The briefcase that can launch a nuclear strike
Should one person have the power to push the “nuclear button”? In the USA, that decision is the president’s alone. But a top military commander has said he would resist an “illegal” strike.
Here is how it would happen. If the US president was told of an imminent nuclear attack, or decided to launch one first, the aide who follows him everywhere would open the 45lb “football”, a large metal briefcase containing the instructions for launching America’s 1,800 nuclear warheads.
They would explain the president’s options, which are chosen as if from a “Denny’s breakfast menu”, according to Bill Clinton’s former aide. The president would consult two people: the deputy director of the Pentagon and the head of the US strategic command. They would confirm the launch codes written on a card called the “biscuit” that the president carries. Then they would contact the launch crews, and order them to strike.
Half an hour later, the missiles would reach their destination — and obliterate it.
The president is the only person able to launch an attack. But this weekend, one of the other two key people — head of US strategic command General John Hyten — said he would resist any attempts at “illegal” strikes.
“He will tell me what to do. And if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen? I'm going to say: ‘Mr President, that's illegal.’ … And we’ll come up with options.” He added that, “If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail.”
A legal nuclear strike must weigh up the necessity, distinction, proportionality and unnecessary suffering of the attack. In other words, President Trump could not decide to nuke North Korea on a whim.
Hyten’s words came just days after senators debated whether the president should have the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, and two months after Trump threatened to “destroy” North Korea.
But why was one man ever given so much power? The choice was made in the wake of the second world war, as politicians wanted to make sure there was a check on generals who seemed too keen to use America’s newfound nuclear strength. The current system was introduced by John F. Kennedy after miscommunication during the Cuban missile crisis almost led to catastrophe.
Is it time to change?
Taking the biscuit
Yes, say some. No single person should have the ability to wipe out millions of lives in just a few minutes. It does not matter who the president is; it is simply wrong. When the president is known to be erratic and unpredictable, it is even more so. Instead, the system should demand that several key people agree first.
This would become too complicated, argue others. If it is going to happen, the process must be quick, as it will most likely be in response to something. It is right that one democratically elected person should be trusted with that decision. If the American people do not trust him, they should vote him out.
- Do you trust Donald Trump to use the nuclear codes responsibly?
- Should one person to be allowed to launch a nuclear strike (no matter who this person is)?
- Imagine that you are one of the two people that Donald Trump must call to launch a nuclear attack. He tells you he wants to do so. Write down the questions you would ask him, and the arguments for and against obeying his orders if you do not agree with them.
- Research how a different country with nuclear weapons decides whether to launch them or not. Then write a paragraph answering the question: is their system better or worse than America’s?
Some People Say...
“A world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us.”Margaret Thatcher
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- If a nuclear attack is launched against the USA, the retaliation process is designed to take between half an hour and an hour. However, if the president decided to strike first, the process could be slowed down by generals or lawyers debating the legality of the decision. If it were illegal, the military would have a duty not to carry it out. But last week Congress questioned whether this was enough.
- What do we not know?
- Whether a general would really disobey their commander-in-chief, or what really counts as an illegal strike. It is always possible that the generals could decide an attack is legal based on false information. And last week, one academic said he had been told that military lawyers had “devised legal rationales to justify almost any sort of nuclear attack”.
- According to the Federation of American scientists in July, the USA has 6,800 warheads in total. Of these, 1,800 are “deployed”, meaning they are ready to be launched. For comparison, Russia has 1,950, and the UK around 200.
- The headquarters of the US defence department. The current deputy director is General John Dolan.
- US strategic command
- One of nine units within the defence department. It is responsible for using America’s nuclear, missile, and intelligence capabilities on a global scale.
- The launch crews are based on land as well as in submarines. Two members of staff are required to enter the codes and turn keys at the same time to launch the weapons.
- Half an hour
- This is how long it would take for the missiles to reach the other side of the planet.
- The Cuban missile crisis was a military standoff between the USA and Soviet Union in 1962, when the latter was trying to deliver nuclear weapons to Cuba. Both sides came extremely close to launching their weapons based on miscommunications. Afterwards, JFK insisted the process was made clearer.