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United States military nuclear incident terminology

The United States Armed Forces uses a number of terms to define the magnitude and extent of nuclear incidents.


  • Origin 1
  • Terminology 2
    • Pinnacle 2.1
    • Bent Spear 2.2
    • Broken Arrow 2.3
      • Broken Arrow incidents 2.3.1
    • NUCFLASH 2.4
    • Emergency Disablement 2.5
    • Emergency Evacuation 2.6
    • Empty Quiver 2.7
    • Faded Giant 2.8
    • Dull Sword 2.9
  • In popular culture 3
  • See also 4
  • Notes and references 5
  • External links 6


United States Department of Defense directive 5230.16, Nuclear Accident and Incident Public Affairs (PA) Guidance,[1] Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual 3150.03B Joint Reporting Structure Event and Incident Reporting, and the United States Air Force Operation Reporting System, as set out in Air Force Instruction 10-206[2] detail a number of terms for internally and externally (including press releases) reporting nuclear incidents. They are used by the United States of America, and are neither NATO nor global standards.



Pinnacle is a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff OPREP-3 (Operational Event/Incident Report) reporting flagword used in the United States National Command Authority structure. The term "Pinnacle" denotes an incident of interest to the Major Commands, Department of Defense and National Command Authority, in that it:

  • Generates a higher level of military action
  • Causes a national reaction
  • Affects international relationships
  • Causes immediate widespread coverage in news media
  • Is clearly against the national interest
  • Affects current national policy

All of the following reporting terms are classified Pinnacle, with the exception of Bent Spear, Faded Giant and Dull Sword. AFI 10-206 notes that the flagword Pinnacle may be added to Bent Spear or Faded Giant to expedite reporting to the National Military Command Center (NMCC).

Bent Spear

Bent Spear refers to incidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads, components or vehicles transporting nuclear material that are of significant interest but are not categorized as Pinnacle - Nucflash or Pinnacle - Broken Arrow. Bent Spear incidents include violations or breaches of handling and security regulations.

A recent Bent Spear example is the August 2007 flight of a B-52 bomber from Minot AFB to Barksdale AFB which carried six cruise missiles with live nuclear warheads.[3]

Broken Arrow

Broken Arrow refers to an accidental event that involves nuclear weapons, warheads or components, but which does not create the risk of nuclear war. These include:

  • Accidental or unexplained nuclear detonation.
  • Non-nuclear detonation or burning of a nuclear weapon.
  • Radioactive contamination.
  • Loss in transit of nuclear asset with or without its carrying vehicle.
  • Jettisoning of a nuclear weapon or nuclear component.
  • Public hazard, actual or implied.

Broken Arrow incidents

As of September 2013, the US Department of Defense has officially recognized 32 "Broken Arrow" incidents.[4] Examples of these events include:


Nucflash refers to detonation or possible detonation of a nuclear weapon which creates a risk of an outbreak of nuclear war. Events which may be classified Pinnacle - Nucflash include:

  • Accidental, unauthorized, or unexplained nuclear detonation or possible detonation.
  • Accidental or unauthorized launch of a nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable missile in the direction of, or having the capability to reach, another nuclear-capable country.
  • Unauthorized flight of, or deviation from an approved flight plan by, a nuclear armed or nuclear-capable aircraft with the capability to penetrate the airspace of another nuclear-capable country.
  • Detection of unidentified objects by a missile warning system or interference (experienced by such a system or related communications) that appears threatening and could create a risk of nuclear war.

This term is a report that has the highest precedence in the OPREP-3 reporting structure. All other reporting terms such as Broken Arrow, Empty Quiver, etc., while very important, are secondary to this report. (Reference Air Force Instruction 10-206, dated 4 October 2004)

Emergency Disablement

Emergency Disablement refers to operations involving the emergency destruction of nuclear weapons.

Emergency Evacuation

Emergency Evacuation refers to operations involving the emergency evacuation of nuclear weapons.

Empty Quiver

Empty Quiver refers to the seizure, theft, or loss of a functioning nuclear weapon.

Faded Giant

Faded Giant refers to an event involving a military nuclear reactor or other radiological accident not involving nuclear weapons.

Dull Sword

Dull Sword is the term that describes reports of minor incidents involving nuclear weapons, components or systems, or which could impair their deployment. This could include actions involving vehicles capable of carrying nuclear weapons but with no nuclear weapons on board at the time of the accident. This also is used to report damage or deficiencies with equipment, tools, or diagnostic testers that are designed for use on nuclear weapons or the nuclear weapon release systems of nuclear-capable aircraft.

In popular culture

Several of these terms have, in various forms, entered popular culture.[6] They have not always been used correctly.

  • The John Woo action film Broken Arrow initially involves an apparent "Broken Arrow" event, as the nuclear weapons are supposedly jettisoned in an emergency, but as this is a ruse to steal the weapons, it actually depicts an "Empty Quiver" event by the above definitions. However, the subsequent detonation of one of those weapons constituted a "Broken Arrow" event.
  • "Rogue Spear" is supposedly a means of flagging incidents in which nuclear weapons come under the control of non-governmental groups, but the term is the invention of American thriller writer Tom Clancy, for the computer game Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear in place of "Empty Quiver".
  • In the Tom Clancy novel The Sum of all Fears, the term "Empty Quiver" is used in reference to loss of an Israeli nuclear weapon, which falls into the hands of terrorists which results in a Nuc-Flash.
  • Eric L. Harry's novel Arc Light, uses several of the U.S. nuclear incident terms when the Russians launch a counterforce strike against the United States: the Commander-in-Chief of NORAD orders an "OPREP 3 PINNACLE NUCFLASH 4" be sent to the National Command Authority after the Russian launch was detected, and "OPREP 3 PINNACLE NUDET" was used to report the nuclear detonations as the warheads impacted.
  • In the videogame Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, One of the main characters who goes by the name 'Russman' was formerly involved in a secret government program, designated 'Broken arrow', which was put into effect to cover up evidence of isolated zombie incidents and also to keep information concerning an American nuclear-capable moon base classified. Ironically, the current earth in which he inhabits (in addition to a few other survivors and a world wide population of zombies) was annihilated by three ICBMs launched from the previously mentioned moon base after four time travelers killed the population of American astronaut moon zombies mutated by exposure to Ununpentium and hacked into the base's ICBM launch systems in an attempt to destroy any zombies populations on the earth. This resulted in near-complete annihilation of earth, leaving little more than crumbling remnants of civilization.
  • In the movie We Were Soldiers, during the battle at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley during the Vietnam War, the code phrase "Broken Arrow" was used for calling in all available aircraft for an airstrike, to support a ground unit facing imminent defeat in a battle.
  • In the television series NCIS, an episode features a plot involving a missing nuclear weapon. It is referred to in the episode as a "Broken Arrow" incident (also the name of the episode). The episode implies the warhead was one of the ones lost in the 1956 B-47 disappearance.
  • In a second season episode of NCIS Los Angeles, a nuclear warhead is stolen to attempt to cause a panic about a possible nuclear terrorist attack. The theft is correctly labeled an "Empty Quiver" incident.
  • In the comedy cartoon series Dan vs. (Traffic), Dan steals what appear to be a chemical weapon with radiological components. Elise calls it in correctly as a "Broken Arrow" incident.
  • The TV series JAG featured an episode entitled "Empty Quiver", in which a submarine crew discover that one of their nuclear warheads was missing. The loss is correctly labeled an "Empty Quiver" incident.
  • Several James Bond films (Thunderball, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Octopussy) depict the theft of nuclear weapons.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "DoD Directive 5230.16, "Nuclear Accident and Incident Public Affairs (PA) Guidance", 12/20/1993". Archived from the original on 7 Nov 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-05. 
  2. ^ "Air Force E-Publishing - Home". Retrieved 2010-02-05. 
  3. ^ Warrick, Joby; Pincus, Walter. "Missteps in the Bunker -". Retrieved 2010-02-05. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Palomares Nuclear Weapons Accident: Revised Dose Evaluation Report (Report). Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, United States Air Force. April 2001. Retrieved 2011-06-15.
  6. ^ "Dead Programmer's Cafe". Retrieved 2010-02-05. 

External links

  • Annotated bibliography from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
  • Department of Defense directive 5230.16
  • AFMAN 10-206
  • Taylor's Nuke Site - Broken Arrow Investigations

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