The President and Nuclear Weapons Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trump Having the Bomb

September 25, 2017

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More than 50 years after its release, Dr. Strangelove remains the indispensable movie on nuclear strategy. With biting black humor, the film shows the response of the U.S. President to the rogue actions of an insane general intent on starting a nuclear war and the hawkish counsel of another seeking to limit U.S. casualties to “no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks…”

Yet today the worry is not about generals. According to critics, it is about the sanity of President Donald Trump. A series of opinion pieces and even proposed legislation have made this clear, with critics arguing for an end to the president’s sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. Some have even proposed reversing the command relationships of Dr. Strangelove, potentially giving the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress a veto over presidential nuclear decisions. While perhaps well-intentioned, these proposals have technical, political, and strategic liabilities. They would constrain U.S. capabilities for escalation and retaliation, weaken democratic accountability, and undermine the resolve nuclear options are supposed to signal.

For operational and technical reasons, a U.S. nuclear attack might have to be launched in a short time frame. Consider a possible crisis or conventional conflict with North Korea — difficult to imagine in such placid times, I know — where the best and perhaps only way to destroy North Korean nuclear weapons before they launched was a U.S. nuclear strike. If ever there was a legitimate and proportionate target for nuclear use, surely it is an adversary’s nuclear forces, but speed would be of the essence. Would there be time to convince Congress or even some subset of Congressional leadership on the necessity of such a strike? This scenario may sound preposterous, but several respected analysts have already called for the United States to be prepared to negate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal through a combination of defensive and offensive means, which could include preemptive nuclear use.

The continuing need for speed and clarity in nuclear command and control is well understood in the military. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva publicly noted in August 2017:

[I]n the worst set of circumstances, which is what the nuclear command and control system is built upon, time is of the essence. Clarity is absolutely required. And the ability to identify the person selecting the option and giving the order is an absolute.

Politicians, too, have long accepted the need for speed in nuclear decision-making. President Dwight Eisenhower reassured Congress in 1959 that “in the event of a real emergency,” he “would not come to Congress, but” would “go ahead.”

Adding veto players to nuclear decision-making also has technical implications for a retaliatory strike; it would place additional burdens on the U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications system. At present the system is designed to support a sole presidential decision-maker by providing enduring communications to nuclear forces, as well as continuity of government to ensure orderly succession in case the president is killed or incapacitated. As long as these functions are maintained, the U.S. nuclear deterrent can function, even if the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or even commander of U.S. Strategic Command are killed or cannot be reached.

If those individuals or members of Congress are required to approve presidential nuclear decisions then command and control as well as continuity of government operations would have to be expanded. Those systems would have to maintain absolutely reliable communications to several individuals and an orderly and prompt succession for each of them in case they are killed or incapacitated, with attendant communications to successors. Adversaries considering attacking the U.S. system would have that many more critical links to attack, with the severing of any one of them neutralizing (at least temporarily) U.S. nuclear decision-making.

Beyond the technical is the political: Radical changes in long-standing U.S. defense structures should not be driven by reaction to a single occupant of the White House, nor should they move away from the existing democratic accountability in nuclear operations. Almost none of those calling for restrictions on presidential authority to use nuclear weapons were voicing similar concerns about presidential authority during the Obama administration, which was zealously protective of presidential prerogatives regarding the use of force generally, from cyber operations to drone strikes. Politicizing the most critical function of U.S. national security is a recipe for disaster. Moreover, the president holds his office by virtue of victory in a nation-wide election. Neither the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, nor even regionally elected Congressional leadership, have such a mandate. And while Congress retains the sole ability to declare war under the constitution, the president’s powers to use force without specific Congressional authorization have long been recognized, for good or for ill. Such powers are critically important in nuclear operations, and as the Eisenhower example above shows, past presidents and Congresses have set aside inter-branch wrangling and seen eye to eye on this issue. Any change to U.S. nuclear decision-making will outlast the Trump administration, and so should be made with consideration for future occupants at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The final reason for rejecting change to presidential nuclear authority is strategic. The deterrent power of U.S. nuclear weapons rests on the fact that, in extreme circumstances, they might be used. Any adversary seeking to attack the United States or its allies must weigh carefully the risk that they could face nuclear retaliation. As other analysts have observed, potential U.S. adversaries have placed greater emphasis on their own nuclear forces in recent years, including modernization in Russia and China and expansion in North Korea. Creating new veto players in U.S. nuclear decision-making would signal to these adversaries that Washington is less able and willing, at a moment of supreme crisis, to use nuclear weapons. This could then embolden them, as they might see themselves as much more willing and able to run nuclear risks. Paradoxically, then, these well-intentioned efforts to avoid nuclear war might make a nuclear crisis more likely.

Nuclear weapons face us with uncomfortable truths. No sane person wants to see these weapons used. But for deterrence to hold, the United States must be prepared to use its arsenal in extreme circumstances, and use it with speed and certainty. Eisenhower, again, put it best: In nuclear operations “the United States would be applying a force so terrible that one simply could not be meticulous as to the methods by which this force was brought to bear.” The national interest, and indeed, national survival, requires a clear chain of command headed by the only single actor who has a mandate to speak for the entire nation: the president.


Brendan Rittenhouse Green is assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of multiple studies on nuclear strategy, including most recently “The MAD Who Wasn’t There: Soviet Reactions to the Late Cold War Nuclear Balance.”

Image: U.S. Navy

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