New debate on nuclear war sparks doomsday fears

Washington – It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly the US military has prepared for doomsday – the day America gets into a nuclear shooting war.

No detail seems to have been overlooked. There’s even a designated “safe escape” door at the nuclear-warfighting headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska, through which the four-star commander would rush to a getaway plane moments before the first bomb hit.

Procedures are in place for ensuring US nuclear weapons are ready for a presidential launch order in response to — or in anticipation of — a nuclear attack by North Korea, or anyone else. There are backup procedures and backups for the backups.

And yet fundamental aspects of this nightmare sequence remain a mystery.

For example, what would happen if an American president ordered a nuclear strike, for whatever reason, and the four-star general at Strategic Command balked or refused, believing it to be illegal?

Robert Kehler, a retired general who once led that command, was asked this at a congressional hearing last week. His response: “You’d be in a very interesting constitutional situation.”

By interesting, he seemed to mean puzzling.

Brian McKeon, a senior policy advisor in the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said a president’s first recourse would be to tell the defence secretary to order the reluctant commander to execute the launch order.

“And then, if the commander still resisted,” McKeon said as he rubbed his chin, “you either get a new secretary of defence or get a new commander.” The implication is that one way or another, the commander-in-chief would not be thwarted.

The current head of Strategic Command, General John Hyten, said on Saturday at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada that he would refuse a launch order from a president if he believed that order to be illegal. Hyten also predicted that the president would then ask him for options that Hyten judged to be legal.

Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer and co-founder of the Global Zero group that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons, said the Kehler scenario misses a more important point: The Strategic Command chief might, in effect, be bypassed by the president.

A president can transmit his nuclear attack order directly to a Pentagon war room, Blair said. From there it would go to the men and women who would turn the launch keys. The renewed attention on these questions reflects unease – justified or not – about President Donald Trump’s temperament and whether he would act impulsively in a crisis.

This past week’s Senate hearing was the first in Congress on presidential authority to use nuclear weapons since 1976, when a Democratic congressman from New York, Richard L Ottinger, pushed for the US to declare it would never initiate a nuclear war. — AFP

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