In face of escalating North Korean nuclear aggression, US President Donald Trump said “all options are on the table” if Kim Jong-un and his regime continue to make threatening noises.
Trump’s remarks this week, which came after a previous warning of “fire and fury like the world has never seen before”, have raised considerable concerns among observers as to whether he would actually launch a nuclear strike against North Korea if need be.
As mainstream media outlets such as the Washington Post are all running stories on the existing procedures that the president has to follow when ordering the use of nuclear weapons, more and more Americans have begun to wake up to the fact that Trump actually does have both the executive and constitutional power to order a nuclear attack against a foreign country whenever he wants, and there is basically nothing to stop him under the current system.
At present, the use and deployment of US nuclear weapons is governed by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which was drafted by the Truman administration and passed by Congress shortly after the end of the Second World War. Under the Act, the power to use nuclear weapons rests solely and entirely with the US president, and Congress has virtually no say in whether or not to launch a nuclear strike against a foreign power.
In other words, the US president as the commander-in-chief can order a nuclear attack anytime without having to seek approval from Congress, and the Pentagon must comply with the president’s order.
If the US president decides to use nuclear weapons against any foreign enemy, such as North Korea, he would have to follow these steps:
1. First, he must confirm that the US is facing such an imminent and massive military threat from a hostile foreign power so much so he believes that the use of nuclear weapons is necessary to protect his country.
2. Next, his military aide would present him with the so-called “nuclear football”, i.e. a briefcase that contains, among other things, the launch codes for all nuclear weapons in the US arsenal, an electronic device through which he can broadcast his order to the military command, and a booklet listing all the target options.
3. Third, before officially authorizing the strike, the president could convene an emergency conference with the vice-president, the head of the National Security Agency, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other military and civilian leaders to ask for their advice and talk through options.
However, in extreme emergency situations, such as when enemy missiles are already heading towards the US, he could simply skip the conference and directly order the commanding officers of the National Military Command Center (NMCC) and the US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to launch a nuclear counterstrike immediately.
4. Then finally, heads of the NMCC and USSTRATCOM must execute the president’s order immediately by conveying the message to launch crews either in ICBM bases on US soil or in nuclear ballistic missile submarines cruising in foreign waters. After having received and authenticated the order, the launch crews must prepare for missile launching without delay.
According to military experts, a land-based or submarine-based nuclear missile can be fired within 5 to 15 minutes after the president has ordered the strike.
In theory, if heads of the NMCC and USSTRATCOM suspect that the president could have acted on false alarm, they could resign in protest to stall his order on one hand, and then notify the vice-president and the Speaker of the House of the situation.
If the two leaders agree that the president could have been misled into ordering the strike, they could assume emergency powers by declaring the president “unfit for office” and activating the impeaching process against him simultaneously.
However, in practice, the president could easily counter that by replacing the heads of the NMCC and USSTRATCOM immediately and pressing ahead with his launch order. In the meantime, he could also declare a national state of emergency to prevent any intervention from the vice-president and Congress.
Of course, such scenarios have never happened before and nobody is sure how in reality things would turn out. The only thing we can perhaps really count on to avoid a nuclear apocalypse is the hope that US president will act rational and is of sound mental fitness.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 31
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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