Trump Could Create Nuclear Holocaust in Five Minutes; Congress Is Now Trying to Stop That

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump looks on during a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sideline of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila on November 13. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

It would take just five minutes from the time President Donald Trump ordered the launch of nuclear weapons—perhaps after being provoked by the latest insult from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—for them to be fired.

That alarming scenario involving a president who has shown a thin skin and a propensity for rash decisions has prompted Congress to hold its first serious debate about the president's unilateral authority to launch nuclear weapons in four decades.

Related: North Korea complains about U.S. Military bringing 'nuclear war equipment' near Korean Peninsula

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on "the executive's authority to use nuclear weapons." The hearing was announced last week by the committee's Republican chairman, Senator Bob Corker, and it represents the first time either the Senate or House Foreign Relations Committee has addressed the issue since 1976.

According to Bruce Blair, a nuclear command and control expert and research scholar at the Program of Science and Global Security at Princeton University, it is long overdue.

"We all need to confront the fact that this system gives one person the God-like power to end the world," he told Newsweek Monday.

Tuesday's hearing is not the first attempt to address Trump's ability to launch nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, two Democrats, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Ted Lieu, introduced a bill that would deny Trump the authority to launch a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war from Congress.

"As long as President Trump has a Twitter account, we need a nuclear no-first-use policy for the United States of America," Markey said in May.

Blair shared a similar assessment of Trump and his perceived lack of judgment, concluding that "he is very capable of making a very bad call against the advice of others, even if he asks for it, and that could be the end."

Under the current procedures, it is possible Trump could act without getting any high-level advice or even a note of caution. Were he to decide the time has arrived to go nuclear, Trump would descend to his bunker, known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, and initiate a conference with the war room at the Pentagon. But there is no requirement for the president to listen to advice and no guarantee that top advisers would even be on the call. The technology is so outdated and neglected that in both exercises and real-world scenarios the secretaries of defense and state never came on the line, said Blair, who once served as an intercontinental ballistic missile launch control officer.

Once the decision was made, Trump would authenticate the order with a code before the war room transmitted a launch order that is, ironically, roughly the length of a tweet. From the decision being made to nuclear weapons being launched, the time elapsed can be as little as five minutes, or, if launched from submarines—as would likely be the case for an attack on North Korea—15 minutes.

It is an incredible responsibility no matter who sits in the White House. If nothing else, Blair, who co-founded Global Zero, which is dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons, said he is grateful to Trump for unwittingly highlighting that fact and pushing Congress to address the issue.

"I think the silver lining in Trump's behavior and election is his single-handedly raised public's awareness and concern about nuclear weapons to the highest level it's been in decades," he said.

Kim Jong Un missile launch
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (center) surrounded by soldiers as he inspects the test-launch of a long-range ballistic missile. STR/AFP/Getty Images

For months, Trump has engaged in a nuclear war of words with Kim, in August famously vowing to unleash "fire and fury like the world has never seen." As North Korea has stepped up its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles it says can carry nuclear warheads, the United States and South Korea have engaged in increasing military exercises on the Korean Peninsula.

During Trump's trip to South Korea last week, he even took the step of revealing that a "nuclear submarine is also positioned."

A president who has shown a proclivity for snap reactions to minor perceived insults, his basically unchecked authority and the country's outdated technology are not the only concerns about U.S. nuclear weapons systems: They are also vulnerable to cyber-attacks, and there have been numerous false alarms.

It is enough to keep anyone up at night, particularly someone intimately aware of the fragile sytems that keep the world from experiencing nuclear holocaust.

"I worry about it all day long and into the evening until I have my second cocktail," Blair said.