Donald Trump

US president’s nuclear launch order can be refused, ex-general tells nervous senators

Retired General Robert Kehler said US armed forces were obliged to follow legal orders, not illegal ones

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 12:10pm

A retired Air Force general told the Senate on Tuesday that an order from President Donald Trump or any of his successors to launch nuclear weapons can be refused by the top officer at US Strategic Command if that order is determined to be illegal.

During testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee, retired General Robert Kehler said the US armed forces were obliged to follow legal orders, not illegal ones. Kehler, who served as the head of Strategic Command from January 2011 to November 2013, said the legal principles of military necessity, distinction and proportionality also apply to decisions about nuclear weapons use. The command would control nuclear forces in a war.

Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s most senior Democrat, asked Kehler if that means Strategic Command can deny the president’s order if it fails the test of proportionality and legality.

“Yes,” Kehler responded.

When asked what he would do if he determined that a presidential nuclear order was illegal, Kehler hesitated about such a hypothetical.

“I don’t know exactly,” he responded. “The human factor kicks in.”

In such a situation, McKeon said, the president could replace the commander in question, or even the secretary of defence.

“But you’d have a real constitutional crisis on your hands,” McKeon said.

The discomfort among some Republican senators was visible.

“Our adversaries are watching,” said Senator Marco Rubio, warning against steps that raise any doubts about US presidential authority in a conflict. “One of the things that voters think about … is whether or not they want to trust him with this capability.”

But while some senators, including Democrat Edward Markey, expressed fear that in the age of Trump, an impulsive commander in chief has the power to unilaterally unleash a nuclear fusillade, the experts cautioned against legislative alterations that would broaden nuclear command authority to lower echelons.

“I think if we were to change the decision-making process in some way to – because of a distrust of this president, I think that would be an unfortunate precedent,” testified McKeon.

Bruce Blair, a former nuclear missile launch officer, said even if a four-star commander of nuclear forces believed a presidential launch order to be illegal, he could not stop it because the order goes to him and to launch crews in the field simultaneously. The commander could try to override the order by sending a launch termination order, Blair said.

“But it would be too late,” he said.

The hearing came as the apparent threat of a nuclear attack from North Korea is a concern and Trump’s critics question his temperament. Trump’s taunting tweets aimed at Pyongyang have sparked fears among Democrats that he may be inciting a war with North Korea.

“Let me pull back the cover for a minute from this hearing,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a consistently vocal critic of Trump. “We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with US national security interests.”

But if a president’s order to fire nuclear weapons, even pre-emptively, is determined to be sound and legal, there’s no one who can stop him.

“Once that order is given and verified, there is no way to revoke it,” said the committee’s chairman, Republican Senator Bob Corker, who described the hearing as the first since 1976 to focus on presidential authority over nuclear weapons.

Corker has broken publicly with Trump, warning last month that the president was setting the nation “on the path to World War III” with his statements about North Korea and verbal jousting with Kim.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press