After Donald Trump took the oath of office last week, he was given the codes that allow him to order the launch of nuclear weapons.
At that point, Trump inherited a deeply flawed system: one that gives sole and absolute authority to the president to launch U.S. nuclear weapons — and puts extreme time pressure on him to make that decision.
During the presidential campaign, the public seemed shocked to learn that the U.S. president has the authority to decide — on his or her own, for whatever reason — to launch nuclear weapons, and that no one has the authority to veto that decision. There are military and political experts in advisory roles, but the final authority rests just with the president.
It’s time to change that policy. The reasons behind it are now outdated.
On at least one occasion White House officials were worried enough about the president’s judgment that they tried to insert roadblocks in the way of a potential launch decision. That was in 1974, when the Watergate crisis had rendered President Richard Nixon depressed, emotionally unstable and drinking heavily. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger instructed the military to route “any emergency order” — such as a nuclear launch order — through him first.
The main reason for giving the president launch authority was the concern that a decision to launch a nuclear strike might need to be made very quickly.
During the Cold War, officials feared a Soviet first strike against U.S. nuclear weapons. In response, the United States built warning sensors and created options to launch land-based missiles very quickly on warning of an attack before the Soviet missiles could land and destroy U.S. missiles in their silos.
To do this, the United States put its missiles on hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within a matter of minutes. This system gives the president only about 10 minutes to decide whether to launch. False alarms have plagued the system in the past — leading to the risk of a mistaken launch.
Because of this extreme time pressure, the system was designed so that the launch decision — arguably the biggest decision in history — is made by a single person, the president.
And this Cold War system is still with us today.
Everywhere President Trump goes, he will be followed by a military officer carrying a briefcase (called the “football”) containing everything he needs to order a launch within minutes, including secure communications equipment and descriptions of nuclear attack options.
Of course, the president could also order a nuclear launch even if there was no incoming attack. And no one has the authority to stop him from doing so.
Today, however, the military has confidence in the survivability of missiles based on submarines at sea, which carry more than half the U.S. deployed arsenal of nuclear weapons. Since these forces are not vulnerable to a first strike, retaliation — and therefore deterrence — does not depend on launching quickly (if it ever did).
This fact allows several important changes in U.S. policy.
First, it means the United States can take its land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert and eliminate options for launching on warning of attack.
This one sensible change would significantly reduce one of biggest nuclear threats to the U.S. public by eliminating the risk of a mistaken launch, which would almost certainly lead to a retaliatory strike. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both called for an end to hair-trigger alert, but didn’t change the current system.
President Trump should make this happen. His recent statements show he is interested in working with Russia to reduce the nuclear threat. Vladimir Putin may agree to take Russia’s missiles off alert since he knows that weaknesses in Russia’s early warning system increase the risk of a mistaken Russian nuclear launch. But Trump should not give Putin a veto over taking this step: If Russia drags its feet, the United States should not wait to act.
Second, it means that a launch decision does not have to be made within a few minutes.
Removing this time pressure eliminates the rationale for giving the president the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. Instead, the United States can establish a process to involve others in any decision to use nuclear weapons.
Requiring a decision to be made by even a relatively small group of people — say, the president, vice president, speaker of the House, and secretaries of state and defense — would prevent a single person from making an irrational or impulsive decision, but would still involve a small enough group to be manageable in a crisis.
Some members of Congress and outside experts have argued over the years that any first-use of nuclear weapons should require a declaration of war by Congress. Thus, a decision to use nuclear weapons — except in response to a nuclear attack — would require the approval of elected officials and would not be solely up to the president.
People were right to feel shocked when they learned that this potentially civilization-ending authority is in the hands of one person.
The current system must be changed — no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office.