The Nuclear Chain of Command

Donald Trump has been musing about nuclear war since the 1980s, and now he’s bringing our fears to life with his tweets against North Korea. Also, playing the role of a decisive and serious executive, he told the military back in July that he wanted to increase the US’s arsenal of nuclear weapons back to the maximum we had during the Cold War. That seems to have been the trigger for Rex Tillerson to call him a moron. Tillerson wasn’t wrong.

As always with Trump, it’s a good idea to have the facts before us. So here are some.

A president launches nuclear missiles via an electronic briefcase (“the football”) that is always at his side, carried by a service member at the O4-O5 level. That’s a major – lieutenant colonel or lieutenant commander – commander. The services rotate, and both male and female service members have been in this role. One of them made the news back in the spring of this year when he allowed Mar-a-Lago patrons to take selfies with him. Their role is to be unobtrusive and to follow orders.

Some of us have been discussing the chain of command since the election. This article contains a nice graphic that explains how a president would order a nuclear strike. Unfortunately, it’s too big to steal and insert into this post. One of the questions we had was whether the Secretary of Defense is a necessary part of the decision chain. Alex Wellerstein found documents that clearly say no: the President is the sole decider, although he may consult with others.

[BTW, there is no big red button, not on Trump’s desk and not in the football. Launch activation at the missile bases is by two people turning two keys after some other steps.]

Another argument is whether the chain of command is likely to disrupt an order from the President to launch the missiles. This argument depends on assumptions about the military and the President’s advisors. It is unresolvable until the worst happens.

Once the President decides that a nuclear strike is necessary, he uses a communications device inside the football to speak to the Pentagon War Room. The President carries a card (“the biscuit”) with challenge codes that verify who he is. After the order is transmitted, carrying it out is somewhat mechanical, following military rules.

This chain of command for nuclear weapons was developed during the Cold War, for a potential exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had approximately equal numbers of nuclear weapons. Once a launch is detected, there is about a half-hour to respond.

The situation is different with North Korea. They probably have, at most, a few nuclear missiles that can reach the United States. The time to respond is about the same as for the Soviet Union because of orbital mechanics. But there are more decisions to make: How many missiles? Where are they headed? What kind of retaliation is needed – one missile as a signal? Destruction of North Korea? The Soviet – US model of instant response is not appropriate.

Further, Trump’s “fire and fury” and other tweets and statements seem to imply preventive war. Added to that, his emotional instability brings up the question of whether he would order a first strike for spurious or mistaken reasons. Because a nuclear strike at North Korea could result in a much wider nuclear war with Russia or China, we need to think about how that can be stopped.

Once the order has been sent out by the President to the War Room, it’s unlikely it can be stopped. Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov have been cited as stopping the Soviet chain of command’s progression to the use of nuclear weapons, Arkhipov during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Petrov in 1983. Neither man directly countermanded orders, but rather argued against nuclear use and succeeded within the system. The American system no longer has room for such argument, and those in the system have been selected for their willingness to carry out the nuclear order.

So attention has focused on the men around Trump, in particular John Kelly, H. R. McMaster, and James Mattis, former and current generals. There is a story that as President Richard Nixon came closer to impeachment, his aides were concerned about his mental state. Alexander Haig (also a retired general) is said to have told aides to consult with him before taking any action. This history is disputed.

The idea is that Kelly, McMaster, or Mattis would restrain Trump from a disastrous decision to loose the missiles. There is a rumor that the three have a pact that one will always be near him to stop him if necessary. Another rumor (reported in a more positive way than the speculation it is) is that the three have talked about physically restraining Trump if necessary.

It would not surprise me if these rumors were true. I have been wondering about Trump’s volatility and ignorance of nuclear weapons since before he was elected. Without having any confirmation, I am positive that the military people around Trump have thought about them too and have probably discussed them.

Because these three are former or current military officers, restraining an action of the President can be seen as a military coup. We like to think that we don’t do that in America, but my feeling is that if the choice is between a military coup and nuclear destruction, I’ll take the former.

It shouldn’t come to that. Senator Bob Corker said that he fears that Trump could provoke World War III and that other senators, who have remained quiet, share his fear. The best solution would be for Congress to impeach this incompetent and dangerous president. But so far the Republicans look a lot like that command chain, obeying unquestioningly.


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Wiese


Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

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