The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

Worried about POTUS Nuclear Weapons Authorization? You Need Not Be: The Integrity of Our Military Can Be Counted On

  • Published
  • By Dr. Ian J. Kurtz

During the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, some in Congress and the media devoted much time and effort to the question of whether the current process of Presidential authority to order a nuclear attack is appropriate.  Critics maintained that the President of the United States (POTUS) should not possess sole authority and sought to change this.  The debate focused on a scenario of an unstable POTUS without any system of checks and balances1 unilaterally, and without opposition, ordering military forces to execute a nuclear attack while the military, powerless and intimidated, did nothing.

Consequently, the author examines this question: “If a U.S. President were to issue an illegal order to start nuclear war, would or could the members of the Armed Forces intervene and put a stop to it?”  The notion that highly trained and experienced military personnel would stand idly by while an irrational commander-in-chief unleashed an illegal nuclear attack on an innocent party because they were in fear of being relieved of duty is an affront to the integrity of the men and women who serve.


This paper examines the logic behind allowing POTUS to be the sole individual to initiate a nuclear attack and the role of the military.

While POTUS does indeed possess the authority to give the final order, he does not do so without consultation and does not possess the ability to physically carry out an attack if opposed by his advisors.  Contrary to popular opinion, there is no “button,”1 nor does the POTUS have access to “nuclear launch codes” as if he could enter a few numbers into a transmitter and missiles thousands of miles away would fly out of their silos.2  To be sure, many of the specifics of this process are classified.  However, what is known is that once the POTUS signals his intentions, he will confer with his “top brass” (i.e., anyone from the Secretary of Defense to senior military officers in charge of the nuclear forces).3  This conference may also involve the civilian members of the National Security Council, senior government officials that provide guidance to the POTUS on national security matters.4  It is important to note that this process involves many of our nation’s senior government and military leaders; the POTUS would not directly contact military forces.  The serious nature of the nuclear mission set is reflected in United States Air Force (USAF) doctrine: “The ability to command, control, and communicate with nuclear forces is a foundational capability of the Air Force, and undergirds U.S. national defense policy.”5  The process is not haphazard, nor is it “insane.”6


Today, the Department of Defense maintains a sophisticated process that guarantees only POTUS can approve the employment of nuclear weapons.  Policy regarding nuclear use was established early on in the U.S. program.  In 1948, President Truman signed National Security Council (NSC) 30 declaring, “Decisions as to the employment of atomic weapons are made by the Chief Executive.”7  Truman’s decision expanded upon the National Security Act of 1947, which mandated civilian control of U.S. defense.8  Given that the nuclear program belongs to POTUS as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, such policy is indeed reasonable.9  However, many critics of the process, themselves unfamiliar with the military, consistently overlook important considerations:  military training, culture, chain-of-command, and core values.

The scenario at the center of the debate is this:  POTUS has become incapacitated (or “unhinged” as is commonly described by the media).10  He orders his military aide (an experienced, seasoned military officer charged with initiating the process) to open the nuclear football in order to authorize an illegal nuclear strike on an innocent, unsuspecting target.  POTUS signals his intent, the order is communicated to the Pentagon where military leadership will be unable or unwilling to object, and nuclear war is underway.

Conferring With Senior Leaders

If POTUS were to initiate a preventative nuclear attack, he has significant expertise at his disposal, to include senior officials, both military and civilian.  Their responsibility is to advise POTUS, from both a military as well as a legal standpoint.  To ensure that presidential authority is properly exercised, the military’s nuclear command and control system would transmit these orders through the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders in charge of U.S. nuclear forces.11

Although POTUS has the authority to authorize the final order, he is, in essence, “asking” the military to start nuclear war as he does not have the physical ability.  There is no button, nor are there codes to be entered into a gadget enabling nuclear arms to launch; he cannot simply sweep aside the military and execute nuclear forces by himself.12  POTUS may order a nuclear strike all he wants, but only a properly evaluated, legal order from the commander-in-chief will prompt the military to act.  Illegal nuclear attack constitutes a war crime; the U.S. military stands at the gate to ensure the laws of war are followed.

Integrity of Senior Officials

A typical argument suggests that dissenting military leaders are fearful of being “fired.”13  One pundit suggests that, during the Trump Administration, the serving secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security would stay silent because they had only been in the job for a few months, indicating a lack of seniority would be a reason to allow such a consequential event to occur.14

There is zero evidence to suggest that such a scenario would take place.  In fact, the Trump Administration saw its fair share of senior leaders who chose to resign rather than serve under POTUS.  Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former U.S. Marine Corps General, left his position after two years because Mattis “objected so strongly to the president’s policy choices that he opted to resign rather than go along.”15  Another Marine Corps General, John Kelly, resigned his position as White House Chief of Staff, clearly unhappy with what he termed “the worst job I ever had.”16  Finally, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer (himself a former military officer) resigned after a disagreement with the administration, writing in his resignation letter, “I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in presence of my family, and my faith to support and defend the constitution of the United States.”17  It is not a rational argument to suggest that job security, worry about one’s legacy, or ego would play a role in a senior leader choosing to do nothing while POTUS carried out an illegal nuclear attack.  What would be rational to assume is that, after the first firing, news would spread rapidly that POTUS and his advisors are in a perilous state, and he is relieving individual military members until he finds the one that will validate his illegal nuclear war order.  21st Century social media being what it is and, with a little help from the Pentagon Force Protection Agency or the uniformed division of the Secret Service, such a situation would likely de-escalate quickly.  It is also reasonable to assume that such dissenters would be honored for saving thousands of lives and restoring faith in the system.  Core values of military service such as honesty and integrity are deeply ingrained in the culture and training of the U.S. military and must be taken into consideration here.

Integrity of Military Members

Widely regarded as the finest military force in the world today, the U.S. military is not without skeptics inside its own borders.  In 2017 Senate testimony, retired USAF General Robert Kehler, involved in this debate, pointed out that military members do not blindly follow orders and the orders, according to their training, must be legal.  Unfortunately, the sponsor of a bill to limit POTUS’ authority remained unconvinced, “I don’t have confidence that a military chain of command would reject an order by the president to launch nuclear weapons…”18  Why the abject distrust of the U.S. military?  There is zero evidence to validate these comments and no reason to believe that military members would be complicit in an illegal nuclear attack.

U.S. Nuclear Policy

What does military policy say about the use of nuclear weapons?  The Department of Defense Law of War Manual states:  “The U.S. [sic] would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the U.S., or its allies or partners.”19  Any other scenario would constitute an illegal order; therefore, the many layers of military leadership would not be obligated to follow it.  Indeed, various senior and retired military leaders have testified to the fact that there are severe consequences for carrying out illegal military orders,20 which could include imprisonment or punishment by death during wartime (certainly far more serious than being relieved of command).  Since the advent of the nuclear football over 60 years ago, there is virtually zero evidence to suggest that a mentally unfit POTUS has attempted to unleash illegal nuclear Armageddon.

The U.S. Military:  Nuclear Surety and Deterrence

Military personnel assigned to the Nuclear Enterprise are subject to a robust vetting process.  In addition to security clearances (most possess a Top Secret clearance), many are certified for duty by means of a personnel reliability assurance program and undergo rigorous initial and recurring training.  Equally importantly, military members are educated in their Service’s core values.  For the USAF, those values are Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.21  The U.S. Navy inculcates core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment in all of its sailors.22  In addition, the Department of Defense (DoD) mandates that all personnel in nuclear roles adhere to a program of nuclear surety, which is implemented by Service-level policies.

Nuclear surety provides a layered approach to keeping the U.S. nuclear stockpile functioning safely and properly.  It is defined by USAF instruction as, “Policies, procedures, controls, and actions that encompass safety, security, and control measures, which ensure there will be no nuclear weapon accidents, incidents, unauthorized detonation…”23  This concept also extends to the nuclear command and control system.  While unknown to most audiences, nuclear surety is the cornerstone of U.S. nuclear deterrence.  Most critics -- journalists, government leaders, academia, and politicians – are largely unaware of the significant advances made to make nuclear weapons as safe, secure, and reliable as possible.  The training and education of Nuclear Enterprise personnel reinforces this.  Well-trained and educated people who are infused with a set of common values and are skilled in the day-to-day operation of the U.S. Nuclear Enterprise provide a strong deterrent by signaling to allies and adversaries alike that they are highly capable of performing the important mission of nuclear deterrence.  A commonly used phrase in the nuclear business is, “The U.S. uses nuclear weapons every day to keep the peace.”

Another Option?

Critics suggest that the authority question should be altered to allow for Congressional input.  The reasoning is that this would preclude the use of strictly political appointees and instead would bring elected officials into the decision-making process.24  Haven’t many of these senior military individuals already gone through a Senate approval process? In any event, the author does not consider such options compelling as, again, they are based on the premise that senior officials and the military are untrustworthy.


The U.S. policy of a safe, secure, and reliable approach to nuclear weapons provides untold contributions to the effective deterrence of adversaries, assurance of our allies and is vital to maintaining a vigilant and credible nuclear posture.25  Ongoing discussion of a perceived problem without analyzing the facts can have a negative impact on our deterrent credibility.  It signals to adversaries and allies alike that we as a nation doubt the ability of our Armed Forces to perform their mission with integrity and professionalism.  Such uninformed talk, meant to be used for political gain, is deeply disrespectful and harmful to the U.S. military. In a crisis, the U.S. military can be counted on to do the right thing.

Dr. Ian Kurtz is the Academic Director for the Department of Nuclear Studies at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Ian retired from the Air Force in 2008.


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  17. LaGrone, S. & Eckstein, M. (2019). SECNAV Spencer Removed Over Gallagher Deal with White House; Modly Now Acting SECNAV. U.S. Naval Institute News.
  18. Borger. J. (2017). U.S. Military Leaders Would Reject Illegal Order for Nuclear Strike, Senators Told. The Guardian.
  19. Department of Defense (DOD). (2023). Department of Defense Law of War Manual. DOD Office of General Counsel.  Department of Defense Law of War Manual (Updated July 2023)
  20. Diaz, D. (2017). Top General Says He’d Push Back Against ‘Illegal’ Nuclear Strike Order. CNN.
  21. United States Air Force (USAF). (2022). A Profession of Arms: Our Core Values.
  22. United States Navy. (2023). Department of the Navy Core Values Charter.
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