The talk of nuclear war is more prevalent today than in decades.
North Korea has tested missiles with the apparent objective of achieving the capability to use nuclear weapons to strike as far away as the United States. The back-and-forth rhetoric between the North Korean dictator and U.S. President Donald Trump is disturbing.
As the same time, the Chinese have nuclear weapons next door to the Koreas. The Russian nuclear arsenal remains larger than America’s. The prospect that countries such as Iran will acquire nuclear weapons over time remains real. And the likelihood of a terrorist attack involving some kind of nuclear device has never been more probable.
No wonder the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this year moved the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” forward to 2-1/2 minutes to midnight, the most dangerous setting since 1953. Midnight on the clock, created in 1947, represents "doomsday."
The minute hand is assessed each year, and the clock's time "conveys how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making.” In 2015, the clock was moved to "three minutes to midnight" from its place at "five minutes to midnight" in 2014.
To determine this year's time, scientists considered factors including "strident nationalism worldwide, President Donald Trump’s comments on nuclear arms and climate issues prior to his inauguration on Jan. 20, a darkening global security landscape that is colored by increasingly sophisticated technology, and a growing disregard for scientific expertise," the Bulletin’s editors said.
Trump’s comments then and since have raised eyebrows, so much so that the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing recently on “authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.” The panel, led by Tennessee Sen. and Trump critic Bob Corker, featured testimony from a former head of the Pentagon's nuclear war-fighting command and other witnesses.
"This discussion is long overdue," Corker said in announcing the hearing, which produced conflicting opinions on just how absolute a presidential decision to launch a nuclear war would be.
Officially, the decision is in the hands of the president, whether launching missiles would be in retaliation or a first strike.
Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and expert on nuclear command and control, has said, "The protocol for ordering the use of nuclear weapons endows every president with civilization-ending power." Trump, he wrote in a Washington Post column last summer, "has unchecked authority to order a preventive nuclear strike against any nation he wants with a single verbal direction to the Pentagon war room."
Or as reported by The Associated Press, then-Vice President Dick Cheney said in December 2008 that the president "could launch a kind of devastating attack the world's never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody. He doesn't have to call the Congress. He doesn't have to check with the courts."
And that is good reason to pursue new safeguards – and not just because of Trump and his words. A nuclear launch resulting from poor or mistaken judgment must be prevented now and in the future.
The U.S. Congress should move to change the system.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., have been pushing legislation requiring that any first use of nuclear weapons require a declaration of war by Congress. Thus, a decision to use nukes — except in response to a nuclear attack — would require the approval of elected officials and would not be solely up to the president. At the very minimum, a change should be made to mandate a system in which more officials than just the president must be involved in ordering use of nuclear arms.
Hollywood has made famous fictitious stories about nuclear war nearly beginning by mistake. And in reality, false alarms have plagued the system in the past. Giving the president only about 10 minutes to decide whether to launch makes no sense.
A change in U.S. procedure will not prevent action by another country, but it will be insurance against the U.S. arsenal being misused or used by mistake.