On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump made headlines through his use of the social media platform Twitter once again, this time, by comparing the size of his *ahem* nuclear button to that of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
The tweet received a mixed response from supporters and critics alike, with some applauding the American president’s refreshing take on geopolitics, and others comparing him to the embarrassing uncle that doesn’t know when to stop talking at Thanksgiving dinner.
The tweet, of course, was in response to an earlier provocation from Kim Jong Un himself, who in a New Year’s Day address extended an olive branch to American ally South Korea, while “reminding” the United States that Kim’s “nuclear button” remains on his desk, ready to order a launch of troubled intercontinental ballistic missile platforms that have yet to demonstrate a survival reentry vehicle.
With all the discussion and debate regarding Kim and Trump’s professional wrestling-style dialogue, one could be forgiven for thinking these two leaders really do have a button on their desks that could order a launch of their nation’s nuclear assets. Could President Trump accidentally set his coffee cup down in the wrong spot and inadvertently start a nuclear war? No. There is no button.
We’re unable to confirm what sort of launch apparatus Kim employs, but you can be nearly certain that he doesn’t have one either. Launching a nuclear weapon is just too complex a process, too labor intensive, with too many people involved to be as simple as that. In reality, deciding to launch a nuclear strike has very little to do with what the president (or Supreme Leader) do physically – because like any other military action – it involves giving the order. Once the order is given, a cascade of procedures executed by enlisted and commissioned personnel are set in motion, beginning with command authorization, and ending with nuclear devastation.
Regardless of whether Trump’s Twitter banter is good for the country, you should know that button-comparisons are a comedic oversimplification of a nuclear launch system many men and women in America’s armed forces have devoted their entire adult lives to manning, maintaining, and God forbid, firing if they ever had to. Here’s a basic breakdown of how a nuclear launch is actually ordered:
Step 1: The president decides to consider the use of nuclear weapons.
The president holds the ultimate launch authority, which is why the idea of a button really came to be. While there is no magic launch button, carrying out a nuclear strike is ultimately the president’s decision, but when it does come time to press the button that will actually release a missile, that job will be up to military personnel.
Step 2: The president convenes with military and civilian advisors
While the president does have the final say in launching a nuclear strike, no leader operates in a vacuum. In order to understand his tactical options, the possible strategic ramifications of launch, the likelihood of retaliatory strikes and what the potential fallout may be and so on, the president needs to confer with experts. If the enemy has already launched nukes, this meeting may be as brief as thirty seconds, but if he’s considering a first strike, this can carry on for as long as he chooses.
Step 3: The president chooses to launch
Some advisors will likely agree that a nuclear launch is the appropriate action to take (assuming it is) but others will undoubtedly try to change his mind. In a real life scenario, it may even be likely that some senior cabinet members could resign in protest, but ultimately, the president decides if a nuclear launch is the correct course of action.
Step 4: The senior officer in the War Room confirms the president’s identity
Once the president has decided to launch a nuclear strike, the senior military officer on duty in the War Room will confirm the man giving the order is indeed the president by offering a “challenge code,” which is often two phonetic letters from the military alphabet. The president will offer a response found on “the biscuit,” which is a laminated card either the president or a close aid carries at all times. With the appropriate response to the challenge code offered, the order is carried out.
Step 5: The order is transmitted
Once the order has been given and confirmed, military personnel within the War Room will prepare and transmit a launch command containing the chosen war plan, time to launch, authentication codes and the codes needed to unlock the missiles before they can be fired. All of this information fits within a message that’s only around 150 characters long – ironically right around the length of a tweet.
Step 6: Launch crews receive and confirm the authenticity of the order
Once the order arrives in the hands of launch crews aboard submarines, inside missile silos, or in air wings located around the world, they have to be certain the order is coming from appropriate channels. They open specialized safes provided by National Security Agency and compare the sealed-authentication system (SAS) codes provided in the order to the codes they have inside. Multiple officers (the number depends on if it’s in a submarine, silo, or air crew) must verify the codes are correct. If they match, launch crews begin preparations for launch.
Step 7: Launch crews carry out the order
As soon as 15 minutes after the president decides to launch a nuclear strike, missiles can be in the air, traveling to targets on the other side of the globe.
While there is no button on President Trump’s desk, ultimately there is one – whether in a silo, on an airplane, or a trigger on a sub, that will release the nuclear weapon. That terrible responsibility will ultimately fall on American’s military personnel, rather than the president himself.
Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons