“The whole point of U.S. nuclear weapons control is to make sure that the president – and only the president – can use them if and whenever he decides to do so,” said Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in an article published on 1 December 2016. As presidents and circumstances change, it is important to understand presidential authority and legislation as they relate to nuclear weapons. DomPrep Welcomes Your Feedback To This Flash Poll, Preparedness and Resilience For A Nuclear Incident (POLL CLOSED)
On 6 August 2016, during the presidential campaign, some 50 national security officials who had served in former republican administrations signed an open letter declaring that Donald Trump has “dangerous qualities” for someone in command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Expressing similar concern, in late January 2017, the staff of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the so-called “Doomsday Clock” forward 30 seconds to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. A primary reason for the decision to move the clock was Trump’s “disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons.” This change signals that the global risk of a nuclear catastrophe is greater now than it has been since 1953, when the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) began testing hydrogen bombs.
Several key steps are required in order to launch a nuclear strike. The nuclear “Football” – resembling a large, black, leather briefcase – contains the launch codes for nuclear weapons and must remain close to the commander in chief, with his authentication codes (known as the “Biscuit”), wherever he goes. Once the president’s identity is confirmed, the Football enables him to communicate with the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center, which is responsible for generating Emergency Action Messages to nuclear launch control centers, nuclear submarines, reconnaissance aircraft, and battlefield commanders worldwide.
Under the War Powers Act of 1973, presidents have been given expanded power and authority to trigger a nuclear attack – even without a declaration of war or congressional authorization. The Act recognizes that, in the nuclear age, the president is not required to consult Congress before responding to an attack on the United States, or its territories, possessions, or armed forces; nor is he required to do so when considering the possibility of initiating a nuclear strike against a nuclear-armed adversary perhaps to pre-empt an imminent nuclear attack.
Restricting Nuclear Use
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) has expressed concern that inflammatory rhetoric heightens the risk of war, “No human being should have sole authority to initiate unprovoked nuclear war.” In an attempt to address this problem, the senator joined U.S. Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) in introducing the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 (S.200 and H.R. 669) on 24 January 2017. This would prevent a president from conducting a nuclear weapons attack before determining that the enemy has first launched a nuclear strike against the United States or one if its allies.
Similarly, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in November 2017 he wants to have hearings to explore the “realities of this system” that grants a president sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, whether responding to a nuclear attack or not, with no way to revoke it. Previously, at a 30 October 2017 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he asked Defense Secretary James Mattis whether the president should be able to launch a first strike against another nuclear-armed country about to attack the United States without consulting Congress. Mattis stated that a pre-emptive strike ordered by the president would be essential in this case because there would be no time to get Congress into the operational loop. But other members of Congress argued that key Congressional leaders should be given a chance to advise the president in situations where he is considering the option of ordering a U.S. retaliatory nuclear strike.
John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, warned in a commentary on 30 November 2017, “The Constitution does grant to Congress the power to declare war, but it is unclear whether a law that significantly constrained the president’s nuclear command authority . . . would be constitutional.” Moreover, legislation to change the nuclear chain of command could result in dangerous consequences, such as causing U.S. allies and adversaries to question whether the United States would be able to respond rapidly with its nuclear forces during a nuclear crisis.
The Status of Nuclear Decisions
Nearly a year after his inauguration, Trump has earned the trust of some former critics by not mishandling his nuclear launch responsibilities and not triggering an unwanted nuclear exchange. However, his behavior, actions, and statements remain unpredictable. Although this is not the best way to exercise the solid and stable leadership required to properly handle the highly classified contents hidden in the Football, Trump has admitted that “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” It is now more important to consider the policies and procedures needed to make critical decisions like nuclear launch orders rather than focus on off-the-cuff remarks under pre-election circumstances.
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Jerome H. Kahan
Jerome H. Kahan is an independent analyst with over 40 years of experience in national and homeland security, having held senior positions in the State Department, including the Policy Planning Staff and Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. He has also worked with various research organizations, including senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. He has written or contributed to books and articles, taught as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the International Institute of Strategic Studies. He has a master’s degree from Columbia University in electrical engineering.