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Whose Finger(s) Should Be On the Nuclear Button?

Some lawmakers, long averse to declaring war, now seek a say before U.S. atomic weapons fly

Super Hornet Aircraft Carriers 575
The U.S. Navy dispatched the aircraft carriers USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz toward North Korea earlier this month. But it’s fast-moving nuclear weapons, not slow-steaming nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, that have some lawmakers concerned about the presidential finger on the launch button. (Photo: Aaron B. Hicks / US Navy

Did you miss it? It probably happened while you were sleeping: President Trump ordered nukes launched toward North Korea.

Thankfully, they were the USS Nimitz, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Theodore Roosevelt— aircraft carriers crammed with atomic guts dedicated to propulsion, not destruction.

But the president could just as easily order real nuclear weapons rained on Pyongyang—and with a similar lack of oversight—as sending that recent armada into the Sea of Japan to put Kim Jong-un on edge.

That’s why any president’s ability to launch a nuclear attack—and this President’s ability, in particular—has Congress abuzz. “We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if the U.S. is forced to defend itself, Trump told the United Nations in September.

Such language has set Capitol Hill ajitter. “We are concerned that the President of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Nov. 14. “So let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment.”

Better late than never, folks. “It should be the congressional prerogative to declare nuclear war,” declared Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. He and 13 other Senate Democrats want to pass a law requiring any president to obtain a congressional declaration of war before launching a nuclear first strike. But they’re part of a Congress that has steadfastly refused to declare a non-nuclear war following 9/11 that has led to the nation’s longest war, in Afghanistan, declared or otherwise.

It can be confusing to listen to politicians or disarmament advocates discuss a president’s nuclear powers. So it’s clarifying to hear it from a dispassionate expert. “The president does not need the concurrence of either his military advisors or the U.S. Congress to order the launch of nuclear weapons,” Amy Woolf of the Congressional Research Service wrote 23 days after Trump’s election. “In addition, neither the military nor Congress can overrule these orders.”

Gulp.

And Presidents think about these kinds of things. How could they not? Richard Nixon famously unnerved lawmakers amid the growing pressure for his impeachment by raising the issue with a handful of them shortly before he was forced to resign. “I can pick up the phone and 70 million Russians can be killed in 20 minutes,” one recalled him saying.

This new examination comes 41 years after Congress last looked into the issue. And that March 1976 review came 27 years into the superpower rivalry between Washington and Moscow. Funny: it’s now been nearly another 27 years since the end of the Soviet Union, and Congress has been fine letting the nuclear-industrial complex proceed on autopilot. Think about how strange this is: while a Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t lead wholesale changes in the way the U.S. aims and alerts its nukes, Donald Trump might.

The congressional reflex is understandable. Never before has an American president threatened a foe with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” for merely threatening the U.S. Trump’s Pavlovian responses to King Jong-un’s atomic ambitions have driven both nations closer, at least rhetorically, to the world’s first nuclear war. Each leader has encouraged the worse in the other. In Trump’s defense: U.S. aversion to action over North Korea’s relentless push for nuclear weapons during the past quarter-century hasn’t done anything to halt it.

The nightmare scenario—that Trump will awake in the middle of the night and see a taunt from Kim that triggers a U.S. atomic attack—sounds a bit like something out of Dr. Strangelove (although, notably, this time it’s the civilian’s trigger finger that’s itchy, not the military’s).

The nation’s top uniformed nuclear commander, Air Force General John Hyten, said Nov. 18 that he would have no trouble pushing back against what he and his military lawyers deemed to be an unlawful presidential order to launch the nation’s nuclear weapons. “If it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I‘m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal,’” Hyten told a national-security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The U.S. military knows any such order would lead to intense second-guessing—and possibly prison for a general who carried out an illegal order. “If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail,” he said. “You could go to jail for the rest of your life.” But the U.S. military would strive to come up with some form of attack it could justify under U.S. law. “He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’” Hyten explained. “And we’ll come up with options, of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

Except when it is. “The military does not blindly follow orders,” retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who oversaw the nation’s nuclear cupboard from 2011 to 2013, told the foreign relations committee. “That is true of nuclear orders as well…if there is an illegal order presented to the military, the military is obligated to refuse to follow it.”

Would you please define “illegal,” general? He couldn’t. But the U.S. military insists it stands ready to defy what it deems to be an illegal order from any commander-in-chief to launch a nuclear attack. But an illegal order to one general may be legal to another.

However, it’s the Cold War legacy that is the default stance of nuclear warriors: basically, let ‘em rip. “Taking away the president’s authority as commander in chief or diluting it in some respect by requiring him to go to another constitutional officer in a formal sense, I’m not sure that is a wise course,” Brian McKeon, a top political appointee in President Obama’s Pentagon and National Security Council, told lawmakers.

“It has implications for the deterrent, it has implications for the extended deterrent . . . it has implications for our own military men and women,” said Kehler, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Requiring a green light from someone other than the commander-in-chief could lead to “conflicting signals [that] can result in loss of confidence, confusion or paralysis in the operating forces at a critical moment,” he added.

That’s because the entire U.S. nuclear command-and-control system is basically an atomically-powered steamroller designed to flatten any such speed bumps, retired Air Force general and ex-CIA chief Mike Hayden has said. The fantastically expensive system (the Congressional Budget Office estimated last month that commanding and controlling the nation’s strategic nuclear forces will cost close to $1 million an hour through 2046) “is designed for speed and decisiveness,” he noted. “It’s not designed to debate the decision.”

National-security traditionalists point to Trump’s national-security troika as a rein on his actions. But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are not in the chain of command, for nuclear or any other kind of warfare. The links go directly from the Oval Office to the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center, where launch orders would be verified as authentic and sent on to the “delivery vehicles”—the bombers, subs and ICBMs—that would carry out a strategic atomic attack.

All of this, of course, is rooted in a Cold War that ended nearly 30 years ago, when quick decisions and not drawn-out deliberations, were seen as the primary concern. It was that threat of mutually-assured destruction—“use ‘em or loose ‘em” in nukespeak—that required such haste when each nation could wipe out much of the other’s nuclear forces in a first strike in a matter of minutes. But that’s no longer the over-riding issue.

The addition of more nuclear states has sent that onetime binary superpower MAD seesaw shaking and spinning with no clear understanding of how some of the new members of the nuclear club (North Korea today, perhaps Iran tomorrow) view it. This is not a stable long-term nuclear strategy.

As I’ve noted before, there’s a showdown looming. The fight over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is over, and North Korea has won. Pyongyang shows no sign of negotiating them away, and why should it? All that’s left is for the rest of the world to quietly back down, to sit by and wait Kim Jong-un’s demise (in favor of a successor more pliable; no sure bet), or to go to war to wipe out North Korea’s nukes.

Trump and his top aides have repeatedly said that North Korea will not be permitted to threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons. But as Pyongyang presses on, and boasts of its intent to achieve that goal, the options narrow. Trump “is not going to permit this rogue regime, Kim Jong-un, to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon,” McMaster said last month. “And so he is willing to do anything necessary to prevent that from happening.”

“Anything necessary”?

Ships, even nuclear-powered ones like those three carriers, move slowly, unlike nuclear missiles and bombs. The Founding Fathers, aware of the leisurely pace of war in the 18th Century, called on Congress to declare war, ensuring the nation was all-in on such a momentous decision. But, at least as far as nuclear war is concerned, supersonic missiles made such consultation impractical.

Yet, even though the Cold War has faded into history, the hair-trigger finger on the button has not been eased. In fact, the situation has grown worse as Congress and the country has opted to remove itself from the nation’s wars. Now both are reaping the fruit of such selfish standoffishness: a president some don’t trust with his finger—and only his finger—on the U.S. nuclear button.

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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