Tuesday afternoon, humanity got a stark reminder of what can happen if a hotheaded ex-game show host is given control over a nuclear arsenal. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Donald Trump said while vacationing in New Jersey. And if these threats continue, Trump vowed, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
North Korea almost immediately responded with a new threat, announcing that it may attack a U.S. Air Force base in Guam.
Should Trump order a nuclear attack on North Korea, there is nothing in our launch protocols restraining him or providing a check on his ability to do so. Our nuclear launch protocols are designed for a swift, unquestioning response to a presidential order — not for deliberation and caution. Trump can end all life on Earth, and our system has no built in a fail safe to stop him.
As former Secretary of Defense William Perry told the podcast Radiolab, “the system is set up so only the president has the authority to order a nuclear war. Nobody has the right to countermand that decision.”
Nobody. Not the Defense Secretary. Not the vice president. Not the generals. Not the individual officers tasked with launching the missiles. Donald Trump alone decides whether to set off a nuclear holocaust.
The reason for this is that our nuclear protocols were designed for a very different era, when the threat of an external enemy loomed much larger than the threat of a madman president.
America’s Cold War nuclear strategy rested on the premise of mutually assured destruction. If the Soviets believed that, within an hour of any strike on the United States, Moscow would be wiped off the map, the Soviets would be smart enough not to attack the United States. But this threat only worked if the Soviets (or the Chinese, or any other hostile nuclear power) genuinely believed that we could get our missiles in the air before death rained down upon us.
One implication of this strategy is that, if the Soviets knew that one of the president’s subordinates might not immediately carry out a launch order, then the Soviets would be more likely to launch. Our safety depended, or, at least, so the theory went, upon our adversaries thinking that we actually were crazy enough to meet genocide with genocide. And that no one would stop the machinery of death from moving forward.
For this reason, many of our launch protocols are designed to prevent an individual’s conscience from avoiding a nuclear holocaust.
To give just one example, many U.S. missile silos are controlled by five teams of two officers each. Once a confirmed launch order is received, any two of these teams can trigger the strike. Thus, even if 60 percent of the officers refuse the launch order, the nuclear attack will still happen.
Our protocols, moreover, aren’t just designed to ensure that the president’s order is carried out. They are designed to ensure that it is carried out quickly.
Suppose that the Soviet Union had decided to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. Missiles launched from the Russian mainland would reach their targets in about half an hour. Submarine-based missiles could make impact in less than 12 minutes. By the time the United States verified that we were, indeed, under attack, the president could have as few as six minutes to make a decision whether to retaliate.
For this reason, the process for carrying out a nuclear strike favors speed and disfavors deliberation. If Trump receives uncertain intelligence suggesting that a nuclear strike is imminent, the mercurial president could make a decision in minutes or even seconds. And there is no guarantee that calmer voices within his administration will be in the room when this happens.
To be clear, there is one institution that does have the power to restrict the president — Congress. And, indeed, a bill known as the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017 provides that “the President may not use the Armed Forces of the United States to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress that expressly authorizes such strike.” If Trump appeared likely to launch such a strike soon, his cabinet and the vice president could also temporarily remove him pursuant to the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.
But once a launch is ordered, it is almost certainly too late. Congress could not pass a new law fast enough to prevent the launch, and the cabinet may not even know that the decision has been made until the missiles have already launched.