The United States’ Nuclear Peril Will Outlast This Administration

As observers fear a Trump-initiated strike, deeper problems in the U.S. nuclear posture abound.

An activist wearing a mask of U.S. President Donald Trump marches with a model of a nuclear rocket during a demonstration against nuclear weapons in Berlin on Nov. 18, 2017.
An activist wearing a mask of U.S. President Donald Trump marches with a model of a nuclear rocket during a demonstration against nuclear weapons in Berlin on Nov. 18, 2017. Adam Berry/Getty Images

Last week’s events in Washington raise disturbing questions about the United States’—and the world’s­—security. Observers of outgoing President Donald Trump are concerned that he might decide to end his administration with an attack on Iran or another hostile foreign power in a deranged attempt to create a state of emergency to halt the transition. Of even greater concern, the president, like all his predecessors since Harry Truman, has the ability to launch U.S. nuclear weapons against targets around the globe on his own authority. He can do this in response to an incoming attack, but he can also do so without any evidence of such an attack. We need not presume the president is unstable in order to find this an extremely unsettling possibility.

At this point, it appears that Vice President Mike Pence is acting president in a de-facto implementation of the 25th Amendment, which allows for removal of the president if he is deemed unfit. His break with his boss, management of the fallout from the attempt to seize the Capitol, refusal to rule out use of the 25th Amendment, and emergence as the point of contact between the Congressional leadership and the White House, all while the president sulks in his tent, suggest that Pence will be the port of call for decisions sought on key issues. And in nine days, President-elect Joe Biden, a level-headed politician, will take office thus eliminating the problem. (In fact, his appointments make clear that the process for decision-making in a crisis will be handled carefully and systematically by a team of experienced professionals.)

If the countdown to a transition provides a sense of relief, however, it should not be because the problem has been solved, but rather that the country now has four years to fix the underlying problem. Doing so will not be easy, especially for an administration that will have an immense amount of rubble to clear and a razor-thin margin in the Senate to push its agenda.

The systems and procedures that provide the president with the authority to launch nuclear strikes are long-standing and are in place because the United States might come under surprise attack from enemy nuclear ballistic missiles. The warning time could be half an hour or even less, depending on the location from which the attack is launched and the trajectory chosen for those incoming missiles. In such circumstances, the president may have no time to consult with the Cabinet or Congress, and so has the sole authority to launch a strike. The codes and procedures for doing so are contained in the so-called football, a chunky briefcase that a military aide carries by the presidents at all times and that gives the leader the ability to order the launch of these terrible weapons at a moment’s notice.

That leaves the country in the unsettling position of delegating the decision to launch to one person, and hoping that this one individual is sufficiently sane and wise to make intelligent decisions in a crisis. The situation today, wherein the president may not, in fact, be sane or wise enough to make safe decisions, underscores the need for an alternative. But that is not the only source of concern.

Starting under U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States has been making a trillion-dollar, decades-long effort to upgrade and modernize its strategic force posture. It includes plans to develop smaller nuclear weapons that might be appropriate to use against enemy military targets without theoretically running the risk of a massive retaliation against U.S. military forces or cities. But these plans may come with a downside: Future presidents could come to see nuclear weapons as just another weapon in the arsenal, to be used to achieve specific military ends without risking global destruction. Yet even “small” nuclear weapons are enormously powerful, and once used may persuade an enemy that a major threshold has been crossed, requiring a much more devastating response.

The long-term problems are scary enough, but what if the current president decides to use nuclear weapons in the next nine days, as an insane act of revenge against a world that has turned against him? Is there anything to save us? Perhaps the Joint Chiefs could issue a directive to all military posts that any authentic orders from the commander-in-chief should be checked with the military authorities before being executed. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reported to have conveyed such a message to Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is reported that something like this was done in the last days of the Nixon White House. To do so might be illegal, but a responsible military leader might decide that breaking the law and facing the consequences afterwards is a better solution than allowing a truly insane act of nuclear aggression to go unchecked.

The solution to the broader problem is not obvious, but the current predicament underscores the need to address it. When he takes office, Biden should convene a task force of experts to review the issues and come up with practical options that could be implemented as part of the ongoing nuclear modernization. No one in the world should have to worry that an unstable American leader could unilaterally make a decision with such unthinkable consequences.

David Schwartz was a senior official in the Reagan administration responsible for nuclear weapons strategy. His is the author of NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas and Enrico Fermi: The Last Man Who Knew Everything.

Steven Simon is a research analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and teaches at Colby College. He served at the State Department and National Security Council staff and is co-author of The Pragmatic Superpower: The US and Middle East in the Cold War; his new book, Long Goodbye: The US and the Middle East from the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring is forthcoming.

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