Can a general refuse to obey an order from Trump to launch nuclear weapons?
At a security conference in Nova Scotia, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), said in response to a question that he would refuse to obey an "illegal" order from President Trump to launch nuclear missiles.
"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?"
Hyten was responding to a question about testimony by former STRATCOM commander retired Gen. Robert Kehler before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this week. Kehler said that nuclear operators would refuse to implement an unlawful order. Hyten agreed, and argued that the process in place to launch a nuclear strike would prevent such a situation from arising in the first place. As head of STRATCOM, Hyten is responsible for overseeing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
"I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do," Hyten added. "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."
Hyten said he has been trained every year for decades in the law of armed conflict, which takes into account specific factors to determine legality -- necessity, distinction, proportionality, unnecessary suffering and more. Running through scenarios of how to react in the event of an illegal order is standard practice, he said.
"If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life," Hyten said.
Hyten's comments come against the backdrop of continued tension with North Korea. In the past, the president has pledged to unleash "fire and fury" and to "totally destroy" North Korea if necessary. Hyten's comments also come as Congress is re-examining the authorization of the use of military force and power to launch a nuclear strike.
The general's observation about people perceiving general officers in charge of nuclear weapons being "stupid" brings to mind Mark Twain's famous quote:
'"It's better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt."
What is Hyten talking about? Generals do not make national policy - especially when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. By law, the decision whether or not to launch nuclear weapons resides solely with the commander in chief - the president of the United States. The "checks" on his power to launch are to prevent a madman from destroying the world not contradict the national policy of the United States.
If Trump were to order a launch on Switzerland or some other nation not threatening the US, it is barely fathomable that the general would have a point. But that's not even a remotely realistic scenario. All the general succeeded in doing was to dangerously place doubts in the minds of adversaries like Kim Jong-un who might entertain the fantasy that he could get away with launching a nuclear missile at the US or our allies.
There is a movement in Congress among Democrats to actually restrict the president's power to unilaterally launch nuclear weapons without congressional approval.
The most likely attack against our country is not a massive surprise nuclear attack by Russia or China, but an escalating conflict with a smaller nuclear adversary like North Korea. In a more limited or targeted attack circumstance, where the danger is still high but we would not face the same “use them or lose them” pressure we faced during the Cold War, it is possible and would be wise for the president to consult Congress before the profound decision to use nuclear weapons.
The bottom line is that authority for use of nuclear weapons should reflect the current realities of nuclear power. The current structures, however, leave the U.S. open to potentially catastrophic decision-making.
Can the Senator be so sure that there is no nuclear threat from Russia or China? Apparently, Cardin doesn't read the papers and is unaware of Russia's threats against Eastern Europe and the Baltic States or China's flexing of its military muscles in the South China Sea. Becoming embroiled in a conventional conflict with either of those two powers is not impossible to imagine, which means an escalation to a nuclear war is also not entirely unimaginable.
General Hyten should be cashiered for his stupidity.