Can the fingers on nuclear buttons be overridden?

The danger of the world experiencing a nuclear armageddon depends entirely on the judgement of a very few Heads of State and the Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (NC3) systems by which their orders to fire their nuclear weapons are relayed. A critical question is whether the procedures cover the contingency of a Head of State, with sole authority to order a nuclear weapon launch, going rogue.

Unites States

Angela Woodward, formerly Director of VERTIC and now of the Disarmament & Security Centre, Christchurch NZ, succinctly sums up the dangers in the USA during the Presdiential election of 2021:

"In the dying days of President Trump’s administration, concerns that he might seek to deflect attention from his electoral loss and plummeting political fortunes by launching a pre-emptive war – potentially nuclear - intensified.

Acclaimed Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s account of efforts to thwart any such resort to nuclear warfare, which relied on a series of ‘pinky promises’ not based on any legal authority, is the stuff of nightmares.

In their forthcoming book Peril, Woodward and Costa provide a detailed account of both the president’s efforts to overturn the democratic election result and certain advisers’ scheme to rein in the potential worst excesses of his Commander in Chief powers.

The authority to launch the United States’ nuclear weapons rests solely with the president with, frighteningly, no available veto by any executive, legislative or military authority. None.

As one nuclear weapons analyst put it, the only check on the president’s power is the presidential election, ‘don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons’.

In reality, of course the nearest equivalent to a ‘nuclear button’ that, once depressed, initiates nuclear armegeddon is the ‘permission to fire’ key turned by the commander of the team who launch the nuclear armed missiles. In the United States, at least, nuclear warfare is initiated by the president, ostensibly after taking advice from the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But such advice is not mandatory, and may not be taken.

Any president that decides to break the nuclear taboo simply reaches into his, or her, or an aide’s pocket for the ‘nuclear biscuit’, a business-card that lists codes that authenticate the nuclear war order. A military aide – who tails the president at all times – will then present the ‘nuclear football’, a 20kg briefcase containing a directory of nuclear strike options. A nuclear armegeddon menu, if you will, from which the president can select whatever nuclear strike options they desire from a long, predetermined list

The Presidential Emergency Operations Center will then phone through the order to the National Military Command Center (NMCC), where it will be authenticated as coming from the president, then transmitted to US Strategic Command, and on to the nuclear-armed submarine commanders. Within minutes, things go boom.

Just to reiterate, no official has the legal authority to question or stop the president’s order.

So, imagine my surprise on hearing Woodward and Costa’s account of President Trump’s top military adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley’s efforts to stymy any such lawfully-given order being carried out.

The president’s actions in relation to the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 led to concerns that he was in ‘serious mental decline’. As CNN reports, Woodward and Costa’s interviews with Trump administration officials reveal Trump to be ‘now all but manic, screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies’. General Milley, Trump’s most senior military adviser, was worried that Trump might ‘go rogue’.

Woodward and Costa obtained the transcript of a call between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Gen. Milley on 8 January which lays bare the seriousness of the situation.

Speaker Pelosi: ‘What I’m saying to you is that if they couldn’t even stop him from an assault on the Capitol, who even knows what else he may do? ... He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time so don’t say you don’t know what his state of mind is. He’s crazy and what he did yesterday (6 January) is further evidence of his craziness.”

Gen. Milley: “Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything.”

So troubled was the Trump-appointed military adviser, that he immediately convened a meeting of the National Military Command Centre. Gen. Milley apparently told the assembled senior military officials to pause any nuclear order they receive and loop him in immediately, as a precautionary measure. It appears that the officials agreed to this order, despite it having no basis in law.

As it transpired, no such order was made. Phew.

To be sure, efforts to prevent nuclear war are to be commended. Averting the death of hundreds of thousands of people and irreversible environmental destruction should be rightly applauded. Assuming that Woodward and Costa’s account of events is accurate (it is certainly credible), then we can take comfort that sanity prevailed in the moment.

But the legal basis for nuclear launch authority, in the US at least, has been found wanting when the lucidity of a sitting president is, shall we say, disputed.

The only way to avoid the unacceptable risk of nuclear annihilation is nuclear disarmament. The sooner, the better. 16 September 2021"

United Kingdom

Contrary to the policy prevailing during the time I served in a Polaris submarine (1972-74), the UK Prime Minister now (2021) has sole authority to give a launch order. In reality one hopes that senior military and the Attorney General would at least be consulted but there is no requirement for their approval to be formally sought or given. 

Much more worrying, and unlike the US President, the PM's launch order is directly transmitted to the captain of the Trident missile-carrying submarine who will have no - or very incomplete -  knowledge of the circumstances. S/he would therefore be unable to form a judgement on the lawfulness of the order. Some - but not myself - would argue that the submarine captain is exempt from any liability.* Notwithstanding which there is no opportunity for a senior military person, should he deem the order unlawful, to interpose themselves into the sequence in the same way that US General Milley did when he became concerned over the mental stability of President Trump.

Dr Andrew Corbett, formerly in command of two Trident submarines, and now a teaching fellow at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, summarises the problem in an article published in ByLine Times on 20 July 2020 titled "I wouldn't want to press the button for Boris Johnson." He states that the captain  of a Trident submarine must make his mind up before going on patrol whether he will blindly obey an order  - see the section 'Trusting Motives'. However, as patrols can be as long as 120 days or more and in that time circumstances - and Prime Ministers - can change, how can he possibly know if the position he held on sailing still prevails at the time of the order. Although he confines his mistrust to one PM, what is applicable to one is applicable to all and confirms that there is no way to stop a rogue order to launch a nuclear attack being transmitted under current UK protocols. 

* See my publication Why Trident? pp.33-38.


The following references contain detailed discussion of the procedures followed by the nine nuclear weapon States so far as they can be established.