UCS Blog - The Equation (Nuclear Weapons)

Should the President Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack? In the Age of Trump, Experts Offer an Alternate Plan

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More than a million people in Hawaii thought it was time to say their final alohas. A state cellphone alert announced that nuclear missiles were heading their way. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii,” the January 6 text read. “Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

Fortunately, it was a false alarm. It turned out that a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee had pushed the wrong button during an early morning shift-change safety drill. At a press conference later that day, Hawaii Gov. David Ige promised that no single person would be able to send such a warning again. The next day, the agency announced it now would require that two people issue an alert.

Good idea. But an even better idea would be to take the same approach to the US nuclear button, the one that President Trump insists is bigger than North Korea’s.

In a paper published Wednesday in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, two experts from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and a University of Maryland national security specialist recommend that US policy require at least two other officials sign off on such a critical decision.

“There’s no reason to maintain our current, unnecessarily dangerous policy,” said paper co-author Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. “There are viable alternatives that would allow other officials to take part in any decision to use nuclear weapons, whether it’s first use or a response to a nuclear attack.”

Not even a ‘stable genius’ is reassuring enough

Putting aside the fact that the nuclear button is actually a briefcase that for some reason is called a football, the US president has the sole authority to order the launch of a nuclear weapon, for any reason and at any time. That’s terrifying, regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office. No one person, not even our current, self-described “stable genius,” should have the license to start a nuclear war. As former Defense Secretary William Perry has said, “Certainly a decision that momentous for all of civilization should have the kind of checks and balances on executive powers called for by our Constitution.”

President Trump’s ignorance about nuclear weapons and his chest-thumping threats to incinerate North Korea have prompted some members of Congress to take action. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last January that would prohibit the president from ordering a first nuclear use without Congress declaring war, and last fall the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the sole authority question for the first time in four decades.

But don’t bet on Congress to pass legislation on the matter any time soon. The Markey-Lieu bill does not have the requisite bipartisan support, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who had previously warned that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric could put the country “on the path to World War III,” told reporters after the November 14 hearing that he did “not see a legislative solution today.” Something could happen “over the course of the next several months,” he added, “but I don’t see it today.”

Who’ll be the next in line?

A few days after Corker’s hearing, Columbia University professors Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman published a proposal to constrain the president’s sole authority. They suggest a protocol requiring the secretary of defense and the attorney general to certify the validity and legality of a presidential first-use order. The certification requirement would not apply if the United States were attacked, however, because Betts and Waxman presume it would delay a response.

Gronlund and her co-authors, UCS Global Security Program Co-Director David Wright and University of Maryland School of Public Policy professor Steve Fetter, agree that at least two other officials should be involved, but recommend the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives, the next two officials in the presidential chain of succession.

Tapping officials from the presidential succession list has three main advantages, Gronlund et al. explain. First, they have political legitimacy. Both are already designated by law to become commander-in-chief and assume authority to order a nuclear attack. Second, they would provide democratic input. Both were elected, and one—the speaker—can act on behalf of Congress. Finally, unlike the defense secretary or the attorney general, they are both independent. The president cannot fire either of them for refusing to follow an order.

Given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency continually tracks the location of the top officials in the line of presidential succession, Gronlund et al. point out, it would be relatively easy to include the vice president and House speaker in the decisionmaking process and make it possible for them to sign off on a first use order and a retaliatory nuclear launch.

“If the US government is confident that the current system would allow a quick and smooth transfer of launch authority if the commander-in-chief were killed or incapacitated,” they write, “it should also be confident that this system would allow a small number of additional officials to affirm a launch decision by the president.”

End hair-trigger and declare no first use

Gronlund and her co-authors recommend two other changes in US nuclear policy that they say would make the world safer. First, they call on the United States to take its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) off high alert and eliminate the option of launching them in response to an attack warning.

The policy of keeping US land-based missiles on a hair trigger dates to the Cold War era, when both US and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack on cities and industrial sites as well as on their land-based nuclear missiles and bombers. To ensure that they maintained the capability of responding, both countries kept their land-based nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert so they could be launched within minutes to avoid being destroyed on the ground.

Today, even if all US ICBMs were destroyed in their silos, most US nuclear weapons are deployed on submarines, which are virtually undetectable. They are designed to be able to survive a first strike and launch a retaliatory attack.

It is now much more likely that the United States would launch a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an erroneous or misinterpreted nuclear-attack warning than an actual incident, the chance of which is extremely remote. Indeed, the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch is frighteningly real. A number of technical glitches and human errors in both Russia and the United States over the past few decades have nearly triggered one.

Finally, Gronlund et al. urge the United States to embrace a no-first-use policy. The sole purpose of US nuclear weapons, they write, should be “to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies.”

A leaked draft of the soon-to-be released Nuclear Posture Review, however, indicates that the administration plans to permit the use of nuclear weapons under a wider range of circumstances, including “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” which presumably would include cyberattacks. To push back on this ill-advised idea, Gronlund and her co-authors urge Congress to pass the aforementioned Markey-Lieu bill requiring Congress to declare war and authorize the use of nuclear weapons as well as a bill introduced by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) last November that simply states: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

Hyping US Missile Defense Capabilities Could Have Grave Consequences

In response to North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, which flew higher and farther than any of its previous launches, President Trump told Americans not to worry. “We will take care of it,” he said. “It is a situation that we will handle.”

The big question is how. Unfortunately, Trump’s assertion may rest on his unwarranted confidence in the US missile defense system. During a recent interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity about the threat posed by a potential North Korean nuclear strike, he declared that the United States has “missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time.”

The facts, however, tell a different story.

The reality is that the US Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has succeeded in destroying a mock enemy missile in only 56 percent of its tests since 1999. And, as I’ll explain, none of the tests approached the complexity of a real-world nuclear launch.

What’s more, ever since the George W. Bush administration, the GMD program has been exempt from routine Pentagon oversight and accountability procedures. The result? Fifteen years later, all available evidence indicates that it is still not ready for prime time, and may never be.

Of course, Trump is prone to exaggeration. In fact, he has averaged more than five lies per day since taking office. But it is critical to understand the potential ramifications of this particular Trumparian boast: It could lull Americans into a false sense of security and, even more alarming, embolden Trump to start a war. As veteran military reporter Fred Kaplan pointed out, if the president truly believes the US missile defense system is infallible, “he might think that he could attack North Korea with impunity. After all, if the North Koreans retaliated by firing their nuclear missiles back at us or our allies, we could shoot them down.”

Such wishful thinking could clearly lead to a disastrous miscalculation. And what’s worse, Trump just may believe his preposterous claim because he’s not the only one making it.

If You Repeat a Lie Often Enough…

Missile defense advocates have a long history of hyperbole. A 2016 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists included an appendix with a selected list of some three dozen statements administration and military officials have made extolling the GMD system’s virtues. They are incredibly consistent, and given the facts, consistently incredible.

In March 2003 — before the GMD system was even deployed — then-Undersecretary of Defense Edward Aldridge assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that its “effectiveness is in the 90 percent success range” when asked if it would protect Americans from the nascent North Korean threat.

Seven years later, in December 2010, then-Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly told the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee that “the probability will be well over in the high 90s today of the GMD system being able to intercept” an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) targeting New York City.

Fast forward to April 2016, when Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee. “The US homeland,” he maintained, “is currently protected against potential ICBM attacks from states like North Korea and Iran if it was to develop an ICBM in the future.”

Wrong, wrong, and yet again, wrong. As Washington Post “Fact Checker” columnist Glenn Kessler wrote in mid-October, the claim that the GMD system has a success rate in the “high-90s” is based on “overenthusiastic” math. The system has succeeded only 56 percent of the time over the last two decades, but the calculation is predicated on a hypothetical, never-been-tested launch of four GMD interceptors with a 60-percent success rate producing a 97-percent chance of destroying one incoming ICBM. If one interceptor missed because of a design flaw, however, the other three would likely fail as well. “The odds of success under the most ideal conditions are no better than 50-50,” Kessler concluded, “and likely worse, as documented in detailed government assessments.”

No surprise, defense contractors also wildly overstate the GMD system’s capabilities.

This September on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing’s Defense, Space & Security division, stated unequivocally that the GMD system would “keep us safe” from a North Korean attack. The system is “doing exactly what is needed,” Caret said, but added that it will ultimately require even more rocket interceptors from her company, the prime GMD system contractor since 1996. There are currently 40 interceptors in underground silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, all made by Boeing.

Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy, whose company produces the “kill vehicle” that sits atop Boeing’s interceptor, was equally sanguine about the GMD system when he appeared on Squawk Box the following month. “I say relative to the North Korean threat, you shouldn’t be worried,” Kennedy said. “But you should ensure that you’ve talked to your congressman or congresswoman to make sure they support the defense budget to the point where it can continue to defend the United States and its allies.”

Given such glowing reviews, it’s no wonder President Trump asked Congress for $4 billion for the GMD system and other programs, such as the ship-based Aegis system, designed to intercept short- to intermediate-range missiles. In a November 6 letter to lawmakers, Trump wrote: “This request supports additional efforts to detect, defeat, and defend against any North Korean use of ballistic missiles against the United States, its deployed forces, allies, or partners.”

The House of Representatives apparently is even more enthused about the GMD system’s much-touted capabilities. It passed a $700-billion defense authorization bill on November 14 that includes $12.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency — more than triple what Trump requested. Some of that money would cover the cost of as many as 28 additional GMD interceptors, but lawmakers asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to develop a plan to add 60, which would increase the overall number of interceptors to 104.

Unrealistic, Carefully Scripted Tests

If members of Congress bothered to take a closer look at the GMD system’s track record, they would hopefully realize that committing billions more is throwing good money after bad. Even the most recent test, which the Missile Defense Agency declared a success, would not inspire confidence.

That test, which took place on May 30, resulted in a GMD interceptor knocking a mock enemy warhead out of the sky. At a press conference afterward, then-Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. James Syring claimed it was “exactly the scenario we would expect to occur during an operational engagement.”

Not exactly. Yes, the Pentagon did upgrade its assessment of the GMD system in light of the May exercise, but — like previous tests — it was not held under real-world conditions.

In its 2016 annual report, the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office cautioned that the GMD system has only a “limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.” The “reliability and availability of the operational [interceptors],” it added, “are low.” After the May test, however, the office issued a memo stating that “GMD has demonstrated capability to defend the US homeland from a small number of intermediate-range or intercontinental missile threats with simple countermeasures.”

Despite this rosier appraisal, Laura Grego, a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) physicist who has written extensively about the GMD system, is not convinced that the latest test represents a significant improvement. After analyzing an unclassified Missile Defense Agency video of the May 30 exercise, she concluded that it was clearly “scripted to succeed.”

As in previous tests, system operators knew approximately when and where the mock enemy missile would be launched, its expected trajectory, and what it would look like to sensors, she said. And, like the previous tests, the one in May pitted one GMD interceptor against a single missile that was slower than an ICBM that could reach the continental United States, without realistic decoys or other countermeasures that could foil US defenses.

The key takeaway? The GMD system has destroyed its target in only four of 10 tests since it was fielded in 2004, even though all of the tests were held under improbably ideal conditions. If the tests had been more realistic, the deployed GMD system likely would be zero for 10. Moreover, the system’s record has not improved over time. Indeed, it flunked three of the four tests preceding the one in May, and not because the Missile Defense Agency made the tests progressively more difficult.

According to the 2016 UCS report Grego co-authored, a primary reason for the GMD system’s reliability problems is not funding, but lack of oversight. In its rush to get the system up and running, the George W. Bush administration exempted the program from standard military procurement rules and testing protocols. That ill-advised decision has not only run up the system’s price tag, which to date amounts to more than $40 billion, it also has produced a system that is incapable of defending the United States from a limited nuclear attack.

“Regardless of what President Trump and other missile defense boosters want us to believe, the data show that we can’t count on the current system to protect us,” said Grego. “We need to reduce the risk of a crisis escalating out of control. Only diplomacy has a realistic chance of doing that.”

Photo: Department of Defense