Senate Committee Hearing on Presidential Nuclear Strike Authority

Published Nov 14, 2017

Report: Some Nuclear-Armed Nations Have More Inclusive Decision-Making Procedures than the United States for Using Nuclear Weapons

Senate Committee Hearing Tomorrow on Presidential Nuclear Strike Authority

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on the president’s authority to launch a nuclear attack, the role of Congress in such a decision, and the process and timeline under which such decisions are executed.

As committee members deliberate over the president’s powers, they should keep in mind that the nine nations that possess nuclear weapons have a variety of procedures for deciding to use them, according to a white paper released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):

  • The leaders of France, North Korea and the United States have unilateral authority to order a nuclear strike.
  • In Russia, it is likely that any decision to use nuclear weapons would require the president, the defense minister and the chief of general staff to sign off. Each have access to the country’s nuclear codes. It is unclear whether all three are required to order a launch, but the arrangement is designed to prevent one person from issuing a launch command.
  • China’s nuclear launch protocol is largely unknown. However, a 2004 Chinese military text, translated by UCS, suggests that the Central Military Commission—or perhaps its chair, the Chinese president, alone—holds the authority to launch. China stores its missiles and warheads separately, so any launch decision would take time to implement, allowing the commission to deliberate.
  • Both India and Pakistan established councils to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. In India, the final call reportedly rests with the prime minister. In Pakistan, the council would seek to reach a consensus. If that were not possible, a majority is required to order a launch.
  • Information about Israel’s nuclear policies is limited, but according to multiple experts, no single individual or organization has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
  • In Britain, the prime minister can issue a launch order, but the queen is the formal commander-in-chief. If officials in the Ministry of Defence received a launch order that they judged to be irrational, they could lawfully appeal to the queen to overturn it. Parliament also could halt a launch by calling for a vote of no confidence, which would require the prime minister’s immediate resignation.

The different procedures that nuclear-armed states would use to order a nuclear launch demonstrate there are viable alternatives to the U.S. decision-making process enabling the president to unilaterally order a nuclear strike for any reason—or for no reason.

Legislation introduced this year would require Congress to declare war before the president could order a first nuclear strike. The president would still wield sole authority for retaliatory strikes in the event of a nuclear attack, a problem UCS says the United States must also address.

“The current situation is untenable, and has been for decades,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. “It is long past time for meaningful change. Requiring any decision to be made by even a relatively small group of people—including members of the administration—such as the vice president, and secretaries of state and defense—and congressional leaders—such as the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate—would prevent a single person from making an irrational or impulsive decision to use nuclear weapons.” 

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