Whose Finger Is on the Button? Nuclear Launch Authority in the United States and Other Nations

November 13, 2017
Eryn MacDonald
Analyst

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and perhaps even more since Trump’s election, the media discovered a newfound interest in the minutiae of US nuclear policy. One question in particular has been asked over and over—can the president, with no one else to concur or even advise, order the use of US nuclear weapons? Most people have been shocked and somewhat horrified to find that there is a simple answer—yes.

Starting a nuclear war shouldn’t be easy

The president has the sole authority to order a nuclear strike—either a first strike or one in response to an attack. Although there are people involved in the process of transmitting and executing this order who could physically delay or refuse to carry it out, they have no legal basis for doing so, and it is far from clear what would happen if they tried.

This belated realization (the system has been in place since the early Cold War) has prompted some ideas for ways to change things, including legislation restricting the president’s ability to order a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. But more often it has prompted concern—and sometimes outrage—without a clear idea of how to fix the problem.

It may be useful to ask how other nuclear-armed states approach the problem of making a decision about the use of their nuclear weapons. How does the US compare to Russia, China, and other nuclear-armed states? Are there existing systems that rely on multiple people to order the use of nuclear weapons that the US might learn from?

To try to answer these questions, our new issue brief compiles information on the systems that other nuclear-armed states have in place to order the use of their weapons. While information is necessarily limited, and some of these systems may not completely correspond to what would happen in a true crisis, they still provide useful information about what these countries think is important when making a decision about the use of nuclear weapons. And, in most cases, that includes some form of check on the power of any single individual to order the use of these weapons by him or herself.

The current US process for deciding to use nuclear weapons is unnecessarily risky in its reliance on the judgment of a single individual. There are viable alternatives to sole presidential authority, and it is past time for the US to establish a new process that requires the involvement of multiple decision-makers to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. An investigation of how this decision works in other nuclear-armed states provides a good place to start.