The President has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons

On any given day, President Trump can launch 900 nuclear weapons within minutes. Within several days, there are nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons at the president’s disposal. Currently, our nuclear weapons have three different delivery modes consisting of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and bomber-based gravity bombs and cruise missiles.

It is the president’s decision exclusively

The National Security Council is the main decision-making body for the president on national security matters. That is, except when it comes to nuclear weapons. Despite what you may think, there is nothing standing in the way of President Trump’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. This has been true largely since their advent. In 1946, Congress passed a law that provided control of nuclear weapons to civilians, rather than the military. As weapons that have a mainly “political” use rather than kinetic value, it was thought that the decision to use them should rest with the highest civilian authority - the president. Historian Alex Wellerstein has more information in his piece, here.

The process to activate launch

The system that enables the president to launch nuclear weapons is designed for speed. A key component is the “nuclear football,” which in reality is a briefcase that must be within several feet of the president at all times. The football contains targeting plans and the “biscuit,” a special authorization card that verifies the president’s identity when a nuclear launch is ordered.

If and when the president decides to launch nuclear weapons, he will consult with military advisers about targets, which will then dictate which delivery platforms are used to launch the weapons. Once the decisions are made, the Pentagon’s war room notifies the nuclear launch crews of the orders; it is not the crew’s job to question, but to carry out the orders without delay.  This entire process from decision to launch can happen in a matter of mere minutes.

The system is designed for speed

Cold War nuclear doctrine required our nuclear weapons to be put on “high-alert” so that they could be ready to launch immediately. Despite the end of the Cold War, that remains the current posture for land- and sea-based missiles; however,nuclear-armed bombers are no longer ready at a moment’s notice. Regardless of whether this posture ever made sense, today the danger of accidental launch - or even vulnerability to cyber attack to our land-based missiles - is much greater than the potential for an adversary to take out these missiles in an attack.

Once a nuclear weapon is launched, or dropped from an airplane, it cannot be recalled. This has two implications. One, if the president is contemplating using nuclear weapons against an enemy, he must understand that there is no second chance to make a decision. Two, our early warning capabilities must always be accurate so that the president is not launching our nuclear weapons on false information.

Our command and control system is not perfect, which means that the president could be asked to make a decision about launching a nuclear strike based on faulty information. In 1980, middle of the night calls awoke then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzeziński to tell him that nuclear weapons were on their way from the Soviet Union. Just as Brezinksi was about to wake President Carter, who would have had just minutes to determine how to act, he got another call -- false alarm. This is just one of hundreds of examples of declassified stories about nuclear-related errors. The potential for error remains today.

Creating nuclear checks and balances

There are a few ways to add checks and balances to the president’s nuclear launch authority.  

Require congressional authorization.

  • Currently, two identical bills in the House and Senate would require Congress to provide a declaration of war in order to authorize the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons unless it is in response to an attack. H.R. 669 and S. 200 are sponsored by Rep. Ted Lieu and Senator Ed Markey. News stories: Foreign Policy, Fox News, The Hill. Three additional Senators have cosponsored S. 200: Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).  H.R. 669 currently has 21 cosponsors.

  • According to historian Alex Wellerstein, a similar bill was attempted in the 1980s. That legislation would have prevented first-use of nuclear weapons without authorization from certain Congressional committees with jurisdiction over national defense.

Take missiles off high-alert

While making the time between order and launch longer wouldn’t change the president’s legal authority to launch nuclear weapons, it would provide the ability for high-level officials to intervene, question, and push back against a launch order, and potentially change the outcome.