No President Should Have Absolute Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons

January 17, 2017 | 11:42 am
David Wright
Former Contributor

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 The reasons behind it are now outdated.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.