I spoke yesterday about the domestic threats that Trump poses as president. Today I shall discuss the genuinely existential threat he poses as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States with authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. I do not want to talk about this. It terrifies me, and there is virtually nothing I can do to diminish the threat. It is in this way very different from the domestic threats, in the combatting of which we have many weapons and many comrades. However, I think I have an obligation to write about this, since it is something about which I know a certain amount. It is just barely conceivable that by talking openly and clearly about this threat, I may in some way be able to contribute to its diminution.
Let me begin by stating a few simple facts about nuclear weapons and their delivery systems that are second nature to me but may not be entirely clear to those of you somewhat younger. There are two kinds of nuclear weapons: fission weapons, whose explosive power is released by the chain reaction splitting of unstable heavy atoms – Uranium, Plutonium; and fusion weapons, whose explosive power is released by the fusion of Hydrogen atoms. Because these weapons were invented at a time [the middle 40’s and then the 50’s] when familiar weapons of war used the explosive TNT as their source of destructive power, and because nuclear weapons are so much more powerful than even the largest TNT bombs, the destructive force of nuclear weapons is measured in tons of TNT. One ton of TNT weighs 2000 pounds, pretty much the most TNT that can be usefully and manageably packed into a bomb [although there are some exceptions.] Fission bombs are rated in thousands of tons of TNT, which is to say in millions of pounds of TNT. It is actually rather difficult to imagine gathering a million pounds of TNT in one place and detonating it simultaneously. It is even more difficult to imagine the effect of such an explosion.
Now then, one ton of TNT is 2000 pounds. One thousand tons is 2,000,000 pounds. This is by convention referred to as a “kiloton” of TNT, but since we are now accustomed to referring casually to megabytes and even gigabytes of data, all fitting comfortably in our pockets, you really have to work at it to keep remembering just how much TNT one single ton is, and how much one kiloton is.
The very first nuclear weapon produced, and then exploded, by the United States over the Japanese city of Hiroshima was rated at 15 kilotons, which is to say 15 thousand tons of TNT, or 30 million pounds of TNT.
Fusion bombs are so much more powerful that fission bombs that they are rated in millions of TONS of TNT, which is to say billions of pounds of TNT. The very largest fusion bombs are rated at perhaps 15 megatons. The missiles carried on American nuclear submarines are, I believe, .5 megaton weapons.
Because of the unimaginable destructive power of nuclear weapons, there is no practicable defense against them. If one hundred such weapons are launched against a nation and its defenses manage to destroy ninety of them before they explode — a rate of success that no air defense system has ever been capable of – the result would still be a level of destruction from the remaining ten weapons that would be catastrophic. Consequently, there is in the short run only one rational non-suicidal defense policy, namely deterrence. Hence, for the past sixty years, the United States has sought to deter potential enemies from launching nuclear weapons. The United States has also sought to persuade other nations, beyond the small number in possession of nuclear weapons, not to develop and build them. This effort has been partially successful, although currently America, Russia, France, Great Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel, and several former Soviet Socialist Republics have nuclear weapons, North Korea appears to have several, and countless other nations possess the capacity to build them [it is by now old science, well understood by everyone involved.] Under at least some presidential administrations, the United States has also sought to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world in order to diminish the danger that a non-state actor could get hold of one – a group that could not be deterred by the threat of counterattack because it does not have a homeland.
Authority to use nuclear weapons in the United States is lodged with the president, and for reasons that it would take too long to explain, unless someone is interested, things are arranged to stop anyone from countermanding a president’s order to launch nuclear weapons. Let me say that again. The entire command structure of the United States military is deliberately designed to make it difficult if not impossible for anyone to stand in the way of a president giving the order to use nuclear weapons. The actual men and women controlling those weapons are trained to obey a presidential order no matter what anyone else says and no matter what they may think.
This is the situation we confront when Trump becomes president.
There is absolutely no evidence that Trump understands any of this, and there is a great deal of evidence that he actively resists learning any of it. He has already stated that he is in favor of more nations having their own nuclear weapons.
What is most terrifying is the prospect that some foreign leader will say something critical of Trump and in the middle of the night he will pick up the phone and order a nuclear strike.
DO NOT BE DECEIVED. IF HE DOES THAT, THE NUCLEAR WEAPONS WILL BE LAUNCHED, AND HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OR MILLIONS OF EOPLE WILL DIE INSTANTANEOUSLY.
I have neither comforting words nor realistic proposals to guard against this.