- If President Donald Trump wants to fire nuclear weapons at an enemy nation, nobody in the military or government can stop him.
- One of Trump's fiercest critics in the Senate will hold a hearing challenging the president's authority to use nuclear weapons.
- While the president's unhindered access to nuclear weapons troubles many, it's not clear how the system can be improved.
If President Donald Trump wants to fire any number of US nuclear weapons at virtually any target on earth, nobody, not the Secretary of Defense, not Congress, and not even the nuclear launch officer underground in a silo pressing the button could stop him.
But on Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing over the president's authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.
While the hearing nominally will look at the structure of nuclear command and control that has served all presidents, it's headed by one of Trump's most vocal critics in the ranks of Senate Republicans, Bob Corker.
Just a month ago, Corker scolded Trump for acting in a way he found childish, saying that "the White House has become an adult day care center." He warned that Trump's brash style of leadership could send the US "on the path to World War III."
Additionally, Trump has extensively explored the idea of preemptive war with North Korea, a rogue nuclear nation he has verbally sparred with and threatened to "totally destroy."
"This discussion is long overdue," Corker said of the hearing on the president's authority to use nuclear weapons.
Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/US Air Force
Corker and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee don't stand alone in their will to see the president's nuclear powers revisited.
Shortly after Trump's inauguration in January, Democrats in the House introduced a protest bill designed to curb Trump's ability to issue a nuclear first strike without Congressional approval.
Congress authorizes the use of military force, but nuclear powers remain firmly under the grip of the president, and have since the dawn of the nuclear era.
While few dispute that adding Congressional approval to nuclear launch procedures would add credibility and a democratic aspect to any US engagement in nuclear war, the logistics of such a system are challenging.
As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a supporter of the current system, described in late October, the system is streamlined for quick decision-making.
An intercontinental ballistic missile could travel halfway around the globe and hit the US in less than a half hour.
The US would find out about it shortly after launch due to satellites and radars that scan the globe, but the president wouldn't have more than 10 or so minutes to respond.
Within this window of time, it's hard to imagine Congressional approval going through. Additionally, if the president received information that North Korea would quickly commence an all-out attack on South Korea, a decision whether or not to act on that intelligence would need to follow shortly.
Some argue that the military should have the capacity to deny the president's order, but that would erode the civilian control of the country. Also, in fraught times like the Cuban missile crisis, the military wanted to use nuclear weapons, and the president did not.
Reuters / KCNA
In pressing situations that call for a quick decision on the use of nuclear force, it's unclear how Congress could enter into the process.
"The fact is that no president, Republican or Democrat, has ever forsworn the first-strike capability," Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October. "That has served us for 70 years."
Nuclear force has been used exactly twice in history, both times by the US on Japan near the close of World War II.
Meanwhile, use of conventional military force does require Congressional approval, but has been going on continuously for 16 years in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, costing thousands of US lives and trillions of dollars.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will interview retired US Air Force General C. Robert Kehler; Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University; and Brian McKeon, who formerly acted as the undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon.