The Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened on Tuesday for a hearing unlike any in the past 40 years, to discuss and analyze the system used to authorize a nuclear strike that the United States has relied upon for decades.

Chaired by Republican Senator Bob Corker, an outspoken critic of President Trump, the hearing seeks to ask questions about the President’s ability to make war outside the supervision and authorities of Congress. It brings to the forefront a topic that has long troubled those concerned with the scope and limits of presidential power, and particularly those powers which can bring about the end to civilization.

As the realities of the nuclear age, and nuclear-armed superpowers, began to present themselves in the early 1950s, the system by which the United States could order a nuclear response to any threat from the Soviet Union by necessity became more and more consolidated into the hands of a single man: the U.S. president. Nuclear bombs ushered in a new age of warfare, where complete societal annihilation was now not only possible, but likely, in the event that hostilities broke out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Not only would the war be all-compassing in its destructive capability, but it could happen quickly, with little to no warning. Through a series of evolutions in America’s strategic defense initiatives, the power to authorize a response, as well as a preemptive attack, coalesced into the hands of whoever occupied the White House. For the duration of the Cold War and the years immediately following it, this system worked. But what happens when a political wild card ascends to the Oval Office?

At this point in modern American culture, few people still stop and reflect on just how closely the United States and Soviet Union came to global nuclear war. As former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara once said, in a time span of seven years at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR came within minutes and seconds of launching nuclear weapons at each other on three separate occasions, and were only spared through miraculous instances of restraint on both sides.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the specter of nuclear war seemed to fade from the public’s consciousness, though the weapons never went away. The U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other’s cities at this moment, enough to completely destroy both countries. Even so, it seemed that with rational heads of state in command of each country’s nuclear arsenal, catastrophe could still be averted as cooler heads would prevail.

But with a rogue North Korea demonstrating its nuclear capability in recent years, and the ascendance of a U.S. president so far outside the norm of past American presidents, many are now wondering if the system must somehow be updated to account of for the times. After all, the precedent to have the American president the sole authority on the use of nuclear force evolved over time through necessity and precedent, not law.

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Some Congressmen want to place Congress into the approval chain for the use of nuclear weapons. But experts say Russia has the capability to launch enough nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) to destroy the United States entirely inside of 15 minutes. How could a legislative body of 535 American legislators effect a response fast enough to respond to that sort of threat? The process for the President alone reportedly takes around 10 minutes from alert to launch.

In a prepared statement, General C. Robert Kehler (ret.), who commanded U.S. Strategic Command, the Department of Defense entity which would execute the President’s nuclear launch orders, wrote:

I urge Congress to carefully consider the potential impacts to deterrence and extended deterrence that any potential changes to nuclear command and control might have. I also urge you to consider that conflicting signals can result in loss of confidence, confusion, or paralysis in the operating forces at a critical moment. Some of the lapses in discipline and performance we saw in the nuclear forces several years ago were attributed to conflicting signals regarding the importance of and support for the nuclear deterrence mission.”

Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force