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 ()
Sponsored
Adventure
"These are lands that have been stewarded by indigenous people for thousands of years, and now it's a responsibility of everyone to take that into consideration." @nativesoutdoors / Instagram

Posting Your Hike on Instagram? Now You Can Tag Your Location’s Indigenous Name

By Isabelle Morrison

Public spaces are for everyone, but how we perceive them and interact with them is contextual. Some activists are making their statements on the public canvas all around the world. And it's catching on.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Low water levels in Cape Town's Theewaterskloof dam could be a preview of climate-related droughts to come. Zaian / CC BY-SA 4.0

Groundbreaking Study Shows Limiting Warming to 1.5 Degrees Is Good for the Economy, Too

When politicians refuse to take action on climate change, they often use the economy as an excuse. President Donald Trump, for example, justified his decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement in economic terms.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

5 Reasons Getting USDA Organic Certification Is Really Difficult

As the only government-administered label that addresses farming practices, the organic emblem is vitally important. There literally is no other badge that carries as much weight. USDA certified organic-food sales topped $43 billion in 2016—emphasis on "USDA certified." Ask around at your local farmers market and you're likely to run into a few "all-but-certified" farms (for which there are no statistics). The reason? Organic certification is incredibly difficult. Here's why.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Taz / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

5 Reasons the World Wastes So Much Stuff (and Why It's Not Just the Consumer's Fault)

By Mathy Stanislaus

If you need motivation to skip the straw at lunch today, consider this: Scientists found that even Arctic sea ice—far removed from most major metropolitan areas—is no longer plastic-free. According to Dr. Jeremy Wilkinson of the British Antarctic Survey, "this suggests that microplastics are now ubiquitous within the surface waters of the world's ocean. Nowhere is immune."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics
Dr. Piers Sellers discussed Earth science with actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in April 2016. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / CC BY 2.0

White House Considered Ignoring Climate Science, Internal Memo Reveals

The Trump administration debated whether it should attack or simply ignore federal research on climate change, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Terraced rice field in Yabu-shi, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. cotaro70s / CC BY-ND 2.0

High CO2 Levels Make Rice Less Nutritious, Study Finds

Research published Wednesday in Science Advances found that rice grown with the higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations expected by the end of this century was less nutritious, signaling bad news for the more than two billion people who rely on the grain as their primary food source, a University of Washington (UW) press release published in EurekAlert! Reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at World Bank Group headquarters during Trudeau's first official visit to Washington, DC in March 2016. Franz Mahr / World Bank / CC BY 2.0

236 Civil Society Groups to Justin Trudeau: 'The Time for Investment in New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Is Over'

By Andy Rowell

With just over a week to go until the May 31 deadline set by Kinder Morgan for the Canadian Government to resolve all financial and political issues surrounding its highly controversial Trans Mountain pipeline, some 236 civil society groups from 44 countries have written to Justin Trudeau to tell him to drop his support for the project.

Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline will triple the amount of dirty tar sands being shipped from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A grizzly bear at Montana Grizzly Encounter in Bozeman, MT, a rescue and educational sanctuary. jerseygal2009 / CC BY-ND 2.0

Wyoming Votes to Allow First Grizzly Bear Hunt in 40 Years

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the largest grizzly bear hunt in the lower 48 states, despite opposition from environmental groups, tribal nations and wildlife photographers, The Washington Post reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

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