President Donald Trump returns to the White House after playing a round of golf, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Washington.

President Donald Trump returns to the White House after playing a round of golf, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Washington. AP / Evan Vucci

A Nuclear Strike Should Require More than One Person’s Order

We should require a second voice when it comes to ordering first use of nuclear arms.

Donald Trump has proven to be volatile, erratic, vengeful and prone to angry outbursts. Last week, as the vote count pushed his reelection bid out of sight, he reportedly fell into a dark mood. At the time, Mr. Trump had—and still has—sole authority to order the launch of U.S. nuclear weapons, just as he had in October, when his medications for COVID had side effects including mania, euphoria and a sense of invulnerability.

Do we want Mr. Trump, or any president, alone making the most consequential decision that an American president likely would ever make?

As a Foreign Service officer working on arms control, I had the opportunity to get close to nuclear weapons on three occasions. One involved viewing, through a thick, shatter-proof window, two technicians working on a warhead for a Trident ballistic missile. Our escort noted that, should one leave the room, the other would also have to leave. A “two-man” rule applied around nuclear weapons.

Another time, on a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, our group saw a nuclear-armed cruise missile in its canister with an attached cable. Ship’s officers explained that, if the canister moved slightly, alarms would sound and other sailors would quickly arrive, some with weapons. A “two- (or more) man” rule applied.

The third time, on board an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine at sea, I was offered the chance to climb into a Trident missile (yes, that is possible, and yes, I did). When the hatch to the missile was open, standard protocol provided for the presence of two armed sailors. Again, the “two-man” rule.

The point of these vignettes is that the U.S. military as a rule takes great care about nuclear weapons. Mistakes end careers. In 2007, a B-52 bomber flew from North Dakota to Louisiana, unwittingly carrying six missiles with nuclear warheads. When the dust settled, the secretary of the Air Force and Air Force chief of staff had resigned, and a host of other officers and personnel had been relieved of command or transferred. 

At only one level does the “two-man” rule not apply: the president, as commander-in-chief, has sole authority to order the use of U.S. nuclear arms. There is not even a requirement that the president consult someone. The always nearby “football” carries the briefing materials, codes and communications allowing the president to launch nuclear weapons. Were the president give the order, the system would rapidly transmit it. Intercontinental ballistic missiles could blast out of their silos within minutes. 

If nuclear weapons are used first against America or its allies, it makes sense to allow the president sole authority to order a nuclear response. However, current U.S. policy envisages the possibility that the United States would use nuclear weapons first, perhaps in a conventional conflict that goes badly or in response to a non-nuclear strategic attack. (Whether U.S. first use makes sense is a separate question.)

When President-elect Biden takes office, we can breathe easier. Nothing guarantees, however, that a future president might not have something more like Mr. Trump’s temperament—and he reportedly is mulling a 2024 run.

We should require a second voice when it comes to ordering first use of nuclear arms.

One way would require the president to secure Congressional approval. The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. That, however, could prove cumbersome, particularly if Congress were not in session.

An alternative would designate an individual to share the president’s authority, in effect, to create a “two-man” (“two-person”) rule at the top when it involves nuclear first use. This second person should be outside the president’s chain of command — no cabinet members or military officers, though the vice president might be an exception. Other possibilities include the speaker of the House, Senate majority leader or chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The designated individual would need briefings and something similar to the president’s “football”—for use only if the president considered ordering the first use of nuclear arms. Presumably, circumstances would appear sufficiently dire for U.S. or allied security that both would agree on the need to go nuclear. If, on the other hand, the designated individual did not agree, the default would delay the order. That would still leave the president the opportunity to make his or her case to the designated second.

True, introducing the requirement for a second vote would impinge on presidential authority as far as the first use of nuclear weapons is concerned. It would, however, relieve us of the worry that a future president, perhaps on strong medications or acting out in pique, might alone order an action that we could all come to regret. 

Steven Pifer is a William J. Perry Research Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and a retired Foreign Service officer.