U.S. Nuclear First Strike Policy; Be Afraid

Most of us Americans were not around when the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; but their presence is still felt and acknowledged in the US and across the world today. Every year, stories about limiting a country’s access to nuclear weapons, threats of nuclear attacks or continuing repercussions from the nuclear bombs in 1945 make it into the news cycle. What is the reality of nuclear bombs, threats and responsibility today? How afraid should we actually be?

What is Nuclear Protocol?

Nuclear protocol for the United States is confusing, scary and nonsensical. First and foremost, the president of the United States is the only person authorized to launch a nuclear attack with the United States’ weapons. The president is not required to have advice or approval from the Secretary of Defense, the Senate, Congress or anyone else. Nuclear missiles are kept on “hair-trigger” alert meaning they are kept in a state of readiness which allows them to be launched within minutes of the decision to launch being made.

The first situation to consider is a retaliatory attack (aka some country launched a nuclear weapon at the United States and the president is going to launch a nuclear weapon back at that country). Part of what makes the retaliation scenario scary is the limited amount of time available for these tough decisions to be made. According to retired General Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, the “system” for launching U.S. nuclear weapons, “is designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision.” Here is a link to an interactive timeline to demonstrate how little time a president would have when considering different types of retaliatory attacks, also known as a “launch under attack”.

For example, if Russia launched a nuclear weapon, the US has the 30 minute flight time of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to assess their desire to “launch under attack”. The many different steps in the notification process take up about 22 of the 30 minutes; like the time it takes for the missiles to break through clouds, detection of the launch, transmitting different messages, informing the president and authenticating orders to launch. All of this effectively gives the president eight minutes to decide to whether or not to blow up the world.

The second situation is a preemptive strike — a first-strike attack with nuclear weapons carried out to destroy an enemy’s capacity to respond. Preemptive strikes can be based on the assumption that the enemy is planning an imminent attack, but don’t have to be. The methodology behind a preemptive nuclear strike is to attack the enemy’s strategic nuclear weapon facilities (missile silos, submarine bases, bomber airfields), command and control sites and storage depots first. By hitting these targets first the enemy will be so wounded with so little of their resources left that they will be forced to surrender with minimal damage to the attacking party.

What is the U.S.’s scary policy on preemptive strikes?

Listen to this podcast by RadioLab about one American soldier who was forced into retirement for questioning the policy behind the US’s nuclear protocol (spoiler alert: it will alarm you). U.S. policy is essentially that if the president of the United States says launch the nuke, you launch the nuke. There is no process in place to ensure that the president is making the decision with a sound (or even sober) mind, backed up by facts, or that the president is supported by other important government officials.

The United Nations Charter bans military force except in self defense and states that using nukes could possibly constitute a war crime. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 implicitly bans the five so-called “nuclear weapon states” — the US, the UK, France, China and Russia — from attacking a non-nuclear country. However, in 1996 the UN’s judicial branch ruled it is not illegal to use nukes to ward off an “existential threat”. China and India both have current “no-first-use” policies, Russia walked back their policy in 1990 and the US currently does not have a first-use policy.

Other reasons this is scary?

Last year, Kim Jong-Un told other North Korean leaders that the country would conduct a nuclear strike if threatened by “invasive hostile forces with nuclear weapons”. Although North Korea does have nuclear weapons, their ability to use them is questionable. Many people believe if they do have nuclear capability, a medium-range missile could reach both South Korea and Japan — two US allies with US military installations. Tensions are continuing to heat up with a North Korean report on April 20th threatening a “super-mighty preemptive strike” which would reduce American military forces in South Korea and the U.S. mainland “to ashes”. This followed Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the region, warning “the era of strategic patience is over” when it comes to U.S. policy toward North Korea.

During the last election, there were many references to letting Trump have access to our nuclear launch codes and what that means for us a country and the world as a whole. Hillary Clinton and former President Obama were both quoted voicing their concern over Trump’s access to nuclear weapons. While campaigning for Hillary, Obama stated, “Over the weekend, his [Trump’s] campaign took away his Twitter account. Now, if your closest advisers don’t trust you to tweet then how can we trust him with the nuclear codes?” Clinton was quoted stating, “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons”.

When speaking about Trump specifically, Michael Hayden, the former head of both the CIA and the National Security Agency said “He’s inconsistent, and when you’re the head of a global superpower, inconsistency, unpredictability — those are dangerous things. They frighten your friends and tempt your enemies”.

Derek Johnson, Executive Director of Global Zero, stated “One modern nuclear weapon is more destructive than all of the bombs detonated in World War II combined. Yet there is no check on a president’s ability to launch the thousands of nuclear weapons at his command. In the wake of the election, the American people are more concerned than ever about the terrible prospect of nuclear war — and what the next commander-in-chief will do with the proverbial ‘red button.’ That such devastating power is concentrated in one person is an affront to our democracy’s founding principles.” So what is being done in policy to ensure if the US does launch a nuclear weapon, it with substantiated cause?

The Bills

In 2017, a “No First Use” declaration was introduced. The Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons act of 2017 would explicitly rule out a first strike with a nuclear weapon in any conflict for the United States without a declaration of war by Congress. The bill would only limit preemptive strikes, not retaliatory use of nuclear weapons. The legislation starts with this clause, “The framers of the Constitution understood that the monumental decision to go to war, which can result in massive death and the destruction of civilized society, must be made by the representatives of the people and not by a single person.” Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who introduced the legislation, stated “Congress must act to preserve global stability by restricting the circumstances under which the U.S. would be the first nation to use a nuclear weapon”.

Another bill relating to nuclear weapons is the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017. This act aims to establish new sanctions targeting Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles and its backing for terrorism. Senator Bob Corker said the bill “demonstrates the strong bipartisan support in Congress for a comprehensive approach to holding Iran accountable by targeting all aspects of the regime’s destabilizing actions.”

The final bill that has related to US nuclear weapons is the Intermediate-Range Forces Treaty (INF) Preservation Act. This act would allow the United States to take steps to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty and begin developing new intermediate-range missiles. Intermediate-range missiles are ballistic missiles with a range of 3,000–5,500 km (1,864–3,418 miles), between a medium-range ballistic missile(MRBM) and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Senator Tom Cotton, who introduced the bill, stated “If Russia is going to test and deploy intermediate range cruise missiles, then logic dictates that we respond. Pleading with the Russian regime to uphold its treaty obligations won’t bring it into compliance, but strengthening our nuclear forces in Europe very well might. We’re offering this legislation so we can finally put clear, firm boundaries on Russia’s unchecked aggression”.


One thing is clear to me; a preemptive strike needs to be treated like an act of war in US policy. There is no way I can find to think about the current policy about first-use and have it make sense. Dropping a nuke on a country is 100% an act of war, and declaring war in the United States is not something we take lightly. It should  (and for “normal” war does) require an act of Congress. I feel so strongly about this issue that I want to ask you all reading to call your representatives and ask them to support the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons act of 2017. You can find your representative in the senate here and in the house here.


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