Short Take: Nuclear Deterrence, How Does It Work?

She may not be Roxane Gay, but the newest New York Times Columnist, Michelle Goldberg, is on a roll.

Credit Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, for momentarily snapping us out of it. On Sunday evening, after a Twitter feud with Trump, Corker gave an interview to The New York Times in which he said publicly what Republican officeholders usually say only privately. Trump, Corker told the reporters Jonathan Martin and Mark Landler, is treating the presidency like “a reality show” and could be setting the nation “on the path to World War III.”

Corker has come out publicly and said what most sentient people already knew. But by raising the “path to World War III,” he raised the specter of Donald Trump with his finger on the nukes. Much as I hesitate to use the word that’s been reduced to a level of triteness challenged only by “rape,” this is horrifying. But then, Trump is the president. We elected an incompetent, irrational, probably mentally-unstable narcissist president, and the nuclear code comes with the job.

This is, of course, a problem of monumental proportions. And as with all such problems, there is a solution that is simple, clear and totally wrong. Goldberg cries that Corker’s admissions aren’t good enough, and that he and the Republicans in Congress must now act upon his statements by neutering Trump.

They could start with a pair of bills introduced by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and California Representative Ted Lieu, both Democrats, prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war. So far, the only Republican to sign on in either chamber is Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina. But given how little faith Senate Republicans have in Trump’s judgment, they have a duty to take up this legislation or develop an alternative.

Nowhere does Goldberg mention why the president has the authority to launch nukes. The concept of “mutually assured destruction” is what, at least theoretically, prevents the end of times. If a foreign nation launches nukes, we launch nukes. The world is destroyed. Them, us, everybody. Boom.

The only idea worse than letting Trump push the button is announcing to Kim Jung-Un that if he fires his nukes, the United States will then call an emergency session of Congress so that all our elected representatives will die in a fiery apocalypse on their way to the Capitol to debate whether war should be declared. Brilliant.

Should the button be left to the discretion of one person? That was always a problem, although it’s a million times more of a problem when the button-pusher is an incompetent, irrational clown. Despite Trump’s impetuous pushing of the button that says “tweet,” he has yet to push the button to take out North Korea. But should his shorter, better-looking counterpart consider whether he can push his nuke button and get away with it, there’s a fair to middling chance he will. That can’t happen either.

Mutually assured destruction means it’s mutual. That’s what makes it work. To suggest otherwise is kinda nuts, and certainly not very smart. Welcome to punditry, Ms. Goldberg.

28 comments on “Short Take: Nuclear Deterrence, How Does It Work?

  1. Lee

    Mutually Assured Destruction is a horrible, inadequate solution to nuclear standoff. But it has kept us from nuclear war so far, and I see no workable substitute.

    1. SHG Post author

      It does indeed say that. Consider the logistics should it ever happen. If a law says unicorns are real, that doesn’t make it so.

      1. Kirk Taylor

        This law would effectively put us on an equal footing with China and India, the only two nuclear powers with a legislated absolute no first strike policy.
        And yes, the logistics would indeed be nuts.

        1. SHG Post author

          Consider one additional factor: the entirety of the US spy apparatus confirms with the highest degree of certainty that Kim Jon Un plans to launch a nuclear strike in one hour. A decision by Congress is impossible, because Congress. Do we wait for millions to die or employ a pre-emptive strike? These aren’t simple questions.

            1. SHG Post author

              This adds nothing. When you have nothing useful to add, you don’t have to comment just to have the last word.

          1. John Barlycorn.

            I suppose you have been too busy playing with your little green plastic army men to come up with a correlation post about how eerily related the subject matter of the Nobel Prize in economics and the Nobel Peace Prize may be this year?

            But of all people to go with the entirety of the US spy apparatus’ higest degree of certainty to make a point…

            WTF! ! !

            Someone needs to plan a vacation…

            Might I suggest Cuba? I hear there are a few cool beaches near Guantonimo where you can camp out for a week or so that have reasonably easy access to cart in a few case of rum and all your metal lunch boxes of little green plastic army men without too much trouble.

            And I am told the frequency lazers that have been messing with the US embassy staff won’t work there, but only if you are a little bit hung over every morning and exhale the smoke from your morning joint to the rythum of the surf before you put the coffee on the beach fire.

            1. SHG Post author

              My request for a Cuba visa was rejected when they refused to accept the educational benefit of Cuba Libres. Philistines.

  2. Jake

    When I’m not anxious enough, I think of how Trump would have reacted to the Norwegian Rocket Incident had he been in Yeltsin’s slippers.

  3. Joseph Masters

    Do you know the difference between First Strike and Second Strike in nuclear deterrence policy? Deterrence falls under Second Strike; First Strike necessarily assumes deterrence has failed. Goldberg carefully describes a bill that makes a preemptive first strike difficult, not retaliatory strikes. “Prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war” forecloses the possibility of POTUS alone triggering a PREEMPTIVE nuclear strike, not a retaliatory second strike.

    How can one be certain? The U.S. Navy E-6 Mercury fleet, which are modified 707 airliners. The nuclear football does not directly fire nuclear missiles or launch bombers; it is the beginning of the communication chain that instructs the military to order the strikes, specifically through Looking Glass/Take-Charge-And-Move-Out (TACAMO). The USN continuously keeps at least two E-6s airborne around-the-clock to relay nuclear strike orders to submerged Ohio-class boomers (TACAMO) and land-based Minuteman ICBMs (Looking Glass). In the event of a nuclear decapitation strike, the U.S. military is fully capable of launching a second strike via the E-6s. Even in the event that a first strike destroys the entirety of the USAF on the ground, the E-6s can (and will) order a retaliatory strike of up to 336 Trident D-5 SLBMs over VLF.

    The TACAMO/Looking Glass system has ensured deterrence against Russia and China for over fifty years, now North Korea will be added to the list. In 1982 the Soviet Union joined the PRC in formally swearing off from first strike in all cases; it really isn’t a burden on the E-6 crews for the U.S. to make preemptive American nuclear strikes more difficult.

    1. SHG Post author

      Much as your description is interesting, it doesn’t bear upon the issues raised here. As for Goldberg’s description being “careful,” we clearly have very different bars.

  4. B. McLeod

    All this caused me to look up the expression, “That’s a Corker!” There were a few Nixon-era stories that, when Nixon was on his way out, staff kept a constant watch so they could run interference if he just decided to use the launch codes to go out in a blaze of glory.

    1. KP

      ..and this is different to Trump? Who REALLY believes the Pres is in charge, and not the bureaucrats?

      “”We elected an incompetent, irrational, probably mentally-unstable narcissist, president, and the nuclear code comes with the job.”
      Hang on, wasn’t this Obama? The guy who started miltary actions around the globe without worrying Congress about it. That guy with the Tuesday “kill list” of people he didn’t like..

  5. Shadow of a Doubt

    I don’t know the exact details of Korean second strike capability, but a nuclear first strike wouldn’t stop most nations from retaliating with nuclear weapons, which is why most of the bigger ones have sworn off first strike. You’d have to wipe out everyone in the nuclear chain of command, and then pray that North Korea has no sort of perimeter/dead hand equivalent or else destroy every single one of their nuclear launch devices which is just as easy to do if not easier with conventional munitions.

    And this is just a third world despot who got his hands on a big bomb, when it comes to something like Russia, google the aforementioned “dead hand” if you don’t mind having recurring nightmares forever. As mentioned, the US has full second strike capability, and a nuclear first strike in no way prevents people from retaliating.

    MAD is based on the entirely principle that no sane leader would risk destroying the entirety of his own people in order to destroy his enemy. It’s a matter of revenge, not prevention, but it all goes out with window as soon as one of the people with their finger on the big red button isn’t sane.

  6. j a higginbotham

    Apparently for execution, the President’s order has to be confirmed by the Secretary of Defense (whom the President can fire, then it’s the Deputy Secretary of Defense, etc? ). Sort of like Special Prosecutors?
    The US is not in a MAD situation with NK at present. At best presumably, they might get a city or two so the US won’t be destroyed by NK. [Seoul and the rest of South Korea and maybe Japan would suffer most in any conflict.] So the President could conceivably launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike to prevent NK from getting a nuclear deterrent (based on his assumption that China/Russia wouldn’t do anything).
    And since this is all off-topic, Stanislav Petrov the Russian who may have prevented WWIII after the Korean passenger plane was shot down in 1983 by disregarding multiple warnings of incoming US warheads.

  7. delurking

    This is pretty funny. Our host got caught reading too fast and missing the word “first”, and is now flopping around trying to make it look like he was actually doing some really deep multi-level thinking.

    1. Ron

      Or this wasn’t “deep mult-level thinking” except to really stupid people, making this pretty funny all around.

      1. SHG Post author

        Some readers desperately want that gotcha moment, where they can point at me and laugh. That’s the price of me writing SJ and their being ‘nyms commenting at SJ. I’m okay with it.

        1. delurking

          No, just to share a chuckle. You read, analyze, and write faster than I can; you are probably more than 2 sigma out. The imperfection is notable only for its rarity.

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