Best Defense

It Is High Time to Do Away With the President’s Nuclear ‘Football’

The recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on nuclear weapons introduced some unsettling possibilities.

The nuclear football. (Wikimedia Commons)
The nuclear football. (Wikimedia Commons)


By Thomas Keaney
Best Defense guest columnist


The recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on the authority to employ nuclear weapons brought some clarity concerning the authority and limits of employing nuclear weapons while introducing some unsettling possibilities. The occasion prompting the hearing was anything but a routine one. President Trump’s unpredictability, his frequent trading of threats to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile testing programs, and possible U.S. nuclear use in those circumstances has called into question the adequacy of checks on the procedures that had been in place since the 1950s.

The details of these procedures must obviously remain secret, but in answers to questions the witnesses addressed hypothetical situations concerning proportionality and discrimination of attacks and of the legality of orders to attack. The answers seemed reassuring at least in theory, but as the witnesses testified, specific circumstances could lead to various results.

Apply these points to the North Korean situation in which the president is already on record as ready to bring “fire and fury the world has never seen” if North Korean actions continue. The fire and fury response was not qualified: Is it if Kim Jong Un continues his nuclear weapons program? His ballistic missile program? Threatens his neighbors? Actually attacks a neighbor or the Unites States? Can such a nuclear attack by the United States as described ever be proportional and discriminant? Have the president’s military and civilian advisors warned him about his statement? Is a conventional weapons response even considered?

A further ingredient in these scenarios concerns the briefcases with the nuclear launch codes, the so-called “football” that always accompanies the president. A staple of the Cold War climate between the United States and Soviet Union, the briefcase represented the possibility of an immediate response, within minutes, to a nuclear attack on the United States. In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, most of emergency procedures changed. Bombers came off alert status, the airborne command post flights ended, missiles were somehow de-targeted. But the briefcase remained in place with the president. Unremarked on for decades, but now this capability allows the president the authority to order an immediate nuclear strike, leaving his advisors perhaps five minutes or less to rule on legality of the order and its consequences. Does this situation at all apply to the North Korean scenario?

Immediate access to the nuclear launch codes became a Cold War feature of deterring a Soviet all-out nuclear attack, but nothing beyond that. A North Korean missile launch would first and primarily involve the employment of ballistic missile defenses. No one posits North Korea as having a Soviet Union-type capability or being able to put the U.S. command authorities under attack; a much more deliberate and reasoned approach to a U.S. response should be required. The upcoming U.S. nuclear posture review needs to re-examine the conditions necessitating an immediate U.S. response with nuclear weapons (such as an attack that only the Russians now possess) and qualify presidential authority. Continuing with a Cold War process without specific limits should not be solely in the hands of this or any president.

Thomas Keaney is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies’s Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, and a retired Air Force officer who experienced frequent tours on nuclear weapon bomber alert ready to respond to these emergency messages. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola