Time to revise nuclear launch policy
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This week for the first time since 1976, Congress will hold a hearing on the “executive’s authority to use nuclear weapons.” The Nov. 14 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing is a long-overdue conversation that should prompt changes in outdated Cold War-era policies that give the president sole authority to make decisions in a matter of minutes that could result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.

Continuing to vest such destructive power in the hands of one person is undemocratic, irresponsible, unnecessary and increasingly untenable.

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Today, the United States and Russia each deploy massive strategic nuclear arsenals, approximately 1,550 bombs on each side. These arsenals are far in excess of what it would take to decimate the other and far more that is required to deter a nuclear attack. 

Worse still, each side maintains a significant portion of its land and sea-based missile forces on a prompt launch posture to guard against a “disarming” first strike and retains the option to use nuclear weapons first. 

As a result, today, there are roughly 800 U.S. nuclear warheads – all of which are far more powerful than the weapons that destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 – that can be launched within about 10 minutes of an order by the president and the president alone. Congress currently has no say in the matter. 

Cavalier and reckless statements from President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE about nuclear weapons have heightened fears about a system that puts the authority to launch nuclear weapons in his hands alone. 

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyNet neutrality supporters predict tough court battle over FCC's repeal plan Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Driverless car bill hits Senate speed bump MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) reintroduced their "Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017" earlier this year. That bill would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.

Defenders of the status quo argue that altering the current system would deprive the president the needed flexibility to respond quickly in a crisis, including by using nuclear weapons first in response to a non-nuclear attack, and undermine the credibility of deterrence.

But these claims ignore the fact that throughout the history of the nuclear age, there have been several incidents in which false signals of an attack have prompted U.S. and Russia officials to consider, in the dead of the night and under the pressure of time, launching nuclear weapons in retaliation.

The reality is that this “launch-under-attack” policy is unnecessary because U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor. 

In addition, retaining the option to use nuclear weapons first is unnecessarily risky. Given the overwhelming conventional military edge of the United States and its allies, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with Russia or North Korea, the first use of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would likely trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal nuclear exchange.

As then-Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenOvernight Tech: FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Google pulls YouTube from Amazon devices | Biden scolds social media firms over transparency Medicaid funds shouldn't be used to subsidize state taxes on health care Biden hits social media firms over lack of transparency MORE put it earlier this year, “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense.”  

For these and other reasons, the Congress and the executive branch can and should take steps that move us away from today's dangerous, quick launch posture and increase transparency about the enormous consequences of nuclear use. Congress should explore practical options such as:

  • Requiring that a decision to use nuclear weapons be made by more than one person. This could include the president, vice president, secretaries of state and defense, and perhaps one or more designated members of Congress, such as the speaker of the House or Senate majority leader.
     
  • Eliminating the requirement to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles under attack, which would increase the time available to consider the possible use of nuclear weapons in retaliation to a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. 
     
  • Demanding more information from the Pentagon on U.S. nuclear war plans, including targeting data, attack options, damage expectancy requirements, estimated civilian casualties, and more, which is currently not shared with members of Congress.
  • Declaring that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack.

This week’s Senate hearing should be the beginning and not the end of an overdue re-examination of nuclear decision making, and the prudence of putting the fate of millions in the hands of one person.

Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director and Kingston Reif is the disarmament and threat reduction policy director of the independent, non-partisan Arms Control Association.