What Trump and Milley Tell Us About Nuclear Weapons | Opinion

While all eyes were on the besieged Capitol on Jan. 6 and the U.S. buckled under an extreme domestic crisis, a secret crisis was swelling with China, according to revelations from a new book by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. With the Capitol locked down and President Donald Trump reportedly spouting conspiracy theories in the White House, tense phone calls in Beijing and in Washington attempted to clarify intentions and avoid any sort of military miscalculation. The only problem—the president wasn't on the line.

Instead, Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley acted in secret to diffuse tensions across both oceans—and took it upon himself to short-circuit the link between President Trump and America's nuclear weapons. This shocking admission is in some ways an expected consequence of a wider administration which always seemed to depend on the "adult in the room" to quell its worst instincts. More than that, by inserting himself into the chain of command for nuclear weapons without legal authority, Milley indicted not just the stability of the former president, but also the decades-old process for launching nuclear weapons itself.

As with most things involving nuclear weapons command-and-control, the legal setup for presidential sole authority and the actual process of carrying out a launch order are products of Cold War strategy. By the 1960s, American military planners realized that the potential warning time for any sudden attack by the Soviet Union had become as low as 30 minutes. To ensure the United States' ability to launch a retaliatory strike (thereby making a surprise attack seem less appealing), the authority for releasing nuclear weapons was concentrated at the very top: Only the president could issue a legal launch order.

In addition to this, the actual processes for carrying out a nuclear launch were streamlined in the extreme. Not only would such an order from the president be transmitted near-immediately and without need for a second official's review, but the Pentagon adopted a "launch on warning" posture whereby nuclear forces remained on alert at all times to accept and execute a launch order within mere minutes. If an order to attack was deemed as coming from the president (the only check along the way is for identity), the weapons would fly before most of you could finish reading this article.

For years, this exacting system was justified by the dynamics of the Cold War, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unofficial end of the Cold War's tense nuclear standoff, the American nuclear command-and-control regime endured. Through five administrations, sole launch authority rests strictly with the president, and those launch-on-warning processes meant to outfox a massive Soviet strike remain in place, even as nuclear-related planning actively turned to lesser concerns like North Korea and Iran. Aside from the alarms of arms control advocates, the question of nuclear command-and-control was left dormant, and seemingly, settled.

Such a backdrop makes Milley's actions around Jan. 6 all the more damning. For decades, the United States (and most other nuclear-armed states) relied on the head of state's sole authority for planning purposes—simplifying some assumptions and presuming a sense of stability and rationality. Even when the Trump administration operated in turmoil, commentators became uncomfortable when opposition leaders questioned the status of American nuclear weapons.

 Mark Milley chats with then-President Donald Trump
Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley chats with then-President Donald Trump after he delivered the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4, 2020. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

But if Trump's reported mental decline in January made the question of sole authority ultimately unavoidable, Milley's action exposes a critical vulnerability in America's nuclear command and control. The president may not always be the right person to have unchecked control of the world's most dangerous weapons—and it may not always be about his or her state of mind.

It bears repeating: For a system specifically tuned for snap decisions and minimal bureaucracy, there is officially no political, strategic, or humanitarian oversight on a president bent on ordering a nuclear attack.

And while it took President Trump's unique volatility for Milley to step in and improperly act as an independent check on the president's authority, it is all too easy to imagine a scenario where an otherwise healthy president is misinformed, miscalculates, or is acting markedly outside the interests of the nation. In a time of sophisticated disinformation campaigns and ruthless political stakes, laying the future of millions, if not the world, in the hands of an individual—any individual—is too great a risk to take.

As far as legal options to address such a risk, formalizing Milley's move within the nuclear command-and-control system would be a worthy first start. Even having just one other official, preferably an elected one, be required to confirm the decision to use nuclear weapons would act as an effective check against a "rogue president." Legislative solutions for this have already been floated, and such a solution could be implemented without interrupting other existing nuclear weapons processes.

Beyond that, formally adopting a "no first use" declaration to replace the outdated launch-on-warning posture has been a goal of arms control advocates for many years. Such a statement would bind the United States to never using nuclear weapons first in a conflict, and while that may foreclose some far-fetched war plans, it would directly and effectively counter any scenario where a president issues a nuclear attack order seemingly out of the blue. It would also communicate a higher sense of stability to rivals, lowering the overall risk of escalation in all circumstances.

By improperly inserting himself as a check in the nuclear chain of command this January, Gen. Milley rightly acted in the best interest of the country, and of the world. But we cannot allow such a glaring vulnerability—with such dire stakes—to endure. Until we can do the much harder work of reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons broadly, we must take the easy and available steps of walking back from the risk of using them mistakenly.

Andrew Facini is communications director at the Institute for Security and Technology and a teaching assistant in Harvard Extension School's nuclear deterrence graduate certificate program.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.