What Trump and Milley tell us about nuclear weapons

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As all eyes were on the besieged Capitol Hill on Jan.6 and the United States slipped into an extreme domestic crisis, a secret crisis was swelling with China, according to new book revelations by reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. As the Capitol was closed and President Donald Trump reportedly churned out conspiracy theories at the White House, strained phone calls to Beijing and Washington attempted to clarify intentions and avoid any sort of military miscalculation. . Only problem, the president was not online.

Instead, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, acted in secret to ease tensions across the two oceans– and took it upon himself to bypass the link between President Trump and American nuclear weapons. This shocking admission is somewhat of an expected consequence of a larger administration that still seemed to depend on “the adult in the room” to appease its worst instincts. More than that, by inserting himself into the chain of command for nuclear weapons without legal authority, Milley indicted not only the stability of the former president, but also the process of launching nuclear weapons itself age old. several decades.

As with most things involving the command and control of nuclear weapons, the legal framework of only presidential authority and the actual process of executing a launch order are products of Cold War strategy. In the 1960s, US military planners realized that the potential warning time for any sudden attack from the Soviet Union had fallen as low as 30 minutes. To ensure the ability of the United States to launch a retaliatory strike (thereby making a surprise attack less attractive), the Nuclear Weapons Liberation Authority was concentrated all the way up: Only the president could issue a legal launch order.

On top of that, the actual processes for performing a nuclear launch have been streamlined to the extreme. Not only would such an order from the president be transmitted almost immediately and without a second official review being necessary, the Pentagon adopted a “launch on warning” posture whereby nuclear forces remained on alert at all times to accept and execute. a launch order. in just a few minutes. If an attack order was deemed to come from the president (the only check along the way is identity), the guns would fly before most of you could finish reading this article.

For years this demanding system was justified by the dynamics of the Cold War, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unofficial end of the tense nuclear stalemate of the Cold War, the U.S. regime of command and control nuclear control continued. Across five administrations, sole launching authority rests strictly with the president, and those warning launch processes intended to thwart a massive Soviet strike remain in place, even though nuclear-related planning has actively turned to lesser concerns. like North Korea and Iran. Apart the alarms of supporters of arms control, the issue of nuclear command and control has remained dormant and apparently resolved.

Such a backdrop makes Milley’s actions around January 6 all the more damning. For decades, the United States (and most other nuclear-weapon states) relied on the sole authority of the head of state for planning purposes, simplifying certain assumptions and presuming a sense of stability and of rationality. Even when the Trump administration was operating in turmoil, commentators became uncomfortable when opposition leaders questioned the status of US nuclear weapons.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley chats with then-President Donald Trump after delivering the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, February 4, 2020.
OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP via Getty Images

But while the mental decline reported by Trump in January made the question of single authority ultimately inevitable, Milley’s action exposes a critical vulnerability in America’s nuclear command and control. The president may not always be the right person to have uncontrolled control of the world’s most dangerous weapons, and that may not always be his state of mind.

It bears repeating: for a system designed specifically for quick decisions and minimal bureaucracy, there is officially no political, strategic or humanitarian oversight over a president determined to order a nuclear attack.

And while it took President Trump’s unique volatility for Milley to step in and act inappropriately as an independent oversight of the president’s authority, it’s too easy to imagine a scenario in which a president otherwise in good health is misinformed, miscalculates, or acts clearly outside the interests of the nation. In an age of sophisticated disinformation campaigns and ruthless political stakes, putting the future of millions, if not the world, in the hands of one individual – any individual – is too great a risk to take.

As for the legal options for dealing with such a risk, the formalization of Milley’s movement within the nuclear command and control system would be a valid first start. Even if only one other official, preferably an elected official, is required to confirm the decision to use nuclear weapons would act as an effective check against a “rogue president”. Legislative solutions because it has already been proposed, and such a solution could be implemented without disrupting other existing nuclear weapons processes.

Beyond, formally adopt a “non-use first” statement Replacing the outdated launch-on-warning posture has been a goal of arms control advocates for many years. Such a declaration would oblige the United States to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, and while this may prevent some wacky war plans, it would directly and effectively counter any scenario in which a president issues an order to attack. nuclear apparently out of the blue. It would also impart a greater sense of stability to rivals, reducing the overall risk of escalation under all circumstances.

By wrongly inserting himself into the nuclear chain of command last January, General Milley rightly acted in the best interests of the country and the world. But we cannot allow such blatant vulnerability – with such dire stakes – to continue. Until we can do the much more difficult job of reducing our dependence on nuclear weapons in general, we must take the easy and available steps to avoid the risk of misusing them.

André Facini is Director of Communications at the Institute for Security and Technology and a teaching assistant in the Graduate Certificate Program in Nuclear Deterrence at Harvard Extension School.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.



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