WASHINGTON – Here is a question rarely raised before Donald Trump ran for the White House: If the president ordered a pre-emptive nuclear attack, no one could stop him?
The answer is no.
Not of the Congress. Not his secretary of defense. And by the design, not the military officers, who would have the duty to execute the order.
As Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and an expert in the field of nuclear command and control, has it, “The protocol for the ordering of the use of nuclear weapons, every president with civilization-the end of power.” Trump, which he wrote in the Washington Post column last summer “is unchecked authority to order a preventive nuclear attack against a nation he wants with a single verbal in the direction of the Pentagon war room.”
Or, as the then Vice-President Dick Cheney declared in December 2008, the president “could launch a kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He does not need to check with everyone. He does not need to make a call to the Congress. He does not need to check with the court.”
And the world has changed more in the ten years since, with North Korea which have a greater and more immediate nuclear threat than had seemed possible. The nature of the AMERICAN political world has changed, too, and Trump’s opponents, even within his own party — question whether he has too much power over nuclear weapons.
This reality will converge Tuesday in the Senate hearing room where the Foreign Relations Committee, under the leadership of one of the strongest Asset of the Republican critics, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee — hear testimony from a former commander of the Pentagon’s nuclear war-fighting command, and other witnesses. The topic: “the Power to order the use of nuclear weapons.”
Corker said many lawmakers have raised questions about the legislative and the presidential war-making authorities, and the use of America’s nuclear arsenal.
“This discussion is long overdue,” Corker said in the announcement of the hearing.
Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at Stevens Institute of Technology, who has researched and written extensively on the presidential nuclear authority, said that he hopes that the discussion “might shed more light on aspects of the procedures for the presidential use of nuclear weapons, I think that it is really necessary to be known and spoken about.”
He said that the AMERICAN system has evolved through tradition and precedent in the law.
“The technology of the bomb itself does not force this kind of arrangement,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange. “This is a product of the circumstances. I think that the circumstances in which the system was created, and the world in which we now live, are sufficiently different that we can and perhaps need to think about the revision of the system.”
Asked about this Monday, in a spontaneous exchange at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was reluctant to describe his role in the nuclear attack on the decision-making process. “I am the president’s principal adviser on the use of force,” he said. Asked whether he was familiar with the system as it exists, ” he said, “I am”, but did not elaborate.
Some aspects of the presidential nuclear war-powers are secret, and therefore not well understood by the public. The system is built for fast decision making, no debate. That is because the speed is of crucial importance in a crisis with a nuclear peer as Russia. In contrast to North Korea, Russia has enough nuclear weapons to the united states to destroy in a few minutes.
Russia’s long-range missiles can reach the U.S. in about 30 minutes. Submarine launched missiles fired from closer to the AMERICAN coast, could come in half that time. Given the fact that some of the U.S. response time would be taken up by the administrative steps, the president would have less than 10 minutes to absorb the information, and the options and making his decision, according to a December 2016 report of the nuclear weapons specialist Amy Woolf of the Congressional Research Service.
A president who decided to launch a nuclear attack or in retaliation for a nuclear attack or in anticipation of a — for the first time, would hold an urgent meeting with the minister of defense, the Joint chiefs of staff chairman, and other consultants. The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, now air force Gen. John Hyten, would brief the president on the attack, and the president would make his decision.
The president would communicate his decision and sends his consent by a device called the nuclear football, a briefcase carried by a military aid. It is equipped with communication tools and a book with prepared war plans.
If the president decided to strike, he would identify himself to military officials of the Pentagon with codes unique to him. These codes are recorded on a card which is known as the cookies that is worn by the president at all times. He would then send the launch to the Pentagon and Strategic Command.
Blair, the former missile launch officer, said: there is no way to reverse the president of the order. And there would be no calls missiles once launched.
Although drafted and assigned for use by the military, the nuclear bomb is by nature a political weapon, given the almost unimaginable destructive capacity. That explains why the system for controlling the use of U.S. nuclear weapons is designed to concentrate decision-making power in the ultimate political office: the presidency.