The need to reform the nuclear weapons launch approval process
In November, the American people will elect not just a President who signs and vetoes legislation, but the Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces. This distinction is critical because the checks and balances in the Constitution largely go away when the President acts as a military commander. That was an acceptable trade-off when weapons of war were muskets and cannons. Today, the President is vested with the unparalleled responsibility to order a nuclear strike without approval from Congress or the courts.
When I served on active duty in the United States Air Force, one of my duties was to teach the Law of War. Under both international and domestic law, the United States is authorized to have nuclear weapons. To initiate a launch of weapons of mass destruction, it requires the approval of the National Command Authority (NCA). That’s an impressive sounding name, but the NCA consists of only two people: The President and his political appointee, the Secretary of Defense.
Congress can reject a President’s use of force, but only two months later. Under the War Powers Act of 1973, the President needs to obtain congressional authorization for the use of military force after 60 days of a military conflict. Published reports state an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead can strike within half an hour. By the time Congress is even authorized to act after the President has launched nuclear weapons, there may no longer be a civilized world in which to do so.
The hair-trigger aspect of our nuclear weapons system was aptly described in 2008 by Vice President Dick Cheney, who stated the President “could launch a kind of devastating attack the world’s never seen … He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in.”
The Framers of the Constitution designed a system of checks and balances that limit the President’s authority. For example, if the President wants to fund and build a wall along our border, he would need Congress—which is vested with the Power of the Purse—to concur. If the President wants to deport people based on their religion, the judiciary would step in and apply the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.
The Framers also granted the authority to declare war to Congress—not wanting to leave matters of war and peace to the whims of any individual. The speed and mass lethality of warfare in the nuclear age has fundamentally changed that paradigm.
The current lack of accountability in America’s nuclear launch approval process had not previously been cause for much alarm. Until now.
For the last seven decades of our nuclearized world, the American public believed that our Commander in Chief was rational and would not act impulsively. Under our nuclear launch approval process, the only real check preventing nuclear Armageddon were the personal qualities of the Commander in Chief: temperament, judgment, and knowledge.
The Republican nominee for President has exhibited behavior that should give every American great concern about handing him the nuclear launch codes. Donald Trump believes in conspiracies. He has thin skin and is impulsive. He has shown an incredible lack of knowledge about world affairs, including not knowing Russia had invaded Ukraine in 2014. He does not appear to understand the concept of America’s nuclear triad. And he reportedly asked a foreign policy advisor three times: “if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them.”
But the structural deficiency of America’s nuclear launch protocol extends beyond Donald Trump. There may be future presidential nominees who exhibit similar problematic qualities. Or an American President may become mentally ill while in office. Entrusting our entire nuclear launch approval process to just two people in the Executive Branch is simply fraught with too much risk.
Congress must work to reduce the structural defects in America’s nuclear launch protocols. One reform would be to require more people—who are not beholden to the President—to concur prior to launching a nuclear strike, such as the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. It is time to put appropriate checks and balances on the one decision that could annihilate civilization as we know it.