It’s time to get rid of the nuclear button.
As Donald Trump would say, “many people are saying” that having Trump’s finger on the metaphorical nuclear button makes them uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. Of all the things Washington dislikes about Trump, the prospect of nuclear power at his fingertip has become one of the most concerning aspects of his potential presidency.
Would a President Trump really have absolute authority to unleash the U.S. nuclear arsenal at his whim?
We can debate Trump’s temperament, but this much is clear: There is no realistic way to stop a determined president from going nuclear. If Trump wins the White House and wants to start a nuclear war, it’s almost as easy as calling Domino’s Pizza. The next U.S. president — as have all presidents in the atomic age — will have the sole authority to unleash nuclear Armageddon on the world, potentially ending civilization as we know it. Within minutes, the president could unleash the equivalent of more than 20,000 Hiroshima bombs.
This is by design. The reality is that when it comes to nuclear weapons, presidents have almost complete autonomy with essentially no institutional checks and balances. The flight time of a ballistic missile from Russia to Washington is half an hour. With just minutes to make life-and-death decisions, there is no time for interagency meetings, congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, or UN votes. It’s lonely at the top. Bruce Blair, a former Air Force nuclear missile launch officer, said “the presidency has evolved into something akin to a nuclear monarchy.”
Has Trump proven himself worthy of this immense responsibility? No way. At a December debate, Trump tripped over a question about America’s nuclear arsenal, rambling that “nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” revealing that he had not done his homework. Trump talks about promoting the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, ignoring a decades-old bipartisan consensus against proliferation.
Even so, the world has come close to nuclear war under leaders who supposedly knew what they were doing. President John F. Kennedy brought us the Cuban missile crisis. President Richard Nixon’s top advisors, concerned about his mental stability during the Watergate scandal, tried to limit his nuclear authority. President Jimmy Carter was within minutes of having to decide how to respond to a Russian nuclear attack when aides realized it was a false alarm. Is anyone really up to the task?
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who walk and talk very much like Trump, already have their finger on the button to launch weapons that could be used against the United States.
Simply put, the risks of having nuclear weapons ready to launch within minutes outweigh any perceived benefits, especially if the sole decision-maker cannot be trusted.
What can be done? The “nuclear button” is actually a briefcase known as the “football.” It is with the president at all times, and contains nuclear strike options and a card with authentication codes. These codes allow the president to issue orders to the Joint Chiefs. The president must also have a special code printed on a card, called the “biscuit,” that is in the president’s possession 24-7.
Once the president issues orders, the well-oiled military machine takes over. The orders travel down the chain of command until they reach launch officers in missiles silos and on submarines, who have trained for this moment. Only widespread mutiny could stop this process from reaching its grim end. The whole process would take just minutes.
But it does not have to be this way. It would be better if the president took more time to assess the situation, to make sure a perceived attack was real and not a false alarm.
The main reason the president has nuclear autonomy is to allow him or her to launch the weapons quickly, before a surprise Russian attack could wipe out U.S. land-based forces. But this is a vestige of the past. Even if all U.S. land-based missiles were destroyed, the United States could still respond to an attack with nuclear weapons based on submarines, safe under the ocean. These sea-based weapons alone would deter any Russian attack. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry says often that U.S. land-based ballistic missiles are redundant and should be retired.
Once these vulnerable land-based missiles are gone, the president would no longer be faced with the time-urgent decision to launch them before they could be destroyed by incoming missiles. And since sea-based weapons are invulnerable, there would be no need to launch quickly. The president (or, if she or he is killed, a surrogate) could wait days.
At a minimum, the United States should take its nuclear weapons off high alert. Last week, more than 90 prominent American scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, sent a letter to President Obama warning him that keeping weapons ready to launch “increases the risk that one or more nuclear-armed missiles could be launched accidentally, without authorization, or by mistake in response to a false warning of an incoming attack. A launch could, in turn, trigger a retaliatory nuclear attack.”
The United States could also announce that it will never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, but only to deter their use by others. This could serve to reassure Moscow and, if Russia reciprocates, help both nations back away from the nuclear brink.
In the brave new world of Trump, having nuclear weapons ready to go within minutes, on the orders of just one person, is not worth the risk.