Are there legal grounds to disobey a presidential order to launch a nuclear weapon?

No. None. Zilch. As Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College and an expert in nuclear strategy put it, the idea of legal grounds to disobey a launch order is “untouched by knowledge of [how] that process works.”

It is Fast

The US nuclear protocols are built around the concept of “launch under attack.” The idea is to get missiles into the air before Russian nukes can destroy them in their silos.

To make that happen, the entire sequence, from detection, to assessment, to the President issuing a launch order, to turning the keys (there is no button), has to occur within the 25–30 minute flight time of a Russian ICBM.

To get an idea just how quickly this all must happen, Jeffrey Lewis of the Nuclear Threat Initiative has put together an outstanding interactive timeline, which shows that in a surprise attack scenario the President may have as little as 8 minutes to make a decision.

There is no time for ruminating about the Geneva Convention or pondering the implications of international law. The system, says retired Gen. Mike Hayden, “is designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision.”

Missileers are psychologically screened, and rigorously trained, to ask few questions, and just follow orders. Any hint of navel gazing will get a missile officer reassigned.

Facing a modern-day Nuremberg trial is the least of a missile officer’s worries. During the cold war, a missileer’s life expectancy after a nuclear release would probably be exceedingly short. He likely would have just a few minutes before Soviet counter-battery fire composed of nukes that crater 200 feet into the ground blow him out of his 100 ft hole and vaporize him, along with his worries, into oblivion.

There are no checks and balances. If the President decides to launch tomorrow, there are no legal grounds to stop him. Perhaps that should change, but for now it is the way it is.

Anyone in the chain of command for a nuclear launch could theoretically refuse a launch order. This is true. It would be illegal, but rather than destroy the world on the orders of a madman, they may very well do so. There are contingency plans to shift authority in this scenario. But, the question was would they have legal grounds for disobeying a launch order. The answer to that question is still unequivocally no.

While in other military contexts, a subordinate may disobey an illegal order, the unique case of nuclear launch protocols is an exception. Once a properly formatted and authenticated launch order is received from the President, it must be executed.

The only legal way to stop a launch is to remove the President. There is a far-fetched scenario in which the Vice President could intervene by invoking the 25th Amendment, which reads:

“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.” – U.S. Const. Amd. XXV, Sec. 4

It seems unlikely that the Vice President could gather the support of a majority of the cabinet, transmit a notification to Congress, take the Oath of Office, and issue a stand down order all in the few minutes between the President issuing an order and launch. But, it’s not inconceivable that there are contingencies in place for this. Let’s hope there are.

PHOTO CREDIT: An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 11:34 p.m. PST Feb. 20, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Kyla Gifford/Released) 

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