(message from Harry)

The U.S. President has sole authority to authorize the use of
U.S. nuclear weapons. This authority is inherent in his
constitutional role as Commander in Chief. The President
can seek counsel from his military advisors; those advisors
are then required to transmit and implement the orders
authorizing nuclear use. But, as General John Hyten, the
Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM),
noted during his September 2016 confirmation hearing, his
job is to give advice, while the authority to order a launch
lies with the president.
The President does not need the concurrence of either his
military advisors or the U.S. Congress to order the launch
of nuclear weapons. In addition, neither the military nor
Congress can overrule these orders. As former
STRATCOM Commander General Robert Kehler noted in
a recent article, members of the military are bound by the
Uniform Code of Military Justice “to follow orders
provided they are legal and have come from competent
authority.” The President could delegate the authority to
authorize the use of nuclear weapons to others in the chainof-command
(an option considered necessary during the
Cold War), but they could not overrule the President.
According to the Nuclear Matters Handbook, published by
the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for
Nuclear Matters, the elements of the nuclear command and
control system (NCCS) “support the President, through his
military commanders, in exercising presidential authority
over U.S. nuclear weapons operations.” The system relies
on “a collection of activities, processes, and procedures
performed by appropriate military commanders and support
personnel that, through the chain of command, allow for
senior-level decisions on nuclear weapons employment.”
Specifically, the NCCS provides the President “with the
means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis
and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.”
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 establish the legality of the
order by confirming that it came from the President, and
STRATCOM would implement the order by preparing to
launch the weapons needed for the selected option.
According to Bruce Blair, an former missile launch control
officer considered 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 notes that there is no way to reverse the order.
As General Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA
noted, the system “is designed for speed and decisiveness.
It’s not designed to debate the decision.” Long-range
missiles attacking the United States from Russian territory
could reach U.S. territory in around 30 minutes; sea-based
systems deployed closer to U.S shores might arrive in half
that time. If the United States wanted to retaliate before
U.S. weapons, or, more importantly, the U.S. command and
control system, were degraded by an attack, then the entire
process of identifying, assessing, communicating, deciding,
and launching would have to take place in less than that
amount of time. Given that some of the time would be taken
up by mechanical or administrative steps, analysts estimate
that the President would have less than 10 minutes to
absorb the information, review his options, and make his
The United States planned for such a scenario during the
Cold War, when the Soviet Union deployed thousands of
Defense Primer nuclear warheads that could reach targets in the United
States. U.S. doctrine argued that, to deter a Soviet attack,
the United States would need to be able to retaliate even if
the Soviet Union launched a massive attack with little
warning. This scenario, and the short time lines, would have
provided the President with the option of launching U.S.
weapons before most of the attacking warheads detonated
on U.S. soil.
But, even during the Cold War, an attack or anomalous
event was not the only possible scenario for the start of a
nuclear war, and a massive U.S. response launched in under
30 minutes was not the only option available to the
President. If the nuclear war escalated out of a conflict in
Europe, or if the Soviet Union launched a more measured
attack, the President might have more time to assess the
threat and determine his response. Moreover, because U.S.
bombers could fly away from their bases earlier in a crisis
or conflict and U.S. submarine-based missiles might
survive an attack on U.S. territory, the President could
decide to delay the U.S. response. Nevertheless, some
analysts have speculated that a launch under attack was the
dominant option during the Cold War, and that the
command and control system was designed to permit such a
prompt launch of U.S. nuclear weapons.
In the 25 years since the end of the Cold War, the United
States has reviewed and revised its plans for the
employment of nuclear weapons several times. According
to unclassified reports, these reviews have added a number
of preplanned options to the plans available to the
President. While some options probably still provide
responses to a large-scale attack from a nation, like Russia,
with a large nuclear force, others might provide a range of
options for more measured and discriminate attacks. In
addition, even though the plans likely include options for a
prompt response in the face of an unexpected attack, they
also likely include a range of options for delayed responses.
As a result, although the prompt launch options may have
dominated U.S. planning during the Cold War, they may no
longer dominate.
Another scenario could see the United States choose to use
nuclear weapons prior to a nuclear attack against the United
States or its allies, on a time line that did not reflect an
imminent nuclear attack against the United States. The
United States has never declared a “no first use” policy.
Nevertheless, recently, some Members of Congress and
analysts outside government have questioned whether the
Commander-in-Chief should have the sole authority to
launch a nuclear attack in all circumstances. They agree that
the President would not have the time to consult with
Congress or seek approval from other officials if the United
States were under attack with nuclear weapons. But, in an
environment where the threat of a massive nuclear attack
from an adversary like Russia is greatly diminished relative
to the Cold War, they argue that the President could take
the time to consult with Congress before launching nuclear
weapons in less extreme circumstances.
Some analysts outside the U.S. government have also
questioned whether the United States should retain the
option to launch nuclear weapons promptly because, they
argue, the time pressures could lead to the accidental or
inadvertent start of a nuclear war. They note that the United
States received false warning of nuclear attack several times
during the Cold War, and if the President had responded to
that warning within the 30-minute time line of a nuclear
attack, it would have triggered global nuclear war. If the
President could not launch the weapons in such haste, he
would necessarily have the time to wait for more accurate
or less ambiguous information.
Others, however, argue that there is nothing inherently
destabilizing or dangerous in the prompt launch options.
Because the United States maintains bombers and
submarines that could survive a first strike, the President
already has options to delay a response and await additional
information. In addition, in the current security
environment, a President and his advisors would be
unlikely to interpret ambiguous warning information as
evidence of an all-out attack from Russia or another nation.
Instead, they note that the presence of both prompt and
delayed options bolsters deterrence by providing the
President with the flexibility to choose the appropriate
response to an attack on the United States or its allies.
(with thanks to Harry)

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