Nuclear launch protocols and obedience

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If one of the dozens of ballistic missile submarines owned by the United States would receive code to launch an intercontinental tactical nuclear warhead, would they obey without question even if the target would be a state in the United States or let's say Singapore? What protocol are followed?

And is it true that the US President can make the submarine launch a nuclear missile at any place on earth by just entering some codes in the attache case on his own let's say in his living room anytime when he got pissed off? Or should it be entered by different people like the generals?
 

nsaspook

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If one of the dozens of ballistic missile submarines owned by the United States would receive code to launch an intercontinental tactical nuclear warhead, would they obey without question even if the target would be a state in the United States or let's say Singapore? What protocol are followed?

And is it true that the US President can make the submarine launch a nuclear missile at any place on earth by just entering some codes in the attache case on his own let's say in his living room anytime when he got pissed off? Or should it be entered by different people like the generals?
If you as a member of the nuclear weapons release chain of command received a properly formatted/authenticated lawful launch message with all the proper codes to unlock, arm and launch a weapon you are duty bound to follow that order.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold_Codes
As commander-in-chief, the president is the only individual with the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons;[12] however, the two-man rule still applies. The National Command Authority comprising the president and Secretary of Defense must jointly authenticate the order to use nuclear weapons to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[7] The order would then be transmitted over a tan-yellow phone, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Alerting Network, otherwise known as the "Gold Phone", that directly links the NMCC with United States Strategic Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base inNebraska.[citation needed] It is argued by Franklin Miller that the President has almost single authority to initiate a nuclear attack since the Secretary of Defense is required to verify the order, but cannot legally veto it.[13][14][15][16] However, Section 4 of the 25th Amendment of the Constitution allows for the vice president, together with a majority of cabinet heads or Congress, to declare the President disabled or unfit to execute the duties of the office.[17] If an order to launch is considered to be without merit, that would be grounds to invoke section 4 of the 25th Amendment. Government officials are required to not comply with an order that violates the law, even if that means defying a presidential order.[18]
 

Borg

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I've heard that it will be getting a Twitter upgrade next year. The two man rule will be replaced by requiring 100,000 retweets.
 
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would they obey without question even if the target would be a state in the United States or let's say Singapore?
Probably not, but it depends on the person.

Not from the US, but the Soviet Union / Russia provided three case studies:
  • Stanislav Petrov monitored a nuclear missile warning system which reported several missile launches. He did not follow instructions to report this, as he (correctly) assumed that it was a false alarm.
  • In the Norwegian rocket incident (1995), the alarm was passed up all the way to the president. It was an actual rocket, but with peaceful content and not aimed at Russia.
  • Vasili Arkhipov refused to authorize the launch of nuclear weapons, while two others were in favor of attacking - with his authorization a Soviet submarine (probably) would have launched a nuclear torpedo against the US.
 
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I think the Secretary of Defense has to give their own confirmation for the launch to go (they would be the second man in the two-man rule), though the President would be the only one giving the ultimate order to launch, obviously.
 

nsaspook

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Probably not, but it depends on the person.
Sure, they would question it (I would as a person while in the military who's job was to authenticate the order and would want to be very very sure about domestic targets) and ask for a conformation even if all the launch codes matched including the coded targeting codes but ultimately most would follow the order because very realistic drills happen at random designed to test the decision chain down to the last man.
 
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If you as a member of the nuclear weapons release chain of command received a properly formatted/authenticated lawful launch message with all the proper codes to unlock, arm and launch a weapon you are duty bound to follow that order.
Here's how it actually works in practice...

 
While we can only speculate, I think the answer is almost certainly no. In a way our armed forces are designed to preempt this sort of possibility. Every individual in the US military takes an oath. The oath varies distinctly for officer versus enlisted. The officer one is the one that matters here, but to emphasize the distinction let's look at both.

Enlisted Oath:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
Officer Oath:

“I, _____ , having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”
An officer's oath is exclusively to the United States' constitution and defense of the nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic. This is also not academic nuance. Even in Syria there has been some degree of ethical disobedience from the in regards to certain demands of civilian leadership that they feel would be harmful to the nation's interests. And even without this oath affirming their conditional independence, as @mfb mentioned we also have had several test cases of this very scenario from the Soviet Union. I'm unaware of the Soviets' oaths and guidelines, but at least ostensibly they seemed to have had a culture that placed less value on independent thought. Nonetheless they passed each of those tests with flying colors.
 
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I imagine different situations depending on circumstance. I imagine a counterattack will not be automatic for anyone, such as the examples from the USSR.

However, because of the USSR, I imagine if an order was verified to be directly from the president the chain of command is intentially abrupt. Men in nuclear missile silos were in the state of mind that if they got the order, the world was already at war and your job was to get your nukes out before the incoming ones destroyed your retaliation ability. MAD is not effective without that assurance. I'll be the time between the president issuing the order and engine ignition is less than five minutes, fast enough to launch before being destroyed by a soviet submarine launched weapon.

Dr Strangelove comes to mind.


About verification, I think it's set up so that the president can make decisions by himself. If we're under attack, they may not have time to get anyone other than the president on Air Force one, and by design the president and vp are separated. During 911 bush went into the air and I think Cheney went underground.
 
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nsaspook

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While we can only speculate, I think the answer is almost certainly no. In a way our armed forces are designed to preempt this sort of possibility. Every individual in the US military takes an oath. The oath varies distinctly for officer versus enlisted. The officer one is the one that matters here, but to emphasize the distinction let's look at both.

Enlisted Oath:
...
Officer Oath:
...
This is a meaningless point. Officers might refuse a presidents unwise but otherwise legal orders but that would be mutiny and mutiny carries the death penalty, even in "peace time."

The DOD allows the use of deadly force to ensure that no unauthorized person can approach a nuclear weapon, or seize one. If that happens, the person will be shot if orders are not followed. If an launch officer refuses a direct constitutionally lawful order from the President their nuclear release command authority is removed, they will be escorted away from the area and replaced or be shot.
 
This is a meaningless point. Officers might refuse a presidents unwise but otherwise legal orders but that would be mutiny and mutiny carries the death penalty, even in "peace time."

The DOD allows the use of deadly force to ensure that no unauthorized person can approach a nuclear weapon, or seize one. If that happens, the person will be shot if orders are not followed. If an launch officer refuses a direct constitutionally lawful order from the President their nuclear release command authority is removed, they will be escorted away from the area and replaced or be shot.
This is a rather long read but extremely informative about the nuance of loyalty to nation vs hierarchy that's already been ongoing in Syria. The military's most fundamental oath entails their ultimately loyalty is to the constitution and to the nation - not to the government. There is a lengthy chain of command and notifications required for a nuclear launch. These steps are specifically guaranteed to ensure a rogue or otherwise coerced or unstable president is unable to unilaterally engage in an unjustified launch. There are a number of links in the chain and each link is capable of independently preventing the launch.

There's a difference between somebody ordering a launch you might personally disagree with and somebody ordering a launch that would be contrary to the constitution or clearly detrimental to the security and soundness of our nation which. In the former the military would be expected to proceed with the launch. In the latter, the military would be expected to do everything in their power to prevent the launch. In other words randomly attacking a US ally, let alone the US itself, is not a legal order.
 

russ_watters

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MAD is not effective without that assurance.
I'm not sure I agree. Deterrence may be enhanced by automatic responses, but threats and possibilities carry deterrence value too. My understanding is that one of the things the Russians feared about Reagan was his unusually convincing conviction.
 

russ_watters

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This is a meaningless point. Officers might refuse a presidents unwise but otherwise legal orders but that would be mutiny and mutiny carries the death penalty, even in "peace time."...
Well, how did it work out for those Russians?

I think you are neglecting the fact that military personnel are human beings and all humans, even ones with miltiary training, have thoughts and feelings. They aren't robots.

To put a finer point on it, would you be willing to kill a million (a hundred million?) people to avoid the possibility of a court martial and death sentence? Heck, people in similar situations have committed suicide after making the wrong - and even the right - ethical choice.
If an launch officer refuses a direct constitutionally lawful order from the President their nuclear release command authority is removed, they will be escorted away from the area and replaced or be shot.
They wouldn't be shot immediately, that's not how it works. And the person who replaces them is another human being.
 

nsaspook

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To put a finer point on it, would you be willing to kill a million (a hundred million?) people to avoid the possibility of a court martial and death sentence? Heck, people in similar situations have committed suicide after making the wrong - and even the right - ethical choice.

They wouldn't be shot immediately, that's not how it works. And the person who replaces them is another human being.
I've run the drill down to the last code so yes I believe I would have done my part to execute any authenticated order. They wouldn't be shot immediately but in my Navy experience if they resisted handing over unauthorized launch keys or codes it's highly likely because we usually had armed (Marine) guards when handling SIOP material during EAM drills. This was in the 70's/80's while the cold war was still hot.
 

russ_watters

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I've run the drill down to the last code so yes I believe I would have done my part to execute any authenticated order. They wouldn't be shot immediately but in my Navy experience if they resisted handing over unauthorized launch keys or codes it's highly likely because we usually had armed (Marine) guards when handling SIOP material during EAM drills. This was in the 70's/80's while the cold war was still hot.
Are we talking about the same thing here? You didn't really address the OP's questions, so I'm not sure we are. Lemme ask a couple of clarifying questions, if you are allowed to answer:
1. Is targeting information known to and adjustable by the ship's crew? Or is it only known/adjusted by the President and his direct staff?
2. Or more broadly; Does the sub crew know anything beyond that they have been ordered to push a button that would enable them to even suspect their order was illegal? In other words, if the President gave an order to nuke California, would the sub's relevant crew even know California was the target?
3. And as a follow-up to those; was the training strictly robotically procedural or did it deal with scenarios where decision-making was required, such as receiving a partial message or cancellation order or a possibly illegal order?

On this particular topic more than others, it would not surprise me if the sub's crew was kept totally in the dark in order to avoid any reason for the crew to get cold feet. Use of the word "valid" would seem to would suggest this.

If the sub crew doesn't have any information by which they can even suspect an illegal order and the training is strictly robotic adherence to procedure, then the OP's question is moot. But then, the question can still be applied at places and higher levels of the chain of command where there are more people involved (such as the White House situation room).

I answered the OP's question as if it was not moot. And I maintain that I would have difficulty believing most people would be willing to type-in the position of Los Angeles and press the "launch" button if given such an order.

[and maybe I'm having deja vu, but I could have sworn we just had this conversation a few weeks go...]
 

berkeman

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nsaspook

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Are we talking about the same thing here? You didn't really address the OP's questions, so I'm not sure we are. Lemme ask a couple of clarifying questions, if you are allowed to answer:
1. Is targeting information known to and adjustable by the ship's crew? Or is it only known/adjusted by the President and his direct staff?
2. Or more broadly; Does the sub crew know anything beyond that they have been ordered to push a button that would enable them to even suspect their order was illegal? In other words, if the President gave an order to nuke California, would the sub's relevant crew even know California was the target?
3. And as a follow-up to those; was the training strictly robotically procedural or did it deal with scenarios where decision-making was required, such as receiving a partial message or cancellation order or a possibly illegal order?

On this particular topic more than others, it would not surprise me if the sub's crew was kept totally in the dark in order to avoid any reason for the crew to get cold feet. Use of the word "valid" would seem to would suggest this.

If the sub crew doesn't have any information by which they can even suspect an illegal order and, then the OP's question is moot. But then, the question can still be applied at places and higher levels of the chain of command where there are more people involved (such as the White House situation room).

I answered the OP's question as if it was not moot. And I maintain that I would have difficulty believing most people would be willing to type-in the position of Los Angeles and press the "launch" button if given such an order.

[and maybe I'm having deja vu, but I could have sworn we just had this conversation a few weeks go...]
I was trained at the North island facility for EAM and SAS procedures a long time ago so things may have changed. http://www.navynucweps.com/History/NWTGP_history.htm
"Keepers of the Dragon"

1. Classified but there are several types of target assignment measures with the vast majority of targets pre-assigned by codes to a index in the SIOP.

2. Live targeting information is compartmentalized to a very few people for obvious security reasons. The messages must be transmitted, decoded and authenticated with the Sealed Authenticator System in clear format for execution. IMO I would never have authenticated (a process that per the rules can not be over-ruled by local command) a blind target for the chain of command execution and it's unlikely the firing officers would even considered it a lawful order if I did.

3. Only messages that meet the strict format are valid, there are no partial valid messages period.
In the Nebraska's missile-control center, behind where Freeland stood during a launch, sat three heavy safes, painted tan, stacked one on top of the other. On the front of each safe were two combination locks, and inside each safe were stored copies of the CIP key. The safes were guarded in the missile center 24 hours a day by two sailors, and an alarm sounded throughout the sub when someone tried to open them.

No one on board had the combination to these safes. Those numbers came in the third part of the emergency-action message that Thorson and Davis translated. The final electronic link needed to launch the missile would come from shore.

The fourth element of the message contained a row of randomly arranged numbers and letters for the Sealed Authenticator System code, one of the most closely held secrets in the U.S. government. A Trident has to have some way of being absolutely sure that the launch order radioed to it is legitimate. The crew has to be confident that the emergency-action message actually comes from the President, that a hostile country or a rogue American general or simply an impostor hasn't broken into the defense-communications network and transmitted a phony order to start World War III. The Sealed Authenticator System code is the final step a Trident would take to verify that the order is for real.
This is very close to the actual procedure. I had the outer door combination (SIOP coded targeting info) memorized and was required to be present at all times when the inner door was opened for SAS cookies.:wideeyed:
http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,101361-3,00.html
Thorson and Davis took the emergency-action message to the conn. Lieutenant Commander Alan Boyd, Volonino's executive officer, summoned the two young officers forward. This EAM was "a valid nuclear-control order that authorizes the release of three of Nebraska's missiles." Thorson read off the target coordinates. The sub was being ordered to begin with a limited nuclear strike.
...
If the world was at peace and an EAM came to a Trident out of the blue, its captain was now under orders to rise to periscope depth and, even though it might put his sub in danger, break communications silence to radio the Strategic Command to find out if it really meant to fire these weapons. The Navy didn't want a Trident captain sitting out in the ocean with his finger on a hair trigger, thinking that he was expected to default to a nuclear war.
...
Back at the conn, one level up, Volonino was now satisfied that the first three missiles had the proper targeting instructions entered into them. He had sent Thorson and Davis down to the missile-control center with the combination the emergency-action message had for the CIP key safe. The key was one of the last electrical interlocks needed to fire the missiles. If Volonino stuck it into the captain's indicator panel and turned it, he was giving his permission for the launch.
The training is a strict military adherence to procedure and every man could watch the other during that procedure. So after all this, if captain failed to launch (even on Los Angeles) IMO he would be replaced by the next in command on-board by whatever means necessary.
 
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About verification, I think it's set up so that the president can make decisions by himself.
No, it isn't. There is a two man rule.

If we're under attack, they may not have time to get anyone other than the president on Air Force one, and by design the president and vp are separated.
The second person in the two man rule does not have to be the VP; in fact I don't even know if the VP is on the list by default. AFAIK the SecDef would be the usual second person; if he is not available there is a list of other people qualified to be the second person. I would expect at least a few of the people on that list to be physically with the President in the event of an attack.
 

nsaspook

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If all this is about Trump then don't worry, we've haven't given any leader the real nuclear codes since '45. :biggrin:
 

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