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Empty Quiver

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This will not end well...

"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, being Broken Arrow (which continues the archery theme).

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



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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • A 1970s Richie Rich story has this when he and his father are given a tour and shown a rack of 10 particularly powerful nuclear bombs, but Richie notices to his alarm that he only counts nine...
  • Catwoman: As the culmination of a crime spree, Film Freak steals a nuclear warhead and attempts to detonate it in the middle of Gotham City.
  • In a two-part story in Jon Sable, Freelance, Sable — while investigating something else — stumbles upon a conspiracy involving five nuclear bombs stolen from a U.S. Air Force base. A Middle Eastern terrorist group is planning to have one of the bombs smuggled into the U.N. Building to prove they can get a bomb anywhere, and then use the other four bombs to make demands. However, the right-wing militia group they have allied with for their plan intends to double-cross them: planning to detonate the bomb at the U.N. as a False Flag Operation to cause the U.S. to go to war with the Soviet Union. It falls to a Sable and an undercover agent of the AFOSI (Air Force Office of Special Investigations) to thwart both schemes.
  • In the Diabolik story "Atomic Nightmare", a group of terrorists steal two nukes and uses them to blackmail the State of Clerville into freeing one of their leaders and other imprisoned members and give them a large sum in diamonds, with one detonated on an abandoned oil platform to prove they have indeed the nukes. To make matters worse, the current leader planned to have the freed companions murdered and blame Clerville to justify detonating the second nuke and make the organization that much more feared. Thankfully, Diabolik may be a violent murderer but he doesn't appreciate threatening nuclear annihilation on anyone in general and his turf in particular...

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • James Bond:
    • Thunderball: One of the earlier examples, and possibly the most definite. SPECTRE hijacks two atomic bombs, and holds the major countries of the West to a hefty ransom, threatening to destroy two major cities. It was remade in the '80s as the non-canon Never Say Never Again, which is the same basic plot.
    • Goldfinger: Here, 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.
    • The Spy Who Loved Me: Two nuclear-equipped submarines are stolen in order to start World War III between the US and the USSR, with the plan being to launch missiles at both New York and Moscow and then frame both countries as perpetrators of the other city's destruction.
    • Octopussy: Here, rather than the bomb actually being stolen, a Renegade Russian provides it free of charge as part of his plan to force an American withdrawal from Soviet bases in Western Europe.
    • GoldenEye: The entire plot is set off by the theft of the GoldenEye weapon — a nuclear warhead in orbit, designed to shoot a concentrated EMP at a single target when detonated, rather than making a burst that destroys everything in range of the blast.
    • Tomorrow Never Dies: The cold opening happens at an illegal arms sale, which is soon revealed to include a pair of nukes.
    • 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.
  • The title of Broken Arrow (1996) is the term for a nuclear weapons accident, but it eventually becomes clear that this is only what the thieves wanted people to think. It's actually an Empty Quiver plot.
  • 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: The MacGuffin for which Walker'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: KAOS gets a nuke and threatens to blow up Los Angeles with it.
  • The Soldier: 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 oil fields 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. However, their invasion force manages to steal a nuclear weaponnote , 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.
  • Digital Man revolves around an android Super Soldier who is sent to terminate a group of terrorists who have taken over a strategic nuclear command bunker, then is damaged during evac, causing it to go into permanent kill mode against anything it perceives as a threat. A second group of soldiers is sent to destroy the android before it can access an uplink and submit a nuclear launch code to start World War III.
  • Missile X: The Neutron Bomb Incident begins with the theft of a Soviet warhead.

  • The Executioner: In Wednesday's Wrath, Mack Bolan discovers a plan to rob White Sands of nuclear and chemical weapons during a range demonstration. A Department 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 '80s action/adventure spin-off series of The Executioner, 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 features 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 weapon 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. note 
    • And the whole crisis 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 finds hard to believe, because those aren't something that you just lose.
  • Dirk Pitt Adventures:
    • In Odessa Sea, the bad guys salvage a nuclear bomb from a lost Soviet bomber.
    • Dragon features the rediscovery of an atomic bomb lost on a secret mission at the end of World War II — a planned third attack after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the context of the story, this would make the incident the world's first Broken Arrow.
  • In 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.
  • James Bond:
  • Alex Rider: Although not stolen per se, much of the plot of Skeleton Key centers around General Sarov obtaining black market plutonium to manufacture his own Dirty Bomb, and what he intends to do with the nuke once he has it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This features in literally every other season in 24. Season 8 technically features a Dirty Bomb, though. The terrorists only successfully detonate it in Season 6.
  • 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."
  • Mission: Impossible: In "Countdown", the IMF has to locate a nuclear warhead stolen from a French test site and smuggled into the center of a major city by religious fanatics.
  • A season 8 episode of NCIS titled "Broken Arrow" deals with a long-lost hydrogen bomb that has been discovered by a major company, and the team has to prevent the company's head from selling the nuclear material to terrorists.
    • NCIS: Los Angeles features 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 is called "Empty Quiver" it isn't that hard to guess what was stolen.
    • JAG also has an episode entitled "Empty Quiver", where a nuclear missile disappears during transfer to a submarine. Subverted when it is 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's very likely that all of the sailors involved will never serve on any combat ship again.
  • The New Avengers: In "Obsession", a rogue air force officer steals a rocket to blow up the Houses of Parliament during a state visit by a Middle Eastern statesman.
  • 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.
  • Scorpion: In "Forget Me Nots", the Scorpion team have to recover a stolen 'nuclear football' before it can be used to launch a missile strike on Russia. The fact that realistically the codes contained in "nuclear footballs" are disabled the moment they are declared missing (let alone anything else unrealistic about them in media, such as the "footballs" being some kind of portable computer such as the one in this specific example) is mentioned immediately during the opening briefing, only to get a Hand Wave that the football was disabled, that is why the bad guys required several years of Hollywood Hacking to make it useful again.
  • Seven Days: In "The Football", the title item — a briefcase containing the items the POTUS needs to authorize a nuclear attack — is stolen. A sequence of missile launches and counterattacks begins, the situation that Parker needs to go back in time to avert.

    Tabletop Games 

    Video Games 
  • Nearly every Metal Gear game:
    • Metal Gear doesn't explicitly say where the nukes for the TX-55 came from, although given that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain establishes that the Diamond Dogs have the capability to produce their own nuclear weapons, it's safe to assume that Outer Heaven itself also does.
    • Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake establishes during the backstory that the forces of Zanzibar Land attacked nuclear weapons disposal facilities around the world and took the nukes to use with Metal Gear D.
    • 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: Sons of Liberty: 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: Snake Eater: An 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.
    • Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops: Gene goes rogue and attempts to use a US nuke on the Pentagon.
    • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots: 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.
    • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: Skull Face smuggles metallic archaea (glass plutonium) to craft his own nukes on-site at his Metal Gear. Which is a ruse. Big Boss decides to take the Metal Gear and then kid Liquid and kid Psycho Mantis steal it from them.
  • Modern Warfare:
    • The final act of Call of Duty 4 revolves around the Big Bad hijacking a Russian missile silo, threatening to launch nukes at the US' eastern seaboard if American and British forces do not leave Russian soil. They end up launching when the SAS and Marine Corps launch a joint operation to retake the silo, though they're able to get to a control panel and abort the nukes before they hit.
    • "Contingency" in Modern Warfare 2 involves Task Force 141 hijacking a nuclear-capable Russian submarine, with the apparent intent to stop it before it can launch them at the US, where Russian forces and the US Army Rangers are engaged in heavy fighting. This one launches again, but it turns out to be intentional on Price's part — because he sets it to detonate above Washington, D.C., so the EMP effect will knock out the Russians' armor and air power to give the Rangers an edge.
  • Ghost Recon:
    • Advanced Warfighter involved the president's nuclear football being stolen. The sequel involved two nukes being stolen.
    • A plot point about halfway through Future Soldier involves a nuclear missile that launched from Russia, without the Russian government's authorization. The actual warhead gets disabled by a missile defense system brought up in other "Tom Clancy's" games, but that does nothing to stop the missile itself from impacting a skyscraper in London and killing several people from glass shards and general panic.
  • 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: 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 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.
  • The first mission of the Trooper storyline in Star Wars: The Old Republic revolves around finding and securing a stolen Republic warhead from the Ord Mantell separatists. As it turns out, your legendary squad turned traitor; they gave the warhead to the separatists for safekeeping, until they could retrieve it, and subsequently hand it over to the Empire.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons: In "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming", Sideshow Bob steals a 10-megaton nuclear bomb and uses to hold Springfield hostage, forcing it to shut down all television broadcasts. When he detonates it, it turns out the bomb had decayed beyond use due to Bob picking a nuke constructed back in the '50s.
  • Batman: The Animated Series has the episode "Harlequinade", where the Joker gets his hands on a nuclear bomb from a Gotham Mob Auction of Evil, who in turn had stolen it from a government transport.

    Real Life 
  • In 1956, a B-47E Stratojet carrying two nuclear fissile cores (not complete weapons, just the nuclear part), descended through the clouds at 14,000 feet to refuel. It never made contact with the tanker, vanishing without a trace. To this day, no signs of the aircraft, its cargo, or the crew have ever been discovered.
  • 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, causing a Broken Arrow situation. 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 weapons-grade plutonium.
  • Averted by 42nd President Bill Clinton, who managed to lose the United States launch codes twice. According to Air Force Lt. Col Robert Patterson, in 1998 he requested President Clinton present the card so it could be replaced which led to a manhunt around the White House before Clinton finally admitted that he couldn't remember the last time he saw it. General Hugh Shelton tells a similar story which occurred in 2000, when Pentagon officials were required to inspect the codes but were deferred by his aides for months with the excuse that the President was busy each time. When the time came to finally change the codes, it became apparent that nobody knew where they were.
  • The US has admitted to having 32 broken arrows with 6 nukes never being recovered. Russia has never admitted how many they've lost, but given their relative inefficiency, even when they were the spy masters of the world, and their technological shortcomings means they probably lost as many if they were not many more despite their arsenal being smaller. This might also be true for China today. That being said 32 is only the admitted number and it might be even higher. And nobody has ever admitted to an actual Empty Quiver situation. So sleep well tonight.

Alternative Title(s): Dude Wheres My Nuclear Weapons