Clarifying Command on US Nuclear Weapons

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Here’s a terrifying prospect: President Donald Trump with his finger on the nuclear button. This erratic narcissist with little knowledge of the world and, according to his former ghost writer, an attention span of five minutes, with the power to set off a nuclear war.  This seems unlikely to come about now, with Trump trailing in the polls, but the election is some way off and it cannot be ruled out.

However, the thought of this raises another question: should any individual have this power? At the moment there is no intermediary restraint between an American president deciding to give the order and the launching of missiles and nuclear bombers.

This goes against the spirit of the American Constitution. The framers of the Constitution gave the President the authority to conduct foreign policy, albeit with a few checks (the Senate has to ratify treaties and ambassadorial appointments). But they decided that the decision to declare war is so momentous that no individual should be allowed to take this decision; only Congress can declare war. This clause in the Constitution is a dead letter. Congress has not declared war since 1941, but presidents have sent Americans into battle many  times,  beginning with Korea and Vietnam.

The President now has the power to unleash the most destructive war in history. He (or she) can do it at a few moments’ notice; that’s why a man always accompanies the President wherever he goes carrying the famous “football,” containing the nuclear codes that must accompany any such order.
During President Nixon’s last weeks in power he seemed to be behaving erratically, and senior cabinet members told the military chiefs privately that they should ignore any sudden command from Nixon unless it was confirmed by the Secretaries of State and Defence. This was illegal; indeed one of those involved said years later that it amounted to a coup. But it was wise.

Surely some machinery can be found to diffuse this responsibility. One can envisage a small committee of congress members ready to assemble at short notice in a time of crisis, so that any decision on the deployment or release of nuclear weapons would have to  be a collective decision by elected representatives. This would be in the spirit of the Constitution

But this raises the larger question of the nuclear alert. Weapons are being kept on alert status; the missiles are ready to be launched within minutes, aircraft are on the runways ready to take off carrying their nuclear bombs.

This is a relic of the Cold War, the time when a sudden nuclear attack on America, wiping out its nuclear weapons force was deemed to be a possibility. This was wildly unlikely then: no one could launch an attack to destroy America’s arsenal and prevent a terrible response with a high degree of certainty. It is even more unlikely now.

The football is unnecessary. A sudden nuclear attack out of the blue while the President is in the bath is not going to happen.

Russian and American former generals have joined with others to say that de-alerting weapons is   the most urgent arms control measure. The present situation leaves room for accidents, or miscalculations. There have been false alarms. Zbigniew Brezinski, when he was President Carter’s National Security Advisor, was woken in the middle of the night and told that radar stations showed a mass of Soviet missiles on their way to America and due to land in 15 minutes. A few minutes later he received another call telling that this was a mistake. Brenznski said later that the few minutes between those two calls were the worst moments of his life.

Another time a Norwegian rocket that was part of a weather forecasting system showed up on Soviet radar screens as a missile headed for Moscow. The Soviet military chiefs decided not to act on the warning. It turned out that the Norwegians had told the Russians about the rocket in advance, in `accordance with established procedure’ but the message was not passed on. Machines and humans are both fallible.

If something like this happened during a time of crisis, the result might be different. The President might feel impelled to act on it immediately. There are endless possibilities for miscalculation, mistaking a warning signal for an attack, or misinterpreting the other side’s moves in some other way. Was the dropping of one nuclear bomb, or the launching one missile, the start of an attack or just a warning, a “shot across the bows.”

Then there is the danger of an unauthorised launch. During the Cuba missile crisis, the Soviet High Command ordered the commanders of nuclear missiles stationed in Cuba not to use them without permission. But they had no physical control over them, and no means of ensuring that if the Americans invaded Cuba, which seemed likely at one time, some Soviet commanders under pressure would not use them.

American battlefield nuclear weapons, like other nuclear weapons, are locked, but in a crisis they might be unlocked, and the power to use them would be devolved to the commander on the spot.

De-alerting weapons would remove the pressure to take a decision within minutes. Samuel Johnson said famously: “When a man knows that he is going to be hanged, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” But this is not true. Psychological experiments and experience show that at a time of stress and anxiety, people are less likely to behave rationally.

It would be better to have a committee decide the fate of the world rather than one individual. It would also be better if they had more than fifteen minutes to reach a decision. So long as these weapons exist, we will be living in a dangerous world. We can do things to make it a little less dangerous.

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About the author(s)...
  • Norman Moss is author of a number of well-regarded books on nuclear weapons and international affairs, whilst working as a journalist for Reuters, the Daily Mail, the Today programme on Radio 4, and other BBC outlets.
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