Since President Trump took office, his critics have repeatedly addressed the issue of a former reality star with his finger on the “nuclear button.”  Of course, the problem with that line of criticism is its inherent lack of understanding about what launching one, or all, of America’s nuclear weapons at a target entails.  This is something Air Force General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), aimed to correct in a statement he made recently at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada.

“I think some people think we’re stupid,” Hyten said in response to a question about such a scenario. “We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?”

If the president chose to launch a nuclear attack on one of the nation’s enemies, he does indeed have the final say in issuing a legal order to launch.  There is, however, no “button” for him to push that immediately sends a flurry of Minuteman nukes flying toward Russia; there’s a process involved in issuing and executing the order to strike, and most importantly, that order must be a legal one.

The phrase “lawful order” is used with some regularity within the American Armed Forces.  The idea behind using that phrase instead of simply saying “order” is the distinction it represents between an order issued to a subordinate that adheres to the guidelines and regulations governing the behavior of the U.S. military, and one that does not.  This distinction is an imperative one in modern warfare, as it utterly eliminates the clichéd excuse, “I was just following orders.”  American war fighters are not mindless robots, and the U.S. doesn’t want them to be.  Nazi stormtroopers may have “just been following orders,” but in America we give Medals of Honor to heroes like Dakota Meyer for violating orders when it’s the right thing to do.  This mindset holds true at the lowest levels of the rank structure just as it does at the highest ones.

“As head of STRATCOM, I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,” Hyten said. “And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I‘m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up (with) options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”

The general public tends to think of the “nuclear football” as a briefcase with ICBM launch controls inside.  In reality, it holds authentication codes and the codes needed to unlock missiles before they’re fired.  The information is relayed to launch assets, like missile silos and submarines, where site commanders are tasked with executing the launch.  The process involves numerous military advisers, senior leaders and commanders before moving down the chain all the way to the men and women tasked with “pushing the button” hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  That chain of command operates with the inherent understanding that an un-lawful order, particularly a nuclear one, cannot be carried out.  This form of discipline is an integral part of the entire command structure.

“If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life,” Hyten told the media.

There is an ongoing effort to legislate control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal out of the president’s hands and into the Senate’s.  Strategically, that could dramatically increase response times if America were ever subject to a nuclear attack, but it’s important to note that even the Senate would have to adhere to the same military protocol, and would also have to ensure their order to launch was a lawful one.