How Easily Can Trump Hit the Nuclear Button?

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When so many prominent individuals gather under a single roof, as recently occurred at the Halifax International Security Forum, it is unlikely a newsworthy statement won’t be made. One particular statement by Gen. John Hyten, present commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), had significant implications for the U.S.’s National Command Authority. In response to a question, Gen. Hyten reaffirmed the ability of other individuals to prevent the execution of an illegal order relating to nuclear weapons by the president. Trump’s inauguration was followed by a general increase in public concern over the ability of the president to unilaterally order the use of nuclear weapons. Familiarity with the command structure regulating the use of nuclear weapons by the United States will provide some respite to those who worry over arbitrary orders by the president to fire off a nuclear missile.

When responding to the same question, Gen. Hyten briefly delved into a brief explanation of the command structure regulating the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. His response in effect described a process whereby the president presents the commander of STRATCOM with an order whose implementation could be refused by the commander should it be “illegal” and contravene the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), a key component of international law. In an interview I conducted with a former commander of STRATCOM Gen. Cartwright, the formally structured process regulating interactions between the president and the commander of STRATCOM was outlined in detail.

In short, multiple meetings are organized between the president and relevant individuals (such as the Secretary of Defence and commander of STRATCOM) which present an opportunity for a frank exchange of views. Given the international treaty obligations of the United States, one should expect no less of an official if they reject a proposal by the president, or anyone else for that matter, that would result in the violation of the U.S.’s treaty commitments. It is somewhat sensational to indulge in the metaphorical image of a single man with his finger on the button, but the nightmares arising from such an image are exactly what the command structure regulating the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. seeks to prevent.

Technological developments have advanced nuclear weapons to a point where decisions regarding their use might have to be made in a matter of minutes if certain windows of opportunity are not to be missed. Recall that if the U.S. employs nuclear weapons in a preventive or defensive fashion, it would be completely in line with its standing deterrent posture, which was last outlined by the Nuclear Posture Review.

A scenario where a U.S. president agrees to launch a certain number of, for example, ground based ICBMs because they are being targeted by incoming missiles is quite conceivable, because their deployment would have greater impact when used to retaliate, instead of remaining stagnant. Gen. Hyten reminded us that this still means any individual who fails to resist the execution of an order relating to nuclear weapons which stands in contravention to existing U.S. treaty obligations could go to jail for the rest of their life.

Why Gen. Hyten keeps this is in mind can perhaps be ascribed to the fact that someone in his position would be among the first individuals to go to jail, in the event of an illegal nuclear strike. The commander of STRATCOM is ultimately responsible for operationalizing an order by the president to launch a nuclear strike.

In a system colloquially known as the “two-man rule”, the president must have his decision to initiate a nuclear strike reviewed by the Secretary of Defense (in his or her absence the Under Secretary would assume this responsibility). The S.O.D. then conveys the order to those who execute it. It is important to note that it is constitutionally impossible for anyone but the president to halt a nuclear strike at this point because once the order to execute the strike is conveyed it must be obeyed. Ultimately, a president is logistically prevented from initiating a nuclear strike on his way to lunch.

Many media outers pander to a perceived public appetite for questioning the abilities of Trump as a president, but this is often done in ignorance of constitutional regulations. Greater efforts should be made to dispel the myth of a person with their finger on a button since it simply is neither accurate nor legal. This would allow greater room for public discussion over issues such as accidental nuclear strikes or those caused by human or computer errors. Responding to such launches must still be done in a matter of minutes but in a much more complicated context. It is in such situations where the mental fortitude and cogency on behalf of a president become a decisive factor in determining the fates of a significant portion of mankind.

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