous battlestar is identified. He orders the fleet to step down to Condition One, when he should have ordered them to step down to Condition Three. Or perhaps step down from Condition One, and it was just a slip up.
  • The Big Bang Theory: In "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.
  • 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!"
  • 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, 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.
  • Parodied in Chuck: "We're at Defcon 1, or 5, or whichever means HURRY!"
  • In Community episode "Basic Intergluteal Numismatics":
    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.
  • Doctor Who: "The Poison Sky" averts it by correctly using DEFCON 1 when UNIT is preparing to launch a nuclear strike at the Sontaran ship. (Although arguably, British UN troops shouldn't be using DEFCON at all.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Michael also has an interesting take on "threat level", as evidenced by his Michael Scarn film "Threat Level: Midnight".
  • Stargate SG-1: In the season 3 episode "Nemesis", the US goes to DEFCON 3 and then raises to DEFCON 2 due to an imminent attack by alien forces. Given the show's strong backing by the Air Force, it's not a surprise that they'd use the DEFCON ratings correctly.
  • Supergirl (2015): In "Solitude," the President orders DEFCON 2 after Indigo launches a US nuclear missile at National City. Normally, this wouldn't be cause for a DEFCON change, since it's a US weapon being misused rather than a military threat from an outside power.
  • 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.
  • 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 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." Even if the scale were 1 to 5 instead of 5 to 1, DEFCON 4 still wouldn't be full alert.
  • The Dutch Hardstyle company Q-Dance has an open-air festival called Defqon 1, spelled with a Q instead of a C, as it is part of their naming gimmick.
  • Megadeth's album "The System Has Failed" opens up with the following news report at the beginning of the first song "Blackmail the Universe":
    This is breaking news. It appears that Air Force One was shot down somewhere over the Middle East this morning by a sleeper cell of rogue terrorists, firing a stinger missile. The pilot and all passengers are all unaccounted for. The President's whereabouts are presently unknown, and he is presumed missing. The Vice President, Secretary of State, and principals of the military are assembling. Our nation stands at DEFCON 3.
  • The Pop Will Eat Itself satirical song "Def. Con. One" suggests that when all hell is breaking loose and we are at the titular status, Americans will still be so blinkered that they’ll be more concerned about their fast food than imminent nuclear war..
    "Gimme Big Mac gimme fries to go!"

  • 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.
  • A conservative radio show host threatened to go to DEFCON 6 if California's ban on same-sex marriage was overturned.

  • 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.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Used correctly in Twilight Struggle. The game starts at DEFCON 5, and various actions can decrease it (while it goes back up one automatically at a handful of points). The lower DEFCON goes, the fewer places you can attempt to attack militarily. If DEFCON ever hits 1, nuclear war begins, and the player whose turn it is loses (even if they didn't play the card that started it - if it's your turn, the end of civilization is on your hands).

    Video Games 
  • Command & Conquer: Yuri's Revenge uses it correctly, with Lt. Eva announcing that the US has entered DEFCON 2. This actually makes sense on another level as well; the U.S. can't technically enter DEFCON 1 because their nuclear arsenal was sabotaged at the beginning of the base game.
  • 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.
  • DEFCON, as one would hope given the name, plays it correctly, starting the game at 5 and inevitably decaying to 1, with progressive changes in gameplay as it ticks down.
  • The title of the 1995 first-person shooter DEFCON 5 plays this straight.
  • In Universe at War, DEFCON is an Epic gamemode where the entire Tech Tree is researched, as opposed to only 3 projects in regular play. It starts at 4 and counts down to 1.
  • Tropico 4 has a mission where you must prevent the DEFCON counter from counting down to 1. Failing quests will decrease it, whereas fulfilling quests and spending money to organize a Pan-Caribbean Summit will increase it.
  • In the Cold War campaign on Rise of Nations, you must not let the DEFCON counter hit 1 — if you do, both sides will launch all their nukes and destroy the world.
  • Wasteland's intro correctly describes the DEFCON status as "1".
  • WarGames Defcon 1, true to its namesake, uses the DEFCON phases in the correct order (descending from 5 to 1) as the mission timer, though whether it uses them correctly is debatable - even at DEFCON 5 it appears things are far from peaceful.

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

    Web Comics 
  • 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. While the actual use is colloquial, using Defcon to describe the general situation rather than the likelihood of nuclear war (which is particularly unlikely given that Planet Jean has quite a low human population and doesn't even seem to have multiple nations), Mr Ishiguro still refers to Defcon 5 in his order that Clippy disable and archive all offensive software weapons.

    Web Original 
  • /pol/ has a semi-humorous bend on this trope called HAPPENINGCON — a measurement of whether something big is unfolding in American and international politics. HAPPENINGCON 5 is "It hasn't even begun", 4 is "You didn't listen", 3 is "You could have prevented this", 2 is "IT'S HAPPENING!", and 1 is "IT HAPPENED".

    Web Videos 
  • Unskippable highlights the way that getting it wrong is bad for dramatic tension with more informed players when looking at 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.
  • Used and corrected in Wolfgang, when Sesh gets annoyed at Pres for not seeming to care that someone left the door open in their supposedly secure bunker.
    Pres: (sarcastically) The door's open, so we're at Defcon 1.
    Sesh: Stop making it sound like I'm overreacting. 1 would be likely nuclear apocalypse. We're at Defcon 4.
    Pres: My apologies. (same tone) The door's open, so we're at Defcon 4.

    Western Animation 

    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.
  • 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.
  • The Weather Channel's TORCON index, which rates the local conditions for tornado development on a scale from 0 to 10. These are in the reverse order compared to the DEFCON scale, with 0 being the least favorable conditions for tornadoes (i.e. business as usual) and 10 being the most severe.