At the United Nations in September, President Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. One day later, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters in New York that his country’s response “could be the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific.”
The stepped-up nuclear rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington has not only prompted concerns over what can be done to rein in Kim, but also raised the issue of what can be done to constrain the actions of an American president whose stability is – I submit – seriously in doubt.
There is entirely too much loose talk in the media about President Trump being able to fire nuclear weapons on his own in response to threatened or actual North Korean military action. Such speculation inevitably adds to the mythology surrounding the nuclear “football” and putative presidential authority to unilaterally launch nuclear weapons.
What is not widely known is that the president needs the concurrence of his military advisers – the secretary of defense in particular – in order to launch nuclear weapons. There are just two civilians in the National Command Authority when issuing orders to launch: the president and the secretary.
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I am confident that Secretary of Defense (and retired general) James Mattis will be in the loop when and if President Trump contemplates ordering the use of nuclear weapons; and will automatically be included in the decision-making process. The secretary or his designated successor must verify such an order, but he cannot veto it.
Moreover, it is highly improbable that President Trump could issue an order to fire nuclear weapons without his national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, and his chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, being aware of what is taking place.
The “rule of two” – with verification of the order required by the secretary of defense – is sufficient to assure some internal deliberations.
It is both correct and wise to leave talk of nuclear weapons use to Secretary Mattis. The system in place beats any alternate scheme – such as requiring that Congressional leaders be involved – for sharing such a consequential decision. It provides a check on presidential power.
Present command-and-control arrangements are sufficient to assure deliberation at the highest levels of the American government when the president is thinking about firing nuclear weapons at North Korea. There is a check and balance in the process of deliberation itself. But there is no perfect solution to the problem. To force the sharing of such a momentous decision, by locating a joint authority astride two branches of government – involving Congressional leaders – will never pass muster.
The back-and-forth exchanges between North Korea and the United States have been steadily escalating, as Washington flies nuclear-armed long-range bombers along the Korean peninsula and Pyongyang threatens to shoot them down. Yet, the secretary of state assures us that the United States is in direct contact – via the Chinese? – with the North. To what end, when President Trump says it is all a waste of time?
Following yet another ballistic missile test, and an extraordinarily large nuclear bomb test, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has claimed that his country is nearing military “equilibrium” with the United States, which he suggested would discourage talk of using a “military option” in a future conflict.
The secretary of defense, when visiting the Strategic Command where two legs of the strategic TRIAD are based – B-52 nuclear-armed bombers and 150 nuclear-tipped ICBMs – reminded North Korea that there can be no match for the U.S. strategic arsenal.
William E. Jackson Jr. was executive director of the U.S. General Advisory Committee on Arms Control under President Jimmy Carter, 1978-80. He currently resides in Davidson.