Accession Number:



Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces

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[Technical Report, Congressional Report]

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The U.S. President has sole authority to authorize the use of U.S. nuclear weapons. This authority is inherent in his constitutional role as Commander in Chief. The President can seek counsel from his military advisors those advisors are then required to transmit and implement the orders authorizing nuclear use. But, as General John Hyten, then the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command STRATCOM, noted, his job is to give advice, while the authority to order a launch lies with the President. General Milley, the current Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff CJCS, made a similar point in a memo he provided to Congress in September 2021. He noted that he is a part of the chain of communication, in his role as the Presidents primary military advisor, but he is not in the chain of command for authorizing a nuclear launch. Heal so noted that, if the President ordered a launch, the CJCS would participate in a decision conference to authenticate the presidential orders and to ensure that the President was fully informed about the implications of the launch. The President, however, does not need the concurrence of either his military advisors or the U.S. Congress to order the launch of nuclear weapons. In addition, neither the military nor Congress can overrule these orders. As former STRATCOM Commander General Robert Kehler has noted, members of the military are bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice to follow orders provided they are legal and have come from competent authority. But questions about the legality of the order - whether it is consistent with the requirements, under the laws of armed conflict LOAC, for necessity, proportionality, and distinction - are more likely to lead to consultations and changes in the Presidents order than to a refusal by the military to execute the order.

Subject Categories:

  • Nuclear Warfare

Distribution Statement:

[A, Approved For Public Release]