Here’s a sentence we never expected to type: this article was inspired by Donald Trump boasting about the size and power of his nuclear buttons on Twitter. Hopefully this is all sound and fury signifying nothing, but regardless, this peculiar reality we happen to find ourselves in is making our skin crawl on a far too frequent basis.
The worrying fact is that, if he chooses, Trump could order a nuclear strike. Yes, people would probably – and hopefully – try to stop him, and not too long ago Air Force General John Hyten, who is the de facto US nuclear commander, said that “we’re not stupid people,” adding that he would tell the President if a strike was illegal and not allow it to take place.
Still, it’s surprisingly easy for Trump to actually order a nuclear strike. With this in mind, it’s perfectly rational to be nervous about this irrational president’s trigger-happy method of diplomacy, which hopefully doesn’t extend militarily too.
Trump’s latest nuke-flavored tweet did remind us that all this talk of a nuclear button – which was probably a terrible metaphor in this case – is, on a technical level, ridiculous, as well as being incredibly inflammatory. There is no “button”, and it certainly wouldn’t be on his desk in the Oval Office, because that would simply fall prey to clumsiness and impulsivity.
Incidentally, the red button that is on his desk is reportedly designed to summon a butler carrying Diet Coke.
The procedure of authorizing and launching a nuclear strike in the United States is far more complex than this, but perhaps surprisingly streamlined just in case global destruction – or a small tactical nuclear strike at first – is the order of the day. So how does it work?
According to Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who spoke to Vox about the issue, there are two scenarios in which the President, the only person that can order a strike, would wish to do so.
In one, he or she would wake up one day and they would just fancy a bit of Armageddon. Thankfully, this would almost certainly not be authorized by any officials.
Alternatively, they will be woken up by their military advisors who tell them that if Nation X is not attacked right now, they will destroy the United States – and it is this pre-emptive strike that has a better chance of proceeding.
His advisors will be both military and civilian in nature, and will include the top ranking general at the US Strategic Command based out of Omaha, who right now is the aforementioned General Hyten.
IFLScience asked Alex Wellerstein – an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and a renowned expert on the history of nuclear weapons – about the likelihood of someone preventing a nuclear launch.
“It is hard to judge likelihood on things that have not occurred and systems whose operations are cloaked with secrecy,” he said.
“It is easy to imagine top-level Generals finding a way to hinder the President from doing something that they saw as unambiguously unjustifiable or illegal (e.g. nuking an allied city for no reason). But there are many cases where the legality and justifiability would be a much grayer distinction, and even the Generals have admitted they are not sure what would happen in such situations.”
“I think anyone who thinks that this trillion-dollar system would not operate as it was intended to – to allow the President to have swift ability to use nuclear weapons if he thought it was the right thing to do – is being optimistic.”
Biscuits and Footballs
At this point, if they all agree the strike is legal and America is threatened, he’ll send an order over to the Pentagon, where the most senior official in the Pentagon’s war room will be asked to make sure that the communique is coming from the President himself, rather than a pesky rebel or even a false transmission from another party.
As noted by Bloomberg, this involves something known as the biscuit, which contains the Gold Codes for launch authorization.
First, the official reads out a challenge code, a series of phonetic letters from the military alphabet, like Bravo-Charlie or Alpha-Zulu. The President will then ask his omnipresent military aide for the famous “nuclear football” – a briefcase within a black leather casing – for the corresponding Gold Code contained within a plastic “biscuit” and respond, confirming that it is indeed him or her.
“Most people seem to think that the nuclear football contains the codes that "unlock" the weapons. It really is just a means for the President to authenticate that he is indeed the President, and to issue orders,” Wellerstein added.
There isn’t just one way to launch a nuclear strike. Missiles can be launched from both sea and land, and in the past, air-based bomb drops or nuke-mounted missile launches were often considered.
The President, his military advisors, and the US Strategic Command will discuss which prepared or new attack plan they want to implement, and then send out a coded message to all appropriate launch crews.
CNBC News notes that these so-called Sealed Authentication System codes are received by all crews in mere seconds, which they then verify.
If the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are set to fly from a submarine, four crew members, including the captain and the executive officer, authenticate the order by comparing the SAS codes with corresponding ones sealed in a secure place onboard. All have to agree on the authentication before missiles are prepped for launch.
On land, launch teams are quite geographically disparate, and they’re kept in groups of five, which means a slightly different system is required. Each missile crew has to perform the same authentication process before unlocking the missile launch keys from various safes. The keys of all five crews must use their keys at the same time, or the missiles won’t launch.
All Around The World
CNN highlights that nothing in the system is automated; it all requires human input. Despite these safety measures, though, the process from the initial decision to a successful launch takes just five minutes.
It’s not entirely clear how similar this system is to those used by other, equally secretive nations. Wellerstein told us that “the Russians currently appear to have a somewhat similar system… but it may not put as much emphasis on a single human being as our system does.”
The neighboring and often hostile nuclear powers of Pakistan and India couldn’t be more different. “Pakistan's nuclear weapons are apparently controlled primarily by the military; in India's system, they are under very strict civilian control.”
Apparently, there are numerous ways in which a system could be set up, and all it comes down to “what you are most afraid of”, whether that be a surprise attack, rogue generals, or unstable individuals.
Incidentally, Wellerstein points out that a lot of the conversation about the US nuclear strike capabilities is (understandably) “centered around the ‘crazy president’ scenario,” involving someone who is “proposing the most outlandish things possible.”
It’s worth remembering that “we have a rich historical record of very well-meaning and well-informed presidents making terrible judgment calls in difficult situations, making great judgment calls when given terrible options by the military, and being generally fallible.”
“A system which puts so much power into the hands of a single person is necessarily going to be somewhat dangerous,” Wellerstein said, suggesting that perhaps there is a different system available in which security is still maintained, but it doesn't “invest so much authority into so few individuals.”
At the very least, though, we can be thankful it’s not a single button someone could just sit on by accident.