In 1985, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev adopted a joint statement acknowledging what seemed like a simple truth: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” That is not strictly true.
Then as now, the popular conception of a nuclear war envisions a global conflagration that sterilizes the surface of the earth, rendering victory in such a contest a hollow prize. That’s the most fearsome scenario, but not necessarily the likeliest. During the Cold War, nuclear war-fighting was not only conceivable; scenarios in which one side or the other could “win” that sort of conflict were not hard to imagine.
By the early 1970s, both the defense industry and private organizations had begun to paint frightening portraits of what a nuclear exchange might really look like. One such scenario that kept war planners up at night was the prospect that a peer competitor like the Soviet Union could launch a targeted strike on America’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (e.g., its ballistic missile silos), taking most of those forces out of commission. The United States and its allies could respond, of course. Most of their arsenals would remain intact. But how?
America’s surviving delivery systems—submarines and bombers, primarily—would not be able to neutralize the Soviet Union’s remaining nuclear forces. The West would have little choice but to reciprocate against “value” targets—including civilian population centers. Of course, such a response would result in another Soviet volley targeting the West’s “value targets,” producing the kind of apocalypse that more closely aligns with popular culture’s idea of what a nuclear war should look like. In such a scenario, “there would be strong pressures on us to halt the conflict,” said the former director of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Targeting Policy Review panel, Leon Sloss. In that event, the United States would not have been deterred by the Soviet Union, per se, but it would have been “self-deterred” by the prospect of unimaginable death and destruction. In short: They win, we lose.
The basic laws of physics governing deterrence theory did not end along with the Cold War. While the United States does not have any peer competitors to worry about, the conditions that could precipitate a limited nuclear exchange with terrifying consequences that fall short of an extinction-level event still loom large.
“Would the coalition have waged Operation Desert Storm or Operation Iraqi Freedom had Saddam Hussein had a nuclear capability?” the RAND corporation asked in 2012. “Most often, the answer is probably not, meaning that big arsenals can be defanged by dictators with a handful of nuclear weapons.” This hypothetical scenario has become more urgent with the growing threat posed by North Korea’s functional nuclear arsenal and Iran’s covert nuclear program. “An even more worrisome meaning of self-deterrence is the reticence, or the refusal, to exert nuclear deterrence in any event,” RAND’s report continued. “Without the threat of use, use may become more likely … Self-deterrence encourages the proliferation of WMDs. And it may become an invitation to actually use them.”
These considerations contributed to Barack Obama’s reluctant decision to shed his ideological hostility toward nuclear weapons and greenlight a modernization program in 2016. The goal was to develop “adjustable yield” bombs and medium-range delivery systems that can penetrate hardened bunkers. Those would, according to the Pentagon, present a “tailored nuclear option for limited use” to “give the president more options than a manned bomber to penetrate air defenses” and create “more strategic stability.” The keyword here is “president.”
The split-second decision-making necessary to respond to a nuclear crisis to preserve America’s deterrent capacity has long been the president’s exclusive province. But that unilateral authority has also been a source of frustration and anxiety among nuclear weaponry’s ideological opponents. Such sentiments are alive and well in the Democrat-led Congress. And with a pliant Democratic president now in the White House, those interests believe they have momentum on their side.
This week, nearly three dozen House Democrats called on President Joe Biden to relinquish sole control of the nuclear arsenal. “While any president would presumably consult with advisors before ordering a nuclear attack, there is no requirement to do so,” the letter read. “Vesting one person with this authority entails real risks.” The letter frets over the fact that “past presidents have threatened to attack other countries with nuclear weapons,” which is an obtuse way to express the bedrock premises of deterrence theory.
The letter’s authors’ true concerns are expressed in a veiled allusion to Donald Trump. The note observed that certain unnamed presidents have “exhibited behavior” that led to concerns about their “judgment.” To remove the threat posed by a rogue president, these Democrats offer alternatives, including vesting launch control with both the president or vice president and perhaps even the speaker of the House or creating a permanent council that would deliberate over the matter. Many well-known skeptics of nuclear armaments seem to agree with the Democratic assessment, including former Defense Sec. William Perry. “Once in office,” he averred, citing the threat posed by a Trump-like president, “Biden should announce he would share authority to use nuclear weapons with a select group in Congress.”
The threat posed by a madman in the Oval Office isn’t one that we should sneer at, but hedging against that prospect shouldn’t take the form of unilateral disarmament. That is precisely what these House Democrats are demanding.
First, it is a misconception that the president alone determines when, where, and how to deploy nuclear weapons. Though the commander-in-chief has sole operational authority to issue such an order, it would fall on many service personnel further down the chain of command to carry out that order. That system provides a variety of checks on a president’s capacity to execute an unlawful order, for example. Not only is the jurisprudence on this clear, that outcome would also likely become public knowledge in short order.
In the scenario Democrats envision, in which the president orders a preventative first strike, the targeting, logistical, operational, and legal hurdles could take days to resolve. But the system is designed to move very quickly, and for a good reason. If the president has 30 minutes to determine whether to respond to an imminent attack that would neutralize the American deterrent, that is a decision that cannot be left to a congressional select committee.
We can and should concern ourselves with the character of the person we vest with the authority to respond to such a frightening scenario. And we have mechanisms to vet aspirants for high office and weigh in on their qualifications: campaigns and elections.