A Nuclear Reckoning: Senators Ponder the President’s Power to Launch Armageddon


Congressional hearings happen all the time. If you inadvertently stumble across a C-SPAN channel, you will find any number of relatively unexciting discussions of public policy minutiae. These necessary, but often dull, proceedings end up like trees falling in a forest. If no one is watching, did they even happen?

Every so often, however, a congressional hearing makes a bigger impact. Such was the case with the Nov. 14 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. It was the first time in 41 years that Congress had discussed such matters, and it may have never happened if not for the alarming nature of the 298 days that preceded the hearing.  

Since the end of the Cold War, congressional attention to nuclear weapons policy has waned. The bulk of the conversation about the most powerful weapons ever invented now occurs between an increasingly small group of members and staff, many of whom seem to have no interest in engaging the public. This problem is not restricted to the legislative branch. Inside the executive branch, the focus on weapons of mass destruction has dwindled as other pressing security threats have taken center stage.  

For better or for worse, President Donald Trump’s views and behaviors have thrust nuclear weapons back into the public spotlight. Whether with his lack of knowledge about U.S. nuclear posture, his bold pronouncements about restarting an arms race, his encouragement of proliferation, or his suggestion that the United States increase its nuclear arsenal by a factor of ten, the 45th president has scared leaders and citizens alike. It is this fear that has opened up an opportunity for the nation to have a broad discussion about the almost 15,000 nuclear weapons that exist across the world.

For some time, proponents of nuclear modernization have passionately argued that the United States has ignored its nuclear weapons infrastructure and can do so no longer. They had a point, but completely missed another: the country has largely ignored the legal, political, and moral implications of these weapons. Some quandaries fell off the radar after the Cold War, while others have been avoided since the dawn of the nuclear age. What exactly would constitute a legal nuclear strike and would international laws have any effect on launch decisions? Do U.S. investments in nuclear modernization influence the actions of other nuclear and non-nuclear states, making an arms race more likely? Are nuclear weapons inherently immoral? These questions and the range of answers and opinions they spawn must factor into future plans. Above all, it is time to accept that nuclear weapons policies are not sacrosanct. U.S. leaders and the American public can and should be asking hard questions about the choices ahead.  

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, should be commended for taking a useful first step with last week’s hearing. Having announced his retirement, the senator seems genuinely interested in getting answers to questions others have been loath to ask. That includes whether America’s current nuclear command structure needs review.

The panel of witnesses included Gen. (ret.) Robert Kehler —U.S. Strategic Command; Dr. Peter D. Feaver of Duke University, and Brian McKeon, former acting under secretary of defense for policy. (As an aside, it would have been nice to have a woman on the witness panel. That would have brought the grand total of women participating to two, as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is the sole woman on the committee.)  

The witnesses outlined the procedures by which the president of the United States can order a nuclear strike. To summarize, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was determined that the decision to use nuclear weapons should be controlled by civilian leadership, specifically the president.  

If a president wants to launch a nuclear strike, he or she would first open a briefcase (commonly referred to as the football) carried by an ever-present military aide. The president would then choose from a number of pre-planned strike options. Next, he or she would initiate a conference call with the Pentagon’s Deputy Director of Operations and the Commander of Strategic Command. Other civilian and military advisors might be included in that call.

After brief consultation, perhaps as short as 30 seconds, the senior officer in the Pentagon’s war room would authenticate the order by having the president respond to a code using a laminated card (often called the biscuit) that is carried by the U.S. leader at all times. Once the order was verified, launch orders and missile unlock codes would be prepared and transmitted to the relevant strategic forces. After that, it’s bombs (or missiles) away. From start to finish, the process can be completed in less than 15 minutes. There is no way to stop the president’s order, short of complete insubordination — not something we should wish for from the military.   

Despite the alacrity with which the president could effectively destroy the world, each witness at the hearing demonstrated faith in the nuclear command system and stressed caution about making any changes. They all assiduously avoided the elephant in the room. Indeed, Kehler stated firmly that the U.S. military had accounted for all hypothetical scenarios broached in the hearing. But it is somewhat difficult to believe that the military had until recently imagined a scenario in which the least experienced, and perhaps most unstable, presidential candidate in modern history would be elected at the same time that nuclear tensions were rising at an alarming rate. It would have been hard to conceive of a U.S. leader who rejected basic notions of diplomacy and foreign policy and openly disparaged both his adversaries and closest advisors. However, now that commanders are faced with that situation, it is likely that more than a few conversations related to intemperate nuclear strike orders have transpired.  

Nevertheless, Kehler and McKeon both rejected the idea of any legislative changes to the presidential nuclear launch authorities. McKeon warned that “hard cases make bad law” and advised against setting a precedent for all presidents, based on the behavior of the current one. Moreover, Kehler repeatedly stated that the military does not blindly follow orders. “An order to launch nuclear weapons,” he said, “must be legal.” When it comes to the potential use of nuclear weapons, the issue of legality relates to proportionality and necessity. Questions would include whether a nuclear strike is an appropriate response to an imminent threat and whether a conventional strike would be insufficient against that threat. Determinations on those matters could very likely be subjective and of course, as with all things, the devil is in the details. In a city like Washington, D.C., with the highest per capita percentage of lawyers in the country, it is not difficult to find someone able to build a legal case tailored to policy preferences. Feaver, perhaps less tied to the nuclear command status quo, did posit that U.S. leaders should be reflecting on current policies, if only to allay any concerns about them.

Since the witnesses were relatively moderate in nature and approach, it was the senators in attendance who made headlines. Corker was previously on record expressing concern about Trump’s fitness for office, and the media was quick to link those comments with the topic of the hearing he had convened. Previous statements aside, however, the chairman was all business and made it clear that while he had no interest in jeopardizing U.S. nuclear deterrent guarantees, he valued the discussion.  

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) tied the nuclear command issue more directly to Trump. He said he was getting more and more questions about whether there were any checks and balances to limit the president’s ability to start a nuclear war. It might be time, he argued, to revisit the idea that a single person should have the authority to launch nuclear weapons. Cardin said he wanted to be able to tell his constituents that the nuclear command system can and will prevent an impulsive or irrational nuclear strike, but at the present time could not make that guarantee.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was fully in his element. No stranger to nuclear policy, the senator made clear that he too wanted to have a larger discussion about whether one human being should have the ability to start a nuclear war. In Markey’s view, the current procedures conflict with the Constitution. He and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have introduced matching bills in the House and Senate prohibiting presidential authorization of a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. So far, the legislation, the “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act,” has 73 and 13 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, respectively, with the House version enjoying bipartisan support. It should be noted that Markey and Lieu first introduced this legislation in September 2016 when it looked as if someone else would be president. For them, no U.S. leader should have the singular authority to launch a nuclear strike.

In the context of the discussion of presidential nuclear launch authority, Shaheen (and others) questioned the witnesses about whether Trump should seek congressional approval for any preemptive strike against North Korea. McKeon testified:

Any president should want the Congress, as the body directly representative of the American people, to provide its support — to join in the decision and the responsibility for such a national commitment of blood and treasure. Given the high number of casualties that would occur in any conflict with North Korea — let alone during a ground invasion — no reasonable argument can be made that this would not be “war” in the constitutional sense.

The topic of the hearing did cause some concern among members of the committee. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the senators should “tread lightly” on this topic, as the very discussion may cause America’s allies to doubt its commitment to defend them. That, in turn, could push them toward the development of their own nuclear weapons. Rubio also made the case for strategic ambiguity — the idea that a country can better deter a nuclear attack if there is no clear indication about when it would use nuclear weapons. Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) concurred and heavily stressed that he saw the hearing as an “academic” exercise rather than a practical discussion. He then, perhaps inadvertently, contradicted assurances that had been made by the witnesses, asserting that laws, standards, and proportionality would not be considered in the heat of battle and that the president alone would make the decision to launch, quickly if necessary. Corker responded that this reality was the whole point of having the hearing in the first place.  

Of course, the United States should continuously assure its friends and allies that it keeps its word and its commitments. That said, it is unnecessary to fret over the mere discussion of these topics, as if U.S. extended deterrence guarantees had all the fortitude of Blanche Dubois.  Asserting that discussions about current U.S. nuclear weapons policies are inherently dangerous is a particularly good way to make sure they are never discussed.

For example, as Congress begins to pay for the modernization of the nuclear triad, perhaps it is time to talk about the reverence with which this set of nuclear delivery systems is treated. Alex Wellerstein of the Stevens Institute for Technology has pointed out the term “triad” was not widely used until the nuclear disarmament process began in earnest in the 1970s. Was the increased discussion about the need for a triad a response to public and official support for nuclear reductions? That possibility surely deserves some attention today, as experts question whether maintaining the triad is fiscally possible, let alone strategically necessary.

Congress could also spend more time talking about the non-nuclear tools that make up U.S. extended deterrence guarantees to allies. That includes conventional military assets, theater missile defenses, sanctions and importantly, diplomacy. The Trump administration is undervaluing that last tool and it is incumbent on Congress to establish why. Another issue in need of review is how defensive systems, like missile defenses, can affect the strategic balance and make disarmament more difficult. Finally, lawmakers could also take a deeper dive into suggestions for improving the U.S. nuclear command structure without infringing on executive authority or affecting deterrence guarantees. Indeed, the strategic issues worthy of review could keep relevant committees busy far into the future.

After 41 years, Trump’s election has prompted the need for some long-overdue discussions about the most dangerous weapons in the world. Nuclear weapons can quite literally end human civilization and with the current U.S. posture, one person can decide to make that nightmare a reality. That is why Congress must continually review and, where necessary, revamp nuclear policies. That is why their constituents need to demand that they do so. Changes to programs of record, operating decisions, or political postures should be made with care and caution, but whistling past a potential global graveyard should not be an option. That is why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing is hopefully just the start of a long-overdue nuclear policy reckoning.  


Alexandra Bell is the Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. She previously served as senior advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

Image: Office of Sen. Bob Corker