Can Donald Trump launch a nuclear attack?

Nuclear command and control is undoubtedly a challenging responsibility.

 |  4-minute read |   09-11-2016
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Confusing Arguments

Even as the world comes to terms with Donald Trump elected as US President, analysts are worrying about how he will handle issues related to the use of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation issues and, even more importantly, how he will discharge his responsibilities as the custodian of the “black box”.

Some of Trump’s comments during the campaign do not inspire confidence in his ability to handle the nuclear issue in a responsible manner.

Trump said in an interview with GQ magazine in November 2015: “I will have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody.” He said he wouldn’t get rid of the nuclear weapons because “other people have them” and are “unfortunately gaining more and more.”

About using nuclear weapons, he said in the same interview, “It is highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely that I would ever be using them.” However, during NBC’s Today show in April 2016, Trump said that he would be the “last to use nuclear weapons”, but the option is still on the table. “I don’t want to rule out anything,” he said.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough reported that Trump had repeatedly asked an international foreign policy expert (whom he did not name) why the US could not use nuclear weapons. The report was denied by the Trump campaign.

In an interview with the New York Times in March 2016, Trump said, “Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.”

He also said that Japan and South Korea might need to obtain their own nuclear arsenal to protect themselves from North Korea and China if the US is unable to defend them, and that both countries might need to pay more for their own defence.

He said again in April 2016, this time on CNN, that the US might need to change its decades-old policy of preventing Japan from getting nuclear weapons.

Trump’s lack of preparation on an issue as important as the use of nuclear weapons was evident during an NBC debate in September 2016. He did not appear to know the difference between "first use" and "first strike."

He responded to a question from the anchor about "first use" with a statement about a "first strike."

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Donald Trump

Challenging Responsibility

Nuclear command and control is undoubtedly a challenging responsibility. The president is always accompanied by a military aide carrying a “black box” or "football" with launch codes for nuclear weapons.

The contents of the black box are to be used by the president if it becomes necessary to initiate a first strike or retaliatory nuclear attack when he is away from a hardened command post like the one in the White House Situation Room.

The black box reportedly has four key items in it: The Black Book containing the pre-decided first strike or retaliatory options; a book that contains classified site locations; a manila folder that describes the Emergency Alert System; and, a three-by-five inch card with authentication codes.

Under OPLAN 8010, an integrated operational plan, several options are available to the President, who is the Commander-in-Chief. The black box has a fail-safe communications link with the National Command Centre where the coded orders from the president are authenticated and executed. The President is almost entirely on his own if he has to use the black box.

Trump needs Professional Guidance

While campaigning for Hillary Clinton, President Obama said that a man who could be provoked by a tweet ought not to have his finger on the nuclear button.

US President Obama has repeatedly questioned Trump’s fitness for office after his statement that the US and its allies should move away from decades of constraints on the use of nuclear weapons. “We don’t want somebody in the Oval Office who doesn’t recognise how important that is,” the President said.

Donald Trump is evidently unschooled in matters nuclear. This is perhaps the case because unlike most previous US Presidents he does not have a military background and has never served in the government where he might have had some exposure in passing.

However, there is no reason to believe that when the responsibility for nuclear control is thrust on him in the third week of January 2017, he will not apply his mind to such an important issue and learn the ropes. He will, of course, need professional guidance from the military commanders in charge of the nuclear arsenal of the US.

If Trump is actually short-tempered and tends to go off the handle when under duress, he needs to learn to cool down. Decisions on launching nuclear strikes should not be made if the person making the decision is not calm, cool and collected while doing so. A course in Yoga might help.

Writer

Gurmeet Kanwal Gurmeet Kanwal @gurmeetkanwal

The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.

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