Sep 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The danger of "sole authority" on nuclear weapons

Illustration of an open book with a mushroom cloud coming out.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

New reporting around the chaotic final stages of President Trump's tenure underscores essential problems with the U.S. nuclear command-and-control system.

Why it matters: One person possesses the authority to launch America's massive nuclear arsenal and quite possibly end the world: the president. And there's no clear, legal way to circumvent that authority if they can't be trusted.

Driving the news: In their forthcoming book, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa report that during the final months of Trump's administration, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley summoned senior officers from the National Military Command Center to go over the procedures for launching a nuclear weapon.

  • Milley also reportedly told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the Jan. 6 riot in the Capitol that "the nuclear triggers are secure and we're not going to do — we're not going to allow anything crazy, illegal, immoral or unethical to happen."

The big picture: While the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the White House's top military adviser and the National Military Command System is charged with actually carrying out a launch order, the president is not required to check with them or get their assent before launching a nuclear strike.

  • There are rational — at least by the mad logic of nuclear war — reasons for this.
  • The sheer speed of nuclear conflict gives the president only minutes to decide where to fire U.S. missiles or risk losing some of them in a first strike.

The catch: That system means the ultimate nuclear failsafe is the president themself — and if that president can't be trusted to act rationally, all bets are off.

  • During the end of President Richard Nixon's tenure, his behavior was so erratic that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger asked military officers to check with him first if Nixon gave a nuclear launch order.

Between the lines: There's no clear way to create a nuclear command system that can act almost instantly without giving the president sole authority — which is why advisers like Schlesinger and Milley reportedly had to resort in a crisis to quasi-legal means to circumvent it.

  • Some experts have suggested the system itself is outdated and the risk of the U.S. facing a Cold War-style intentional first strike that requires an immediate response is far less likely than the chance of an accidental war — which sole authority arguably increases.
  • In a report published earlier this month, the Ploughshares Fund's Doreen Horschig calls for ending sole authority and mandating that the military would only follow a presidential launch order if it were approved by Congress.
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