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NEW YORK — If a U.S. president decides to launch a nuclear attack, the order is conveyed to a duty officer at the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon. The one-star commander executes the order in roughly a minute.
In the most urgent case, a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile will fire in two minutes. A submarine-launched missile will fire in 15 minutes.
That may be all it takes to end the world as we know it. The president has the sole discretion to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, and once the order is given and acknowledged, there is no way to reverse it.
A new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post sheds light on U.S. nuclear command and control, the procedures under which the devastating weapons would be launched. “Peril” describes a scene that occurred Jan. 8 when Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the country, summoned senior military officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons.
Milley acknowledged that the president alone could give the order, but told the officers that he — Milley — also had to be involved.
“Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood,” the authors wrote.
It was two days after supporters of then-President Donald Trump assaulted the Capitol, trying to halt the legal process that would certify Joe Biden as the winner of the November 2020 presidential election.
Milley was inserting himself into the nuclear launch process, likely concerned that an unstable Trump might order an attack.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military “adviser” to the president, the National Security Council and the secretary of defense — and is not in the chain of command.
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in no way responsible for the execution of military policy as ordered by the president,” said Carrie Lee, chair of the department of national security and strategy at the U.S. Army War College.
The nuclear chain of command runs through the president to the duty officer at the war room, and to the launch control centers of America’s nuclear triad of ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines and strategic bombers.
On Tuesday, Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he received a call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Jan. 8, inquiring about the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons.
“I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn’t launch them alone,” Milley said. “There are processes, protocols and procedures in place, and I repeatedly assured her that there is no chance of an illegal, unauthorized or accidental launch.”
Milley acknowledged to lawmakers that he is not in the chain of command, but said that as the commander in chief’s primary military adviser he is in the “chain of communication.”
“The chairman is part of the process to ensure the president is fully informed when determining the use of the world’s deadliest weapons,” he said.
According to a Congressional Research Service report titled “Defense Primer: Command and control of nuclear forces,” when a president considers the nuclear option, the standard procedure would be to participate in an emergency communications conference with the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military advisers to assess the situation and consider the retaliatory risks of such an attack.
The president may choose not to hold this conference, or to hold it only with people the president thinks would agree with his or her judgment. This could be the scenario that Milley feared.
On Jan. 8, the country was without a defense secretary as Trump had fired Mark Esper two months earlier. Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was chosen by Trump as the acting secretary.
A president who decides to take the nuclear option would communicate the intention through a device known as the “nuclear football” — a suitcase carried by a military aide who is always near the leader. The president can choose the target from a book filled with prepared war plans. If the intended target is not in the book, the U.S. Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, will quickly prepare an alternative plan.
When a decision is made, the president identifies himself or herself to military officials at the Pentagon using codes noted on an ID card known as the “biscuit.” The order is given, and the weapons are fired.
“Nobody can veto a president’s order to release nuclear weapons unless it’s illegal,” said Vipin Narang, a professor of nuclear security and political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
An attack could be deemed illegal if it violates the international law governing armed conflict, which calls for the principles of distinction, proportionality and necessity. But any plan contained in the war book would have been vetted by Pentagon lawyers and considered legal.
“If the president woke up one morning and said, ‘I want to launch a missile at downtown Manhattan,’ that’s clearly not necessary or proportionate and would be illegal,” a congressional source said on background.
In such a case, the duty officer at the National Military Command Center could refuse to comply, saying that the officer lacks the legal authority to carry out that plan.
What Milley might have been suggesting, the congressional source said, is for the duty officer to “put the president on hold, initiate a conference and loop Milley in,” especially if the order does not fit with the global threats monitored in the war room.
Slowing the process could be one way to curb a spontaneous nuclear strike order. In a 2017 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Duke University professor Peter Feaver discussed two related scenarios: one where the military wakes up the president, and the other where the president wakes up the military.
If the military wakes up the president and warns of an impending attack, Feaver said, “We all believe that the system would carry out the order that he gave. The electorate on Election Day chose him to make that decision.”
But if the president is suggesting nuclear use out of the blue, then many people will question the context of the order and why it is necessary.
“He would require lots of people cooperating with him to make the strike happen, and they would be asking the questions that would slow down that process,” Feaver said.
The current rules and norms are remnants of the Cold War, when the president faced the possibility of snap decisions to respond to incoming Soviet missiles. They do not assume the American leader to be irrational or erratic.
In Congress, there have been calls to constrain the president’s authority. One bill proposed by Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Ted Lieu, both Democrats, would prohibit the president from launching a nuclear first strike absent a declaration of war by Congress.
“We cannot continue to give one person the awesome power to end life on our planet as we know it with nuclear weapons,” Markey said in January, after reintroducing the bill following the Jan. 6 assault on Capitol Hill.
But the process for a declaration of war by Congress could take weeks — inappropriate for responding to imminent threats.
Another idea involves the president sharing the authority with others. One option being discussed would require consensus among the president, vice president and speaker of the House of Representatives — the first two individuals in the presidential chain of succession. Another option calls for the attorney general and the defense secretary to be involved in the decision.
But the speaker of the House and attorney general are not necessarily nuclear weapons experts, nor are they regularly briefed on the security threats the nation faces.