On January 20, the military officer carrying the nuclear codes who follows the President everywhere, will follow Barack Obama to the inaugural platform. When he leaves, the officer will start following President Donald J. Trump. From that moment on, Trump will have the unfettered ability to launch one or one thousand nuclear warheads whenever he pleases. Four minutes after he gives the order, the missiles will fly. No one can stop him, short of a full-scale mutiny. Once launched, the missiles cannot be recalled.
Almost 1,000 nuclear warheads, each many times the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, are kept on missiles ready to launch in minutes. This is called high alert, or launch-on-warning, or, more commonly, hair-trigger alert.
It is a relic of the Cold War. Nuclear commanders wanted the ability to launch their land-based missiles before an enemy attack could destroy them. For years, experts have warned that this was a dangerous practice, subject to false alarms, mistakes, misunderstanding and human error. And it is not necessary. The weapons in our alert subs and bombers are not vulnerable to surprise attack. We have more than enough weapons to deter an attack or respond to one.
While running for the presidency in 2008, Obama said:
“Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation — something that President Bush promised to do when he campaigned for president back in 2000, but did not do once in office.”
Obama didn’t do it, either. Many of the very people he appointed to implement his reforms sided with the nuclear bureaucracy to stop him. The State Department posted a condescending explanation about why we need to be able to destroy the world within 4 minutes, assuring us that this was safe and reasonable. Rereading the post now, one can see the how much of the argument rests on supreme confidence in the judgment of the president of the United States.
Few people have that confidence now. Obama has thirty days to fix his mistake. Thirty days to prevent the worst disaster imaginable.
Yes, this will be hard. Yes, much of the defense bureaucracy will argue against him. Yes, Obama has said he doesn’t want to “box in” his successor.
Yet, the press reports that in the last few days:
“Obama has used his final weeks in office to press for new rules on coal mining pollution, offshore drilling and the venting of planet-warming methane — all of which are likely to be challenged or repealed by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress.”
If the president can do this for parts of the environment, he can take this one simple step to safeguard the entire planet.
Scores of leading nuclear scientists wrote to the President asking him to take nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. You can now add your voice.
Ploughshares Fund has started a public petition to President Obama. Join us.
Tell the president to end this obsolete policy. President Trump could still launch nuclear weapons in an emergency, but it would take hours or days. This gives time for consultations, consideration, time to check mistakes and blunt the impulses of the moment. More time doesn’t weaken our national security; it strengthens it.
Please sign the petition now. It says:
“Now more than ever, we call on you to ensure calmer heads prevail. Taking this critical step would bring profound security benefits for all Americans by reducing the risk of nuclear disaster.”
Urge the President to lock the nuclear door before he leaves.