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former IAEA Director-General

U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Press Briefing: The Trump Administration's New Nuclear Posture Review



The Arms Control Association will host a briefing with a group of top experts to analyze the implications of the new Trump nuclear strategy.


The Trump administration will soon formally release its revised the strategy document on the role and composition of U.S. nuclear forces, known as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).
According to a leaked draft of the 64-page document, the administration calls for expanding the number of scenarios under which the United States might consider the use nuclear weapons—including in response to a major cyberattack—and it proposes the development of new nuclear weapons and capabilities for “tailored” war scenarios.
The document also reaffirms support for replacing and upgrading all three legs of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to cost in excess of $1.25 trillion over the next 30 years and walks back U.S. commitments to pursue measures to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons. 
The independent, nonpartisan Arms Control Association will host a briefing with top experts to analyze the implications of the Trump administration's nuclear strategy.

WHEN:January 23, 2018
WHERE:Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Root Room
1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC
SPEAKERS: Jon Wolfsthal, former Senior Director, National Security Council;
Thomas Countryman, Chairman of the Board; and
Joan Rohlfing, President, Nuclear Threat Initiative



Posted: January 23, 2018

Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: The United States

January 2018

Updated: January 2018

According to the most recent announcement provided by the Obama administration in January 2017, as of September 2016 the United States possessed 4,018 nuclear warheads and an additional 2,800 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement. The U.S. has already met its New START requirements to reduce its deployed warheads to 1,550 by 2018, and according to the September 2017 New START data exchange it has 1,393 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 660 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers, with an additional 150-200 tactical warheads deployed in Europe. President Trump ordered a new Nuclear Posture Review in January 2017, and the Defense Department is expected to release the NPR early in 2018. The United States has destroyed about 90% of its chemical weapons arsenal as of 2016 and is due to complete destruction by 2023. It is party to the Biological Weapons Convention and has destroyed its biological weapons arsenal, although Russia alleges that U.S. biodefense research violates the BWC.


Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

  • The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
  • Delivery Systems
  • Nuclear Doctrine
  • Fissile Material
  • Proliferation Record

Biological Weapons

Chemical Weapons

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

  • New START
  • Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
  • Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
  • Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
  • Nuclear Security Summits
  • Syrian Chemical Weapons
  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties




Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty



Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty


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Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)



CPPNM 2005 Amendment

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Chemical Weapons Convention



Biological Weapons Convention



International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism



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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards



Australia Group


Missile Technology Control Regime


Nuclear Suppliers Group


Wassenaar Arrangement


International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol

Signed in 1998, entered into force January, 2009.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

Co-founder with Russia

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation


Proliferation Security Initiative


UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673

The United States has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions and volunteered to provide assistance to other states.

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Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview

Under President Barack Obama, the United States began declassifying the size of its military nuclear stockpile. The most recent update provided by the Obama administration in January 2017 indicates that, as of September 30, 2016, the United States had 4,018 nuclear warheads in its military stockpile, including tactical, strategic, and non-deployed weapons. The administration also announced that an additional 2,800 retired warheads are awaiting dismantlement, putting the total size of the U.S. warhead stockpile at 6,800 warheads. While the United States and Russia maintain similarly sized total arsenals, the United States possesses a much larger number of strategic warheads and delivery systems while Russia possesses a much larger number of non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear warheads.

Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States will reduce its deployed treaty accountable strategic warheads to 1,550 by the treaty implementation deadline of 2018. According to the September 2017 New START data exchange, the United States has 1,393 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 660 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. However, these numbers may be artificially low due to a temporary fluctuation in deployed and non-deployed weapons at the time of the exchange. The United States also deploys an additional 150-200 tactical nuclear warheads based in Europe. 

The United States has conducted 1,030 total nuclear tests, far more than any other nuclear-armed state. The United States is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons against another country, dropping two bombs (one apiece) on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Delivery Systems

(For a detailed overview of current and planned U.S. nuclear modernization programs, see our fact sheet here.)

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)

  •  As of September 2017, the United States Air Force deploys 399 LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs.
    • The Minuteman III has a range of over 6,000 miles (9,650-13,000 km).
    • Each missile is equipped with either one 300 kt W87 warhead or one 335 kt W78 warhead.
  • In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Obama administration decided to “de-MIRV” the missiles, removing the second and third warhead deployed on some of the Minuteman IIIs. This process was completed in June 2014.
  • Under New START, the United States plans to reduce the number of deployed ICBMs from 450 to 400. The 50 excess silos will not be destroyed but kept “warm” to accommodate missiles if necessary.
  • In 2015, the United States concluded a multibillion dollar, decade-long modernization program that will extend the service life of the Minuteman III to beyond 2030.  

Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

Ohio-class submarines

  • The U.S. Navy operates 14 Ohio-class SSBNs submarines, two of which are undergoing overhaul of their nuclear reactors at any given time. The remaining 12 are available for deployment. However, since some operational SSBNs also undergo minor repairs at any given time the actual number of SSBNs at sea usually numbers at around 10.
  • 7 submarines are based out of Bangor, Washington and 5 submarines are based out of Kings Bay, Georgia.
  • The submarines have 24 missile tubes for Trident II D5 SLBMs. Under New START, the Navy has begun to deactivate 4 tubes on each submarine; a process scheduled for completion in early 2017.
  • The Ohio-class submarines have a life-span of 42 years.

Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile

  • The Trident II D5 was first deployed in 1990.
  • The Trident II D5 has an operational range of 7,400-12,000 km.
  • The Trident II D5 missile can hold up to eight warheads (but usually holds an average of four to five) and carries 3 variants:
    • the W88—a 475 kt MIRV warhead.
    • the W76-0—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
    • the W76-1—a 100 kt MIRV warhead.
  • Under New START, the Navy will deploy 240 missiles armed with about 1,100 warheads.
  • An ongoing life extension program is expected to keep the Trident II D5 in service until  2042.
  • The Trident II D5 is the only MIRV’ed strategic missile remaining in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.


  • As of September 2017, the Air Force deploys 38 nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress bombers and 11 nuclear-capable B-2A Spirit bombers.
  • The Air Force will deploy no more than 60 nuclear-capable strategic bombers under New START.
  • An estimated 1,038 nuclear weapons are assigned to the strategic bombers, but only about 300 are typically deployed at bomber bases.
    • B-52H Stratofortress bombers: dual-capable; can carry 20 AGM-86B cruise missiles. The AGM-86B has a range of 2,500 km and is equipped with a 5-150 kt W80-1 warhead
    • B-2A Spirit bombers: dual capable; can carry 16 B61-7, B61-11, or B83-1 gravity bombs.
  • The United States also maintains several fighter-aircraft that serve in a dual-capable role. The F-15E and F-16C have been the cornerstone of this aspect of nuclear deterrence, carrying the B61 gravity bomb. The new stealth F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, will replace the F-16 as the U.S. Air Force’s primary nuclear capable fighter-aircraft.

Nuclear Doctrine

In April 2009, President Obama declared in a speech in Prague that it was the policy of the United States “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Obama administration announced that it “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” The administration reserved the right to make any adjustments to this assurance “that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat.” The President was not prepared to make a declaration that the “sole purpose” of its nuclear weapons was to deter a nuclear attack, but added that it would “work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted.”

News reports indicated that the Obama administration during its last year in office considered adjusting U.S. nuclear declaratory policy to state that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. In a January 11, 2017, speech in Washington, Vice President Joe Biden said that both he and Obama strongly believe that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons should be to deter a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. But the President reportedly decided not to adopt a no-first-use or sole purpose policy due to concerns expressed by some members of his cabinet and close U.S. allies.

In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order calling on the Defense Department to initiate a new NPR in order to “ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats.”

Fissile Material

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

  • The United States has publicly declared that it no longer produces fissile material for weapons purposes. It stopped production of HEU in 1992.
  • In March 2016, the United States announced the declassification of its national inventory of highly enriched uranium (HEU), as of September 30, 2013.
  • The United States halted the production of HEU for weapons in 1964 and ceased plutonium separation for weapons in 1992.
  • Estimates from 2016 place the U.S. HEU stockpile at around 600 metric tons, including 253 metric tons of military HEU and 264 metric tons of fresh and spent naval HEU.
  • According to the 2015 Global Fissile Material Report, the United States has about 40 metric tons of HEU remaining to be downblended of the 187 metric tons it declared as excess to defense requirements and has committed to dispose.


  • The United States ended production of separated plutonium in 1988.
  • At the end of 2014, U.S. military plutonium stockpiles amounted to a total of 87.6 declared metric tons (49.3 metric tons of which are declared as excess military plutonium).
  • In October 2016, citing U.S. failure to meet its obligations under the agreement, Russia suspended its own implementation of the deal. Russia refuses to resume the agreement’s implementation until U.S. sanctions against Russia are lifted and NATO forces in Europe are reorganized along lines favorable to Russia. Russia contends that U.S. plans to abandon the conversion of plutonium into MOX fuel in favor of a cheaper and faster downblending method does not meet the terms of the deal because doing so would fail to change the composition of the plutonium from weapons grade to reactor grade. 
  • The United States possesses no separated civilian plutonium but at the end of 2014, an estimated 625 metric tons of plutonium were contained in spent fuel stored at civilian reactor sites.
  • Under the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), finalized with Russia in 2000, the United States committed to disposing of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium by 2018. The agreement was amended in 2010 to change the agreed disposition methods in which Russia abandoned using mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in light-water reactors in favor or irradiating plutonium in its fast-neutron reactors. The amendment also expressed renewed U.S. commitment to provide $400 million towards the Russian disposition program.

 Proliferation Record

  • A close relationship exists between U.S. and British nuclear weapons programs. The United States supplies the United Kingdom with the Trident II D5 SLBM.
  • Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey all host U.S. tactical nuclear gravity bombs as part of NATO nuclear sharing agreements. The estimated 180 weapons remain under U.S. custody during peacetime, but some may be released to U.S. allies for delivery in times of war.
  • Beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” initiative, the United States has engaged in extensive worldwide trading and exchanging of fissile materials and technical information for nuclear science research and the peaceful use of nuclear technology. In 1954, an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act allowed bilateral nuclear agreements with U.S. allies to proceed, with the intent of exporting only low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel; however, this soon expanded to include HEU.
  • Under the “Atoms for Peace” program a number of former, aspiring, and current nuclear weapon-states such as South Africa, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Israel all received, directly or indirectly, training and technology transfers utilized in their nuclear weapons programs. For example, in 1967, the United States supplied Iran with a 5 megawatt nuclear research reactor along with HEU fuel. Iran admitted to using the reactor in the early 1990s for the production of small amounts of Polonium-210, a radioactive substance capable of starting a chain reaction inside a nuclear weapon.
  • Since the end of the Cold War the United States has tried to mitigate the adverse effects of the “Atoms for Peace” initiative and returned exported HEU and plutonium to the United States.

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Biological Weapons

  • In the early 1970s, the United States destroyed its entire stockpile of biological weapons, which had been developed between 1943 and 1969.
  • In 2001, the Bush administration opposed and killed an effort dating back to 1995 to augment the Biological Weapons Convention with a legally binding verification protocol. U.S. officials said the protocol would be too burdensome on legitimate governments and private biodefense programs, while at the same time failing to deter cheaters.
  • According to a 2016 State Department report, “In December 2015 at the annual Meeting of States Parties to the BWC, the delegation of the Russian Federation asserted that the United States had knowingly transferred live anthrax spores to a foreign country for use in open-air testing, and that this constituted a ‘grave violation’ of Articles III and IV of the BWC [Biological Weapons Convention].”
  • The United States maintains that these transfers were a blunder. The report also notes that, “All U.S. activities during the reporting period were consistent with the obligations set forth in the BWC. The United States continues to work toward enhancing transparency of biological defense work using the BWC confidence building measures.”

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Chemical Weapons

  • Behind Russia, the United States has declared the second-largest stockpile of chemical agents.
  • As of Nov. 30, 2014 the United States had destroyed 24,924 metric tons, or 90 percent, of its total category 1 chemical weapons stockpile. The United States has completed destruction of all its Category 2 and 3 chemical weapons. 
  • Due to environmental concerns requiring that materials at certain facilities be neutralized rather than incinerated, the United States does not expect to complete destruction until 2021, nine years after the Chemical Weapons Convention deadline. However, in March 2017, Conrad Whyne, chief of the Defense Department’s Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, stated that all chemical weapons will be destroyed by 2023. Destruction of the United States’ largest remaining stockpile of chemical weapons began in March of 2015 at Colorado’s Pueblo Chemical Depot. Upon completion, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky will have the last remaining chemical agent stockpile in the United States.

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Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities  

In April 2010, the United States and Russia signed a successor agreement to the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) accord. The 2010 agreement, known as New START, commenced on Feb. 5, 2011. It requires that both sides reduce their arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons on no more than 700 ICMBs, SLMBs, and bombers by 2018. In addition, it contains rigorous monitoring and verification provisions to ensure compliance with the agreement. President Donald Trump has repeatedly questioned the value of New START, calling it a “one-sided” agreement.

Nuclear Reduction Beyond New START
In February 2013, President Obama announced that the United States intended to engage with Russia to further reduce deployed strategic warheads by one-third below the New START limit to around 1,100 to 1,000 deployed warheads. However, there has been little progress toward achieving such reductions due to the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s insistence that other issues, such as limits on U.S. missile defenses, be part of negotiations on further reductions.

Civilian Nuclear Trade with India & the 123 Agreement
In July 2005, the United States signed a controversial agreement with India to repeal most U.S. and multilateral civilian nuclear trade restrictions on India. In 2006, Congress amended its own domestic legislation to allow nuclear trade with India to proceed. The two governments later concluded a “123 Agreement,” which was approved by Congress and signed into law in October 2008. In September 2008, India received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The United States has pushed for India to become a member of the NSG, but in January 2017, China and other countries blocked India's membership bid on the grounds that India has not yet signed the NPT.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
The United States has ratified a protocol to the Latin America and the Caribbean Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaty pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the contracting parties. The U.S. has declined to ratify similar additional protocols to any of the remaining NWFZ treaties for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. 

Nuclear Security Summits
In April 2010, the United States hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC. Participants included 47 countries, 38 of which were represented at the head of state or head of government level, and the heads of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the European Union. At the summit, the participants unanimously adopted the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material in the next four years. The United States also attended the NSS in Seoul, South Korea, on March 26-27, 2012 and the third NSS on Mar. 24-25, 2014. Washington hosted a fourth summit in the Spring of 2016 where attendees developed action plans for five global organizations to continue the work of the summits.

Syrian Chemical Weapons
In September 2013, in the aftermath of the large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, United States reached an agreement with Russia to account, inspect, control, and eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. Before the deal was reached, the United States was planning to use airstrikes to punish the perpetrators of the attack, which the United States blamed on the Syrian government. By July 2014, Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile had been successfully removed from the country and flagged for destruction following a broad multilateral operation. However, the United States has raised concerns about the accuracy of Syria’s declaration.

In September 2014, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that chlorine gas was being used in Syria. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution on Mar. 6, 2015 condemning the use of chlorine gas in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to suggest that the Assad regime was the likely perpetrator of the chlorine gas attacks; Russia, however, was hesitant to assign blame. In August 2016, the third report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism was released, finding that the Syrian government was responsible for chemical weapons attacks.

In April 2017, another chemical weapon attack was carried out in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun where Syrian government warplanes were accused of spreading a nerve agent via bombs, killing dozens. U.S. President Donald Trump responded by immediately blaming the regime of Bashar Assad and launching 59 Tomahawk missiles targeting the airfield that had allegedly launched the. Following the launches, Trump stated that “It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” As a justification for the U.S. response, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “If you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.”   

(For a detailed timeline on Syrian chemical weapons, see our fact sheet here.)

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)
Under the Obama administration the United States played the central role in the brokering of the July 2015 JCPOA, better known as the “Iran deal,” which limits and rolls back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Congress in September 2015 debated a resolution that would have blocked implementation of the accord, but it failed to receive enough votes to pass the Senate. In January 2016, financial and oil sanctions on Iran were lifted along with the release of $100 billion worth of frozen Iranian assets after international inspectors confirmed that Iran had rolled back large sections of its nuclear program. In an effort to preserve the deal before leaving office, the Obama administration worked to fend off additional sanctions and encouraged American companies to conduct business in Iran.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the agreement. During the presidential campaign, he made comments about “tearing up” the deal, although as of January 2018, he has re-issued waivers on nuclear-related sanctions on Iran to meet U.S. obligations under the agreement.

Conference on Disarmament (CD)

Established in 1979 as a multilateral disarmament negotiating forum by the international community, the United States has been a regular and active participant in the CD. At the 65-member CD, the United States has expressed support for continuing discussions on the CD's core issues: nuclear disarmament, a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), and negative security assurances. The United States has been a prominent supporter of a proposed FMCT.

In March 1995, the CD took up The Shannon Mandate which established an ad hoc committee directed to negotiate an FMCT by the end of the 1995 session. A lack of consensus over verification provisions, as well as desires to hold parallel negotiations on outer space arms control issues, prevented negotiations from getting underway. Later, in May 2006, the United States introduced a draft FMCT along with a draft mandate for its negotiations. However, following an impasse in negotiations on a FMCT in 2010, the United States (and others) signaled its desire to look at alternative approaches outside the CD and called for negotiations to be moved to the United Nations General Assembly where the agreement could be endorsed by a majority vote. However, the United States no longer makes comments to this effect.

 The United States does not support negotiations on PAROS, deeming it unnecessary because there are no weapons yet deployed in outer space. China and Russia continue to articulate a desire to hold parallel negotiations, a point which has further stalled efforts to begin FMCT negotiations.


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Country Profiles

Fact Sheet Categories:

Posted: January 15, 2018

Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority

U.S. nuclear launch protocol has important virtues and serious liabilities. Major changes are needed to constrain a president who would seek to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause and to prevent him or her from being pushed into making nuclear retaliatory decisions in haste.

January/February 2018
By Bruce Blair

U.S. nuclear launch protocol has important virtues and serious liabilities. Major changes are needed to constrain a president who would seek to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause and to prevent him or her from being pushed into making nuclear retaliatory decisions in haste.

From a Navy E-6 Mercury flying above the Pacific Ocean, an Air Force officer monitors the status of an unarmed Minuteman III missile being test launched April 26, 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, by a control system aboard the aircraft. The E-6, a version of the commercial Boeing 707 aircraft, is intended to provide a survivable communication link from the president and other elements of the National Command Authority to the U.S. nuclear forces. (Photo: Keifer Bowes/U.S. Air Force)The virtues of the protocol—the procedures and timelines for ordering the use of nuclear weapons and for carrying out such an order—are twofold. First, it concentrates launch authority at the highest level of the executive branch, the presidency, taking it out of the hands of the military and others. This is a function of paramount importance. The principle of civilian control over weapons of mass destruction must never be compromised. Together with the imposition of organizational and technical safeguards on the weapons and their handlers, the protocol elevates the locus of launch capability, as well as of launch authority, to the highest practical level.1

Second, it is designed to allow the president and the nuclear forces under his command to respond rapidly and decisively in the face of an enemy attack by nuclear-armed missiles that can fly from the opposite side of the planet to U.S. territory in 30 minutes or from forward-deployed submarines in 15 minutes.2 This is of critical importance in view of the acute vulnerability of U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications, as well as of a large portion of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, particularly the silo-based missile force and the bomber fleet in its normal peacetime posture.3

Despite fast-flying inbound warheads, the protocol on paper provides enough time for detecting and assessing an attack, convening an emergency conference between the president and his top nuclear advisers, briefing the president on his options and their consequences, authenticating the president’s decision, and formatting and transmitting a launch order to the launch crews in time to ensure the survival and execution of their forces.

The flip side of these virtues are serious liabilities. The protocol concentrates authority and emphasizes speed to such a degree that it may allow a president to railroad the nuclear commanders into initiating a first strike without apparent cause and quickly executing an order that may be horrifyingly misguided, illegal, or both. A demented commander-in-chief could start a nuclear conflagration that no one could forestall, veto, or stop.

Equally deleterious, a president can become hostage to the protocol itself, like a conductor on a runaway train, if an enemy nuclear strike appears underway. He may be pushed into hastily ordering “retaliation” in response to a false alarm. Rationality would be lost in the fog of crisis under a short deadline fraught with confusion and emotion.

Protocol for Intentional First Use

If the president wishes to order the first use of nuclear weapons, he would be expected to do so in close consultation with his top national security advisers, particularly the secretaries of defense and state (statutory advisers on the National Security Council), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser, and the senior generals who command the military forces. Depending on the urgency of the situation, this could be a protracted process with extensive planning, heightened force readiness, and regular briefings of the president, or it could be truncated to minutes if an imminent attack is perceived.

The so-called nuclear football, kept close to a president by a military aide, is a briefcase containing nuclear war plans and options (not communications gear) to enable a president to act in an emergency. This retired satchel was put on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  (Photo: Jamie Chung/Smithsonian Institute)When a decision is imminent, the process goes critical. The commander-in-chief would be connected to his key advisers via a secure communications network designed to support nuclear emergency actions. The president could initiate this conference anytime, even abruptly in the night, through his military aide who is always nearby with the “football”—a satchel containing the nuclear war plans, including a one-pager graphically depicting the major options at his disposal.

The best location for conferencing would be the blast-resistant emergency operations center under the East Wing of the White House. Advisers could be assembled there, and others linked by secure phone. Such a conference could be convened almost anywhere, from Mar-a-Lago or other locations or aboard his ground-transport vehicles and dedicated aircraft, including Air Force One and his “doomsday” plane.4 Secure communications are far less reliable when the president is traveling or in the process of being evacuated to a safe location.

The advisers may or may not join the conference in a timely way. If a brewing crisis suddenly escalates and catches them off guard, key advisers may fail to get on the call before a president decides the time to strike has arrived. During nuclear release exercises and real-world incidents involving North Korea and other nations over the past decade, missile launch preparations or actual firings posing a potential threat triggered emergency conferences, but notification often failed to reach key advisers in time. Sometimes none of the advisers checked in, leaving the president and the head of Strategic Command (StratCom), whose role is to brief the president on nuclear options and their consequences, alone in the hot seats.5

After this briefing, the president may seek advice from any, all, or none of the advisers in the room or on the telephone before rendering a decision, which likely but not necessarily involves choosing a preprogrammed option.6 Formally, he does not need any approval or consent, although StratCom or others on the call could attempt to dissuade the president if his thinking or final decision veer into the realm of the obviously misguided or illegal.7 Even the defense secretary has no particular role other than offering advice if asked. Contrary to widespread belief, he does not confirm the order or otherwise bless it in any way. But this is their last chance to change the president’s mind before a formal launch order is prepared by the Pentagon, disseminated, and inexorably implemented.

Listening in on the exchange is the Pentagon war room, a kind of boutique service dedicated to executing the orders of the president and the defense secretary.8 Following the drift of the conversation, this entity would start preparing a launch order. When the president finally declares his choice of option, it would challenge the president to authenticate using a special code known as the “biscuit,” or Gold Code. This would take a few seconds. If the codes match properly, it would quickly format and transmit a launch order over multiple communications channels directly to the submarine, bomber, and underground launch crews.

This would take a couple of minutes. Shorter than the length of a “tweet,” the order would specify the war plan, the time to begin the strike, an unlock code needed by the firing crews to release their weapons, and a Sealed Authentication Code that must match the codes in the firing crews’ safe. If the codes match, the crews assume the order originated with the president, even though all the codes in the launch order are held exclusively by the Pentagon war room and alternate command centers such as StratCom itself.

The underground Minuteman crews could complete their launch checklist in a little more than a minute. Today, as many as 400 missiles could be launched from their underground silos in less than five minutes after the president gave the order.9

Submarines and bombers would be the primary attackers in a scenario involving North Korea. With two boats typically on launch-ready patrol in the Pacific Ocean, the sub force would be capable of quickly firing about 200 warheads roughly 15 minutes after the president gave the order.10 If the order came without a prior raising of alert readiness, however, the boats would surface to confirm its validity.

Bombers on full alert with bombs and cruise missiles loaded,11 as they would be in times of heightened tension, would need eight hours or so to fly from their U.S. bases to near the border of their target countries, where they would fire cruise missiles at inland targets or proceed to fly into enemy airspace to drop gravity bombs. They could deliver upward of 500 weapons.

Protocol for Second-Strike Scenarios

A decision to strike back in retaliation theoretically could be drawn out for days and weeks, but the protocol is designed to yield one in minutes. The basic procedures are the same for first and second use of nuclear weapons, but the timelines shrink in the latter case. Reactions from the bottom to the top of the chain of command to an apparent attack are driven by checklists and virtually preordained. The action could be described as a rote enactment of a prepared script with very high expectations in all quarters that a nuclear response would be authorized immediately.

U.S. Navy Admiral Cecil Haney (right), then-U.S. Strategic Command commander, and other officers monitor from Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., a Minuteman III missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., May 20, 2015. Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through Ronald Reagan pre-delegated nuclear release authority extensively to military commanders. Recognizing that could compromise civilian control, such delegation was rolled back at the end of the Cold War. (USSTRATCOM courtesy photo)Historically, the notion of riding out an attack has been operationally anathema to the military. As General Lee Butler, a former head of the strategic forces, stated, “Our policy was premised on being able to accept the first wave of attacks…. Yet at the operational level it was never accepted…. They built a construct that powerfully biased the president’s decision process toward launch before the arrival of the first enemy warhead…a move in practice to a system structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack.”12

This is called “jamming” the president, or pressuring him to quickly authorize retaliation while under apparent or confirmed attack.13 Jamming is still the norm in current nuclear operations. Although President Barack Obama directed the Pentagon to reduce our reliance on launch on warning and find ways to increase warning and decision time, nuclear exercises still feature this high-pressure tactic. In some high-threat situations, the StratCom commander’s briefing of the president may be compressed to as little as 30 seconds, and then the president may be pressed to “deliberate and decide” in six minutes or less.

The persistent vulnerability of the nuclear command system and hundreds of U.S. missiles requires extremely fast reaction at all levels. In truth, everyone gets jammed. The risk of mistaken launch on false warning remains significant even today, 25 years after the end of the Cold War. It also creates pressure to pre-empt an imminent attack.

To relieve the jamming pressure today, the protocol must start earlier and under conditions of greater uncertainty about the degree of threat posed by missile launch preparations or actual firings. During the Cold War, even the really close calls did not rise to the level of presidential notification.14 Today, there are more missile launches than ever to track, and assessing whether they pose a threat has become more difficult.15

Ironically this surge, which has happened over the past decade or so, has spawned great unpredictability, complicated assessment, and led on multiple occasions to presidents being notified of an ambiguous imminent threat in progress.16

Reforms: Toward a True Retaliatory Posture

A six-minute deadline for deliberation and decision is ridiculous. The president needs much more warning and decision time to rationally cope with indications of a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. He must no longer be jammed to authorize what could be a civilization-ending response to attack indications that may be false. The risks of miscalculation and irrational decision-making leading to incoherent operations and further escalation are unacceptably high.

This terrifying reality has been ignored for decades. Reform is long overdue.

Protesters from the Global Zero movement attend a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing November 14, 2017, on the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)This means that the current prompt-launch posture must be drastically altered. Use-or-lose forces such as the silo-based missile force should be eliminated. Launch on warning should be eliminated. Reducing the vulnerability of command, control, and communications to kinetic attack and cyberattack should be the top priority of the nuclear modernization plan, even if it means cutting spending on replacement forces in the pipeline. The submarine force has already become the premier leg of the strategic triad, the central component of U.S. deterrence policy. This force can patiently wait for months for direction from higher authority.

Equally overdue is the adoption of a policy that eschews the first use of nuclear weapons. A clear marker would be established in limiting the president’s leeway to initiate a first strike.17 If taken seriously, the operational plans would also be modified in ways that would hamstring any effort to order the use of nuclear weapons without apparent cause.

Congress has considerable legal standing to pass legislation that prohibits first use. A recent bill introduced by Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is a step in this direction,18 but a law would draw real redlines around the policy. Crossing them would make the president accountable and even impeachable.

The Trump administration appears to be heading in the opposite direction. Its nuclear review in the works is leaning toward the deployment of smaller-yield nuclear weapons (e.g., a primary-only warhead on Trident missiles) that will make them more usable in both first- and second-use scenarios. It is also leaning toward widening the conditions under which nuclear weapons may be used first in response to non-nuclear strategic aggression and toward revoking Obama-era assurances given to non-nuclear countries that the United States would never attack them with nuclear weapons.

The key challenge is moving to a true retaliatory posture19 that allows the president and his successors to provide enduring command and control over the submarine force. The nuclear protocol would thus place priority on their quick and safe evacuation to survivable and enduring command centers.

Other Promising Reforms

No single reform suffices. A combination of reforms is needed to reduce risk.

The Markey-Lieu bill. The premise of this bill is that employing nuclear weapons is tantamount to going to war and this responsibility belongs to the U.S. Congress, not the president, under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.20 The president therefore is to be prohibited from employing nuclear weapons first unless Congress has declared war and provided specific authorization for their use. The president would still retain the authority to order their use in the event of a confirmed nuclear attack against the United States or U.S. allies.

The bill might tie the president’s hands too much in some situations, such as an imminent and seemingly irrevocable nuclear strike by a country such as North Korea. Even if it did not, it might take too long to secure congressional approval. Additionally, if specific authorization is granted but the crisis drags on or takes a turn in unanticipated directions, the president would remain empowered and could still unilaterally make a terribly bad call later.

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Pennsylvania transits the Hood Canal August 2, 2017, as it returns home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Wash. A submarine on patrol could launch its nuclear missiles as quickly as 15 minutes after a president gives the command. (Photo: Amanda Gray/ USSTRATCOM)The Betts/Waxman solution. Among the many proposals for adding more people to the chain of command, one of the strongest is to require the defense secretary to confirm that a presidential first-use order came from the president and the attorney general to certify that it is a legal order.21 This reform would address the growing danger of cyber intrusion generating deceptive presidential commands and authentications, and it adds a high-level legal oversight to first-use decisions. If the latter is going to be more than a rubber stamp, however, much deeper consideration of the legal issues will have to be undertaken and firm guidelines drawn in advance.

Although it is debatable whether Congress has the standing to dictate the chain of command within the executive branch, whose commander-in-chief possesses clear authority over the armed forces under Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress could press the Pentagon to devise its own solution that thickens the protocol with additional heads. Congress could exert its power over the purse to encourage compliance, for instance by withholding funds for nuclear modernization until the executive branch reformed the protocol in a satisfactory way.

Deepening consultation with Congress. In order to further check and balance the first-use authority vested in the president, Congress should pass legislation requiring the defense secretary to consult closely with the top four leaders of the Senate and House, as well as the chairs and ranking members of the committees responsible for defense spending, on matters pertaining to U.S. nuclear war plans. These leaders would be given greater access to the wartime plans that govern conventional and nuclear operations and be apprised of any changes to those plans that move the nation closer to their implementation. The defense secretary would be held accountable for timely briefings and answer sessions to ensure that these congressional leaders will be informed of pending military actions and able to assert their war powers and if necessary bring the full Congress into the debate. He would also be required to inform the president, vice president, and national security adviser if ongoing nuclear mission planning does not accord with the consensus view of congressional leaders.

Should the president’s operational direction of the nuclear forces overstep the consensus of the congressional leaders, particularly if it entails the first use of nuclear forces, the vice president could consider whether the president’s state of mind warranted invoking the 25th Amendment.

The Nuremburg solution. Both a former and the current head of StratCom recently claimed publicly that disobeying an illegal nuclear strike order offers a safeguard against a president gone berserk.22 They were attempting to allay the widespread concern about the temperament and character of the current commander-in-chief and the perception that the nuclear forces are under erratic and unreliable control. If not staunched, these worries could generate public hysteria and put the $1.3 trillion 30-year nuclear modernization program in jeopardy.

The assurances of the generals were not very convincing. First, a launch order normally would be transmitted by the Pentagon directly to the firing crews at the bottom of the chain, and StratCom and other senior military commanders receiving it at the same time could not interfere at this late stage. StratCom could scramble to issue a termination order but it would almost certainly arrive too late to stop the launch.23 Second, their comments suggested that they could not refuse a horrifyingly bad call by the president, but rather only an illegal one. Third, insubordination seems a weak reed to lean on given the deep-seated obedience to civilian control engrained in military culture, training, and its code of justice. By the same token, to the extent that it would be an effective safeguard, it may well undermine the sacred tenet of civilian control over the military. Fourth, they provided no clues as to what would constitute an “illegal” order and indeed created the impression that they would defer broadly to a president’s judgment of what constitutes an imminent threat warranting a pre-emptive or even preventive first strike. There was no opinion proffered, for instance, that President Donald Trump’s threat to prevent North Korea from acquiring the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead by missile to any target in the United States would be illegal if it means mounting a preventive conventional or nuclear strike, and no clear indication that the military would ever resist such orders on legal grounds.

The literature on the law of war, international humanitarian law, and other constraints on the use of force such as Articles 2 and 51 of the UN Charter, a treaty to which the United States is bound by law to observe, indicates that much is amiss already in U.S. nuclear war planning. It is a stretch indeed to reconcile these legal tenets with a nuclear target plan that includes upward of 1,500 nuclear aim-points, many hundreds located inside cities in Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.24

The target plans have already been vetted by military lawyers and legally certified for prosecution under certain circumstances, a fact that plants serious doubt that legal desiderata have been applied scrupulously. Dubious rationales such as “belligerent reprisal” to justify killing millions of civilians, departures from the law of war (proportionality, distinction, and necessity), and the self-defense clause of the UN Charter to justify pre-emption and even preventive strikes appear to be too readily invoked.25

The absence of crystal clarity in this arena begs for elucidation. The time is ripe for a reckoning of the legality of specific nuclear plans on the books, a serious endeavor to teach and train nuclear commanders in this area, and the international court of justice to revisit the question of the legality of using nuclear weapons.

Extralegal back channels. During the dark days of the Watergate scandal engulfing President Richard Nixon, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly instructed the Pentagon to check with them before carrying out any strange orders from Nixon.26 This may have been a prudent intervention, however dubious in legal terms, but it represents only a stopgap measure that is not reliable and sets a bad precedent with insidious long-term effects on presidential governance. It is notable that these secretaries were civilians without military backgrounds. The current crop of senior advisers surrounding Trump are former senior generals who lack any proclivity to conspire against the commander-in-chief.

25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Should a president bark out an obviously illegal order, senior officials could notify the vice president in a bid to invoke the 25th Amendment. It provides a mechanism for the vice president to become the acting president. If the vice president secures in writing the concurrence of one-half or more of the Cabinet secretaries declaring the inability of the president to perform his duties for physical or mental reasons, then the vice president takes over as soon as this letter is delivered to the leaders of Congress. Unfortunately, the launch protocol is so streamlined that this constitutional intervention may prove too slow and cumbersome, but it does provide a potential recourse in some situations.

Enforce the War Powers Act of 1973. The law allows the president to send U.S. troops into combat for 60 days without congressional approval, during which time Congress must authorize the mission or else the troops must be withdrawn within 30 days after the 60-day grace period expires. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, the pre-eminent authority on this law, argues that the 60-day period begins when the president threatens to commit the forces,27 a somewhat controversial interpretation that suggests Trump’s tweeting and talking about destroying North Korea already started the 60-day clock, which has now run out. Congress has been too reluctant to exercise its war powers and needs to assert them vigorously.


1 These safeguards are the “two-person rule” prohibiting access or control by any single person other than the president, and the locking of weapons to prevent their use electro-mechanically unless and until unlock codes are provided to the firing crews. The unlock and launch authorization codes needed by the bomber, silo-based missile, and submarine crews are held exclusively by high-level military command centers, not the president. The locking devices were installed on these strategic forces in 1970, 1977, and 1997, respectively.

2 Bruce Blair, “Trump Could Face a Nuclear Decision Soon,” Politico, November 16, 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/trump-north-korea-nuclear-crises-214457.

3 Although U.S. nuclear deterrence policy is conceptually predicated on the notion of maintaining a credible capability to absorb an enemy’s maximum assault and strike back with sufficient force to destroy the aggressor’s country, the practical reality is that these persistent vulnerabilities render the United States heavily reliant on extremely rapid reaction if an enemy attack is imminent or underway with incoming warheads streaking toward U.S. territory at four miles per second.

4 This plane is a militarized Boeing 747 airborne command post kept always on runway alert (home-based at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha or forward-deployed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington) or shadowing the president during his travels abroad. It possesses all the codes needed to issue the “go-code” and the communications equipment to transmit it directly to the forces, including a five-mile-long trailing antenna to reach submarines.

5 In fact, he has become the primary initiator of the conference as a result of the surging proliferation of ballistic missiles and their prolific testing over the past decade.

6 A pre-planned option would take only minutes to execute. An innovated option could take hours to days.

7 David Welna, “What the Law of War Says About Nuclear Strikes,” NPR, November 29, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/11/29/567313562/what-the-law-of-war-says-about-nuclear-strikes.

8 This joint operations cell of the National Military Command Center is headed by a one-star flag officer. Normally, a colonel is the ranking officer on duty. See Ben Smith, “Kirk: ‘I Command the War Room in the Pentagon,’” Politico, May 21, 2010, https://www.politico.com/blogs/ben-smith/2010/05/kirk-i-command-the-war-room-in-the-pentagon-027162.

9 The Editors, “No One Should Have Sole Authority to Launch a Nuclear Attack,” Scientific American, August 1, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/no-one-should-have-sole-authority-to-launch-a-nuclear-attack/. Although the missiles are normally aimed at the open ocean, changing them to their wartime targets, preset in the missile’s memory for aim-points in Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran, is as easy as changing TV channels. They would not be involved in a nuclear strike confined to North Korea because they would have to fly over Russia and risk triggering mistaken retaliation by Russia against the United States.

10 Dave Merrill, Nafeesa Syeed, and Brittany Harris, “To Launch a Nuclear Strike President Trump Would Take These Steps,” Bloomberg Politics, January 20, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/graphics/2016-nuclear-weapon-launch/. The crew positions the boat at the proper launch depth (150 feet) and spins up the missiles’ gyroscopes for flight navigation to the designated targets. Missiles would emerge from their tubes one at a time every 15 seconds.

11 In peacetime, the entire nuclear bomber force is not armed with nuclear weapons. It takes 12-24 hours to load the weapons from local storage bunkers. Bruce G. Blair, “De-Alerting Strategic Forces,” in Reykjavik Revisited: Steps Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, ed. George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2008), http://media.hoover.org/sites/default/files/documents/9780817949211_ch2.pdf .

12 Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), pp. 191-194.

13 Reason would likely be the first casualty, as U.S. presidents and their key advisers recognized. Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, “A sudden massive attack would put the American leaders under extraordinary psychological pressure, capable of inducing erratic behavior and hesitation.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, “From Arms Control to Controlled Security,” The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 1984. Brzezinski spoke from experience, having received a shocking call in the middle of the night in 1979 informing him of the launch of 220 Soviet submarine missiles at the United States. A second call indicated that 2,200 missiles were streaking toward the United States—an all-out first strike. His biggest worry at this stage was figuring out how he would convince a groggy president that this was the real thing requiring an immediate nuclear response. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in 2009 conversation with author. As he prepared to call President Jimmy Carter, he received a call ending the nightmare. A defective computer chip had caused the false alarm. See “The 3 A.M. Phone Call,” The National Security Archive, The George Washington University, March 1, 2012, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb371/.

14 There was much predictability in the U.S.-Soviet strategic confrontation. The United States knew much about Soviet missiles and their ranges and test practices. By mutual agreement, the United States received advance notification of their launches.

15 Over the past decade, countries in Asia having nuclear weapons—China, India, North Korea, and Pakistan—and Iran have accelerated their ballistic missile programs. Every day, events occur, often involving civilian or military missile launches, that require a look by the early-warning crews at Petersen and Offutt Air Force bases. They are tasked to provide a preliminary assessment whether North America is under nuclear missile attack within three minutes after receiving the first reports from satellites and ground radar.

16 This notification process now runs through two distinct channels, NORAD and StratCom, with the latter striving to get a head start and activating the protocol before an attack is confirmed or even before a missile lifts off from North Korea, China, Iran, or elsewhere.

17 In January 2017, Vice President Joseph Biden argued that “[g]iven our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter—and defend ourselves and our Allies against—non-nuclear threats through other means.” Joe Biden, “Remarks by the Vice President on Nuclear Security,” American Presidency Project, January 11, 2017, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=121419.

18 H.R.4415, 115th Cong. (2017).

19 Bruce G. Blair, Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1985), pp. 289-295.

20 Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, H.R. 669, 115th Cong. (2017).

21 Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman, “Safeguarding Nuclear Launch Procedures: A Proposal,” Lawfare, November 19, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/safeguarding-nuclear-launch-procedures-proposal.

The popular misconception that the defense secretary already plays a role may stem from the fact that he and the president constitute the “national command authorities.” It may also stem from the law that reorganized the Department of Defense in the 1980s. Under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chain of command is stipulated to run from the president to the defense secretary and then to the combatant commanders, but this law contains a loophole. It says this is the chain of command unless the president directs otherwise. See Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, Pub. L. No. 99-433, 10 U.S.C. 111 (1986).

22 See Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, November 14, 2017, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/111417_Kehler_Testimony.pdf; Kathryn Watson, “Top General Says He Would Resist ‘Illegal’ Nuke Order From Trump,” CBS News, November 18, 2017, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/u-s-strategic-command-gen-john-hyten-resist-illegal-nuke-order-from-trump/.

23 Under some circumstances, StratCom would assume the duties of the Pentagon war room and would be in a position to withhold the transmission of a launch order. “U.S. General Says Nuclear Launch Order Can Be Refused, Sparking Debate,” Fox News, November 20, 2017, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/11/20/generals-comments-on-illegal-nuclear-launch-by-president-sparks-debate.html.

24 The author estimates that there are 80 aim-points in North Korea; half that many in Iran; 900-plus in Russia, including 250 economic and 200 leadership aim-points largely concentrated in cities (100 in greater Moscow alone); and more than 400 in China, including 250 and 60 such economic and leadership aim-points, respectively.

25 For discussions on international law as it applies to nuclear weapons use, see Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “Taming Shiva: Applying International Law to Nuclear Operations,” The Air Force Law Review, Vol. 41 (1997), pp. 163-165; Theodore T. Richard, “Nuclear Weapons Targeting: Evolution of Law and U.S. Policy,” Military Law Review, Vol. 224, No. 4 (2017): 862-978.

26 Garrett M. Graff, “The Madman and the Bomb,” Politico, August 11, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/11/donald-trump-nuclear-weapons-richard-nixon-215478.

27 Bruce Ackerman, “How to Stop Trump Blowing It Up,” The New York Review of Books, November 28, 2017, http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/11/28/how-to-stop-trump-blowing-it-up/.

Bruce Blair is a member of the Princeton University research faculty in the Program on Science and Global Security and co-founder of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons.


Posted: January 10, 2018

Senate Examines Launch Authority

Trump’s threats spark first such hearing on president’s nuclear launch power in 40 years.

December 2017
By Kingston Reif

Against the backdrop of bipartisan concern about President Donald Trump’s temperament and bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month examined the president’s sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

Despite the worries expressed by some committee members, the three witnesses selected to testify at the hearing argued that the current command and control system already includes layers of safeguards and reviews and urged Congress to procced with caution in weighing changes to the procedures. The hearing was the first time a congressional committee has met to discuss the subject of nuclear weapons launch authority since 1976.

Brian McKeon, former acting undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee November 14 on presidential authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.  (Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 ensured that nuclear weapons would be under civilian rather than military control. As the Cold War progressed, decisions about the use of nuclear weapons became the unique responsibility of the president. This was due in part to the fact that a “bolt from the blue” Soviet nuclear attack could rain thousands of warheads on the United States in as little as 30 minutes. Deterring such a threat and responding to an attack was thought to require the capability to rapidly launch U.S. weapons before Soviet warheads detonated, leaving little time for the president to consult with his advisers or Congress.

The current U.S. nuclear launch system is set up so that “the president has the sole authority to give that order, whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not,” committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said at the Nov. 14 hearing. “Once that order has been given and verified, there is no way to revoke it.”

Trump and several of his top advisers have made comments alluding to the use of military force or a preventative strike against North Korea’s missile capabilities, including the president’s warning that continued North Korean threats would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said questions about a president’s exceptional authority are more urgent in light of Trump’s words and personality. “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, and has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. security interests,” he said. “So let’s just recognize the exceptional nature of this moment, of this discussion we’re having.”

These concerns have prompted some members of Congress to back legislation that would constrain Trump’s ability to use nuclear weapons and attack North Korea. For example, four days after Trump’s inauguration, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would prohibit the president from launching nuclear weapons without first having Congress expressly authorize such a strike. (See ACT, March 2017.)

“Absent a nuclear attack upon the United States or our allies, no one human being should have the power to unilaterally unleash the most destructive forces ever devised by humankind,” Markey said at the hearing.

But the witnesses sought to calm fears that the president could start a nuclear war on a whim and counseled against legislating drastic changes to the current system. Retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, a former head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the committee “that the United States military doesn’t blindly follow orders. A presidential order to employ U.S. nuclear weapons must be legal.”

“The basic legal principles of military necessity, distinction, and proportionality apply to nuclear weapons just as they do to every other weapon,” he added.

The current commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. John Hyten, echoed similar sentiments at an international security forum in Canada on Nov. 18. But he added that if the president gave an illegal order, the military would “come up with” legal alternatives for the president to consider “to respond to whatever the situation is.”

Brian McKeon, who was acting undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration, told the committee that the president would not make a decision to use nuclear weapons “by himself.” The system is designed “to ensure that the president consults with the National Security Council [NSC] and his other senior civilian and military advisers,” he said.

McKeon added that if the president is considering initiating a war against another nuclear-armed state that did not pose an imminent threat, such an action would require authorization by Congress. Asked by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) how he would define an imminent threat, McKeon said that it would depend on the circumstances. The president does have authority to act on his own.

While several senators engaged the witnesses on questions of legality, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) sought to remind his colleagues, as well as North Korea, that it would be the president and the president alone who would make a decision about the use of nuclear weapons.

“The discussion we’re having is not so much practical as academic,” he said. “This talk about lawyers…is not a discussion that is going to take place in the heat of battle in today’s world.”

Other senators said their biggest concern was that Trump might give a nuclear use order that was legal but nevertheless unnecessary or unwise. “I would like to be able to tell my constituents” and “the American people, [that] we have a system in place that prevents an impulsive and irrational decision to use nuclear weapons,” said ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “Unfortunately, I cannot make that assurance today.”

“I don't think that we should be trusting the generals to be a check on the president,” said Markey.

Peter Feaver, who served on the NSC staff under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, told the committee that “the time is ripe for a fresh look” at the nuclear command and control system. “Many possible improvements…are worth considering,” such as “requiring certifications by additional cabinet officials of launch orders under certain circumstances,” said Feaver, who is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.

Asked by Udall if it would “make sense to require at least one other person sign off on a decision to launch a first strike,” all three witnesses said they opposed such a change.

Posted: December 1, 2017

Stratcom Completes ‘Global Thunder’

Stratcom Completes ‘Global Thunder’

The U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) concluded its “Global Thunder 2018” strategic nuclear forces exercise, which leaders said was intended to bolster the credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrence and the readiness for a possible nuclear conflict. “Quite frankly, if we ever come to a strategic exchange, nobody wins,” Navy Rear Adm. Daniel Fillion, Stratcom director of global operations, said in a Nov. 17 statement. “We are not looking for a fight by any stretch of the imagination, but everybody has to understand that, if pressed, we will deliver a fight and it will be very short and we will come out victorious.”

A 509th Security Forces Squadron member controls access to a B-2 Spirit during “Global Thunder 2018” at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., November 1.  (Photo credit: Taylor Phifer/U.S Air Force)Navy Rear Adm. William Houston, deputy director for strategic targeting and nuclear mission planning, said in the same statement that “effective” deterrence efforts now rest on more than just nuclear capabilities. “There are significant challenges we face in multiple domains: integrating space, cyber and our strategic weapons into the overall strategic deterrence we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “Those are key elements because any one of those areas could lead to a strategic imbalance between potential adversaries.”

Russia also held nuclear forces exercises in October, in which President Vladimir Putin participated. Putin test-fired four nuclear-capable ballistic missiles during the exercise, the Russian news agency Interfax reported on Oct. 27.—TERRY ATLAS

Posted: December 1, 2017

Step Back From the Nuclear Brink

Over the past year, cavalier and reckless statements from President Donald Trump about nuclear weapons and his threat to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea have heightened fears about Cold War-era policies and procedures that put the authority to launch nuclear weapons in his hands alone.


December 2017
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Over the past year, cavalier and reckless statements from President Donald Trump about nuclear weapons and his threat to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea have heightened fears about Cold War-era policies and procedures that put the authority to launch nuclear weapons in his hands alone.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile was launched at 4:36 a.m. during an operational test Dec. 17, 2013, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The 30th Space Wing manages Department of Defense space and missile testing, and placing satellites into polar orbit from the West Coast, using expendable boosters. Col. Keith Balts, the 30th Space Wing commander, was the launch decision authority. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Yvonne Morales)Partially in response, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for the first time since 1976, held a hearing on the “executive’s authority to use nuclear weapons.” The Nov. 14 hearing should be just the start of a process that leads to changes that reduce the risk of nuclear miscalculation and establishes that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet/Russian nuclear arsenals have been slashed through verifiable arms reduction agreements. Yet, each side still deploys 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons as permitted by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is far more than required to deter a nuclear attack. Each maintains a significant portion of its land- and sea-based forces on a prompt-launch posture to guard against a “disarming” first strike. The resulting launch procedures would, in some scenarios, give the president only minutes to decide whether to avenge such an attack with hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles.

These policies increase the risk of catastrophic miscalculation. In the nuclear age, there have been several incidents in which false signals of an attack have prompted U.S. and Russian officials to consider, in the dead of the night and under the pressure of time, launching nuclear weapons in retaliation.

Continuing to vest such destructive power in the hands of one person and requiring launch decisions to be made in minutes, and without congressional authorization, is undemocratic and dangerous. No reliable safeguards are in place to prevent an impulsive and irrational decision by Trump to use nuclear weapons.

Days after the Senate hearing, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, tried to assuage congressional concerns, saying he would push back against a nuclear strike order from the president if it were “illegal.” That is cold comfort given the general acknowledged that, if the president insists, “we’ll work out a legal option.”

Rather than accept such empty assurances, Congress should demand and the Pentagon should provide more information on U.S. nuclear employment strategy, including targeting data, attack options, damage expectancy requirements, and estimated civilian casualties; and it should publicly review the legal rationale for these plans, which are currently not shared with members of Congress.

Despite the dangers, defenders of the status quo argue that altering the current system, including forgoing the first-use option, would undermine the credibility of deterrence and somehow encourage aggressors.

In reality, the current “launch under attack” policy is unnecessary because U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack, particularly the submarine-based weapons, and remaining nuclear forces would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor. Eliminating the requirement to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles under attack would increase the time available for the president and other civilian and military advisers to more soberly weigh the possible use of nuclear weapons in retaliation for a warning of an attack against the United States or its allies.

Furthermore, given the conventional military superiority of the United States and its allies, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify legally, morally, or militarily the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. Nuclear weapons are not necessary to deter or respond to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical or biological weapons attack or cyberattack by state or nonstate actors. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with Russia or North Korea, the first use of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would likely trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal nuclear exchange.

As Vice President Joseph Biden said in remarks delivered in January 2017, “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense.”

Given the indiscriminate, widespread, and long-term consequences of nuclear weapons, it is also hard to envision a nuclear first use scenario that is “legal” despite Pentagon claims that current nuclear weapons employment options meet the principles of “distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations” as required by the Law of War.

The Senate’s recent hearing on nuclear weapons use policy must not be its last. It is past time to move away from outdated and dangerous, prompt-launch nuclear procedures. The fate of millions of people should not depend on the good judgment of one person, no matter who he or she may be.

The monthly “Focus” editorials from Arms Control Today are available for reprint on a non-exclusive basis
with permission from the Arms Control Association and link to the original publication online.


Posted: December 1, 2017

U.S. Should Adopt No First Use Nuclear Launch Policy

Statement from Daryl G. Kimball, executive director Now is the time to put responsible checks on the use of nuclear weapons and to consider changes in outdated, Cold War-era U.S. policy that reduce the risk of nuclear use and ensure that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is deterrence. We strongly support the bill introduced by Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, to establish that it is the policy of the United States not to use nuclear weapons first. Widespread, bipartisan concerns about cavalier and reckless statements from President Donald Trump...

Vital SFRC Hearing on Nuclear Weapons Decision-Making and Authority: Tuesday, November 14


This Tuesday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will convene a critical hearing on the president’s authority to use nuclear weapons and the process for executing that authority. The discussion will be the begin of an overdue re-examination of the use nuclear weapons and how those decisions are carried out.

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves CIA headquarters accompanied by the omnipresent officer carrying the nuclear "football" (Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)Why is this so important?

Currently, President Trump, like all U.S. presidents before him, has sole authority over the use of US nuclear weapons. One person can order the launch of over 800 nuclear-armed missiles in under 10 minutes. Leaving such a momentous decision in the hands of a single person is a dangerous situation. SFRC chairman, Bob Corker, has expressed concerns that President Trump’s reckless and implusive rhetoric could push us into “World War III.”

What Can You Do?

If your Senator is on the Foreign Relations Committee—i.e., you live in Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, or Wyoming—use the form below to contact your Senator’s office today. It provides all the information they need on the hearing and the hard questions they need to ask the witnesses, which will include a former commander of U.S. nuclear forces and a former high-ranking Pentagon official. Such questions, among others, could include:

  • “Do you believe the launching of a nuclear first strike is by its nature a declaration of war and, if so, shouldn’t that constitutionally require the approval and consent of Congress?
  • “If the United States were to launch a nuclear first strike against an adversary, what guarantee would we have that they would not retaliate likewise?"
  • "Under what circumstances would the benefits of a U.S. nuclear first strike ever outweigh the tragic costs and devastation that would play out afterwards?" 

It is urgent that all member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee attend and engage on the critical questions surrounding U.S. nuclear decision-making and authority. Please write your Senator today and urge them to attend this hearing, a vital opportunity in re-examining U.S. nuclear decision making over time, and the prudence of putting the fate of millions in the hands of one person.



Posted: November 13, 2017

U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Turkey Raise Alarm

Is it time to remove the nuclear bombs stored at Incirlik?

November 2017
By Kingston Reif

Deteriorating relations between the United States and Turkey have prompted a growing debate about the wisdom of maintaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons at the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey and, more broadly, about whether to remove all such U.S. weapons from Europe.

Airmen from the U.S. Air Force 39th Security Forces Squadron search Senior Airman Dwaine Barnes during a security exercise January 15, 2016, at Incirlik Air Base. The exercise tested security forces ability to respond to insider threats and to practice other security missions. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Krystal Ardrey)Although Turkey is a NATO member and Incirlik is a key base of operations for the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State group, developments over the past year and a half have soured relations and raised security concerns at the base. Those arguing for the removal from Incirlik note that although the bombs do not appear to be in imminent danger of theft or unauthorized use, the risks of storing the weapons in Turkey have nevertheless increased significantly. They also note that maintaining the status quo is unacceptable in light of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti-U.S. rhetoric and actions.

In an Oct. 14 tweet, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, said the United States “should remove nukes from Turkey” and “reduce dependence on use of its bases.” Turkey under Erdogan is an “ally in name only,” he added.

According to open-source estimates, the United States may store as many as 50 B61 gravity bombs at Incirlik. Those make up one-third of the approximately 150 nuclear weapons thought to be housed in five nations in Europe as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements.

The original rationale for deploying U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe was to deter and, if necessary, defeat a large-scale attack by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has drastically reduced the number of weapons on the continent, but still deploys a smaller number to extend deterrence to NATO allies and as a political signal of the U.S. commitment to the security of alliance members.

The Defense and Energy departments are in the process of an extensive rebuilding of the B61, at a cost that may exceed $10 billion. (See ACT, November 2016.)

Unlike the other bases in Europe that host U.S. B61s, Incirlik does not have dedicated nuclear-capable fighter aircraft that can deliver the weapons. Moreover, Turkey does not train its pilots to fly nuclear missions. In the event NATO were to make a decision to use the weapons now stored in Turkey, the United States or another NATO member would fly its own aircraft to pick them up.

As a matter of policy, the Defense Department does not comment on the presence of nuclear weapons in Turkey or anywhere else in Europe. The Air Force, in its fiscal year 2015 budget request, noted the presence of “special weapons” at “storage sites in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.” Since 2000, NATO has invested $80 million in “infrastructure improvements” and as of 2014 planned to invest an additional $154 million “for security improvements.”

The security environment has raised concerns. In March 2016, the U.S. military ordered the families of U.S. military personnel to leave southern Turkey, primarily from Incirlik, due to terrorist activity in Turkey and the conflict in nearby Syria.

In July 2016, following a failed coup attempt, the Turkish government arrested several high-ranking Turkish military officers at Incirlik and cut power to the base for nearly a week. In the year since, Erdogan has cracked down on opposition groups and independent media and strengthened ties with Russia. In addition, Turkey has arrested several U.S. citizens accused of abetting the coup and in October detained a Turkish employee at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul.

Other NATO members also have had troubled relations with Turkey recently. For example, Germany in July removed its soldiers from Incirlik after Ankara refused to allow German lawmakers to visit the troops at the base.

The presumed presence of U.S. nuclear bombs raises the stakes. A former senior NATO official told Stars and Stripes in July that “if there are nuclear weapons stored in Turkey, they should be removed given the instability, both in the country and across the border in Syria and Iraq.” If removed, the weapons could be sent back to the United States or to another country in Europe that has the requisite facilities to store B61s and aircraft capable of delivering them.

So far, neither the United States nor NATO’s military command have given any indication that withdrawal of the weapons has been seriously considered. Leaders of the 28 member countries of NATO, at their July 2016 summit meeting in Warsaw, reaffirmed the security role played by U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. (See ACT, September 2016.)

James Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration, told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 23 interview that decisions about U.S. force posture in Europe should not be impacted by “the politics of the day.”

The United States should not pursue a unilateral change to NATO’s nuclear posture “due to politics or even military expediency unless we do so with the Russians giving us something in return,” he added.

NATO may fear that removing the weapons from Incirlik not only would raise questions about the alliance’s commitment to Turkey’s security, likely exacerbating current political tensions, but also prompt uncomfortable debates about the merits of nuclear sharing inside the other host nations.

Indeed, the deployment of U.S. B61s is controversial in some of these countries.

For instance, Martin Schulz, the German Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, said in August that were he to win the Sept. 24 election, he would advocate for the removal of the estimated 20 B61s stored in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party ultimately prevailed, but the Social Democrats remain the second-largest political party in Germany.

In an article urging the withdrawal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe published in the journal Survival in September, Steve Andreasen, a former White House official in the Clinton administration, argued that continuing “NATO’s nuclear status quo will come at an increasingly high financial and political cost, and high security risk.”

Recent developments involving Turkey highlight “the need for NATO to move to a safer, more secure and more credible nuclear deterrent—including withdrawing, and not replacing, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe,” he wrote.—KINGSTON REIF

Posted: November 1, 2017

New CBO Report Warns of Skyrocketing Costs of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal



A new study published by CBO highlights the skyrocketing cost to sustain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces and outlines several options to maintain a credible deterrent at less cost.


Experts Call for Shift to More Cost-Effective Alternatives

For Immediate Release: October 31, 2017

Media Contacts:  Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107.

(Washington, D.C.) – A new study published by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Tuesday highlights the skyrocketing cost of the current plan to sustain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces and outlines several pragmatic options to maintain a credible, formidable deterrent at less cost.

The USS Wyoming, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia in 2014. The Navy is planning to replace the Ohio-class submarines, but the cost of the replacement is prompting a debate in Washington. (U.S. Navy)CBO estimates that sustaining and upgrading U.S. nuclear forces will cost taxpayers $1.24 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars between fiscal years 2017 and 2046. When the effects of inflation are included, we project that the 30-year cost will exceed $1.5 trillion. These figures are significantly higher than the previously reported estimates of roughly $1 trillion.   

“The stark reality underlined by CBO is that unless the U.S. government finds a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the nuclear weapons spending plan inherited by the Trump administration will pose a crushing affordability problem,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

The CBO study comes amid reports that the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which is slated for completion by the end of the year, could propose new types of nuclear weapons and increase their role in U.S. policy.

“If the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review by the administration does not scale-back current nuclear weapons spending plans – or worse, accelerates or expands upon them – expenditures on nuclear weapons will endanger other high priority national security programs,” Reif noted.

The CBO report evaluates roughly a dozen alternatives to the current plans to manage and reduce the mammoth price tag. For example, according to CBO, roughly 15 percent, or nearly $200 billion, of the projected cost of nuclear forces over the next three decades could be saved by trimming back the existing program of record while still maintaining a triad of delivery systems. Additional savings could be found by shifting from a triad to a nuclear dyad. 

“The report blows apart the false choice repeatedly posited by Pentagon officials between the costly ‘all of the above’ plan to maintain and upgrade the nuclear force and doing nothing. There are cost-cutting alternatives that would still maintain a U.S. nuclear force capable of obliterating any potential nuclear adversary,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

“The trillion and a half dollar triad is not just unaffordable, it is unnecessary. The United States continues to retain more nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and supporting infrastructure than it needs to deter or respond to a nuclear attack,” Kimball added.

Over the past several years, the Arms Control Association has repeatedly raised concerns about the need and affordability of the current spending plans, argued that these plans pose a threat to other military priorities, and suggested more cost-effective alternatives.

For more information see:


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Posted: October 31, 2017


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