Since the end of the Cold War, the circumstances under which a U.S. president might authorize the launch of nuclear weapons have changed. First, it bears mentioning that, even though he or she is always accompanied by the "nuclear football,"* a president's ability to exercise complete command over the response to a nuclear attack has long been overrated. Back in 2004, Global Zero Co-Coordinator and President of the World Security Institute Bruce Blair wrote:
. . . the president's supporting command system is not actually geared to withhold retaliation in the event of enemy missile attack, real or apparent. [Nuclear commanders] knew full well that the U.S. nuclear command system would collapse under the weight of . . . a Soviet first strike, and that their ability to [retaliate depended] on not waiting more than a few minutes before initiating a large-scale counterattack. [Thus the] bias in favor of launch on electronic warning is so powerful that it would take enormously more presidential will to withhold an attack than to authorize it.
Today, however, a nuclear attack is less likely to be the result of another state dropping bombs from above or launching missiles than a non-state actor (terrorist group) detonating a weapon without warning on American soil. If there's an upside to such an occurrence, it's that it allows a president time to consider his response.
Most assume that a nuclear attack is automatically met by nuclear retaliation. But that might prove equally uncalled for and unfeasible. Andrew Krepinevich, director of defense think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, makes that clear in his 2009 book 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century (Bantam Books).
The second of Krepinevich's seven eye-opening and plausible scenarios is titled "War Comes to America." In 2011, a Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon is detonated in San Antonio, home to several major Air Force bases and an intelligence center. Krepinevich writes:
Strategic Command's nuclear forces are placed on high alert . . . military specialists pore over incoming satellite imagery to determine if they somehow missed a missile launch indication . . . and to detect any additional missile launches that would indicate a follow-on strike. ... That evening President David Reynolds . . . informs the American public that [they've found] no indication that the weapon was delivered by any kind of missile or aircraft. Simply stated, the bomb was prepositioned in the city covertly and then detonated, perhaps remotely.
Thus, neither was it possible to initiate a retaliatory strike at the time nor mount an attack in the aftermath. For better or worse, the situation rendered launch on warning and hair-trigger alerts useless. Still, even though it's a different kettle of fish from the Cold War, nuclear forensics reveals that it's a Soviet weapon. But the Russians disavow the attack, though they concede that the weapon was stolen from them. They vow to track down the guilty parties, which they soon locate among rogue elements of their military and the Russian mafia and military. Krepinevich again:
"Intensive interrogation" (that is to say, torture) of these individuals reveals that nine Soviet-designed atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) have been sold on the black market to Islamic militants. ... but no group has presented compelling evidence that it is the true source of the attacks.
As you can imagine, the American people "want the perpetrators identified and destroyed. Around-the-clock news coverage, along with intense blogosphere activity, keeps the public's anger and fear at a high level." But retaliation is still just a gleam in generals' eyes because 1. the attackers have yet to be identified and 2. even when they are, since they don't inhabit a state per se, they don't present a ready target.
Two more nuked cities (sayonara San Diego and Chicago) and a total of 60,000 dead later, various Islamist groups now claim responsibility. Worse, two stolen Soviet weapons are still outstanding.
By this point, Krepinevich writes, "Many Americans would welcome a broad attack on Arab states like Syria and Lebanon and the occupation of Persian Gulf oil fields as a means of providing reparations to the United States for the attacks." (Can we do that second one now? Kidding, of course.) "With no indications from the president that he's inclined to either course of action, his "public support . . . has now plummeted. Most Americans see his efforts as weak and ineffectual."
Then Boston is struck and during a "U.S. Coast Guard boarding of a cargo ship approaching U.S. territorial waters, a nuclear weapon . . . believed to be the final weapon . . . detonates." The national nightmare seems to be coming to an end. The "president announces that the United States will work with its allies and partners . . . to pressure those states suspected of supporting radical Islamist elements to cease all such activities. In the interim the United States is intensifying its worldwide military operations to locate and destroy radical Islamist groups with the cooperation" of other countries. [But the] response to the president's address is lukewarm at best. [His] approval ratings sink below 20 percent [and soon] the House of Representatives begins hearings to determine if the president should be impeached."
Finally, a radical Islamist group provides irrefutable proof to the CIA that it perpetrated the attacks. Just when it feels like the United States can at last put a name to its pain, the Director of National Intelligence delivers the punch line: "Mr. President, they inform us that they have other nuclear weapons in the United States and will begin using them within a week unless we meet their demands, which are as follows . . ."
Scenario 2, were it to come to pass, would be our second object lesson in that unique way nuclear weapons have of fast-tracking us into crisis mode while leaving us without the means to retrace our steps back to a steady state. The first, of course, was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Krepinevich's President Reynolds might have been intended as a hybrid of President Obama, attributing to him a reluctance to use nuclear weapons, and President John F. Kennedy, who finally became obstinate in his refusal to resort to nuclear weapons. Of Reynolds, Krepinevich writes: "Privately, he tells those closest to him that he is willing to suffer public disapproval in order to spare the country the dangers of a full-scale war."
In fact, the pressure Kennedy faced from the military to use nuclear weapons was much stronger than that which Obama has thus far faced about remaining in Afghanistan or, for that matter, dialing down our nuclear-industrial complex. Kennedy, however, had proved his intestinal fortitude during World War II with PT-109. (Revisit that incident: his heroism bordered on a death wish.) Besides, in those days, bold initiatives were expected from leaders, unlike today, when consensus rules at the executive level in business and government.
Returning to Krepinevich's scenario, even Kennedy might have nuked a host state after hearing about the additional bombs. Obama, I regret to report, unlike President Reynolds, might have succumbed to pressure to authorize a nuclear attack after the initial attacks.
*The nuclear football is an industrial-strength briefcase containing retaliatory options, site locations, and authorization codes.