The U.S. Senate has opened hearings into the question of American nuclear command and control. Unnerved by President Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric toward North Korea, Sen. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyWarren, Bush offer bill to give HHS power to impose eviction moratorium Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Six Democrats blast Energy Department's uranium reserve pitch MORE (D-Mass.) has warned that “under existing laws the president of the United States can start a nuclear war without provocation, without consultation and without warning.” He and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have proposed a bill preventing any first use of U.S. nuclear weapons without the permission of Congress.
So far, however, the hearings have done little to clarify the problem of nuclear first use and may even be adding to the confusion among Americans about the command and control of nuclear weapons. When asked, for example, if a president’s order to use nuclear weapons could be stopped, Gen. Robert Kehler, the former commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, noted that officers are not bound to follow illegal orders.
What does all this mean? First, consider what happens if a president decides to use nuclear weapons. Contrary to the dramatic scenes in movies, the president cannot grab a phone or push a button. In any scenario involving the potential use of nuclear weapons, the president would confer with the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other military advisors, likely selected by the president, to discuss options. Obviously, in a retaliation scenario, this discussion would be quite truncated and have to happen quickly.
Following that conference, the president would have to contact the Pentagon and identify himself using the codes that identify him as the sole authority to release nuclear weapons. If he chooses a nuclear option, that order would be transmitted to the Pentagon and U.S. Strategic Command. From Strategic Command, orders for specific strikes are then sent to America’s strategic nuclear forces in the Air Force and the Navy for execution.
The reality here is that, no matter what generals or professors say, Sen. Markey is right. If a president, as Richard Nixon once said, wants to leave the room and kill 20 million people, theoretically, he can do it. What Kehler and Feaver and others are describing are what they hope will be anomalies, in which people refuse to carry out their orders, in effect defeating the system and preventing it from doing what its Cold War creators designed it to do in order to act quickly, should the United States find itself under immediate nuclear attack.
In fairness, human beings are not robots, and so it may well be that an unhinged president will encounter a defense secretary, for example, who will refuse to contact the Pentagon or assist with the order to go nuclear. In that case, however, nothing in the Constitution prevents a president from firing that official and appointing another person in the room as the acting secretary.
Think of it as a kind of nuclear version of Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which the president fires enough people until someone carries out his commands. If Strategic Command puts the brakes on the launch order, it will be countermanding a presidential order, in effect betting that resistance will later be regarded as the admirable refusal to follow an illegal order rather than mutiny. (Kehler, for example, noted that legal issues like proportionality could rear their heads, if raised by senior commanders.) At that moment, billions of lives will hang in the balance, starting with the life of the general on the phone who says, “I’m not going to do that, sir.”
The simplest change, of course, would be to pass a law prohibiting the first use of nuclear weapons at all, which would solve this problem. Critics, however, would argue that there are times when maintaining stable deterrence, and not only against rogue states, might require that the United States retain the right to resort to nuclear weapons in its own defense or that of its allies. This, in fact, was NATO’s stated position for its entire history and is still central to its deterrent message.
An interim answer is to enlarge the circle of decision-makers who must agree on the use of nuclear arms. Americans, however, should be cognizant of some risks, even if the solutions make the public feel more secure. First, such a change will limit the power of a president to make nuclear threats. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether one thinks nuclear threats are useful or if they work. Second, our response should we be attacked “from the blue” might be slowed. This is so unlikely as to be almost not worth discussing, but it is nonetheless true that the more people involved, the more cumbersome the procedure.
Finally, we risk removing some of the mystery surrounding our response. Transparency is not always a good thing. Deterrence, as Thomas Schelling once wrote, rests on “the threat that leaves something to chance.” The more complex and bureaucratic the process, the less the enemy must fear the resolve of a single leader and instead can hope for a weak link in the chain of command.
Whether we need to hold on to the right of first use is an argument for another day. (The authors, as national security professionals and participants in this debate, do not even agree among ourselves on this issue.) But with or without first use, there must be a better answer than to leave the authority to use nuclear arms, except in the dire circumstances of responding to a nuclear attack on the United States, in the hands of one person. The Senate hearings are a long overdue reconsideration of this crucial issue.
Tom Nichols is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. Follow him on Twitter @RadioFreeTom. Dana Struckman, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, is associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. On active duty, he commanded a U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile squadron at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The views expressed are solely those of the authors.