Nobody enjoys hearing the President of the United States of America talk about his big red nuclear launch button. But the (sort of) good news is that to launch a nuclear weapon, the President doesn’t just press a button and make it happen. It’s a complicated procedure with a host of failsafes. Here, step by step, is how it really works.
- First, a joint task force is convened: If the President is considering a nuclear strike, a committee of military and civilian advisors convenes to discuss options. That includes the Pentagon’s deputy director of operations, in this case Lt. Gen. John Dolan. Dolan is the man who, if the President does decide to launch a weapon, will oversee the process all the way down.
- The committee debates, but quickly: It’s worth remembering that United States policy is and always has been to use nuclear weapons defensively. In other words, while the United States military refuses to rule out a pre-emptive first strike, in practice we’re not going to use nuclear weapons unless there’s no other options or we know nuclear weapons will be in the air if we don’t strike. Keep in mind, it’s nearly impossible, at this point, to nuke any country and practically demand a military response from even a nominal ally.
- If the President decides to launch, he has to confirm with the deputy director: In order to prevent imposters, the President needs to read back a proper challenge code, kept on his person or on a close aide on a laminated card.
- The War Room prepares a launch plan in seconds, only 150 characters long: This message contains the whole nuclear strategy: Where to strike, the time, and the codes to unlock the missiles.
- Launch crews check the order: Even then, nothing is in the air. Launch crews have to open a safe and check the codes in that safe against codes prepared by the National Security Agency. If they launched now, the missiles wouldn’t hit their targets; their computers are geared for “peacetime” launches that, while enormously dangerous, are at least not population centers.
- And then? The launch crews vote: No, seriously. There are five teams of two in each launch crew, a job you need a college education and a thorough background check to so much as apply for. They can turn the key or not. While only two key turns are enough to launch the missiles, this is designed to be the final failsafe. The President can scream and threaten all he wants, but the ultimate decision rests with these ten people. There are serious consequences, no matter what.
- So how likely is all of this, anyway?: Not very. As we noted, the military’s standard for a first strike is that a launch of a nuclear weapon is imminent, and nobody, and we mean nobody, wants a nuclear weapon in the air. Also, many people imagine a U.S. nuclear strike would destroy Pyongyang or another population center; it wouldn’t, unless nuclear weapons were kept in Pyongyang ready to launch. U.S. military strategy aims nuclear weapons at military targets. And the reality is, any nation that engages in an unprovoked first strike is probably going to be lucky if the U.S. army shows up to clean up the scraps. China probably would not be happy North Korea is trying to blow up a country that owes it $1 trillion, and also, uh, is one of its major bondholders.
Also keep in mind the US has sunk billions into tools to shoot down missiles before they reach American soil. Of course, nobody knows if these things actually work, since we’ve never had to test them in a live-fire exercise, and hopefully never will. But if you’re worried about nuclear anxiety, remember this: It’s not the size of the button, it’s the minds of the people holding the keys.