“We don’t swear allegiance to a colonel, we don’t swear allegiance to any individual. We swear an oath to an ideal as written in the Constitution and the people of this Command take that very seriously…” -- STRATCOM Commander, Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten
The United States and Russia have the most powerful nuclear arsenals in the world -- sufficient to destroy the planet many times over.
In the United States, the president has “the exclusive legal authority to order a nuclear attack.” He does not even have to consult with Congress before using our nation’s ultimate weapons.
The New York Times calls this, “the authority to unleash thousands of nuclear weapons within minutes. And with scant time to consult with experienced advisers.”
We are all familiar with “the football” that contains the nuclear launch codes – the “Gold Codes” – and the secure communications equipment carried by a military officer who follows the president wherever he goes.
The Gold Codes essentially confirm the president’s identity and allow him to select a nuclear response from a menu of nuclear strike options.
All this sounds well and good when the president can be fully trusted to wisely and morally handle such an awesome responsibility and has the temperament to make such an irreversible decision.
But what if a president does not merit such a trust?
Many Democratic and some Republican legislators have expressed concerns that President Trump may not have the temperament to be charged with such a responsibility.
In fact, last week, Congress -- for the first time in four decades -- formally debated whether, in the words of Democratic senator Christopher Murphy, a president who “is so unstable, is so volatile, [who] has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests” should have such sole and final authority.
Also last week, two Democratic Senators introduced legislation to prevent the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. Such a law would not bar a president from launching a retaliatory attack.
In a recent article, National Review claims, “[e]very American president is subjected to important constitutional and military restraints.”
As the most important constitutional restraint “against the kind of man who’d launch a truly rogue strike — initiate genocidal war on impulse —” National Review mentions the 25th Amendment, providing for the removal of an “unhinged” president.
The problem with this “constitutional safeguard” is that a commander in chief can be “unhinged” long before the powers that be recognize or admit such a reality. The consequences are obvious and catastrophic.
The National Review seems to consider such a nightmare scenario, "What if a president snaps — acting before his cabinet can remove him — and orders an indefensible, rogue nuclear strike?"
“The answer is simple," says The Review:
The military wouldn’t comply. Its officers are bound by law to refuse lawless commands, and the modern American military has profound cultural and moral restraints against the kind of world-changing mass murder that would result from a rogue strike. It won’t happen. In fact, it’s doubtful that it would happen even in the face of more defensible temptations to launch a first strike.
That is good to know.
Over the weekend, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM)*, responsible for overseeing the nation’s nuclear arsenal, told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum (below) that if President Trump ordered a nuclear strike which he believed to be “illegal,” he would not blindly follow orders.
Saying that he has given a lot of thought to such a situation, the general commented, "I think some people think we're stupid…We're not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?"
"I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do," Hyten added. "And if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen? I'm going to say, 'Mr. President, that's illegal.' And guess what he's going to do? He's going to say, 'What would be legal?' And we'll come up with options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that's the way it works. It's not that complicated."
Hyten said he has been trained every year for decades in the law of armed conflict, which takes into account specific factors to determine legality -- necessity, distinction, proportionality, unnecessary suffering and more. Running through scenarios of how to react in the event of an illegal order is standard practice, he said.
"If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life," Hyten said.
Earlier in the week, another general, former STRATCOM commander retired Gen. Robert Kehler, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the same issue, also said that the military could refuse to follow what it considers "a disproportionate and unnecessary order," according to the New York Times.
Undoubtedly, many are wondering what president Trump’s response would be if such a refusal occurred.
Brian McKeon, a former Pentagon official, told the same Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he did not know what the response would be, but he told the committee, according to the Times, that Trump could appoint a new general and defense secretary to carry out his orders…
Not all that reassuring.
* USSTRATCOM is responsible for command of U.S. nuclear capabilities, space operations, global surveillance and reconnaissance, intelligence, communications, computers, global missile defense and combatting weapons of mass destruction.