Trump and the Nuclear Football: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
What’s scarier: the thought that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un may be able to blow up a major American city with the press of a button, or that President Donald Trump has full authority to do the same to any place in the world? While I’m more worried about the former, plenty of people -- see here and here and here -- think the latter possibility demands a radical rethinking of how the U.S. might go about launching an apocalyptic, or even “tactical,” nuclear weapon strike.
While Trump may have given the discussion new urgency, it goes way back. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson assured the nation that “an elaborate system of checks and counter‐checks, procedural and mechanical, guard against unauthorized nuclear bursts.” (Curiously, this was during a presidential campaign in which his opponent, Barry Goldwater -- whom Democrats were portraying as an unstable warmonger -- advocated taking away the president’s unilateral authority to launch a strike.)
To get some perspective on the issue, I talked this week with someone whose entire adult life has been steeped in it: Bruce G. Blair. While he’s currently at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Blair is perhaps best known as a co-founder of Global Zero, a nonprofit group advocating total abolition of nuclear weapons that has teamed up with not only the expected nonproliferation types but also Republican lions such as former Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and James Baker. He was also a longtime senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and served on the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board from 2011 to 2017.
But what makes Blair so vital to this debate, in my mind at least, is that in the early 1970s he was an launch-control officer at the Great Plains bases hosting the Air Force’s nuclear-tipped Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. In other words, an integral cog in the process that could bring about armageddon. Here is an edited transcript of our discussion:
Tobin Harshaw: Before we get into the new debate, let's briefly discuss the current protocol, because I think many people are unclear as to whether the president could execute a nuclear attack accidentally or with no safeguards within the military. How, in a nutshell, would the process work if the president decided to initiate a strike?
Bruce G. Blair: The protocol calls for the president to be connected to about a dozen top military and civilian advisers, either in person (as in the Situation Room beneath the White House) or by secure phone. The main talker is the 4-star head of U.S. Strategic Forces, who explains the available options (e.g. a nuclear strike plan against North Korea hitting 80 aimpoints, mostly nuclear forces and associated facilities) and their consequences. The president may or may not ask others for their advice before picking one. If the conference was prompted by indications of an incoming nuclear attack, then the briefing of the president may not last longer than half a minute, and he may have no more than six minutes to “deliberate.” If the question at hand is whether to order a first strike, then the discussions could be drawn out for hours or days.
The Pentagon “war room,” headed by a 1-star officer (the officer on duty may be a notch lower in rank, as happened on the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks), is listening during the exchange, and will require the president to provide a valid identification code (the “biscuit” or Gold Code, which by the way several presidents including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have misplaced for significant periods) before formatting and transmitting a launch order (the length of a tweet, containing unlock codes and special authorization codes strictly in the possession of the military) to the executing submarine, land-based missile or bomber crews.
TH: So there is a level of Pentagon oversight for the president’s actions?
BGB: The war room’s job is to quickly execute the president’s order. It only has a couple of minutes to send out the “go code.” No one else -- not even the secretary of defense, who is nominally a “national command authority” along with the president -- plays an active role. No one else need approve the order or confirm that it came from the president prior to its dissemination and implementation. Trump’s top advisers may not be in the loop at all. The president decides whom to consult, besides himself.
It’s all over in minutes. Once the launch order is sent, missiles begin flying out of their silos in the Plains states a minute or two later, and missiles leave their tubes on submarines about 15 minutes later. None can be recalled.
TH: Has this system changed since the days when you were a "missileer"?
BGB: The protocol has not changed in any major way, but I should mention that all presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan (Kennedy straddled the issue) signed secret instructions delegating nuclear release authority to a raft of generals, in the event that the protocol broke down under attack. This pre-delegation was rolled back at the end of the Cold War. Whether Trump has signed any such “letters of last resort” in light of growing tensions with Russia is an open question.
Also, different presidents had different ideas about who in the civilian chain of succession should be given the “biscuit.” Under Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden had a military aide who carried around a briefcase (the so-called “football”) and doubtless also possessed his own “biscuit” for emergency use. Carter allowed Vice President Walter Mondale to carry a “biscuit,” but he withheld such codes from all other successors except possibly the secretary of defense. Standard procedure under plans to maintain the continuity of government during a nuclear war also designates a “sole survivor” from the Cabinet who is protected and equipped to assume nuclear command if Washington is decapitated.
TH: How did your experience in the missile silos inform your current views and vision of "global zero"? Were there any close calls in terms of an unintended nuclear war when you were there? Or at other times historically?
BGB: There were myriad risks of nuclear use run every day -- risks of unauthorized or accidental use, mistaken launch on false intelligence or warning, and crises that escalate out of control. Launching on warning that an enemy strike is underway became an acute concern of mine after the U.S. adopted this policy (notwithstanding the government’s denials) in the early 1970s, followed by the Soviets in the 1980s. This posed a serious risk of launch on false warning, which nearly happened a couple of times on both sides. This policy intensified the protocol’s deadlines and danger of a hasty launch decision, a fear illustrated by a 1979 false alarm in which Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was seconds away from waking Carter at 3 a.m. to tell him an all-out Soviet attack was underway and an immediate retaliatory decision was needed.
TH: And your experience?
BGB: During my stint, there was one false alarm (in 1973) that put the entire U.S. strategic force on the brink of launch. There were other flabbergasting human mistakes such as the time that an exercise message calling for a large-scale attack was erroneously re-transmitted as an actual launch message.
There are still today hundreds of incidents every year involving U.S. nuclear forces, and now there are nine countries operating nuclear arsenals, and thus nine fallible nuclear monarchs (although Israel’s leader appears to require approval from the security council to use nukes). Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping -- any of them is perfectly capable making a terribly bad call with nukes. Most these countries are also far inferior to the U.S. in safety and security standards. Pakistan’s weapons, for instance, are accidents waiting to happen. And terrorists are trying to get their hands on them.
I used to devote all my efforts to reducing the risks, for instance by pressing for the elimination of “quick-launch” procedures, but 10 years ago realized that the risks will remain unacceptably high unless the world’s arsenals are completely eliminated. I became convinced that if we fail to achieve global zero in our lifetimes, then their use during our lifetime is inevitable. I was not alone in this belief, and quickly enlisted the support of hundreds of world leaders including most of Reagan’s top security officials to back the movement for Global Zero.
TH: OK, let's jump to today. For about the last year, there has been much discussion in the press and political sphere of putting more safeguards into the process, and even taking away some of the president's unilateral authority. Do you think it's any accident this conversation started up about the time Donald Trump became a viable presidential candidate?
BGB: Efforts to reform the checklist-driven launch “protocol” began long ago. (All the nuclear operations from top to bottom of the nuclear chain of command are driven by checklists.) I and Senator Sam Nunn and others decades ago warned that it allowed too little warning and decision time for any president to reach a rational decision whether and how to use nuclear weapons. The protocol literally railroads him into this when under an apparent attack.
By the same token, it enables the president to railroad the process into executing a decision that may be ill-advised, impetuous, and reckless. It is true that Trump’s candidacy and election threw a spotlight on this particular deficiency and inspired many to seek new ways to strengthen safeguards on nuclear decision-making. At other times in our history steps have been quietly taken by insiders to insulate the protocol from rash presidential orders -- as when Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger instructed the Pentagon war room to check with them first before carrying out any orders from President Richard Nixon.
Now it’s all out in the open, and a long-overdue debate has begun about the danger of having a nuclear monarch in the Oval Office. Trump is Exhibit A, because of his character and history. Under the military’s personnel reliability rules, he would never be eligible to have access to nuclear weapons if he were subjected to them.
TH: Do you share the concerns that any changes made now might unnecessarily tie the hands of more experienced, less mercurial presidents down the road?
BGB: Not at all. All presidents, no matter how calm, rational and seasoned they may normally seem, have their moments of poor judgment and emotionally charged decision making, and I cannot think of a situation that cries out more for more consultation and more time and information than one in which the first or second use of nukes is under consideration.
TH: Some alternative proposals, including one in a much-discussed New York Times op-ed article this week, would have Congress pass a law to ensure that its leaders, as well as perhaps top generals and Pentagon civilians, were part of the decision-making process. But might this be dangerously slow and cumbersome in the event of a "clear and present" existential threat?
BGB: The established emergency protocol in practice already involves these generals and Pentagon leaders, as well as many other senior officials -- even though their participation has not been legislated and could be altered at any time by a sitting president. Nobody has complained that it is too sluggish or that it even precludes launch-on-warning during the 15- or 30-minute flight times of enemy missiles.
In my view, the entire process needs to be slowed down and made more consensual, especially in the case of an apparent imminent existential threat that may be too easily misinterpreted by one all-powerful person, who may too quickly seize upon nuclear weapons as the solution.
In fact, I have yet to find any such threat that warrants the first use of nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive, much less preventive strike. No one has ever put forward a persuasive case for using U.S. nukes first in light of the marginal benefits, the alternative non-nuclear means at our disposal, and the large costs and risks that nuclear use would end in large-scale catastrophe for everyone. In most scenarios, using nukes first also violates the laws of war and the United Nations charter. The exception that self-defense would necessitate a pre-emptive strike against an enemy committed to attack us is bound to require careful assessment. We should not want any one person to render this judgment and have the power to enforce it, especially one lacking in experience and knowledge in international security affairs.
TH: If a plan along those lines emerged, whom do you think should be involved in the collective decision?
BGB: The president and the vice president should approve the second use of nuclear weapons in situations of confirmed nuclear attack against the U.S. If the nuclear command and control system collapses under attack and cannot be reconstituted with these authorities in command, then the protocol should allow reliable and fairly rapid devolution down the chain of succession until the next two successors can be installed.
For situations involving first use of U.S. nuclear weapons, a consensus of six individuals should be required -- the president, vice-president, speaker of the House, Senate leader (pro tem), national security advisor and secretary of defense. The first four in that order represent the legal chain of presidential succession, and involve senior congressional as well as executive branch officials to provide balance and broad political legitimacy.
TH: There is no consensus among experts as to whether such an abrogation of executive power would be constitutional. Indeed, of the two constitutional law professors Bloomberg View has on its columnist roster, Stephen L. Carter of Yale is "skeptical" that it would pass muster, while Noah Feldman of Harvard tells me it's well within Congress's authority to regulate the use of force. I know you're not a law professor, but as both a nonproliferation expert and former officer who swore an oath to the commander in chief, how do you see it?
BGB: I and all U.S. military officers swore an oath to defend the Constitution. Perhaps because this document stipulates in Article 2 that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces, the oath implies fealty to the president. But the oath certainly explicitly refers to the Constitution, which in turn gives Congress (Article 1) the right to declare war. I will let the lawyers brawl over whether strengthening safeguards on nuclear decision-making runs afoul of the Constitution. Personally, I would never today swear an oath to obey the nuclear orders of this president unless he were subject to firm checks and balances. Trump is unfit to be commander in chief and he himself poses a clear and present existential threat to the Republic.
TH: There have been a number problems involving the Great Plains bases that host the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, including officers cheating on proficiency tests, a nuclear-tipped cruise missile accidentally loaded onto a B-52 flying from North Dakota to Louisiana, and press reports that the three bases were forced to share a single wrench necessary to attach a warhead. How bad are things and what needs to be done?
BGB: Things had gotten really bad. I keep in touch with launch officers who recently served, and am told that life and work are better -- less micromanagement, relief from testing hell, cleaned-up facilities, better equipment, etc. And sense of mission has increased in view of deteriorating relations with Russia and loggerheads with North Korea. Nuclear war is back in the air after nearly three decades, and senior officials are showing their nuclear bare knuckles. Notwithstanding the image painted by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis of the missile forces sponging up enemy warheads (not a mission anyone can lovingly embrace), this newfound attention boosts the crews’ morale, even if it represents a setback in reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international relations.
Still, the forces are aging and the Air Force will never value the missile crews the way it reveres airplanes. The sacred cows in the Air Force today are the new bomber, new tanker and new fighter. Silo-based missiles may get a reprieve for awhile but they are on the chopping block and no one entering the Air Force can imagine a strong career in missiles for the next 30 years. This is not a recipe for sustaining high morale. It’s no wonder that the vast majority of missile launch officers are drafted involuntarily into the assignment.
TH: Last, and more broadly, President Barack Obama won a Nobel Prize for his work on your shared vision of a world without nuclear arms. Not only didn't he make much progress over eight years, he approved a "modernization" of the U.S. arsenal that could cost up to $1 trillion. Do you feel let down by his legacy?
BGB: President Obama nailed the vision and the oratory, but he failed to give marching orders to his bureaucracy to devise a serious plan leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons. So of course the bureaucrats did what they do best: turn good proposals into mush and preserve the status quo at all costs. Obama’s lack of strong governance in this arena is illustrated by his 2013 nuclear-employment guidance, which missed the boat for eliminating launch-on-warning, rejecting the first use of nuclear weapons, and abjuring the war-fighting strategy that continues today to dominate the work of U.S. targeteers. In fact, the guidance boosted the aim of destroying the nuclear forces of Russia, China and North Korea in wartime. Obama’s policies have done nothing to strengthen strategic stability.
He would have pursued further cuts in U.S. and Russian arsenals, however, if only his counterpart had been more cooperative. He was on the right track in this sense.
As for the trillion dollars, the amount itself is not so important -- it represents 4 percent of the current U.S. stock market capitalization -- as the misallocation it represents. We should be eliminating the “use or lose” land-based missile force which must be launched first or quickly on warning to survive. We don’t need this leg of the Triad. The U.S. Trident submarine force alone can cover all the core deterrence aimpoints of leadership and economic targets in Russia and China combined. The land missile force adds a few hundred weapons to the game of war-fighting.
Its funding should be re-directed into nuclear command, control and communications. This system remains vulnerable and prone to collapse under the weight of even small attacks, and is increasingly infected with malware that could derange its performance and cause a mistaken launch. This vulnerability is one key reason the protocol for nuclear decision-making drives a president to acquiesce to the imperative of speed in authorizing release. It is a deficiency that limits our options for strengthening checks and balances on nuclear decision-making.
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