America’s Nuclear Response Procedure Explained, Using GIFs From ‘Friends’

America’s Nuclear Response Procedure Explained, Using GIFs From ‘Friends’

Apparently, Donald Trump recently had a meeting with some senior military officers that included discussion of nuclear weapons, leading the president-elect to tweet that the United States needs to “expand its nuclear capability.”

Since I am an actual expert on nuclear strategy — well, if defined by years of teaching and writing about it, anyway — I started getting a lot of questions about how nuclear weapons are used. Some of these were the understandable questions of curious citizens, some were a little more panicky. I sent out links to some quickly readable articles I’ve done on the subject, primers on both U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. Still, as often happens on Twitter, I was repeating myself a bit.

So I decided to explain nuclear procedures using gifs. I started with an alarmed Joey from “Friends,” which led Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon to challenge me to explain everything using only gifs from “Friends.”

Challenge accepted.

Let us assume, for the sake of this exercise, that a crisis has gotten out of control, and that Washington is responding to an imminent nuclear attack on the United States. (If we were to use nuclear weapons first — a right we still reserve — nothing would be much different, at least in terms of the process.) Here’s what happens.

At this point, it is likely the president’s advisors, including the secretary of Defense, are already nearby. They will seek a decision from the president, the only person in the United States authorized to release nuclear weapons.

The president must decide whether to retaliate. Time is short. He can decide to launch American weapons out from under the attack, or he can choose to “ride out” the attack and launch what’s left after making an assessment. Either way, he has only minutes to decide. Assuming he wishes to retaliate, he must use the codes that are his alone, chose an attack option, and then direct the secretary of Defense to verify his order to waiting U.S. nuclear forces.

This order is then sent to the chain of command, including the Joint Chiefs and the U.S. Strategic Command.

Each component of America’s nuclear forces that receives this order will then verify that they have a real, legitimate order, and then they will proceed to execute the options the president has selected.

There is no countermanding this except by the same process that started it — that is, by the president. The process is built for speed, reliability, and efficiency, not for second-guessing and delay.

Soon thereafter, likely within minutes, the enemy strike arrives. The president, if not already in a secure location, is moved to safety (insofar as is possible) along with other top officials. Whatever’s left of the U.S. deterrent heads out to hit whatever was in the plan that was activated.

If this was a limited strike — that is, if there is anything or anyone left — our forces will report back their condition and try to assess damage of both the enemy’s strikes and our own.

What happens next depends on whether there’s a cease-fire and attempt to negotiate. (It will also depend on whether each side’s leaders are in any condition to communicate with each other.)

If there is no cease-fire, or if one or the other side decides on all-out war, there may no meaningful “victory,” but each combatant might try to destroy as much of the other as possible to delay the enemy’s postwar recovery for as long as possible.

If that happens, as President John F. Kennedy once warned, Americans will not be able to count on the instruments of government and will be on their own. We will all head for the cellar and stay there for a long time.

At that point, we’re pretty much at the end of life in the Northern Hemisphere, and the rest of the planet poisoned for decades to come. The End.

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School. Views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter, @RadioFreeTom.
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