26 August 2019
The volatility and unpredictability of Donald Trump has prompted calls from US Democrats for restricting powers of the US president to launch a nuclear attack against a foreign country. Photo: AFP
The volatility and unpredictability of Donald Trump has prompted calls from US Democrats for restricting powers of the US president to launch a nuclear attack against a foreign country. Photo: AFP

Hawaii missile alert fiasco and the lessons to be learnt

Residents of the American state of Hawaii were thrown into complete panic on the morning last Saturday after they received alert of an incoming ballistic missile on their cellphones.

However, it later turned out that it was a false alarm due to the “fat finger” of an officer with the local Emergency Management Agency, who was on duty that morning. The officer accidentally pressed the wrong button and sent the missile alert during a routine check after a shift change.

The saga might sound outrageous as well as hilarious. However, given that such a thing actually happened, it raises a fundamental question: an officer on duty mistakenly pushing the wrong button may have caused unnecessary public panic, but what will happen if the head of state of a nuclear power pushes the launch button either out of accident or in a rage?

Such concern is not purely a paranoia as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has once claimed that the launch button of his country’s nukes is placed right on his desk, whereas US President Donald Trump also bragged that he has an even “bigger” nuclear missile launch button on his desk at the Oval Office.

If either Trump or Kim got aggravated so much so that one of them just lost his mind one day and pushed the button in a rage, then it would definitely spell the apocalypse for mankind.

Trump wasn’t entirely accurate when he bragged that he has a “bigger” launch button on his desk. It is because the US President cannot order a nuclear strike just by pushing a single button anywhere in his office. Instead, in order to do so, he has to follow a set of complicated and rigorous steps.

For example, once the president has decided to launch a nuclear attack against a foreign enemy, his military aide would present him with the so-called “football”, i.e. a briefcase that contains, among other things, the launch codes for all nuclear weapons in the US arsenal, and an electronic device through which he can send his order to the military command.

And the entire launch procedure, including pressing the real “launch button” to fire the nuclear ballistic missiles, would be carried out by military personnel rather than the president himself after they have confirmed the authenticity of the order.

Nevertheless, it is really true that the US president, who is also the commander-in-chief of the military, is the only person in the country that can authorize a nuclear strike, and nobody, not even the military command, can stop him if he insists on doing so.

In theory, the generals in Pentagon can refuse to carry out the order and resign, yet in practice the president can still press ahead with his order of attack by immediately putting someone else in charge so as to continue with the launch procedure.

While there is no way the rest of the world could find out whether it is possible that Kim could accidentally push the launch button on his desk and trigger a nuclear war mistakenly, the volatility and unpredictability of President Trump as well as his inflammatory rhetoric does raise considerable concern about the possibility of him ordering a nuclear strike while he is in an unsound state of mind.

It is against this background that the Democrats have moved a debate motion earlier on in Congress proposing to restrict the president’s power to launch a nuclear attack against a foreign country.

For example, they suggested, the president should only be allowed to authorize a nuclear strike after the Congress has officially declared war on the enemy or after he has got the concurrence of the Vice President, the Secretary of State or the Secretary for Defense.

While it would certainly take quite some time for the Democrats’ proposal to progress into law, the saga that took place in Hawaii last week may not have been totally a bad thing after all, as it could alert the US government and the military to the possibility of a nuclear war triggered by either a fat finger or an unsound mind in the White House.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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