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Ending the Reign of the Nuclear Monarchs

Once again, nuclear Armageddon [1] is just a push of the proverbial button away.

Donald Trump has reawakened Cold War fears over nuclear apocalypse, as the recent panic in Hawaii demonstrates [2]. Meanwhile, not since Barry Goldwater has the mental health of a president been the source of so much debate. Every tweet, every unscripted wisecrack, every salacious leak is dissected and submitted as further evidence of Trump’s supposed lack of “mental fitness.”

Yet in the midst of our national obsession over Trump’s mind, we seem to have forgotten what is truly frightening [3]—that every president has virtually unchecked power to initiate a nuclear strike and no one, including his vice president, defense secretary, or anyone in Congress, has a veto, let alone a vote in the matter.

This possibility derives from the president’s role as commander-in-chief, according to Gene Healy [4], an expert on presidential power at the Cato Institute. “There has always been this tension between operational control of U.S. armed forces and legal authorization, which is vested in Congress,” he pointed out, and “probably the place where that tension is most pronounced is with nuclear weapons.”

The specific authority the president has over nuclear weapons dates back to the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 [5]. Of course, President Truman didn’t consult Congress before using the atomic bomb on Japan. But lawmakers at the time seemed to be more afraid of rogue generals and, ironically, viewed the president as a civilian check on the military, according to Alex Wellerstein [6], a nuclear weapons historian.

The current protocols—under which a president can directly order the launch of nuclear missiles—evolved in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis [7] and were designed to enable an immediate response to an unfolding attack. Little attention seems to have ever been given to the thought that such a system would also enable a president to order a first strike, according to Wellerstein.

Once the president has given the order to launch nuclear weapons, the first Minuteman III missile could be in the air within five minutes [8]. Just one warhead could unleash the power of more than 20 Hiroshimas. (A typical warhead is 300 kilotons [9]; Hiroshima’s bomb was 15 kilotons [10].) That would put estimated casualties into the millions and could effectively obliterate any major city in the world. And remember, we’ve got 450 [11] of these missiles (and that’s not counting the ones in subs).

Why should any president have that power?


It’s an unfortunate reflection of the institutionalized insanity ingrained in our “defense” establishment that apparently the obvious has to be stated: no mortal, even the wisest and most intelligent among us, should have the power to annihilate cities, devastate whole nations, and extinguish millions of lives without anyone second-guessing that decision.

The problem is apparent even in a “best”-case scenario, when a president isn’t starting an attack but responding to one.

Picture the moment: It’s the middle of the night and the president has just been awoken from sleep. He’s groggy and he’s just been informed that a foreign power has launched nuclear weapons towards the East Coast, which could hit Washington, D.C. (For constructing this timeline, I’m indebted to Bruce Blair, a nuclear weapons expert at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, who is not only an expert on the matter but who speaks from direct personal experience as a former U.S. Air Force Minuteman. Blair has also previously written about this here [12].)

First, the president would receive a military briefing on his options. This might run for one to two minutes, but it could also be as short as 30 seconds. Next, the president deliberates over his options. Presumably, top advisors would be involved in the discussion—but they don’t have to be. If the missile is coming from Siberia, it has a 30-minute flight time, leaving 12 minutes to make a decision. But if it was launched from a submarine in the Atlantic, those timelines are halved.

Then, once the president has made up his mind, he issues the order and authenticates his identity with the War Room at the Pentagon. This adds 15 to 20 seconds to the clock. In all, that means the president could have as little as seven minutes to make a decision that could settle the fates of nations and hundreds of millions of souls.

So while most of the press and talking heads are fixated on the president’s authority to initiate an attack, Blair warns that the system is flawed even when it comes to responding to one. “The other deficiency of this—also very important that tends to get short shrift—is that when we are under attack the system railroads the president into acquiescing and authorizing the launch of nuclear weapons, so it’s sort of a two-pronged problem,” he said.

Back in the War Room, once the president has authenticated, there is no realistic opportunity for anyone else to stop the order from going out. It takes the War Room just a few minutes to prepare the message. Then the orders are sent directly to U.S. submarines, Minuteman silos, or airborne missile carriers.

There are no further intermediaries: contrary to popular myth, the secretary of defense does not need to confirm the order, nor do any generals down the line. “There’s no one else in the chain of command,” Blair said.

On the submarine, four officers are involved in confirming the order and launching the missiles. The highest rank of the officer involved is the captain of the vessel. The lowest is a lieutenant. The whole process could take between 12 to 15 minutes.

At the Minuteman sites, the process is even faster. The silos are organized into clusters of 50 missiles with five launch centers wired into them. Each center has two people on duty. They might consist of a captain and a first or second lieutenant in the Air Force. They’re young, in their mid-20s to 30, and are typically fresh out of school, with little experience in the realities of warfare, according to Blair. These aren’t the kinds of people who are expected to weigh the legality of an order: theirs is to do, not deliberate.

Once the order to launch is received, the officers in each center must turn the key. Out of the five centers, a missile sitting in a silo must receive signals from at least two before firing. But the idea isn’t to build a backup in case deranged officers literally go nuclear. Rather, it’s to ensure the ability to retaliate in case some of the centers are taken out by incoming fire.

It might seem like the Minuteman would take longer than their naval counterparts. But they do live up to their name: according to Blair, the first missiles could be cruising towards their targets about a minute after the order comes down. The system is designed for speed and mutually assured destruction. It gives the president virtually unlimited power with no checks or safety valves built into the chain of command. Such power is not only an affront to basic common sense and any credible theory of public morality and just war, but undermines modern democratic norms. It is not much of an exaggeration to call the modern U.S. president a “nuclear monarch,” [13] as Blair does.

The system also seems to strike at the spirit of the Constitution. One the one hand, the president has the power as commander-in-chief to respond to attacks. On the other, the power to declare war belongs to Congress. “There is no doubt the Framers thought that Congress had the bulk of the war powers—that offensive action by the president was impermissible without prior authorization from Congress,” Healy said.

The unprovoked use of nuclear weapons is an obvious declaration of war, which only further erodes congressional power.

So how can we put an end to our nuclear monarchy?

One solution, proposed a year ago by Congressman Ted Lieu, would be to ban [14] the “first use” of nuclear weapons without a congressional declaration of war. (Senator Edward Markey has sponsored a Senate version of this legislation [15].)

Healy says such a bill is constitutionally sound but he questions whether it would work. “The real question is, ‘Is it going to work if you have a president who is bent carrying out that order?’ ‘Is the military or is anyone in the nuclear command-and-control chain going to disregard his order?’ And there, that’s pretty doubtful,” Healy said.

However, Healy said the Lieu bill could also “embolden” someone at the top of the chain of command, like the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, giving them “legal cover” to intervene and block a blatantly unconstitutional order. There is already a precedent for this: Healy cites the famous story [16] about Defense Secretary James Schlesinger informing the military to disregard any orders [17] to fire nuclear weapons that came from an increasingly paranoid President Nixon unless he or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had confirmed them.

So far, despite the uproar over Trump’s whimsical attitude towards nuclear weapons, both bills have never made it out of their respective committees. But there are other ways to reform the system. Blair says there is merit to the idea of having more than one person confirm the order, regardless of the circumstances. That could be the vice president, the secretary of defense, or even a congressional leader, like the speaker of the House.

“This is to prevent a single individual from playing the role of nuclear monarch and railroading the system, as I described it to you, into ordering a civilization-ending nuclear attack on some country,” Blair said. Until that happens, though, Armageddon will remain in the hands of one man.

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, R.I. Email him at[email protected], and follow him on Twitter @bealenews.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Ending the Reign of the Nuclear Monarchs"

#1 Comment By Frank On February 12, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

Good thing we have Mr. Trump in the White House. What could possibly go wrong?

#2 Comment By Michael On February 12, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

My thinking is that adding a second person would likely never allow the time to launch before the incoming missiles hit. If an enemy knew they could deliver their blow prior to any counter-attack being made, that might create an incentive to try to take out most of our ability to retaliate. Perhaps it is better if the enemy never be sure what the president will do or how quickly and forcefully he or she will respond.

#3 Comment By LouisM On February 12, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

In a more ideal world, it would be more appropriate for there to be an agreement of 3: President Majority Leader of Senate, Majority Leader of House. A checks and balances as was intended by the Congress declaring war not the President but its rare for the American people to have 3 competent people in the 2 branches of govt. I couldn’t imagine a Pelosi making such a decision unless someone explained nuclear bombs would mess her hair, smudge her lipstick. Could anyone imagine Schumer making such a decision? I wouldn’t trust his yes/no vote.

It has to be the Presidents decision and the president will have to take the repercussions particularly if there is a counter strike.

#4 Comment By Stephen J. On February 12, 2018 @ 3:11 pm

The “Nuclear Monarchs” will end it all for everyone.

I believe Nuclear War is only a push button away. Therefore, I ask

“Will the War Agenda of the War Criminals Result in Nuclear War?”

And will this be the end of it all?

When the nuclear missiles start flying
The result will be many millions dying
Planet earth will be all aflame
Nothing will ever be the same

“Our leaders” will be hiding in their safe quarters
Hoping to escape the deadly horrors
Mad men of the earth who caused this fiery hell
“ Honourable” idiots with nothing left to sell

Useless scumbags in a now useless world
Their “victory” dreams are now fulfilled
Now they have nowhere to run or go
The stupid bastards now reap what they sow

Sadly, many innocent people will also suffer and die
Victims of the madmen who sent hellfire from the sky
Hell on earth becomes the final solution
Courtesy of maniacs who pay no restitution

This is what happens when war criminals rule
And people obey these bloody fools!
A corrupt system brings death and dying
This is what happens when the Nukes start flying


And the end of it all.

#5 Comment By Patrick On February 12, 2018 @ 3:32 pm

And would not the groggy President be in transit to a shelter fortified against nuclear attack during whatever time is left of the six minutes till impact of a sub launch of a weapon from the Atlantic?

#6 Comment By paradoctor On February 12, 2018 @ 5:20 pm

Hear, hear!

#7 Comment By Pax On February 12, 2018 @ 8:01 pm

Nuclear energy is real,
exploding nukes maybe not.


#8 Comment By paradoctor On February 12, 2018 @ 9:40 pm

Hear, hear!

But I would say that it’s worse than a nuclear monarch; it’s a nuclear god-king. The power to kill civilization is fit for a god, or a demon, but _not_ for a human being.

I see America’s tragedy as starting in August 1945. State-sponsored global thermonuclear terrorism is a crime against humanity, and it has consequences.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 12, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

i am not sure there is any way out of the dilemma, nor is it even clear that we should create one.

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 13, 2018 @ 6:55 am

It is the distillation of that purist form of evil, war, as those scientists who built it realized at Los Alamos. For that realization they were then banned as national security risks by the madmen bent on holding the world hostage to their whims, through threatening the end of the world.

No genuine Christian, following after our God who so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, so that none might perish, but have everlasting life, could exult in the ultimate destruction of human life, an Armageddon. In fact, for those who do so, God asks, what does the day of the Lord have to do with you? Billions of us will die, each a human being as important and valuable as the megalomaniacal rulers who contemplate ending cities, states, nations, a world.

Prophesy has it for millenia that this world will end in fire. At one time that seemed beyond belief, yet now that probability hovers near, a dark shade of malevolence seeking it. So many will suffer momentarily, yet those who participate in provoking and ordering the destruction will find their souls endlessly experiencing that moment of the holocaust of all nature, for an eternity.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 13, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

“I see America’s tragedy as starting in August 1945. State-sponsored global thermonuclear terrorism is a crime against humanity, and it has consequences.”

Try 1964 . . . and the subsequent hijacking of civil rights by women, homosexual practitioners, and a bevy of “metoo” miscreants to justify killing children in the womb, free love and an array of personal fitting agendas in the name of new morality.

#12 Comment By JeffK On February 13, 2018 @ 7:11 pm

Michael says:
February 12, 2018 at 1:52 pm

“My thinking is that adding a second person would likely never allow the time to launch before the incoming missiles hit. ”

I believe the defect in this logic is clear. We don’t have any effective deterrence to a first strike from either Russia or China. Once launched, those missiles will make their way to US targets and kill millions. Therefore, being able to launch a land-based counter attack within 6 minutes will do nothing to help with survival in the US.

Our nuclear triad (land, air, and submarine missiles), however, will remain with sufficient capability to annihilate both Russia and China, even if the US mainland suffers devastating destruction.

The president’s ability to launch a devastating retaliatory strike within minutes of detecting a hostile launch won’t help the US one bit.

I believe a better strategy, based on game theory, is to put a delaying mechanism into our ability to launch a retaliatory strike. This would prevent an unhinged president (Trump?) from launching preemptively. It would also delay launching a retaliatory strike based upon a false alarm.

And I believe there has been at least one case where a false alarm of a Russian attack was generated by US surveillance systems, but cooler heads within the organization waited until the alarm was confirmed as false.

Requiring the president to wait for the actual detonation of hostile nuclear weapons on US soil may seem to be foolish. However, the US will retain the capability to destroy whomever attacks us, even after their missiles hit. Therefore, the need to be able to launch quickly in the face of an attack seems to add zero safety to the system. Instead, it seems to build a level of instability into the system that isn’t worth the risk.

#13 Comment By paradoctor On February 14, 2018 @ 10:32 am

EliteCommInc: Stop whinging about relative trivia. Which is worse: women getting paid as much as you, or your body on fire?

You are not arguing in good faith. Shame on you.

#14 Comment By b. On February 14, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

On a loosely related note, there are plenty of studies regarding the consequences of a large-scale nuclear exchange between Russia and the US, or even India-Pakistan.

Once a President – or an officer – faces the fact that deterrence has failed, what is the moral case for effectively ending mankind? No amount of retaliation will increase mankind’s chances of survival, and every nuke launched will in fact increase the likelihood that well over 6 billion noncombatants will perish eventually as well. What is the moral duty of a person able to prevent even on part of that act happening?

The paradox of deterrence is that it has to turn civilization into a “suicide pact”, in Scalia’s unprincipled words, and that we committed ourselves to the kind of “Goetterdaemmerung” atrocity that Hitler could only wish for when he made his last “stand”.

Once nukes start falling, any retaliation is nothing but an narcicisstic exercise to bring about the final collective punishment. If we ever settled for this proposition as the “bedrock” of our civilization, we’d prove ourselves to be incapable of being civilized.

#15 Comment By b. On February 14, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

“Is the military or is anyone in the nuclear command-and-control chain going to disregard his order?”
This is, legally, a convenient and idiotic fiction, possibly a lie, and it is also ahistorical. Practically speaking, with respect to the US nuclear forces, it might however be correct.
It is the sworn duty of every officer in the US military to uphold the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, up to and including the President. This means that the individual officer is also required to disobey illegal orders.
Unfortunately, the UCMJ holds responsible the individual officer not only for the consequences of obeying an illegal order, but also for disobeying what the military tribunal deems “legal” regardless of law and Constitution (especially in the context of international treaties that have become US law by ratification). In other words, all the risk is placed on the officer – I am not aware of any consequences for the Commander in Chief resulting from having given an illegal order.
In comparison to the other manifold risks taken by military personnel that are not shared by the President, I would propose that it is not only reasonable, but mandatory to expect general staff to refuse illegal orders, no matter the possible consequences for themselves.
The fiction perpetrated in this article is incompatible with history given that there have been several instances in which Soviet and even US servicemen – at ranks far below that of a General – disobeyed standing orders and violated procedure, preventing accidental launch and use of nuclear weapons.
Given the precedents, and given that the only reason we are having a discussion like this in the first place is the fact that some soldiers were indeed able to “not follow orders” regardless of the consequences for themselves, I consider the proposition that “nobody could – practically or legally – stop the President” arrant b*llsh*t, and a letter of indulgence.
We should expect ever more from brass the more bling they get to carry.

#16 Comment By paradoctor On February 14, 2018 @ 5:00 pm

In this thread, EliteIncComm gaslit us about moral reality; Pax one-upped by gaslighting us about physical reality.

Gaslighting is foul. Conservatives should have nothing to do with it; for it conserves neither life, liberty, property nor honor.

#17 Comment By Andrew On February 19, 2018 @ 12:23 am

I do see the Constitutional-related problem arising from letting one man have reign over a civilization-ending weapon. I would though, caution against banning the “first use” rule to nuclear weapons. When in a very precarious situation of needing to assure an attacking country mutual destruction, there is absolutely no time for silly, little, petty conservations of whether this is constitutional or not. When one nation attacks, the receiving nation needs to respond ASAP. Instead, have it become only acceptable to return fire if a certain list of people, besides the president like VP or speaker of the house as listed above, give the green light.