Our Nuclear Procedures Are Crazier Than Trump

U.S. presidents are currently given a four-minute window to decide whether or not to initiate an irreversible apocalypse. Sad!

(Original Caption) George C. Scott is shown in Dr. Strangelove. (Photo by �� John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) George C. Scott is shown in Dr. Strangelove. (Photo by �� John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Donald Trump and the bomb are back in the news. This week, talk show host Joe Scarborough claimed, on air, that he had learned the Republican presidential nominee asked a foreign-policy expert, three times in a one-hour meeting, why, if the United States has nuclear weapons, it can’t use them.

I should start by saying I wonder whether this anecdote is true. Secondhand stories tend to improve with each telling, and this seems like one that has been told a couple of times. For what it’s worth, the Trump people have denied it. I’ll also say that Trump’s question, if he indeed posed it, is actually a good question — one for another column.

What I’d like to focus on here is something that retired Gen. Michael Hayden said in response to Scarborough, by way of raising doubts about Trump’s temperament. The “system” for launching U.S. nuclear weapons, the former CIA director said, “is designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision.”

Hayden has a point. The one thing that movies get really wrong about the decision to use nuclear weapons is how long the discussions last. In film, people argue endlessly, talking for minutes and minutes about whether and how to respond to a nuclear attack. It’s all very dramatic. The nuclear command and control system, however, is designed to function under crushing time pressures. And it does so by removing any opportunity for the president to weigh his or her options or modify existing plans. If the president decides to end the world, you could probably show the whole debate in a half-hour sitcom — during one of its commercial breaks.

As it happens, my colleague Dave Schmerler and I have just built an interactive timeline for the Nuclear Threat Initiative to demonstrate how little time a president would have, in some scenarios, to decide whether or not to fire U.S. nuclear weapons. The key to understanding the U.S. command and control system is that it was designed to fulfill a requirement known as “launch under attack,” a very specific scenario to deter Russia from trying to knock out America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) by launching a massive nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland and escaping retaliation. Launch under attack is the idea that deterring Russia from trying this requires that the United States be able to do a very difficult thing: detect a launch of Russia’s ICBMs and then launch its own retaliation before the Russian ICBMs arrive about 30 minutes later. As long as the United States can launch its ICBMs before the Russian ones get here — that is to say, within their 30-minute flight time — Russia is toast. (And presumably, knowing it’d be toast, it’ll think twice about launching in the first place.)

The timeline we’ve designed was inspired by a book chapter that Walter Slocombe wrote nearly 30 years ago, a chapter in which he built a similar timeline. Slocombe noted how much of the 30 minutes was lost to purely mechanical steps. At the front end, it takes a minute for the Russian missiles to break through the clouds, another minute for U.S. satellites to detect the launch and relay the report to a ground station in Germany, and another two minutes for the North American Aerospace Defense Command — the folks best known for tracking Santa Claus — to confirm that an attack is underway and notify the person designated by the president. At the other end of the timeline, once the president has given the order to launch, there must be enough time to format the order as an emergency action message (EAM) and transmit it. The launch crews have to receive and authenticate the EAM, run through the launch sequence, and then fire the ICBMs so that they are clear of their silos before Russian nuclear weapons start striking them.

All those steps leave something like eight minutes from the first call to the White House to the last moment at which the president can act.

Much of those eight minutes is lost to the task of informing the president. The first call to the White House isn’t to the president, of course. It is to a person designated by the president for this task. (Well, probably the military assistant to that person — another minute ticks off the clock.) In November 1979, that person was Zbigniew Brzezinski — then-President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor and father to Mika, who was sitting next to Scarborough, solemnly shaking her head at the idea of Trump with the bomb.

You should really watch Zbig tell the story, though the bottom line is that he recalled having only three minutes to decide whether or not to inform the president, after which the president had four minutes to decide whether or not to retaliate. At the end of his three minutes, Brzezinski’s military assistant called back to tell him it was a false alarm — someone had left a training tape running. Brzezinski went back to bed. He never woke his wife, by the way. He decided that if it was a Soviet nuclear attack, it was better to let her die in her sleep.

What is amazing about these timelines is how much time is lost to purely mechanical or administrative steps, from detecting the launches to finding the president. What if the president is asleep? Playing golf? In the toilet? Debriefing an intern? This is why the president has a military aide shadowing him or her with the “president’s emergency satchel,” better known as the “football.” Everything has to be ready, at all times. At most, the president will have a few minutes to think about what to do or weigh courses of action. Slocombe’s article is about the importance of “preplanned options” — the fact that, in a nuclear crisis, the president doesn’t have time to do anything other than select from a limited menu of preselected options for ending the world.

If you can’t tell, I think the timelines for launch under attack are unrealistic and the posture more than a little silly. Presidents don’t behave according to rigid timelines — and thank goodness. Think about former President George W. Bush. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was sitting in a classroom filled with schoolchildren and reporters when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff, had to decide what to tell the president. He opted to whisper a succinct message in his ear: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Bush has a pretty moving story about what went through his mind at that moment, watching as the BlackBerrys around the room started to buzz. He has spoken about the importance of retaining his composure and taking the time to understand what was happening. Bush did not want to alarm the children, his staff, or the world watching his reaction on camera. So he remained in the room for about seven more minutes and then went to an impromptu crisis center set up at the school. And while people like Michael Moore have attacked him for it, I think Bush did exactly what I would want any president to do when told America is under attack. He acted calmly and deliberately.

Those seven minutes or so, though, would also eat up the time available to execute a launch under attack. It is totally incompatible with present U.S. nuclear policy. I guess you can criticize a president for taking his time, but it seems to me he would be the sane one and it’s U.S. nuclear policy that’s crazy.

Obviously, launch under attack is only one scenario. In a situation where the president decides to start a nuclear war, he or she has got oodles of time to think about it. But launch under attack also means that the command and control system has been built to take any order and execute it with stunning speed — and that is what Hayden was trying to say. Once a president gives the order to use nuclear weapons, there is no turning back. The system is designed to very quickly render the president’s will into death and destruction on the other side of the world. So maybe don’t elect the guy who melts down on Twitter every other day.

Trump’s temperament is pretty different from, say, that of Brzezinski, who tells the story about the 3 a.m. phone call as kind of a dark gag. I suppose Zbig got used to it. There was a series of false alarms in June 1980, usually described as having occurred because of the failure of a 46 cent computer chip. A few years later, the Center for Defense Information — the forerunner, in a roundabout way, to Global Zero — learned that between 1977 and 1984, there were 1,152 “moderately serious” false alarms. False alarms are so common that I actually suspect the system would fail to respond to a real Russian launch. I just can’t imagine Bushes, Clintons, or Barack Obama retaliating while there’s even a glimmer of doubt about an attack. My guess is that they would all decide to risk waiting to be sure an attack was underway, that it wasn’t a false alarm or cyberattack, instead of hastily opting for certain nuclear holocaust. Given what we know about human beings and confirmation bias, launch under attack is probably less dangerous than just pointless.

The problem, though, is what happens in a crisis. What happens when confirmation bias is pushing in the other direction? If we think Russia might launch such an attack, then it is easier to imagine a president making a hasty decision.

My advice to any future president would be to drop launch under attack as a mainstay of U.S. nuclear policy. Some systems might still be capable of launching quickly, but I would design the nuclear force around the assumption that the president plans to “ride out” a nuclear attack. This means having enough weapons at sea to do the job and relegating any land-based nuclear weapons to the role of warhead “sink,” drawing fire away from cities. The Obama administration has made some steps in this direction, instructing the military to plan for more realistic contingencies — but it has still elected to retain launch under attack as an option.

I am not much of a fan of launch under attack, and have said as much to policymakers in Washington, but I’ve long been resigned to no one listening to me. Defense experts have a fetish about giving the president options, and they are simply loath to abandon this one, no matter how unrealistic. It is U.S. policy now and for the foreseeable future. In fact, Washington has gone to great lengths to design its nuclear forces, as well as its command and control system, around the ability of the president to determine the fate of hundreds of millions of people in a matter of minutes. The upcoming deliberations about nuclear modernization, which will probably cost a trillion dollars over the next 30 years or so, will proceed on the same assumption. If we’re going to design the entire system in this way, to emphasize the speed and decisiveness of a single person, we should probably also pick that person carefully.

Photo credit: George C. Scott is shown in Dr. Strangelove. John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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