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Nuclear Weapons

How to Launch a Nuclear Weapon

by Jasmine Owens
October 05, 2020

Only the President can order the launch of nuclear weapons. The President is not required to consult with anyone, and, if the President orders a launch, no one has the authority to rescind the order.

“The President has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons.” We hear this a lot, but what exactly does it mean? How exactly a nuclear weapon is launched is largely unknown by the American public. But it’s important in order to understand just how fragile the nuclear launch procedure actually is.

Consider this scenario. One afternoon, the U.S. nuclear command and control system detects incoming Russian missiles headed toward the U.S. By the time the President is notified, key officials from the Department of Defense have approximately one minute to brief the president. After that, the President has about seven minutes to confer with his advisors, decide if the U.S. will retaliate, and which pre-packaged response option to retaliate with. That’s it. Seven minutes to discern whether or not the attack is real. Seven minutes to decide if it is worth it to start a nuclear war.

Trump and officials sit at table

In a launch-on-warning scenario, the President would talk with the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military advisors. They would brief the President on the situation, and head of U.S. Strategic Command would explain the President’s options for retaliation.

Shealah Craighead/The White House via Getty Images

If the President decides to retaliate, they inform the National Military Command Center (NMCC) at the Pentagon which pre-packaged nuclear response to execute. Only the President can give this order, and no one else can rescind or change the order. The NMCC challenges the President to authenticate their identity by using a special code. Once authenticated, a launch order is sent to the launch crews of the nuclear submarines, bombers, and underground missiles. The launch crews once again authenticate the order by verifying special codes, and then they launch the missiles according to the plan. This process only takes a couple minutes. For instance, the 400 underground Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles could be launched just five minutes after receiving a launch order.

two launch officers practice icbm launch

Air Force personnel, practice launching an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) during a test, April 11, 2017. 

U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano

This is no coincidence. The system the U.S. has in place is called “launch-on-warning,” which consists of early attack detection, an expedient decision-making process by the President, and then quick launch of nuclear weapons by commanders of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This system was deliberately designed this way, and by design it pressures the president into authorizing a retaliatory attack. Launch-on-warning prevailed as the dominant strategy during the Cold War when the likelihood of nuclear war was much higher than it is today. And even back then, this did not have to be the only response option. Former presidents themselves have criticized this process. President Ronald Reagan was shocked to find out he only had a few minutes to make a decision, while President George W. Bush lamented that he did not have enough time to finish using the restroom before he would have to authorize a launch order.

nuclear command center

October 5, 1960, an American early-warning radar reported dozens of Soviet missiles flying toward the U.S. The North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) went on high alert—before declaring it a false alarm. It turned out the rising moon had reflected radar waves back into a Greenland-based radar.

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)

There is another extremely distressing option the President has as part of the U.S. nuclear posture: the first use of nuclear weapons. They can launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack against an adversary. The process is largely the same, though the President is not constrained by limited time to decide.

There were many false alarms during the Cold War that could have led to nuclear war had the President respected the time constraints of launch-on-warning.

Both a first-use scenario and a launch-on-warning scenario are vulnerable to miscalculation and mistakes. The first use of nuclear weapons would largely be irrational and unwarranted under any scenario presented to a U.S. president. Given the immense conventional capability of the US, there are very few scenarios in which it could justify using nuclear weapons first. And, under launch-on-warning the window of time for decision-making is not long enough for the President and their team to accurately assess the situation. What if the attack is a false alarm? There were many false alarms during the Cold War that could have led to nuclear war had the President respected the time constraints of launch-on-warning. Additionally, the aging infrastructure of U.S. nuclear command and control systems has not been adequately updated. Because of this, it may be vulnerable to cyber-attacks, as well as attacks from other emerging technologies.

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It does not have to be this way. The U.S. could declare a "No First Use" policy, which would help stabilize future crises. Additionally, the U.S. does not need to rely on a launch-on-warning system. Only the U.S. and Russia use launch-on-warning. The other nuclear weapons states have their own processes that allow their respective leaders enough time to fully and accurately assess the situation before responding.

The risk of intentional nuclear war is lower than it was during the Cold War. So, why are we continuing to use antiquated policies that limit our responses and make the geopolitical environment less stable and thus more dangerous? It is well past time to adjust our policies so that we can better respond to current threats. It is dangerous to live in the past when the present holds its own new challenges.

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