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Monday, November 20, 2017

A WORD OF EXPLANATION

I linked to the story yesterday and I have written about the general subject at length, but because this is far and away the most immediately important matter before the public, and the world, I will write about it again.  I refer to the report that “The top nuclear commander in the U.S. [Gen. John Hyten] said Saturday that he would reject an “illegal” nuclear attack order from President Donald Trump, and would instead steer the commander in chief to other “options.””

Let me once again explain what is at issue here.  During the decades-long nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, American military planners were fearful that a nuclear first strike would knock out communications, and perhaps also kill the President and Vice President and others in the chain of command, thus making it impossible to launch a nuclear counterstrike.  They knew that their early warning systems would give them no more than fifteen minutes in which to detect a launch of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles and then send a launch order to nuclear submarine commanders or hardened silo officers before the arrival of the Soviet missiles.  In order to make deterrence credible, they had to devise a system capable of reacting with that speed.  The solution was a command system for nuclear missiles that bypassed the chain of command and went directly from the President to those actually in control of, and capable of launching, US ICBMs.  Since there was no way of anticipating where the President might be when that fifteen minute window opened, it was decided to assign senior officers, carrying a communications device and launch codes, to accompany the President literally everywhere.  This device came to be called “the nuclear football” because of its shape.

The cold war is long over, and countries like North Korea who possess nuclear weapons and might be moved to launch their ICBMs at the United States [never mind how unlikely this is] are not capable of the sort of first strike that would threaten the command structure of the American military.  But the nuclear football still exists, and with it, at least in theory, the bypassing of the chain of command that it presupposes.

Enter Donald Trump, who is widely believed, by those who have seen him up close and know him best, to be capable in a fit of pique of ordering a first strike, let us say at North Korea.  Assuming that this assessment of Trump’s mental state is accurate – as I believe it is – we thus face a simply devastatingly disastrous prospect.  General Hyten, who understands all of this intimately and lives with it daily, is saying that he would interpret as illegitimate a Trump command to launch a nuclear strike in the absence of the sort of information for which the current system was originally designed.


This is the very best news I have heard since Trump was elected.

6 comments:

Howard Berman said...

Do you think General Hyten has the backing of the other Generals? And do you believe Trump can do anything in retaliation to what he will perceive as a slight to his authority and an act of insubordination?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

My guess, and it is only that, is that Hyten would not speak alone. As for Trump, he would go ballistic, but he is at base a coward.

Howard Berman said...

right.
The word illegal is rather strong.
At the very least containment, possibly a coup coming on the horizon.
Not exactly on my wish list.
Maybe the Zimbabwean congress can impeach Trump after they impeach Mugabe

s. wallerstein said...

You're right that it's good news.

It's rather sad and ironic that the best news since Trump was elected has come from an army general and it says something about the state of the left that we have come to depend upon army generals to impose rationality. It's been a long time since we expected a general strike of workers and students or any phenomenon of that order to impose rationality.





TheDudeDiogenes said...

It is sad, and sets a dangerous precedent. On the other hand, when dealing with the potential loss of millions of lives in an instant, what other feasible option is there? Better a slow decline into authoritarian rule than a potentially genocidal nuclear strike with who knows what sorts of geopolitical consequences (?) *shudder* What a world we live in.

David Palmeter said...

Nuclear is indeed the over-riding issue. On the other issues, if we survive, we can fight another day. If the bomb goes off....

Steve Benen on the Maddow blog has a relevant report as well:

http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/us-nuclear-commander-would-balk-any-illegal-order#break

Behind all of this is an important fact: people in the military don't take a "loyalty" oath to the President--however much the President might want that. The oath is to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States.

I didn't know the background of the nuclear football before this post. It seems to be a good time to deflate the football and retire it.