by Dave Merrill, Nafeesa Syeed, and Brittany Harris; edited by David M. Gross
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have repeatedly accused each other of lacking the fitness, temperament, and qualifications to be commander-in-chief. Clinton has said Trump isn’t someone “we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Trump has called Clinton “close to unhinged.” How much power does the president alone have to launch a nuclear strike? Bloomberg News asked Bruce G. Blair, a former Minuteman missile-launch officer and research scholar at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, to spell out the step-by-step procedure.
The president considers a nuclear strike
The commander-in-chief’s power is clear: He or she has sole authority to
useinitiate the process by which Americans could attack people with nuclear weapons.
The top brass is brought in
Before initiating military action, the president convenes a conference with military and civilian advisers in Washington and around the world to talk through options. In the White House, the call takes place in the Situation Room. If traveling, the president is patched in on a secure line. A key participant in the meeting: the Pentagon’s deputy director of operations, an officer in charge of the National Military Command Center, also known as the “war room.” This around-the-clock operations center
is would be responsible for preparing and ultimately transmitting were they to prepare and ultimately transmit a launch order from the president. The head of all U.S. strategic nuclear forces at Strategic Command in Omaha would probably also be asked for a briefing on strike options.
[Time elapsed: less than one minute]
The consultation lasts as long as the president wishes, but if enemy missiles are believed to be heading toward the U.S. and the president
must decides to order a counter-strike, the consultation may last just 30 seconds. The tight time line raises the risk of launching hastily on a false warning.
The president decides to launch
Some advisers may try to change the president’s mind or resign in protest—but ultimately, someone in the Pentagon
must may comply with the commander-in-chief’s order.
The order is verified A senior officer may verify the order
For the strike to be carried out according to plan, t
The senior officer in the Pentagon war room must formally authenticate that the person ordering the strike is indeed the president. The officer reads a “challenge code,” often two phonetic letters from the military alphabet, such as “Delta-Echo.” The president retrieves the “biscuit,” a laminated card the president or military aide carries at all times, and finds the matching response to the challenge code: “Charlie-Zulu,” for instance.
The order goes out
The war room may then prepare
s the launch order, a message that contains the chosen war plan, time to launch, authentication codes and codes needed to unlock the missiles before firing them. The encoded and encrypted message is only about 150 characters long, about the length of a tweet. Those in the war room may decide to It is broadcast it to each worldwide command and directly to launch crews.
[Time elapsed: two or three minutes]
The submarine and ICBM crews receive the message within seconds of the broadcast. Just a few minutes have passed since the initial conference call.
Launch crews take over
Launch message in hand, the crews may decide to open locked safes to obtain sealed-authentication system (SAS) codes prepared by the National Security Agency and distributed throughout the military’s nuclear chain of command. They may compare the SAS codes in the launch order with those in their safes.
If the missiles are to be launched from a submarine:
The captain, executive officer, and two others may choose to authenticate the order. The launch message provides the combination to an on-board safe holding the “fire-control” key needed to deploy the missiles. Missiles
are can be made ready for launch about 15 minutes after receiving the order.
If the missiles are to be launched from land:
Five launch crews in various underground centers control a squadron of 50 missiles. Each crew consists of two officers. The individual teams are spread miles apart. Each receives the orders,
opens and then must decide whether to open their safes and compare s their SAS codes to those sent by the war room. If they match, the crews may decide to enter the message’s war plan number into their launch computers to re-target missiles from their peacetime targets in the ocean to their new targets where people live. Using additional codes in the message, the crews must choose whether to enter a few more keystrokes to unlock the missiles before turning and even to turn the launch keys retrieved from their safe. At the designated launch time, any or all of the five crews may turn their keys simultaneously, sending up to five “votes” to the missiles.
Mutiny is unlikelyhas been made difficult
It takes just two “votes” to launch the missiles. So even if three two-officer ICBM crews refuse to carry out the order, it won’t stop the launch.
Missiles are launched
In the worst-case scenario, a
About five minutes may elapse from the president’s decision until intercontinental ballistic missiles blast out of their silos, and about fifteen minutes until submarine missiles shoot out of their tubes. Once fired, nobody can call back the missiles and their warheads cannot be called back.