Monday, March 1, 2021

Relinquishing Presidential Nuclear Authority

While the world is distracted with all things COVID, a recent development in Washington could prove to be a game changing development in the nuclear weapons "world".  

Let's start with this graphic from Statista showing how a United States nuclear strike works:



Currently, the sole authority to launch a nuclear strike rests with the United States President.  With this absolute power, the President gives the order and the Pentagon is obliged to follow the order.   The President does not need the concurrence of his/her military advisors and cannot be overruled by the military or Congress.  Members of the military are bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice "to follow orders provided that they are legal and have come from a competent authority" as shown in this quote from testimony on the authority for the use of nuclear weapons given by General C. Robert Kehler (Ret.) to the Senate Foreign Affairs committee in 2017:


Given the "competent authority" rider, one has to wonder who in the Department of Defense will ascertain whether a sitting President is competent to make the decision to launch nuclear weapons that will surely result in Armageddon.

A Congressional Research Service In Focus publication from December 2020 outlines the command and control aspects of America's nuclear inventory.  Here is a quote outlining the mechanism in detail:

"The NCCS collects information on threats to the United States, communicates that information through the chain of command to the President, advises the President on options for a response, communicates the President’s chosen response to the forces in the field, and controls the targeting and application of those forces. The process begins with the


radars, satellites, and processing systems that provide “unambiguous, reliable, accurate, timely, survivable, and enduring” warning about attacks on the United States, its allies, and its forces overseas.


In a scenario where the system identifies an attack or an anomalous event, the President would participate in an emergency communications conference with the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military advisors. They would offer the President details and an assessment of the possible incoming attack, while the STRATCOM Commander would explain the President’s options for a retaliatory attack.


The President would then evaluate and respond to the information provided in the conference, then decide whether to authorize the use of U.S. nuclear weapons. He would communicate his choices and provide this authorization through a communications device known as the nuclear “football”—a suitcase carried by a military aid who is always near the President. The suitcase is equipped with communication tools and a book with prepared war plans for certain targets. The President could choose from these prepared plans or, time permitting, ask STRATCOM to prepare an alternative.


If the President did choose to respond with a nuclear attack, he would identify himself to military officials at the Pentagon with codes unique to him. These codes are recorded on an ID card, known as the “biscuit,” that the President carries at all times. He would then transmit the launch order to the Pentagon and STRATCOM. The Secretary of Defense would possibly contribute the process by confirming that the order came from the President, but this role could also be filled by an officer in the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon. STRATCOM would implement the order by preparing to launch the weapons needed for the selected option. According to Bruce Blair, an expert on U.S. command and control, once the order is “transmitted to the war room, they would execute it in a minute or so.” If an immediate response was selected, “the (land-based) Minuteman missiles will fire in two minutes. The submarines will fire in 15 minutes.” Blair also noted that there is no way to reverse the order."

If a number of House Democrats get their way, this reality could change.  Here is a letter from Congress to Joe Biden outlining the changes that 31 Democratic Members of Congress, spearheaded by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (son of former CIA Director and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta) would like to see implemented:


While some blame the Trump presidency for the potential changes, in fact, one could just as easily question the cognitive abilities of President Joe Biden to make a clear-headed decision in a time of extreme stress if, indeed, he is having cognitive issues.


Sadly, these changes don't address the core issue; the threat of the use of nuclear weapons as part of the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.  While these proposals add steps to the nuclear engagement strategy that is already in place, it does little to actually reduce America's reliance on a modernized nuclear arsenal that runs the risk of destroying the planet.  With a nuclear weapon inventory that looks like this:

...the proposed changes to the Presidential nuclear weapons authority should provide us with cold comfort.

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