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From the US to North Korea, the myth of the 'nuclear button'

© Mark Wilson, Getty Images North America, AFP | A military aide carries the "nuclear football" as he walks toward Marine One to depart with US President Donald Trump on December 2 in Washington, DC.

Text by Valentin GRAFF

Latest update : 2018-01-04

After North Korean leader Kim Jong-un spoke of having a "nuclear button" on his desk, US President Donald Trump boasted that he has a "bigger and more powerful button". But the reality of launching a nuclear strike is a bit more complicated.

The US president’s tweet marked the latest escalation in a war of words with the North Korean leader. In reality, for an American president to order a nuclear strike is a multi-step process. And it is a briefcase – commonly known as the "nuclear football" – that is used, not a button.

The ‘biscuit’ and the ‘football’

Nuclear protocols are often shrouded in secrecy. But for the country that possesses the largest nuclear arsenal, the US procedures for ordering a strike are well known. The US president relies on two separate objects to give the order. The first, dubbed the "biscuit", is a plastic card the size of a credit card. The second is a briefcase, encased on the outside in black leather and with an aluminium interior. It weighs roughly 20 kilos, and since 1963 has been known as the "nuclear football" owing to its oval shape.

Protocol dictates that the president carry the biscuit at all times (despite rumours that past presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had both misplaced the card at various times). As for the "football", carrying the briefcase is a duty shared by five military aides. All five are subjected to a “very thorough” investigation by the Pentagon, the secret services and the FBI. This includes both psychiatric examinations and psychological assessments, as described by a former specialist on the football in comments to CNN. At the end of each president’s term the codes and the briefcase are passed on during the swearing-in of the new president, nuclear expert Bruno Tertrais told Le Figaro. “The officer (who carries the nuclear football) assumes their new position behind the incoming president as soon as they have taken the oath,” he said.

As a backup, in case the president becomes incapacitated, a second briefcase accompanies the vice president.

The primary purpose of the case is to confirm the president’s identity before allowing him to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, according to a 2014 article on the football in the Smithsonian magazine. Inside the case lies a black manual functioning as a "guide" for conducting nuclear war. The manual lists locations around the world the president can choose to strike, utilising one of the roughly 900 nuclear warheads primed all over the globe.

Once the president has made the decision to launch, he uses a short code phrase – kept in a sealed envelope – to identify himself as the commander-in-chief. The instruction is then forwarded to the Pentagon’s war room before being relayed via encrypted authentication codes to United States Strategic Command in Nebraska, known as Stratcom.

At that moment, the dice are cast.

A final obstacle?

Although the red nuclear button is only a myth, the image does convey a stark truth: In the United States, the decision to launch a nuclear attack ultimately rests with only one person. There is, however, a “two-man” protocol for after the president gives the order: Two personnel are required to turn keys in the missile silos simultaneously to begin the launch, while in nuclear submarines both the commanding and executive officers must agree on a launch order. 

While presidential power is theoretically held in check by the other two branches of government (legislative and judicial) under the US system, the nuclear launch procedure is one of the most powerful unilateral actions available to the president. The president does not need to consult with Congress before giving the order; the only possible obstacle would be if those charged with carrying out the order mutinied and refused.

This scenario nearly threatened to become a reality on August 9, 1974. On the verge of being deposed during the Watergate scandal, then president Richard Nixon had been drinking heavily. Nixon had once told members of Congress: "I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead."

Nixon’s secretary of defence James R. Schlesinger said years later that, in the final days of Nixon's presidency, he had ordered staff to check with either him or then secretary of state Henry Kissinger if the president made any moves to act on these words.

Several high-ranking members of the military warned in 2017 that they might also refuse to execute such an order. In the first congressional hearings since 1976 to discuss the president’s authority to order a nuclear strike, retired General Robert Kehler testified that he could refuse to carry out such an order. Kehler, commander of Stratcom from 2011-2013, told the Senate that he would have done so if the strike did not abide by legally defined principles of military necessity and proportionality: “I would have said (to the president): ‘I am not ready to proceed'."

"The military is obligated to follow legal orders but is not obligated to follow illegal orders,” he said.

Stratcom’s current commander, General John Hyten, has taken a similar stance.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2018-01-04


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