“I have briefed some 30 senators and House members on the nuclear protocol and how I think it ought to be revised.” — Bruce Blair, research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School
Sameer A. Khan
Presidential rhetoric brings new scrutiny to nuclear-launch protocol

Currently, no Cabinet member is able to curb the president’s authority to order a nuclear strike. Bruce Blair, a research scholar in the Woodrow Wilson School’s Program on Science and Global Security, is a key figure in the effort to fortify the checks and balances in place when launching a first nuclear strike. He was an Air Force launch-control officer for Minuteman ICBMs from 1972 to 1974 and was a project director at Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment, where he wrote a highly classified analysis of the command-and-control systems for nuclear weapons. Blair has been pushing for tighter controls for years, and in November, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the first congressional hearing on the subject in more than four decades. Blair spoke to PAW about why now is the right time to re-examine the president’s power to launch a nuclear strike.

How did your experience as an ICBM launch-control officer shape your views on this subject?

It illuminated for me the speed at which this process unfolds and how there’s really no latitude to question an order. It sensitized me to the magnitude of devastation at stake, which is humongous. And it sensitized me to the law of war and the humanitarian dimensions of what would really constitute justifiable self-defense. 

What are the problems with the current system?

There’s not much controversy about the idea of the president alone making the decision to launch after the first confirmed nuclear attack. The bigger problem is with the president initiating an attack without an apparent cause. And the other aspect that’s equally disturbing is, if we are under attack, the pressure on the president to authorize the use of nuclear weapons becomes really intense, and it may well push a president to hastily decide to do so based on incomplete information. The president has roughly six minutes to make a decision if it appears that we are under attack. The whole process is very rushed and very mechanical. 

The underlying concern is that you may have a person either chronically demented or maybe just momentarily panic-stricken or, for one reason or another, is behaving irrationally, and who could start a nuclear conflagration that could kill 100 million people or more and possibly destroy our country. This has been swept under the rug and not addressed for a half-century. A silver lining in President Trump’s election is that he’s raised that to a level of concern, and we now have this healthy debate. To suggest that disobeying an order from the president is the major safeguard against the improper, stupid, or illegal use of nuclear weapons is not reassuring.

So is President Trump emblematic of this concern?

Yes, along with Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin, and even Prime Minister Modi of India, who has his own nuclear “suitcase” wired through dedicated satellite channels. I’ve been arguing for decades about the risks of accidental or mistaken launch, false warnings, nuclear terrorism, and proliferation. But in the past, not many of us concerned ourselves with the rationality of the leadership. The ascendance of leaders like Trump and Kim have really underscored that point.

Why are we in this situation now?

The protocol was established in the early 1960s and was driven by the advent of ballistic missiles that could arrive in 30 minutes and submarine-launch missiles that could take 15 minutes. With a shrinking timeline, the conclusion was that we had to be able to respond to an attack quickly, before the incoming missiles destroyed our command and control. We also wanted to concentrate authority with the highest executive branch officials, and out of the hands of the military. There was lingering concern from the Truman era that the military might use nuclear weapons without adequate civilian authority. So the whole vein of thinking in the Cold War was to assume sane leadership at the top. Somewhere along the line, we began to question that assumption.

What bills are being considered?

One, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., would require a declaration of war from Congress before a nuclear first strike. That’s a good step, but you can also imagine an ongoing conflict that lasts for years, and at some point a president decides to exercise the nuclear prerogative even though it’s ill-conceived in the extreme. So another approach that is getting some attention from people in Congress is to add more people to the chain of command for first use. One proposal would have the secretary of defense and the attorney general in the chain of command. The attorney general would have to certify that the order does not violate the rules of war — that it’s proportional, that it’s not indiscriminate, and that no other alternative would be sufficient to eliminate the threat. A third approach is for Congress to pass a law saying it is not the policy of the United States to use nuclear weapons first. 

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about these ideas being enacted?

Pessimistic. Today, any efforts would be largely inspired by Democrats, and there’s very little bipartisanship these days. And there’s even some skepticism in the Democratic ranks about whether this is a good direction to take, because some people still feel there’s a benefit to creating as much ambiguity as possible in the timing of the use of nuclear forces. First use serves that deterrent purpose. There’s also some question about whether this would generate a huge constitutional dispute.

This is an expanded version of the interview in the Jan. 10, 2018, print issue.

Interview conducted and condensed by Louis Jacobson ’92