Saturday, June 11, 2016

BRUCE BLAIR - What Exactly Would It Mean to Have Trump’s Finger on the Nuclear Button?

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, received back-to-back calls in the middle of the night informing him of the imminent nuclear destruction of the United States. The second call reported an all-out attack. Brzezinski was seconds away from waking Carter to pass on the dreadful news and convince him of the need to order retaliation without delay (within a six-minute deadline). Brzezinski was sure the end was near. 

Just before he picked up the phone to call Carter, Brzezinski received a third call, this time canceling the alarm. It was a mistake caused by human and technical error. A training tape simulating an all-out Soviet attack had inadvertently slipped into the actual real-time attack early warning network. The impending nuclear holocaust was a mirage that confused the duty crew. (They were fired for taking eight minutes instead of the required three minutes to declare their degree of confidence that an attack against North America was underway.) How would a President Trump behave under such duress?

Donald Trump, December 15, 2015: “The biggest problem we have is nuclear—nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That's in my opinion that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.”


Hillary Clinton, June 2, 2016: “This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes. It’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”

To a degree we haven’t seen, perhaps, since the candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, the question of Donald Trump’s temperament and judgment on matters of war and peace is stirring attention—and trepidation, particularly when the subject of nuclear weapons comes up. Some people believe that Trump himself is the maniac, the madman with nukes that appears in Trump’s own worst nightmare. And it’s not just Trump’s general-election opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s hinting at this; his former GOP rival, Marco Rubio, repeated his earlier concerns about Trump only this week, saying America can't give "the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual." Others would side with Trump’s view that the weapons themselves—which pack a destructive force amounting to “Hiroshima times a thousand,” as he put it—are the evil. But these points are not mutually exclusive.

What would it mean to have Trump’s fingers on the nuclear button? We don't really know, but we do know this: In the atomic age, when decisions must be made very quickly, the presidency has evolved into something akin to a nuclear monarchy. With a single phone call, the commander in chief has virtually unlimited power to rain down nuclear weapons on any adversarial regime and country at any time. You might imagine this awesome executive power would be hamstrung with checks and balances, but by law, custom and congressional deference there may be no responsibility where the president has more absolute control. There is no advice and consent by the Senate. There is no second-guessing by the Supreme Court. Even ordering the use of torture—which Trump infamously once said he would do, insisting the military “won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me”—imposes more legal constraints on a president than ordering a nuclear attack.

If he were president, Donald Trump—who likes to say he doesn't spend a lot of time conferring with others ("My primary consultant is myself," he declared in March)—would be free to launch a civilization-ending nuclear war on his own any time he chose.

The “nuclear button” is a metaphor for a complex apparatus that has the president’s brain at its apex. The image of a commander in chief simply pressing a button captures none of the machinery, people and procedures designed to inform the president and translate his or her decisions into coherent action. Although it remains shrouded in secrecy, we actually know a great deal about it, beginning with the president’s first task of opening the “nuclear suitcase” in an emergency to review his nuclear attack options. If we shine our light at the tactical and timing considerations of how a first- or second-strike attack would unfold, and at the inner workings of the nuclear decision process from the standpoint of the White House, we gain a much better idea of a presidential candidate’s fitness for this responsibility. And here it is essential to consider a candidate’s temperament and character—especially in situations of extreme stress. Decisiveness is important, but so is prudence.

Let us say the president is awakened in the middle of the night (the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call) by his or her top nuclear adviser and told of an incoming nuclear strike. Since the flight time of missiles fired from launch stations in Russia or China to the White House is 30 minutes, and 12 minutes or less for missiles fired from submarines lurking in the Western Atlantic Ocean (Russian subs historically favor a patrol area to the west of Bermuda), the steadiness and brainpower of the commander in chief in such circumstances are serious questions indeed. The voting public must ask whether a given candidate would remain calm—or panic, become discombobulated and driven to order an immediate nuclear response on the basis of false information.

This call has never happened, but if it ever does, the situation would be as stressful and dangerous as things ever get inside the Oval Office. The closest we came to such a call occurred in 1979, when the consoles at our early warning hub in Colorado lit up with indications of a large-scale Soviet missile attack. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, received back-to-back calls in the middle of the night informing him of the imminent nuclear destruction of the United States. The second call reported an all-out attack. Brzezinski was seconds away from waking Carter to pass on the dreadful news and convince him of the need to order retaliation without delay (within a six-minute deadline). Brzezinski was sure the end was near.

Just before he picked up the phone to call Carter, Brzezinski received a third call, this time canceling the alarm. It was a mistake caused by human and technical error. A training tape simulating an all-out Soviet attack had inadvertently slipped into the actual real-time attack early warning network. The impending nuclear holocaust was a mirage that confused the duty crew. (They were fired for taking eight minutes instead of the required three minutes to declare their degree of confidence that an attack against North America was underway.)

How would a President Trump behave under such duress, informed of the attack and the imminent destruction of the nation’s capital and himself? He would have only a few minutes to consider the reliability of the attack report and decide whether and how to retaliate. If the attack is real, and he hesitates, a president will likely be killed and the chain of command decapitated, perhaps permanently. During the short countdown to impact, he also will be advised by the head of the Strategic Command in Omaha (or the officer on duty that night if the four-star head of Strategic Command cannot get onto the conference call on time) that the incoming attack will destroy the bulk of the U.S. land-based strategic missile force unless the president makes a timely decision ordering their egress from their underground silos before incoming warheads arrive. 

Furthermore, he will hear that the loss of this land-based force will mean that the goals of the U.S. war plan will not be realizable. (These goals require the ability to destroy the vast bulk of the Russia target base consisting of just under 1,000 aim points and of the China target base of just under 500 aim points.) Yet if the president yields to this pressure and orders immediate retaliation, then he risks launching on false warning.

Voters should want to consider whether Trump or any other candidate possesses the steely nerves and competence to deliberate intelligently and calmly at the moment of truth. How does the candidate process ambiguity? Does he or she interpret ambiguous or contradictory data in black-and-white terms or in ways that reinforce his or her bias? Does the candidate rush to conclusions? Does he or she appear to place too much stock and faith in the performance of technical systems, such as the sensor systems in early warning networks, and underestimate the fallibility of people and machines?

It is of course not unreasonable to believe that the nuclear responsibilities of any president are above the pay grade of every living human being—that no one is really up to the task. The only real protection against nuclear disaster is total elimination of nuclear weapons.

And yet until that far-off day we expect our president at least not to act rashly under pressure, and to ensure with near-absolute certainty that the United States never launches a nuclear strike on the basis of spurious indications of an incoming attack. It is possibly asking too much, however, because even the most level-headed commander in chief simply cannot process all that he or she needs to absorb under the short deadlines imposed by warheads flying inbound at the speed of 4 miles per second. The risks of mistaken launch based on false warning, human error in control systems, and panic in the face of imminent death are very real and probably inherent in the hair-trigger nuclear postures of the United States and Russia.

Most presidents during the Cold War lived in dread of this moment knowing all too well the attendant risks. Ronald Reagan expressed incredulity that he would be allowed only six minutes to decide whether to trigger Armageddon based on blips on a radar screen. There is no guarantee that the next president will exercise due caution when the balloon appears to have gone up.

Although no president during the atomic age appears to have ever lost his grip on reality to such an extent that an insane nuclear act might have resulted, top advisers to President Richard Nixon tried to constrain his launch authority during the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced his resignation. His secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, quietly instructed the Pentagon war room to double check with him if Nixon contacted it to order up a nuclear strike. Nixon’s mental stability, and his heavy drinking, caused concern within his inner circle that he might behave erratically out of despair and depression. Alcoholism in a future nuclear monarch is of course quite beyond the pale.

Trump’s teetotaling lays that concern to rest, but his quick temper, defensiveness bordering on paranoia and disdain for anyone who criticizes him do not inspire deep confidence in his prudence. Can we trust a President Trump to remain grounded and sensible under extraordinary pressure in a crisis that appears to be crossing the nuclear Rubicon?

Yet a harried decision to launch on warning in the belief that the United States is under nuclear attack is not even the most plausible scenario a President Trump might face today. That is more likely to be a crisis that escalates by design or inadvertence to the nuclear brink and then spins out of control. To be sure, the U.S. and Russian launch on warning postures have certainly put them at the mercy of false alarms. (Russia adopted the practice during the Cold War and maintains it today despite having a decrepit early warning network that has shortened President Vladimir Putin’s decision time to two to four minutes.) 

Computer glitches and human error have generated serious false alarms in the past, and every day events happen that trigger the sensors and require a closer look—peaceful space launches (satellites and astronauts), missile test launches, conventional combat missile launches, fighter jets taking off on after-burners, and even wildfires. But close calls have been fairly rare—about three serious false alarms in the United States and three in the Soviet Union/Russia that could have led to a very bad call by their leaders have occurred.

By comparison, there have been dozens of intense confrontations between the nuclear adversaries in the past, almost all of which tested the mettle, composure and restraint of their leaders. The next president will become embroiled in ongoing low-boil nuclear standoffs with Russia, China and North Korea that could morph quickly into a full-blown nuclear crisis. In such situations, actions thought to be defensive and reassuring to allies are often viewed as offensive by the opponent, whose reaction starts another cycle of action-reaction.

The United States and Russia today are entwining themselves in this trap over Ukraine, U.S. missile defenses in Europe and other disputes. Military buildups with nuclear dimensions are underway, and nuclear threats have been made explicitly by Russian officials including Putin and implicitly by each side’s nuclear force operations—for instance, flying strategic bombers close to each side’s territory. Both Putin and President Barack Obama are reminding each other, to a degree we haven’t seen since the Cold War, that they have nuclear buttons at hand.

Trump would actually have not one but several fingers on the nuclear button… 
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