No President Should Have Absolute Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | January 17, 2017, 11:42 am EDT
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After Donald Trump takes the oath of office later this week, he will be given the codes that allow him to order the launch of nuclear weapons.

At that point, Mr. Trump will inherit a deeply flawed system: one that gives sole and absolute authority to the president to launch US nuclear weapons—and that can put extreme time pressure on him to make that decision.

Minunteman III missile (Source: Dept. of Defense)

Minunteman III missile (Source: Dept. of Defense)

One of the narratives that arose during the presidential campaign was that a Trump finger on the nuclear button would increase the risk of nuclear war because he is seen as impulsive and unpredictable.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, the public seemed shocked to learn that the US president has the authority to decide—on his or her own, for whatever reason—to launch nuclear weapons, and that no one has the authority to veto that decision. There are military and political experts in advisory roles, but the final authority rests just with the president.

It’s time to change that policy. The reasons behind it are now outdated.

On at least one occasion White House officials were worried enough about the mental state of the president that they tried to insert roadblocks in the way of a potential launch decision.

That was in 1974, late in the Nixon administration. US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger grew concerned that President Nixon still had control of US nuclear weapons despite the fact that the Watergate crisis had rendered him depressed, emotionally unstable, and drinking heavily. Schlesinger instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to route “any emergency order coming from the president”—such as a nuclear launch order—through him first.

Why are things set up this way?

The main reason for giving the president launch authority was the concern that a decision to launch a nuclear strike might need to be made very quickly.

During the Cold War, officials feared the Soviet Union might attempt a disarming first strike against US nuclear weapons. The US response was to build warning sensors and create options to launch land-based missiles very quickly on warning of an attack—so-called “launch under attack” options—before the Soviet missiles could land and destroy US missiles in their silos.

To do this, the US put its missiles on hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within a matter of minutes if US sensors warn of an incoming Russian attack. This system gives the president only about 10 minutes to decide whether to launch these missiles. False alarms have plagued the system in the past—leading to the risk of an accidental or mistaken launch.

Because of this extreme time pressure, the system was designed so that the launch decision—arguably the biggest decision in history—is made by a single person, the president.

And this Cold War system is still with us today.

The football. (Source: Smithsonian Inst.)

The football. (Source: Smithsonian Inst.)

Everywhere President Trump goes, he will be followed by a military officer carrying a briefcase (called the “football”) containing everything he would need to order a launch within minutes, including secure communications equipment and descriptions of nuclear attack options.

Of course, the president could also order a nuclear launch even if there was no incoming attack. And no one has the authority to stop him from doing so.

Outdated and dangerous

Today, however, the military sees a surprise attack as extremely unlikely. More importantly, it has confidence in the survivability of US nuclear missiles based on submarines at sea, which carry more than half the US deployed arsenal of nuclear weapons. Since these forces are not vulnerable to a first strike, retaliation—and therefore deterrence—does not depend on launching quickly (if it ever did).

This fact allows several important changes in US policy.

First, it means the US can take its land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert and eliminate options for launching on warning of attack.

Presidents Obama and Bush both called for an end to hair-trigger alert, but didn’t change the current system. This one sensible change would significantly reduce one of biggest nuclear threats to the US public by eliminating the risk of a mistaken launch, which would almost certainly lead to a retaliatory strike. We have argued strongly that the current practice is dangerous and have repeatedly called on President Obama to remove US missiles from hair-trigger alert.

President Trump should make this happen. His recent statements show he is interested in working with Russia to reduce the nuclear threat. Putin may agree to take Russia’s missiles off alert, since he knows that weaknesses in Russia’s early warning system increase the risk of a mistaken Russian nuclear launch. But Mr. Trump should not give Mr. Putin a veto over taking this step: if Russia drags its feet, the US should not wait to act.

Second, it means that a launch decision does not have to be made within a few minutes, allowing time for more than one person to be involved in making launch decisions.

Removing this time pressure eliminates the rationale for giving the president the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. Instead, the United States can establish a process to involve others in any decision to use nuclear weapons.

Requiring a decision to be made by even a relatively small group of people—say, the president, vice-president, speaker of the House, and secretaries of State and Defense—would prevent a single person from making an irrational or impulsive decision, but would still involve a small enough group to be manageable in a crisis.

Some members of Congress and outside experts have argued over the years (and most recently) that any first-use of nuclear weapons (as distinct from the launch of a retaliatory nuclear strike) should require a declaration of war by Congress. Thus, a decision to use nuclear weapons—except in response to a nuclear attack—would require the approval of elected officials and would not be solely up to the president.

People were right to feel shocked when they learned that this potentially civilization-ending authority is in the hands of one person.

The current system must be changed—no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office.

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  • The ‘deeply flawed system’ this fool is refering to is Article II, Section 1, Clause 1 of the Constitution: The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. First-use obviously requires a Congressional war declaration. The power to return fire when strikes against us have been launched does not.

  • “Putin may agree to take Russia’s missiles off alert, since he knows that weaknesses in Russia’s early warning system increase the risk of a mistaken Russian nuclear launch. But Mr. Trump should not give Mr. Putin a veto over taking this step: if Russia drags its feet, the US should not wait to act.”

    I think this misconstrues how the Russians think about nuclear weapons. The US under Obama sought to marginalise the role of nuclear forces under NPR-2010, and Obama embraced global zero at Prague in 2009. Yes, of course he maintained credible nuclear deterrent forces under the 2013 Nuclear Employment concept, but he made clear that this would be the case in Prague. In contrast, the Russians have steadily been placing greater reliance on nuclear forces, and continue to do so, even though they are engaged in rapid conventional military modernisation (whether that can last will be up to the state of their economy). If you look at Russian nuclear doctrine, force posture and signalling, nuclear weapons are not weapons without military utility – they are tools of strategy and power. They are integrated with non-nuclear pre-strategic nuclear forces that the Russians are deploying and demonstrating – Kalibr NK from ships in the Caspian, and dual-role Iskanders into Kaliningrad. Putin is quite happy to make implicit or explicit nuclear threats, and use nuclear forces to shape Phase Zero in an on-going confrontation with NATO in an effort to coerce NATO into backing down in a future Article V crisis. He’s using nuclear forces as a shield, whilst their conventional forces become the sword.

    So, to me the notion that he’ll take his ICBMs off alert is non-sensical. Its the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces that are the basis of Russian nuclear strength. Russian Navy SSBN forces are in a much more parlous state, and the Russian Air Force only has about 15 Tu-160s available until the Tu-160M2 production begins in the 2020s. The ICBMs are key to their deterrence capability. Furthermore, those weaknesses in Russian early warning actually work the other way – they would encourage the Russians to maintain a high alert, and go with big MIRVed missiles like the RS-28 Sarmat as well as mobile missiles like the SS-27 Yars. Those are not going off alert.

    You suggest if the Russians say no to de-alerting the US should go ahead anyhow. Then we get into the question of whether a Dyad is more credible than a Triad? The US bomber leg of the Triad is not that strong – only 15 nuclear combat coded B-2s and I believe around 50 B-52Hs. The latter cannot penetrate, so must rely on ALCMs (but the global zero proponents want to scrap LRSO – so that would mean the B-52s cannot do the nuclear mission either). That leaves only 15 B-2s to do penetration or deliver ALCMs, and Russian or Chinese counter-stealth systems are getting better. One of the reasons why the US is now looking at Penetrating Counter Air under its Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan is because they are not confident the B-2s can reach deep into China. The B-21 may be more effective, but they are some way off.

    So if we de-alert the ICBMs we are left with the subs, and a few bombers. In the meantime, the Russians are rapidly modernising their road-mobile ICBMs, allowing them a quick strike option that could take out the ICBMs and maybe the bombers, plus do decapitation with the RS-28 Sarmat equipped with Yu-71 HGVs that can evade the rather paltry and ineffective national missile defence interceptors in Alaska and California. That leaves the subs, not all of which will be at sea at any one time.

    This all sounds very Dr Strangelove, but the reality is that we are no longer in a stable 1990s world anymore. We are back in a dangerous confrontation with the Russians, and they are prepared to rattle nuclear sabres. I think it would be better to build in ways to ensure greater confidence in command and control and prevent inadvertent launches without taking forces off alert. Taking ICBMs off alert just makes our forces more vulnerable, so that in a major crisis – perhaps over the Baltics – where the escalation potential is high – the US deterrent is weakened.

    Key point – this is no longer about arms control, or disarmament and achieving global zero. That died when Putin began using nuclear threats to intimidate NATO after Crimea. Achieving global zero is a far off dream, and we have to get through the current nightmare of a renewed tension with Moscow first. Its now about classical nuclear strategy – ensuring our deterrent works so the Russians don’t act in a manner we don’t want them to. Making ourselves more vulnerable does not achieve that goal.

    • dwrightucsusa

      Thanks for your comment. Russia may see its nuclear weapons as key to its strength, but that does not require them to be on day-to-day alert. Some Russian experts believe that in fact Russia already keeps its forces on lower day-to-day alert because of concerns about its warning system.

      The US keeps eight to 10 nuclear subs at sea at any time, each carrying about 100 warheads of very high accuracy. So the 800 to 1000 survivable warheads at sea represent about half the deployed US nuclear arsenal. That is more than enough to deter a Russian attack, especially since the missiles Russia would have launched in this attack would no longer need to be attacked by US missiles and would free up those missiles for other targets. Deterrence does not rely on whether the ICBMs are on alert.