In the wake of the violent mob President Trump sent to storm the Capitol building last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is right to warn her colleagues and the nation about the dangers of “an unhinged president…initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, however, is wrong to assure her that there are checks in place to prevent this. There are not.
As CNN reported, Milley and his staff said there is “no scenario in which a president could just suddenly decide to launch nuclear weapons and have it be legal.” That is absolutely untrue.
Pentagon officials have enormous faith in their abilities and abhor oversight. If a program is over budget and under-performing, they assure us that it is on schedule and all problems will be fixed. If the war in Afghanistan is a disaster, they assure us that we have “turned the corner.” If our nuclear policy is immoral and insane, they assure us that it is legal, necessary, and under control. Members of Congress have strong incentives to accept these assurances rather than challenge the brass to fix the problems — even when the solutions are fairly straightforward.
Richard Nixon understood how easy it was for a madman to press the button. Furious at Congress’s impeachment efforts in 1974, he flouted his power to visiting lawmakers. “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone,” he told them, “and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.” He was right.
Forget all the movies about a conference call with dozens of officials debating the pros and cons of launching nuclear weapons in response to an attack. Forget Pentagon assurances that “[t]here are legal military experts all the way along the chain of command if this were to happen — sitting with the president, sitting with General Milley,” as CNN says it was told, “The U.S. military is not permitted to carry out illegal orders.”
There is no such calm, deliberative process. At best, limited consultations happen if there is an incoming strike and the military calls the president.
But if a president calls the military, as Nixon described, they need not confer with anyone. “The assumption has always been that, given the monumental importance of this decision, the president would consult with advisors,” says MIT’s Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, “However, there is no requirement for him or her to do so.”
The president can simply summon the ever-close military aide carrying the “nuclear football.” They then call the Military Command Center, verify that it is the president by reciting a coded identifier, and order one of the vetted, pre-authorized strike packages in the binder the officer carries with them 24/7.
The Command Center then issues launch orders complete with unlock codes and authentication to the commanders of the chosen delivery systems (land-based missiles, bombers and, submarines) and concurrently notifies other command centers, such as the Strategic Command. Within five minutes of the president’s call, the missiles are flying. They cannot be recalled or destroyed after launch.
“The reason it is so quick, and the reason there is no additional chain of command and no votes,” explains nuclear expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis on his recent podcast, “is that this entire system is structured for the very demanding scenario of launch under attack — the idea that we will see large numbers of Russian missiles coming at us and the president will have to quickly decide to retaliate to make sure that our ICBMS are out of the ground and on their way before the Russian ones get here.”
The flight time of ICBMs is under 30 minutes. By the time they are detected and confirmed, and the president notified, there are under seven minutes left to act. To give presidents every possible second, the launch procedures are designed to be as rapid and unquestioned as possible. “The nuclear command system was designed to speedily enable, not block, such use,” said the late Dr. Bruce Blair, a former Minuteman nuclear missile launch officer.
Military officers are not trained to question the legality or advisability of nuclear strikes. They drill every day to hone automaticity. Air Force Major Harold Hering was relieved of his duties for even asking how he would know if an order were legal. “I assumed there had to be some sort of checks and balances so that one man couldn’t just on a whim order the launch of nuclear weapons,” Hering said in a 2017 interview. “As Hering discovered,” reports The Washington Post, “a president could order an attack all on his own.”
Still, it is not wrong to believe that officers would balk if Trump ordered a massive launch of the approximately 850 nuclear warheads on high alert (of the 1,457 total warheads deployed). Assuming additional forces are not generated, such a strike could launch all 400 Minuteman III ICBMs with one W-88 warhead each and 100 D-5 Trident missiles with four to five W-76 warheads of various yields.
The estimated destructive force of 230 to 300 Megatons (a million tons of TNT) or 15,330 to 20,000 Hiroshima equivalents, would destroy most human life on Earth — even without the inevitable retaliatory strikes from the countries attacked.
If bombers are added, there would be an additional 236 Megatons, according to Dr. Andrew Facini at Harvard University, for 466 to 536 Megatons “ready to go tonight,” as he put it in an email to me.
The president is more likely, however, to order a limited strike — and officers are near certain to comply, particularly if the order came during a crisis.
A likely scenario is a conflict with Iran, initiated by either side. Trump could order a limited strike on the underground enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz. Such strike packages are known to be included in STRATCOM’s nuclear war plan (OPLAN 8010-12), likely delivered by missiles and bombers on one to two dozen targets. These weapons could destroy underground facilities that conventional bombs cannot easily reach. In this case, tens of thousands, not billions, would die.
Such a strike “is procedurally legal. It would require military officers to contravene an authentic, valid and legal order from their Commander-in-Chief,” MIT professor Dr. Vipin Narang tweeted this week. “As senior officers, there is a word for that.”
That word, of course, is mutiny. That is why military officers cannot legally do what Speaker Pelosi wants them to do. Or what Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) asked of Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller in a letter this week: “We are writing to ask you and your combat commanders [to] consider ways to provide a check and balance on the president’s nuclear strike authority in the final days of his presidency.”
They cannot. It would take a “King Slayer” from Game of Thrones to stop this Mad King. That is why it must be at the top of Joe Biden’s agenda to change the obsolete policies that make this nightmare scenario possible.
One, end the first-strike policy so that any order to fire nuclear weapons first is illegal. Two, take weapons off of high alert so that they cannot be launched in minutes, allowing more time for deliberation and reconsideration of launch orders. Three, end the sole authority of any president to start a nuclear war by requiring at the top what we require all the rest of the way down the launch chain: two must agree to launch.
Biden can do these on his own while he works with Congress to eliminate the ICBMs that pose the greatest danger and “negotiates the next phase of reductions” — as Dr. Rose Gottemoeller of Stanford University urges — and cancels all the new weapons Trump ordered. Gottemoeller hopes “there will be a thoroughgoing review of some of these ‘add ons’ and whether we actually need them.”
The instability of the current president has exposed the insanity of the current nuclear policies. If we do not correct them this time, we may not get another chance.