The Nuclear Button

01/16/2017 03:41 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2017
mrdoomits via Getty Images

It seems that every time there’s an election in the United States (and especially when there’s a non-traditional candidate), this question comes up: are the candidates temperamentally fit to have the power to “push the nuclear button” or to “be trusted with the nuclear codes”? The problem is, journalists and commentators use those phrases as if there was one actual “button” that the president would push. Buzzkill Institute Researchers decided to examine the history, myths, and misconceptions about “The Nuclear Button,” to find out the real story, and try to understand whether and how we’re spared a Dr. Stangelove-type situation.

You remember that great 1964 political satire film by Stanley Kubrick, Buzzkillers. An unhinged Air Force General, Jack Ripper, is able to skirt the various fail-safes in place and launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. One of the central plot points in Dr. Strangelove is that General Ripper is able to lock the nuclear code sequence given to his bomber pilots, and therefore prevent the US President and the Joint Chiefs from recalling the planes and stop the attack. Amid all the black comedy and great acting, the central message of Cold War egos out of control comes through very clearly in Dr. Strangelove.

The “Nuclear Button” is really a highly complex system of communication and codes established to insure that any order to launch a nuclear attack is actually coming from the President himself, and hasn’t been schemed or invented by someone else. Despite being called a “button,” it isn’t a single “button” that starts the whole launch process going. Even in its portable form (the “Nuclear Football” that stays with the President when he travels), the “button” consists not only of a “Black Book” containing target choices, strategic and retaliatory options, but also a small plastic card (nicknamed “the biscuit”) that contains the “Gold Codes” required to authenticate a nuclear attack order. The President is supposed to carry “the biscuit” with him at all times.

History of the Nuclear Button and the Nuclear Football

Like so many other things about nuclear war, the ways in which the United States has set up the nuclear button and the nuclear football date to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Although there had be extensive nuclear command structures in place under Truman and Eisenhower, the Cuban Missile Crisis had revealed weaknesses in both the American and Soviet controls designed to prevent nuclear launch mistakes. Kennedy apparently thought it was too easy for missiles to be launched without having direct and personal orders from the President himself that could be confirmed. So he asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Department some very pointed questions about the verification process of nuclear strike orders.

Systems were then designed and implemented, based on Kennedy’s queries, to try to avoid mistakes creeping into the processes either for initiating a nuclear attack or responding to one. The codes and procedures for the nuclear button and the nuclear football were created as a way to make sure that the orders to launch a nuclear strike or counter-attack were actually coming from the President and not some kind of imposter or lower ranking official. The crucial thing to remember here, Buzzkillers, is that the codes and fail-safes for launching nuclear weapons are all based around confirming the identity of the President, not whether the President is acting sanely and rationally when giving the orders to launch. The only exception would be if Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution is invoked. The 25th Amendment allows the Vice-President (along with a majority of the cabinet or a majority of Congress) to declare the President disabled or unfit to execute the duties of the office. But this, of course, could be applied at any time, not just in a nuclear emergency.

What Actually Happens When “The Nuclear Button” is Pushed?

There are two basic situations where a nuclear attack is ordered by the president. One is in response to an attack from a foreign power, and the other is a first strike attack. The crucial difference is the amount of time between the president making the decision in his own mind, and the actual orders going out. And, of course, what sorts of influences, questions, and debates occur in the President’s inner circle of military and civilian advisors, might make a difference.

The proverbial phone call in the middle of the night is the most worrying scenario. If the president is awakened by such a phone call, or by an aide, and told that nuclear missiles have been launched against the United States, he has very little time in which to react. If land-based missiles are launched from Russia or China, they can reach their targets in the United States (including the Buzzkill Bunker) within 30 minutes. Not much time for the president to clear his sleepy head and get in contact with his top military advisors. If, however, the missiles were launched from Russian submarines lurking in the Atlantic, they might reach their targets in 12 minutes. Even less time, Buzzkillers.

This is the potential nightmare scenario. Since the President has absolute authority to launch a strike or counter-strike, and if the 12 minute clock is ticking, there is almost no time for advisors or cabinet members to weigh in with their opinions. And so, the only thing hanging in the balance is the confirmation that the person sending the order down the chain of command actually is the President. That’s where the nuclear codes come in.

I’ll explain the “attack options” in a minute, but in this counter-strike situation, it’s almost certain that the President would choose one of the Major Attack Options from his list of choices in the Black Book. The President then contacts the National Military Command Center (also known as the War Room) in the Pentagon on a secure line (either from the White House or via the Nuclear Football). Here’s where the “two-man rule” (that you may have heard of) comes in, Buzzkillers. The senior officer in the Pentagon’s war room issues a challenge code to the person calling in on the secure line (supposedly, the President) to make sure that it really is the President. That challenge code may be no longer than two letters from the military alphabet. For instance, the officer might read out, “Papa Bravo” (PB). The President would then take the code card (called, “the biscuit”), crack open the protective plastic coating, pull out the card, and respond with the code that matches “Papa Bravo.” “Juliet Charlie,” (JC), for instance. But the officer in the Pentagon isn’t the second man in the “two-man rule” scenario.

That second man is the Secretary of Defense. His or her role in this situation is solely to verify that the order came from the President and not someone else. The Defense Secretary has no veto power over the decision, he just confirms that it is a Presidential order. There is another round of code verifications so that the Pentagon officer gets confirmation of the Secretary of Defense’s confirmation, so to speak. Then the military takes over.

We’re going to get to the myths and misunderstandings about how nuclear missiles are actually launched by the military in an immediate response scenario in a minute. But right now let me go over what happens when the President decides to make a first strike.

In almost all circumstances where the United States would decide to launch nuclear weapons first, there would be a lot more time involved. This doesn’t mean that an intemperate and/or petulant President couldn’t decide to launch a first strike without putting much thought or contemplation into the decision. He could, and it would unfold very much like the “counter-strike” process. But that’s unlikely to happen because of custom, tradition, and the large number of advisors and other government officials in close proximity of, and in close consultation with, the President more or less all the time.

A likely scenario would be this. Some international incident, series of incidents, or a war that the United States is engaged in becomes bad enough that the President decides that using nuclear weapons is vital for the security of the United States. Again, the President has the sole authority to make such an order, but almost certainly wouldn’t without extensive consultation with his top military and civilian advisers. The most important of such meetings and consultations would take place in the White House Situation Room. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that cabinet members and top military brass vigorously debate the situation and the question of whether to launch a nuclear first strike.

The President would let this debate last only as long as he wished it to last. He may be convinced not to launch a strike, but if he decides to do so, it doesn’t matter what his advisers say, how many disagree with him, or how many may resign on the spot. The 1962 debates inside the White House over options in responding to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba went on for several days. But once the President decides to launch a nuclear attack, the protocol I just discussed would start.

After a deliberative decision, however Buzzkillers, the President most likely would choose one of the following attack options: Major, Selected, and Limited. A Major Attack Option is an all-out assault on a targeted country, including major population centers, industrial hubs, and military sites. A Selected Attack Option is a pared-down plan that focuses on a few crucial military and civilian targets. And a Limited Attack Option would concentrate on a small number of targets, probably military installations that contained nuclear weapons. These Attack Options are worked out well in advance and are printed on a kind of menu of options that the President chooses from.

The order is then sent to the Pentagon War Room. They prepare it to go out to the specific launch crews, and they encode and encrypt the order down to about 150 characters (not much more than the length of a Tweet). The order message goes out to American military centers across the world (in order to keep them informed) but is specifically addressed to the launch crews needed to handle the Attack Option the President selected. All this could happen quickly, without about two minutes.

Nuclear missiles in land silos and in submarines are controlled by launch crews. Each crew must authenticate the order by opening a safe and comparing the launch codes sent in the order with the launch codes they already have in case there is an attack message. If those codes match, the launch crews target their missiles according to the instructions in the order. In a submarine, the order is authenticated by the captain, the executive officer, and two others designated by the captain. And then they launch the missiles by simultaneously turning their launch keys in the submarine’s launch computer. There are five land-based centers for nuclear missiles. A similar procedure happens there, and all five crews turn their launch keys at the same time, which sends an automatic signal to the silos to launch the missiles. And they’re off.

As we heard in our Cuban Missile Crisis episode last year, there were instances where at least one Soviet submarine received faulty orders to launch its missiles. The captain was skeptical because the messages seemed to be a mistake, and he didn’t order the launch. But nowadays, a legitimate order that’s been authenticated as coming from the President is very likely to launch the missiles without any second guessing in submarines or land-based silos. Only two of the launch keys need to be turned in order to send the automated order to the missiles for launch.

How Close Has the Button Come to Being Pushed in the Past?

Only once, and then not very close. In the middle of the night on the 9th of November 1979, early warning signals at military bases in Colorado went off, alerting the officers there that a Soviet nuclear missile attack had been launched. President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski was called twice to tell him that the US was under Soviet nuclear attack. The first call told him that an attack had been launched. The second call (almost immediately after the first one) told him that the attack was massive. All the correct codes were exchanged to verify the call, and Brzezinski was about to notify the President when a third call came through to tell him that the attack alert had been a mistake. And it was both human and technical errors that caused the alert. A taped training exercise that simulated a nuclear attack from the USSR was mistakenly run in the nuclear attack early warning system. This set off all the other warnings, and standard procedures proceeded from there.

Since then, further reporting and early-warning confirmation and fail-safe procedures were put in place and, of course, defense specialists here at the Buzzkill Bunker were updated on all the new codes. But if the missiles are actually ever launched, Buzzkillers, you won’t have much time left. So remember what St. Stephen of Stills taught us: Love the One You’re With.

CONVERSATIONS