January 24, 2018

Top Scientists Release Plan for Changing US Nuclear-Use Protocol

Proposal Published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (January 24, 2018)—The U.S. protocol for ordering a nuclear attack should be revised to require not only an order from the president, but consent by the next two officials in the presidential chain of succession—the vice president and speaker of the House of Representatives—according to a paper published today in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

President Donald Trump’s provocative and erratic statements about nuclear weapons have increased public concern and drawn bipartisan scrutiny of the longstanding protocol, which gives the president the sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. 

“No one person should be able to order a nuclear attack,” said paper co-author Lisbeth Gronlund, a senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “There’s no reason to maintain this dangerous policy, since there are viable alternatives that would allow other officials to take part in any decision to use nuclear weapons, whether it’s a first use or a launch responding to a nuclear attack.” 

The paper was co-authored by UCS Senior Scientist David Wright, Gronlund’s co-director at the Global Security Program, and University of Maryland professor Steve Fetter. 

The authors point out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency continually tracks the location of the top officials in the line of succession, making it relatively easy to include the vice president and speaker of the House in the decision making process. 

“If the U.S. 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.” 

The authors recommend including these officials because they have political legitimacy since they are designated by law to become commander-in-chief and assume authority to order a nuclear attack, they would provide democratic input since they were elected and provide a congressional voice, and they are independent since they cannot be fired by the president for refusing to follow an order. 

Former Defense Secretary William Perry is among those expressing concern about the current protocol. The authors shared their article with him prior to publication. 

“I fully agree that there is an urgent requirement for a better process for authorizing a nuclear launch,” said Perry. “This paper, it seems to me, lays out a process that is much better than the present process.”

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