May the US president launch a nuclear bomb without any oversight on any target?

  • According to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution, the President of the United States is commander in chief of the United States Armed Forces.

    Source: Wikipedia

    How does launching a nuclear bomb work in the US? I would imagine that there is a human "next to" the bomb who has to do something to prevent hackers from taking control over it. But besides that, is there any oversight? Could the US president give the order to nuke Belgium and it would just be done (except for people denying the order)? Or is there a person / group of people who actually have the right to not follow this order / revoke this order?

    Is there a set of rules which have to apply first so that the president would be allowed to give this order (e.g. the US has to be formally at war with the country which e.g. has to be done by Congress)?

    A bit OT, but looking at this little gem, the President may encounter a few unanticipated hurdles even if he gives the order... ;-D

  • user1530

    user1530 Correct answer

    6 years ago

    Every enlisted member of the military in the US takes an oath to obey the orders of the president of the united states. (Every officer has a slightly different oath that refers the constitution, rather than the POTUS)

    The Uniform Code of Military Justice, however, is a bit more specific. Article 92 of the UCMJ states:

    Any person subject to this chapter who (1) violates or fails to obey any lawful general order or regulation;...shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

    Note the key word lawful. This has been interpreted to mean that any unlawful order does not necessarily need to be obeyed within the military.

    In fact, obeying an unlawful order can be punishable.

    So that leaves the question when is it lawful for the President to order a nuclear strike?

    As I am not a scholar on this topic, I'll do my best here to understand what the president can and can not do.

    For starters, the command to launch a nuclear weapon requires 2 people approving. One being the president, the second being the Secretary of Defense:

    The United States has a two-man rule in place, and while only the president can order the release of nuclear weapons, the order must be confirmed by the Secretary of Defense

    If the SoD disagrees with the president, the president has the right to relieve them of duty, and ask the person next in line to take the position and approve the command.

    However, the VP among others have the right to enact Section 4 of the 25th Amendment and have the President declared disabled.

    In addition to the above, there appears to be some other protocols in place that make it not as simple as just pushing a button. Alas, I can't find any conclusive sources for these (so other's, please refute or confirm these)

    • While it appears the 2-man rule is in place to actually launch the codes, the president must also notify many other parties in government that it is happening
    • The military may want to see signs of imminent threat before deciding the order is warranted and lawful
    • In addition to US law, there are also international treaties that may restrict how and when nuclear weapons can or can not be used.

    To answer the question: No, it appears that the president cannot uni-laterally launch nuclear weapons. This view is based on an offensive strike. In a retaliatory decision the President can launch without being questioned. There is some latitude given to submarine and other Officers in charge of nuclear forces controlled by the football as well. That infi I believe is classified.

    But if the President and the SoD were both crazy enough to do it, we'd end up with Fallout being worshipped as a prophet in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

    @pointlessspike that woul be the biggest hurdle but see the bullet points. There still seems to be some failssafes of a sort

    AFAIK, only enlisted personnel take an explicit oath to obey orders. Officers instead swear that they will faithfully discharge the duties of the office they are about to enter. And I'm pretty sure the missile operators are officers.

    @cpast but they all are under the UCMJ, which is where they key 'lawful' phrase is at.

    @blip Correct; I was commenting on your first paragraph.

    @cpast oh, yes, valid point! Let me fix that.

    Bit OT, but I'd also say it depends on the situation - people are after all human. So if everything is just sunshine and fluffy puppies, it may be more difficult to get the actual bomber-pilots and missile-key men to obey orders... than if the situation had deteriorated for months, and the news shoved hundreds of Russian tanks on the other side of the USA/Mexico-border (don't ask me how they got there... ;-)...

    I believe that the 2-man rule is not statutory, but rather a rule internally set by the executive branch or the military. So the President should be able to change it at any time via executive order.

    See Tom Clancy, The Sum of All Fears, where that scenario is played out.

    You cut the wikipedia article on the SoB's role before fundamental information. The rest of the sentence reads: "the order must be verified by the Secretary of Defense to be an authentic order given by the president (there is a hierarchy of succession in the event that the president is killed in an attack). This verification process deals solely with verifying that the order came from the actual President. The Secretary of Defense has no veto power and must comply with the president's order.". That seems to me that the SoD cannot "disagree" with the President.

    "controlled by the football" could use some explanation.

    This article adds some details - I couldn't find it just now but there was one which explained that any decision would normally follow discussion including legal advisers to both the President and the Jt Chiefs of Staff. Absent any hostile action an action which was ordered without such a meeting would likely be queried if not outright denied.

License under CC-BY-SA with attribution

Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM