Trump and the nuclear codes

Trump and the nuclear codes (Source

On 20 January, inauguration day in the United States, a nameless, unknown military aide will be seen accompanying President Barack Obama to the handover ceremony at the US Capitol in Washington.

That military aide will be carrying a satchel over his or her shoulder containing a briefcase known as “the nuclear football”. Inside will be a piece of digital hardware measuring 3in (7.3cm) by 5in, known as “the biscuit”. This contains the launch codes for a strategic nuclear strike. The briefing for the incoming president on how to activate them will have already taken place out of public sight, but the moment President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office that aide, and the satchel, will move quietly over to his side. Donald Trump will then have sole authority to order an action that could result in the deaths of millions of people in under an hour. The question on a lot of people’s minds right now is, given his thin skin and impulsive temperament, what are the safeguards, if any, to prevent an impetuous decision by one man with catastrophic consequences?

Inside that briefcase, the “nuclear football” that never leaves the president’s side, is a “black book” of strike options for him to choose from once he has authenticated his identity as commander-in-chief, using a plastic card. Once the president has selected his strike options from a long-prepared “menu”, the order is passed via the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Pentagon’s war room and then, using sealed authentication codes, on to US Strategic Command HQ in Offutt Airbase in Nebraska. The order to fire is transmitted to the actual launch crews using encrypted codes that have to match the codes locked inside their safes. ICBMs travel at a speed of over 17,000mph (Mach 23), flying high above the Earth’s atmosphere before descending towards their pre-programmed targets at four miles a second. The flight-time for land-based missiles flying between Russia and the US is between 25 and 30 minutes. For submarine-based missiles, where the boats may be able to approach a coast covertly, the flight time could be considerably shorter, even as little as 12 minutes. This does not leave a president much time to decide whether it is a false alarm or imminent Armageddon. Once ICBMs have been launched they cannot be recalled, but if they remain in their silos they will probably be destroyed by the inbound attack. A former senior White House official told me recently that much would depend on the circumstances in which a nuclear strike was being considered. If this was a long-term, measured policy decision to say, carry out a pre-emptive strike on country X, then a lot of people would be involved. The vice-president, National Security Adviser, and much of the cabinet would all be likely to be included in the decision-making process. But if there was an imminent strategic threat to the United States, ie if an inbound launch of ICBMs from a hostile state had been detected and were minutes from reaching the US then, he said, “the president has extraordinary latitude to take the sole decision to launch.”

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