Quantcast
Popular

Pierre J. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Should the President Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack? In the Age of Trump, Experts Offer an Alternate Plan

By Elliott Negin

More than a million people in Hawaii thought it was time to say their final alohas. A state cellphone alert announced that nuclear missiles were heading their way. "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii," the Jan. 6 text read. "Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill."


Fortunately, it was a false alarm. It turned out that a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee had pushed the wrong button during an early morning shift-change safety drill. At a press conference later that day, Hawaii Gov. David Ige promised that no single person would be able to send such a warning again. The next day, the agency announced it now would require that two people issue an alert.

Good idea. But an even better idea would be to take the same approach to the U.S. nuclear button, the one that President Trump insists is bigger than North Korea's.

In a paper published Wednesday in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, two experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and a University of Maryland national security specialist recommend that U.S. policy require at least two other officials sign off on such a critical decision.

"There's no reason to maintain our current, unnecessarily dangerous policy," said paper co-author Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. "There are viable alternatives that would allow other officials to take part in any decision to use nuclear weapons, whether it's first use or a response to a nuclear attack."

Not Even a 'Stable Genius' is Reassuring Enough

Putting aside the fact that the nuclear button is actually a briefcase that for some reason is called a football, the U.S. president has the sole authority to order the launch of a nuclear weapon, for any reason and at any time. That's terrifying, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office. No one person, not even our current, self-described "stable genius," should have the license to start a nuclear war. As former Defense Sec. William Perry has said, "Certainly a decision that momentous for all of civilization should have the kind of checks and balances on executive powers called for by our Constitution."

President Trump's ignorance about nuclear weapons and his chest-thumping threats to incinerate North Korea have prompted some members of Congress to take action. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last January that would prohibit the president from ordering a first nuclear use without Congress declaring war, and last fall the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the sole authority question for the first time in four decades.

But don't bet on Congress to pass legislation on the matter any time soon. The Markey-Lieu bill does not have the requisite bipartisan support, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who had previously warned that Trump's bellicose rhetoric could put the country "on the path to World War III," told reporters after the Nov. 14 hearing that he did "not see a legislative solution today." Something could happen "over the course of the next several months," he added, "but I don't see it today."

Who'll Be the Next in Line?

A few days after Corker's hearing, Columbia University professors Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman published a proposal to constrain the president's sole authority. They suggest a protocol requiring the secretary of defense and the attorney general to certify the validity and legality of a presidential first-use order. The certification requirement would not apply if the United States were attacked, however, because Betts and Waxman presume it would delay a response.

Gronlund and her co-authors, UCS Global Security Program Co-Director David Wright and University of Maryland School of Public Policy Prof. Steve Fetter, agree that at least two other officials should be involved, but recommend the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, the next two officials in the presidential chain of succession.

Tapping officials from the presidential succession list has three main advantages, Gronlund et al. explain. First, they have political legitimacy. Both are already designated by law to become commander-in-chief and assume authority to order a nuclear attack. Second, they would provide democratic input. Both were elected, and one—the speaker—can act on behalf of Congress. Finally, unlike the defense secretary or the attorney general, they are both independent. The president cannot fire either of them for refusing to follow an order.

Given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency continually tracks the location of the top officials in the line of presidential succession, Gronlund et al. point out, it would be relatively easy to include the vice president and House speaker in the decision-making process and make it possible for them to sign off on a first use order and a retaliatory nuclear launch.

"If the U.S. government is confident that the current system would allow a quick and smooth transfer of launch authority if the commander-in-chief were killed or incapacitated," they write, "it should also be confident that this system would allow a small number of additional officials to affirm a launch decision by the president."

End Hair-Trigger and Declare No First Use

Gronlund and her co-authors recommend two other changes in U.S. nuclear policy that they say would make the world safer. First, they call on the U.S. to take its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) off high alert and eliminate the option of launching them in response to an attack warning.

The policy of keeping U.S. land-based missiles on a hair trigger dates to the Cold War era, when both U.S. and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack on cities and industrial sites as well as on their land-based nuclear missiles and bombers. To ensure that they maintained the capability of responding, both countries kept their land-based nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within minutes to avoid being destroyed on the ground.

Today, even if all U.S. ICBMs were destroyed in their silos, most U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed on submarines, which are virtually undetectable. They are designed to be able to survive a first strike and launch a retaliatory attack.

It is now much more likely that the U.S. would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an erroneous or misinterpreted nuclear-attack warning than an actual incident, the chance of which is extremely remote. Indeed, the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch is frighteningly real. A number of technical glitches and human errors in both Russia and the U.S. over the past few decades have nearly triggered one.

Finally, Gronlund et al. urge the U.S. to embrace a no-first-use policy. The sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons, they write, should be "to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies."

A leaked draft of the soon-to-be released Nuclear Posture Review, however, indicates that the administration plans to permit the use of nuclear weapons under a wider range of circumstances, including "non-nuclear strategic attacks," which presumably would include cyberattacks. To push back on this ill-advised idea, Gronlund and her co-authors urge Congress to pass the aforementioned Markey-Lieu bill requiring Congress to declare war and authorize the use of nuclear weapons as well as a bill introduced by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) last November that simply states: "It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first."

Elliott Negin is a senior writer in the Communications Department at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Related Articles Around the Web
Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
Map of damage to the town of Paradise from the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Heavy Rain Could Trigger Mudslides in Fire-Weary California

Northern California, which is already reeling from the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, is now bracing for heavy rainfall this week.

The forecasted rain could bring much-needed relief for the firefighters battling the Camp Fire in Butte County. However, it could also bring new hazards due to possible ash, mud and debris flows triggered by the rain.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
A Super Scooper firefighting plane makes a water drop during the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore, California this October. David McNew / Greenpeace

What Should We Know About Wildfires in California

By Rolf Skar

The Camp Fire raging in Northern California is now the most devastating and deadly fire in the state's recorded history. Simultaneously, deadly and destructive fires are burning in Southern California, as the Woolsey and Hill fires have engulfed iconic areas of Malibu and West Hills. With dozens dead, hundreds missing and thousands of structures destroyed, our hearts go out to those impacted across the region.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Ambrosia artemisiifolia, common ragweed. PLOS ONE

Allergen Alert: Ragweed Is Spreading to New Regions

By Marlene Cimons

Cristina Stinson never had an allergic reaction to ragweed until after she started working with it. "I think the repeated exposure to the pollen is what did it," she said. It also didn't help that her community is chock-full of it. "There is plenty of ragweed in my neighborhood," she said. "In fact, it grows right outside my door."

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A sperm whale that washed up in Indonesia's Wakatobi National Park had plastic bottles, bags and cups in its belly. @WWF_ID / Kartika Sumolang

13 Pounds of Plastic Found in Dead Sperm Whale

Yet another whale has suffered from plastic pollution. A sperm whale that washed up dead in a national park in Indonesia had nearly 13 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach, park officials told the Associated Press.

Researchers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the park's conservation academy uncovered more than 1,000 other pieces of plastic, including 115 plastic cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, 2 flip-flops and a nylon sack.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
The first smoke from the Camp Fire arrived in Ukiah and turned the daylight red. Bob Dass / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Winds and Wildfires in California: 4 Factors to Watch That Increase Danger

By Brenda Ekwurzel

Before we dive into the science behind the four factors specific to the California Santa Ana winds, let's review the current situation in California and wildfire disaster risks in general.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
A woman stands amidst the ruins of her home following Hurricane Michael; if action isn't taken on climate change, some places could face up to six such disasters at once. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Tropics Could Face Six Climate Disasters at Once by 2100

In a year that saw record-breaking heat waves, record-breaking hurricanes and record-breaking wildfires, it's hard to imagine how the future could look any more like a disaster movie than the present. But that is exactly what researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa have predicted in a study published in Nature Climate Change Monday.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics
Zinke tours Paradise, Calif. Nov. 14 with Governor Jerry Brown and FEMA Administrator Brock Long. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Zinke Blames ‘Radical Environmentalists’ for Historic California Wildfire

In an interview with Breitbart News on Sunday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke blamed "radical environmentalists" for the wildfires that have devastated California in recent weeks, The Huffington Post reported.

"I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years. And you know what? This is on them," he said in the interview.

You can listen to the whole thing here:

The remarks come as California has suffered the deadliest blaze in the state's history. The death toll from the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, has now risen to 79. Around 1,000 people are still listed as missing, and the fire is now 70 percent contained, according to an Associated Press report Monday.

California Governor Jerry Brown blamed climate change in a statement made last weekend.

"Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change, and those who deny that definitely are contributing to the tragedies that we are witnessing and will continue to witness," Brown said.

Regardless, Zinke has remained consistent in pointing the finger at forest management. His current criticisms echo his remarks following other fires this August, in which he said the increasingly frequent and violent blazes were the result of inadequate forest management, and not climate change. He continued in that vein during Sunday's interview:

"In many cases, it's these radical environmentalists who want nature to take its course. We have dead and dying timber. We can manage it using best science, best practices. But to let this devastation go on year after year after year is unacceptable, it's not going to happen. The president is absolutely engaged."

President Donald Trump has indeed vehemently blamed forest mismanagement ever since the recent batch of fires broke out, even threatening at one point to withhold federal funding if the forests weren't managed properly. During a visit to California Saturday to survey damage, Trump brought up forest management again, suggesting that the problem in California was that the forests were not raked enough.

"You look at other countries where they do it differently, and it's a whole different story," he said, as CNN reported. "I was with the president of Finland, and he said: 'We have a much different [sic] ..., we're a forest nation.' And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem," he added.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, however, told a Finnish newspaper he did not recall suggesting raking to Trump.

"I mentioned [to] him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network," he said.

Finnish people have taken to Twitter to poke fun at the U.S. President's statement using the hashtag "Raking America Great Again."

Despite Trump and Zinke's criticisms, the fact remains that the federal government controls almost 60 percent of the forests in California while the state controls only three percent. Paradise was surrounded by federal, not state, forests. Further, the fires in Southern California spread in suburban and urban areas, The Huffington Post reported.

Some think the emphasis put by Zinke and Trump on forest management is not about preventing fires at all but rather an attempt to justify opening more public forests to private logging interests.

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with land managers, private landowners, university staff, and the media about federal forestry and land management at Boise State University on June 2, 2017. USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Animals
Dolphin found with a bullet wound in California's Manhattan Beach. Marine Animal Rescue / Facebook

'Senseless Killing': Dolphin Found Shot Dead on California Beach

How could anyone shoot a dolphin? A dolphin that washed up dead in Manhattan Beach, California died from a bullet wound, according to local animal rescue workers.

Earlier this month, Peter Wallerstein, the founder of Marine Animal Rescue, responded to a call about a stranded dolphin on the surf, according to NBC News. By the time he arrived at the scene, the marine mammal was dead.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!