Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
With Donald Trump at the pinnacle of the nuclear decision tree, serious questions arise. He is quick to decisions, with gut instincts overriding rational debate or thought. Moreover, his mental make-up dwells on image and hubris - with a bit of riling could he take action.
We know that snap-decisions are far from optimal, especially when the unforeseen combines with long-term consequences. The use of nuclear weapons tops that list. Rushing a decision to incinerate millions of men, women and children is the most immoral of acts. Add to that environmental impact, with repercussions that would linger for centuries.
Some would argue that Trump is a rational player - that may be. Nonetheless, his behaviour is quirky, with child-like qualities coupled with blissful ignorance. That’s a cause for concern.
The good news is this; Trump alone could not start a nuclear holocaust. Moreover, there is no 'button' for him to press in a fit of pique. This week reassuring words came from the former head of the US Strategic Command. General Robert Kehler, (USAF Ret) gave evidence to the US Senate on November 14th. Keller is the guy who could execute the President's order to fire the nukes. What he had to say is profound. He affirmed that nuclear weapons are under political control, while the military executes the task. And yet, there are checks and balances in the process that limit the president.
It's important to understand that the US command and control system envisaged a worst-case scenario. In essence, this meant inbound nuclear warheads with only minutes to respond. A failure to act could destroy US missiles blunting a riposte. Thus, the hair-trigger alert evolved. For that system to work, one person has the formidable task of deciding to launch. That is the president.
In whole, the aptly named concept of MAD, mutually assured destruction, underpinned a threatening stalemate. You attack me, and I’ll get an attack underway to you before its too late. Alas, the reality of any system is that something could fail. In this instance, the competence of the president is the overriding concern.
Trump's statements over North Korea suggest he’s considering to use nuclear weapons. These comments unsettled many, both in the US and abroad. Stoking the tension with such rhetoric can be counter-productive. We know that bluster, harsh words and threats are all part of Trump’s repertoire. Then throw nuclear weapons into the equation, plus a North Korea that feels threatened. A volatile mix.
Since its creation, the nuclear bomb had a special status amongst weapons. Unlike other systems, the civilian authorities have insisted on absolute control.
President Truman made it clear "This is not a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children. Thus we have to treat this thing differently from rifles, and cannons.”
Over the years things have changed. With the finish of the Cold War, the US moved into a less aggressive nuclear posture. Nuclear bombers are no longer on alert, armed with weapons and ready to go. These systems would take days to activate in anticipation of an escalating situation. An immediate response now rests on submarines skulking around the oceans.
Kehler asserted that officers follow the ‘uniform code of military justice’. This code means acting on orders, provided these are legal and from the appropriate authority. Besides, officers are duty bound to verify authenticity and ignore illegal instructions. As the directive to use nuclear weapons proceeds through the chain of command, checks are in place at each stage.
The movies have a lot to answer for. The impression that the president can call forward the guy with the 'football' - actually a satchel - to start a nuclear launch is mistaken.
What happens is this; the President authenticates himself over a secure line. Then the military aide keys in the codes and target choices. Next, a second person, either the Vice-President or Secretary of Defense must authenticate. Then, and only then, does the 'emergency action message' flash out to the nuclear forces telling them to go.
Hence, Trump needs either the Vice-President or Secretary of Defence to agree. Besides, the president's cabinet can take away his authority to launch if 51% vote against him.
The evidence to the Senate, while not specific, indicated that the use of nuclear weapons involved consultation. Then a process of assessment and review between civilian and military leaders. Moreover, and most reassuring, the military does not blindly follow orders. The legal consideration of 'proportionality', means the military can opt to ignore the president's instructions. All the discussion that Trump alone could push through a nuclear strike is redundant.
This is history repeating itself. Similar concerns arose with President Nixon. In 1969, a US spy plane was shot down by North Korea over the Sea of Japan. As a result, 31 Americans died. Nixon became incensed, ordering a nuclear attack. The alerted Joint Chiefs of Staff delayed by asking for a specific targeting list from Nixon. Then Kissinger intervened. He directed no action until the morning "when Nixon sobers up."
That's not to say there aren't risks. Accidents, faulty intelligence and reduced maintenance, are the real threat with nuclear weapons. Close calls are well documented in the West, although not so much in Russia and China. For a full list of known incidents check here.
Hindsight is always 20/20. From each incident lessons are learnt, procedures changed. That's all well and good, except with nuclear weapons one slip is one too many. Further, the most mundane of situations can yield destruction.
Even pure clumsiness during a repair has far-reaching impact. That’s what happened on September 18, 1980, at Little Rock Air Force Base complex 374-7. A dropped socket wrench pierced a Titan II missile skin causing a fuel leak. An explosion then catapulted the 740-ton silo door skyward, in the process ejecting the warhead. This landed near the compound gate. It's fortunate that the warheads safety systems worked.
On January 24, 1961, the US bombed itself. A B-52 midair explosion highlighted the risks of flying nuclear weapons around on planes in peacetime. As the B-52 broke up, five crewmen parachuted out, while the rest of the crew perished. Two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs fell from the wreckage. One went into free-fall, burying itself 55 feet below a farmers field. It remains there to this day.
The second bomb started its arming procedures. It charged capacitors and then deployed a parachute to slow the descent. Only a single $5- switch prevented the final stage of arming. Had the bomb landed with force, it’s speculated the switch could actuate the firing.
Then you’ve got the challenge of technology producing false or confusing signals. On 26th September 1983, the computers at a Soviet command centre began reporting a missile attack by the US on Russia. Protocols demanded that Soviet missiles be launched immediately in response. This was three weeks after the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner. Tensions were high.
Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer, broke with procedures and waited. The system indicated five missiles inbound, which struck Petrov as odd. He'd expect a massive attack; thus five rockets didn’t make sense. He waited. After some 20 minutes, the signals disappeared. Later the cause was identified. High attitude sunlight reflection off clouds created false signals in the Russian detection satellites. The Soviets reprimanded Petrov, although he prevented a disaster of epic proportions.
Much mythology surrounds the use of nuclear weapons. Also a lot of free and ill-informed comment. Hillary Clinton made a great play on Trump's unsuitability for access to the nuclear button. She, of all people, should have known the button does not exist.
It’s an accident, error or misunderstanding that will trigger a nuclear attack. Not the mad president scenario.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.