War Stories

The Finger on the Button

This week, Congress is asking the long overdue question of just how easy it would be for the president to blow up the world on his own.

President Donald Trump leaves the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Jan. 21.

Olivier Doulier - Pool/Getty Images

For the first time in over 40 years, Congress is holding hearings on Tuesday about the president’s authority to launch nuclear weapons. The reasons for the revived interest should be clear.

First, President Trump has threatened to use nuclear weapons, especially against North Korea, in a wider range of scenarios than his predecessors—not just to retaliate against a North Korean first strike or to pre-empt an imminent strike, but simply to prevent Pyongyang from testing or deploying a ballistic missile that has the range to theoretically hit the United States.

Second, Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is holding the hearing, has publicly said that Trump lacks the “stability” or “competence” to be president and has likened his White House to “an adult day-care center.”

This combination—Trump’s drastic rhetoric and his unsuitability for high office—has sparked much of the year’s mounting dread, in and out of Congress. Everyone knows that the president’s powers include the ability to blow up the world, but few have explored—in part because they’d rather not know—the degree to which the president can do this on his own.

One fact that the hearings will bring out, if they are useful and probing, is that while the president can’t launch nuclear weapons entirely on his own, he can do it without consulting or gaining consensus from anybody. His senior advisers—including the “grown-ups in the room,” such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser—play no role in the chain of authority.

Protocols specify that the defense secretary and the national security adviser would be involved in conference calls discussing warnings of an enemy attack, if time permits. But nothing requires these calls to take place or for any senior official to be involved in a decision to launch, whether in retaliation, pre-emption, or just because the president wants to launch.

If the president wants to launch a nuclear attack, he can enter the launch code into the device called a “football,” which is carried by an officer who travels with him everywhere. The code is then transmitted to the officers at the National Military Command Center, who—after confirming its authenticity from the president himself—translate it into a specific launch order, which they send to the combatant centers (the missile silos, submarines, and bomber bases) operated by the U.S. Strategic Command.

It is conceivable that one or some of these officers might obstruct the process, but they are trained to obey an order from the commander in chief, their selection for the job hinges on their tested disposition to follow orders, and those familiar with this small, specialized command believe that the orders will flow smoothly: The keys will be turned, the buttons will be pushed, and the missiles will be launched.

Bruce Blair, a former Air Force launch officer who is now on the research faculty of Princeton University and has conducted many studies of nuclear command control systems, says that ICBMs could be launched one minute after the order is transmitted. Missiles from submarines could be fired within 30 to 60 minutes. (The delay is due to a security protocol requiring subs to surface, so their antennas can receive confirmation of the launch order, before plunging back down underwater and launching.)

Military law requires officers and enlisted personnel to obey “all lawful orders,” and there are debates over whether a preventive or pre-emptive nuclear attack—or even whether a retaliatory nuclear attack against cities, killing millions of noncombatants—is lawful. It is possible that the officers down in the silos and submarines, who have lots of time on their hands, discuss these matters. But Blair, who has raised this line of inquiry with military lawyers, says that they have devised legal justifications for almost any sort of attack that a president might want to launch against a foreign power that possesses nuclear weapons.

There is some logic to giving the president sole authority on this question. Only a half-hour, maybe less, would transpire between the time U.S. early-warning radars detected an enemy missile-launch and the time those missiles hit American soil. The president would have little or no time to consult his advisers, much less Congress.

But this logic doesn’t apply if the president decides to launch a nuclear first strike. Even if the decision were based on intelligence that an enemy is preparing to launch a nuclear strike, the president would likely have hours, possibly days, to deliberate. And of course, if the president wanted to launch a preventive attack—a nuclear strike designed to prevent a foreign power from obtaining or testing ICBMs—a debate could churn on for weeks or months.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey, a member of the committee holding hearings on Tuesday, has drafted a bill requiring the president to obtain a declaration of war from Congress before launching a nuclear first-strike. Markey, a Democrat, has roused 13 co-sponsors in the Senate, though none of them are Republicans, so the bill is likely to go nowhere. This isn’t just a matter of partisan politics; Congress has rarely shown much interest in restraining a president’s war powers, and the power to wage nuclear war is so fraught with existential matters, so enveloped in secrecy, and so blessedly abstract (no one has dropped a nuclear bomb on another country since the end of World War II) that most legislators and their constituents would rather think about something—anything—else.

Markey’s concerns are hardly new. The transcript of the last hearing on this subject, conducted by the House International Relations Committee over a four-day period in March 1976, was titled “First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Preserving Responsible Control.” But the subsequent 41-year span of silence speaks volumes.

In the early-to-mid 1980s, Bruce Blair conducted a beyond-top-secret study of the timeline for a nuclear-launch procedure. As Blair now recalls, it took three years to research and write the report. Just as he finished it, the Pentagon took it away and upgraded its classification so that only the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff could read it. No member of Congress, or even Blair himself, was allowed access. Rep. Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat, scheduled a behind-closed-doors hearing to discuss the report’s contents, but just before the hearing convened Blair’s security clearances were revoked, so he couldn’t testify.

In other words, the military has a stern aversion to discussing this issue with anyone outside the military, including those who have high security clearances, much less before the unwashed public.

Which makes one wonder about this week’s hearing. Three witnesses are scheduled to testify. None of them are currently officials. One of them—retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, who was commander of U.S. Strategic Command from 2011–13—knows a lot. The other two—Peter Feaver and Brian McKeon, respectively former senior Pentagon and NSC officials in the Bush and Obama administrations—know pieces of the story. But they’re almost certain to wave away most questions about launch procedure and certainly any matters of detail, noting that the information is highly classified.

If congressional leaders were really interested in doing something about the danger, they could take a number of paths. Markey’s bill, or something like it, offers one approach. Another step, proposed by many nuclear strategists, would be to get rid of the land-based ICBMs. They are likely to be the targets of a nuclear strike; and because they are vulnerable, a president would have to decide very quickly whether to “use them or lose them.” And once they are launched, they cannot be recalled. By contrast, our fleet of nuclear-missile submarines, because they’re underwater, can’t easily be attacked. And the strategic bombers can take off from runways and loiter in the sky for hours, even be recalled to their bases if the crisis abates. Only the ICBMs, by their very existence, create a precondition of urgency: They undergird the logic of presidential authority because only the president can make a decision so quickly. Without the ICBMs, this requirement of urgency diminishes.

Congress isn’t likely to take this step, either. Tuesday’s hearing, then, can be seen largely as a piece of theater. But it is theater with a point. One key fact that can be affirmed without delving into state secrets is that the president has the authority to launch nuclear weapons on his own say-so. To a generation that has grown up or come to power after the Cold War, amid few worries about the bomb until now, this fact alone could come as a shocker—and given the reason for our revivified nuclear fears, it could confirm and intensity our anxieties about the peevish insecure man with his finger on the button.