The President of the United States, Donald Trump, can launch a nuclear weapon whenever he wants. There exists no check on this authority. He doesn’t need to run the decision to unleash the most destructive weapon in the history of the world by Congress, the Pentagon, or anyone on his staff.
“It’s actually a frighteningly simple process,” Eryn MacDonald, an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group of scientists who advocate for a safer world, said on the phone. “Everybody talks about a big red button, but of course there isn’t one.”
The U.S. has 1,365 nuclear weapons deployed in missile silos, bombers, and submarines, with almost 4,000 more in reserve. Of those, 650 are B83s. At 1.2 megatons, the B83 is the strongest nuke in America’s arsenal, 80 times more powerful than the bomb it dropped on Hiroshima. Any one of those weapons would create a world-changing explosion.
Questions about the mechanics of nuclear war came up as the United States moved dangerously close to a war with Iran thanks to Trump’s unilateral assassination of General Qasem Soleimani. Again, Donald Trump has sole authority to launch any combination of nukes weapons at any time of his choosing.
To start the process, the president needs his Biscuit and his Football.
“An aide is always with him carrying the [President’s Emergency Satchel],” MacDonald said, which is the official name of the Football. The Football is a Zero Halliburton aluminium attache case covered in black leather. Once you know to look for them, the Football and the aide carrying it are ubiquitous in photos of the President. In 2017, the aide even posed for a selfie with a retired investor at Mar-a-Lago. To begin the launch, the President can either present himself at the Pentagon or use communication equipment inside the Football to call the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon.
Once the President has made the call, he needs the Biscuit to confirm his identity. The Biscuit is a laminated sheet of paper filled with a long string of alpha-numeric code the President is supposed to carry on him at all times. A code authorizing the President’s identity is buried within that line of code and changed everyday by the National Security Agency. The President doesn’t need to memorize the entire code, just the location of that day’s string within the gibberish.
Once his identity is authorized, the President can pick from a menu of possible strike packages pre-selected for him. According to Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD student specializing in the anthropology of nuclear weapons at the University of New Mexico, the menu system dates back to the Carter administration.
“[Carter] wanted to compress the options down,” Pfeiffer said in a phone call. Those options include estimated casualties for each particular strike. “So, basically, the President would say ‘I want a medium well on Russia and a well done on China. Mr. President, do you want to withhold leadership? [avoid nuking the heads of state] No, kill the fuckers.’”
At that point, the orders are disseminated down to submarine crews, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos, and bomber squadrons to be carried out. This all happens within a matter of minutes. The logic of the Cold War was that of Mutual Assured Destruction—the idea that the only thing that kept the Soviet Union from nuking America was the knowledge that the moment the U.S. detected the launch, it would unleash its own nuclear arsenal. The architects of this delicate balance of terror wanted to ensure that launching one nuclear weapon meant, effectively, the end of human civilization. To ensure that would happen, the process for ordering and launching a nuclear weapon had to be fast.
“It’s meant to be a very quick procedure,” MacDonald said. “Back in the day we were worried about surprise attacks from the Soviets and there would only be 10 minutes from the time we detected the missiles until they were hitting. We needed to make decisions quickly. Times have changed, but we still have this procedure.”
The deadliest destructive force humans have ever created can, by design, be unleashed by one person in minutes.
“The President has virtually unrestricted nuclear launch authority,” Pfeiffer said. “At the end of the day, there’s no one—legally—who has to check in and be like, ‘Yes, this is an OK launch order. Let’s do it.’ Or ‘This is a shit launch order, let’s not do it.’”
Just because the President orders a nuclear launch, however, doesn’t mean the launch will happen. “At every stage of the launch process there are multiple humans involved,” Pfeiffer said. “There’s a voting system at the ICBM silos. The submarines…to launch the missile requires a large number of the submarine’s crew and command.”
In an ICBM silo, for example, five teams of two have to turn keys in unison to “vote” to follow an order and launch a nuclear weapon. Two of these teams of five must vote to launch or the order doesn’t go through. On a nuclear-armed submarine, the sub must rise to a certain depth and follow a complicated list of procedures to launch the nuke. Along the way, there are countless opportunities for a human to refuse the order, which would mean defying a direct order from the commander-in-chief of the military without any outside context or information.
Having rank-and-file soldiers refuse a direct order seems unlikely, but it does happen. In the past, humans have refused orders and prevented nuclear Armageddon. During the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet Navy officer Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov talked his captain out of launching a nuclear weapon. In 1983, Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov sat in a bunker south of Moscow monitoring alerts when his computers told him that the U.S. had just launched five missiles at Russia. He assumed this was a false alarm and refused to initiate a counter attack.
In the case of both Arkhipov and Petrov, mechanical systems failed, and had cooler heads not prevailed, nuclear war may have started. Considering how easy it is for one person to order a nuclear strike, it's surprising the world hasn't seen an attack with a nuclear weapon since World War II.
“The most likely use case scenario has always been through miscalculation, accident, human error, and unintended escalation,” Pfeiffer said, all scenarios made easier by the President’s unchecked ability to launch nukes without restraint, consideration, or approval from the rest of the government.