Hi Reddit, former Secretary of Defense William Perry here for my third IAMA, this time I am joined by Tom Collina, the Policy Director at Ploughshares Fund.

I (William Perry) served as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering in the Carter administration, and then as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, and I have advised presidents all through the Obama administration. I oversaw the development of major nuclear weapons systems, such as the MX missile, the Trident submarine and the Stealth Bomber. My “offset strategy” ushered in the age of stealth, smart weapons, GPS, and technologies that changed the face of modern warfare. Today, my vision, as founder of the William J. Perry Project, is a world free from nuclear weapons.

Tom Collina is the Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC. He has 30 years of nuclear weapons policy experience and has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was closely involved with successful efforts to end U.S. nuclear testing in 1992, extend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995, ratify the New START Treaty in 2010, and enact the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Since the Truman administration, America has entrusted the power to order the launch of nuclear weapons solely in the hands of the President. Without waiting for approval from Congress or even the Secretary of Defense, the President can unleash America’s entire nuclear arsenal.

Right now, as our current Commander in Chief is undergoing treatment for COVID-19, potentially subjecting the President to reduced blood-oxygen levels and possible mood-altering side-effects from treatment medications, many people have begun asking questions about our nuclear launch policy.

As President Trump was flown to Walter Reed Medical Hospital for treatment, the "Football", the Presidential Emergency Satchel which allows the President to order a nuclear attack, flew with him. A nuclear launch order submitted through the Football can be carried out within minutes.

This year, I joined nuclear policy expert Tom Collina to co-author a new book, "The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump," uncovering the history of Presidential authority over nuclear weapons and outlining what we need to do to reduce the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe.

I have also created a new podcast, AT THE BRINK, detailing the behind-the-scenes stories about the worlds most powerful weapon. Hear the stories of how past unstable Presidents have been handled Episode 2: The Biscuit and The Football.

We're here to answer your all questions about Presidential nuclear authority; what is required to order a launch, how the "Football" works, and what we can do to create checks and balances on this monumental power.

Update: Thank you all for these fabulous questions. Tom and I are taking a break for a late lunch, but we will be back later to answer a few more questions so feel free to keep asking.

You can also continue the conversation with us on Twitter at @SecDef19 and @TomCollina. We believe that nuclear weapons policies affect the safety and security of the world, no matter who is in office, and we cannot work to lower the danger without an educated public conversation.

Update 2: We're back to answer a few more of your questions!

Comments: 1467 • Responses: 31  • Date: 

spockspeare782 karma

He can order it, but can anyone else in the chain recognize it as unnecessary and call it off?

SecDef191236 karma

Even if someone else in the chain believes it to be unnecessary, they still have no authority to call it off. If the Commander of STRATCOM believes it to be an illegal order, it is possible that they might attempt to cancel the order, but an order given by the President as Commander in Chief is inherently considered a legal order, and the military is trained to take orders, not question them.

There is also the possibility that the President sends the order not through the Commander of STRATCOM or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but through a Junior officer in the war room.

TomSwirly912 karma

Even if someone else in the chain believes it to be unnecessary, they still have no authority to call it off.

So if the President falsely orders a nuclear war, then they must follow the order, thus destroying the world.

Can you explain why this is sane?

SecDef191760 karma

It is not.

TDmorty259 karma

So what the fuck do we do? We all see the unhinged nut job in the White House. If his steroid brain tells him to send out a nuke we all just die and that's it?

What the fuck. Thanks. Now I am having an existential crisis.

This is the great filter.

SecDef19593 karma

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the horrible reality of nuclear weapons, but the truth is that there are many things we can do to lower the danger.

In the United States, we can retire the Football and declare a No First Use policy, reducing the danger of a President launching an unprovoked nuclear attack. There has been legislation put forth to this effect, but it needs public support to pass.

We can prohibit “launch-on-warning,” which calls for launching on the warning of an attack, before it has landed. This policy is dangerous, because it is possible that a warning is false, such as the case of a mechanical error or cyber attack. There have been several false alarms in the past.

We can retire our land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, which are in known fixed locations, and place pressure on the President to make a decision within 5-10 minutes whether to “launch on warning” before an attack would destroy them in their silos. Our air and sea legs of the triad are more than sufficient for deterrence. Right now we are preparing to spend over $100 billion dollars to rebuild our ICBM force - but it has not happened yet. If we act now, we can halt this plan.

We can push for leaders to re-engage with long-standing arms control agreements, such as New START, and reinforce the strength of international nuclear norms.

Most of all, what you yourself can do, is to demand that nuclear weapons are once again addressed by your politicians as a serious issue. To educate yourself, and to initiate conversations within your community, and to make sure that this issue is brought to the forefront.

Progress has been made in the past to lower the danger, and there was a time after the Cold War when I (Bill Perry) believed that the danger had passed, but we allowed ourselves to become complacent and forget what was at stake. Change will not come about until there is significant public pressure once again to demand accountability on these destructive weapons.

itsclamtown207 karma

Radiolab did a great episode about the nuclear launch process, and they talk about your question at the very beginning. I highly recommend it.

Radiolab - Nukes


SecDef19359 karma

I (Bill Perry) participated in this episode of Radiolab, they do a very good job of exploring the question of whether we should expect the military to be a check on Presidential power. A worthwhile listen.

Cinemaphreak72 karma

IIRC, the launch codes go to senior military staff/joint chiefs who then authenticate them. If they deem them correct, they then pass them to missile command and the whole turn-your-key-at-the-same-time shtick happens.

HOWEVER those that get the football codes can also decide to disregard them if they feel they are being sent erroneously or without just cause. A failsafe built into the system.

Was hoping Mr. Perry would elaborate on this.

SecDef19218 karma

It is the conventional wisdom that the STRATCOM commander would refuse an order deemed inappropriate, but that means that the only check on Presidential nuclear authority is pinned on the hope that a member of the military trained to respond as fast as possible to a launch order would resist a command from his Commander in Chief and all of his training to go with instinct.

It is certainly possible, but we believe that it is a poor and unreliable check on a monumental power. Furthermore, the launch order could be sent directly from the President to the war room and then to the launch officers, and not go through STRATCOM at all.

Metaethic511 karma

How significant of a threat are hypersonic weapons?

SecDef191250 karma

Hypersonic weapons are touted as being especially dangerous because there is no defense against them. This is only hype, because in fact we have no effective defense against the ICBMs that the Russians have had for decades. Hypersonic weapons do not add to the capability that Russia and the United States already have to destroy one another.

Certain_Palpitation470 karma

How do you feel about Roger Fisher's proposal to ensure the process is taken seriously?:

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, "George, I'm sorry but tens of millions must die." He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It's reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, "My God, that's terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President's judgment. He might never push the button."

SecDef19102 karma

I think it is a powerful thought exercise to focus the mind on what really is at risk with these weapons, which cause indiscriminate destruction and have the potential to trigger the end of civilization. However I do not think there is any real-world application from a policy perspective. Instead we as citizens must do everything within our power to raise the threshold by which it is possible to initiate a nuclear launch. -Bill

HailToTheKink19 karma

Would take too long to launch this way.

SecDef1915 karma

(Tom) This is important. There is no rush to launch. If the attack is real our quick response will not stop the attack. But if it is a false alarm we would have started nuclear war by mistake. Better to wait and see if the attack is real. If it is real and all ICBMs are destroyed, we still have hundreds of warheads on subs at sea that will survive the attack and can retaliate. This is also why we do not need ICBMs and would be safer without them.

N0WMD374 karma

Thanks for doing this: if you could re-wire the National Command Authority, what would be the first thing on your list to add/remove/modify?

SecDef19927 karma

We would prohibit sole presidential authority and require that both the executive and Congress approve the first use of nuclear weapons. We could also simply prohibit first use. We would also prohibit launching US nuclear weapons based on notification of a possible attack, as the attack may turn out to be a false alarm.

We have had at least 3 false alarms in the US and could have more.

TheTWP111 karma

How would that work if we only have minutes to retaliate? Is congress known to do anything quickly? What if an attack is coming at like 3am?

SecDef1942 karma

There is no need to retaliate against a full-scale nuclear attack quickly. Retaliation will not stop an attack from landing, and we have a robust enough second-strike capability in our bombers and submarines that we do not need to launch before an attack lands. Rather than retaliate in haste, without full information, it would be better to strategize and assess the situation before committing to an action that has the potential to be the end of civilization.

Currently, the only reason why we might need to decide within minutes whether to launch is our land-based intercontinental missiles, which are in fixed locations and which most likely would be targeted and destroyed in an attack.

seanightowl71 karma

Can you expand on the 3 false alarms that we have had? This is the first that I’m hearing of this.

SecDef1991 karma

I (Bill Perry) tell the story of my personal experience with one of these false alarms in 1979 as Undersecretary of Defense in the first episode of my podcast At the Brink, “Seek Immediate Shelter,” which was a result of a training tape mistakenly used in the system. Soon after, there was also an incident with a faulty computer chip. You can also read more about false alarms and nuclear close calls in this brief from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

ScrappyPunkGreg373 karma

Sir, thank you for doing this AMA.

From 1998-2004, I was a Trident II (D5) Missile Technician in the U.S. Navy. Eventually, I qualified to be a Launcher Supervisor aboard USS Kentucky (SSBN 737)(GOLD) [8 deployments] and USS Alaska (SSBN 732)(BLUE) [1 deployment]. I was aboard Kentucky when the directive came in to change her home port from Kings Bay to Bangor. That was a culture shock for a lot of the guys.

Respectfully, sir, submarine captains absolutely did have a formal directive to question a launch order, even if it was valid and authenticated, if certain other intuition/political conditions were not met.

I wanted you to know this. To be fair, I can't remember precisely if this directive was added during the G.W. Bush administration or if it existed in the Clinton years. As I gained seniority, the existence and significance of this directive (it was in what was known to us as the "Officer's Guide") became second-nature to me.

As a targeting specialist, I saw a skipper not launch, during a graded COMCONEX at TTF Bangor.

Since I'm also supposed to ask a question, my question is this: What were the people like, and what was the culture like, at Offut? I met an O-4 in Bangor, during a SIOP Road Show, and she seemed pretty cool.

Thanks (or tell them thanks) for all the OLYMPIC JAVELINs and BEAUTY NEREIDs. They shook the boredom and loneliness out.

EDIT: If you or anyone else would like to hear more about my experiences with nuclear weapons or submarines, I was a guest of the Tac Ops podcast. Link to my episode is here: https://tacops.libsyn.com/trident-slbm-missile-tech-greg-k


Everyone reading this, remember: We swore an oath to the Constitution. Enlisted and officer both swear to defend the Constitution from all threats, foreign and domestic. Enlisted swear to obey orders from the President and also from those appointed over them, but officers do not. (EDIT 3: Thank you u/KitFoxBerserker10 for the correction)

In my professional opinion, the solution to any nuclear launch order that would threaten the Constitution of the United States of America (let's call this a "domestic threat" in the case of an insane president, or a "foreign threat" in the case of a cyber attack) would be: 1. Stop the launch; 2. Submit an OPREP-3/PINNACLE FRONT BURNER.

Again, officers in the U.S. military do not swear an oath to be loyal to the President.

SecDef19164 karma

My (Tom) understanding is that, to prevent a hacked launch order, sub commanders are required to confirm an order that arrives out of nowhere, with no context of international crisis. But if the order is confirmed they still need to launch. And this does not apply to ICBMs, which are deemed less hackable. I will seek more info on this.

It is also worth noting that sub commanders can launch with no order at all. Imagine the world is destroyed in a nuclear war and a sub is still out there under the ocean. The commander could still launch by breaking into the safe to get the launch keys. This way the Russians could never be confident of preventing US retaliation, even if it succeeded in destroying US communications with subs. The sub commander can still retaliate on their own. A failure to communicate is not necessarily a failure to retaliate.

Crunch117282 karma

Does the Vice President have a back up football and codes in case of succession or the 25th amendment being invoked? How quickly would launch authority transfer to him?

SecDef19326 karma

Yes, the VP also has a football and the codes to use it. The president could transfer authority to the VP in a matter of minutes.

jamesearljoint272 karma

First off, thanks for doing this! So the football allows the President to launch a nuclear attack at anytime, correct? If this is so, what role (if any) can the Joint Chiefs of Staff or other military leaders play in potentially stopping this action?

SecDef19519 karma

Yes, the football is a briefcase that is carried by a military aide that follows the president 24/7. The football followed Trump to the hospital. He can use it to order a nuclear strike at any time. He can ask for advice from his staff, like the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, but does not need to. He can send his order right to the Pentagon war room, which then sends his order out to launch officers. The weapons could be in the air in minutes.

There is always the possibility that someone in the chain of command will not follow the order, but the military is trained to follow orders and we cannot depend on this to keep us safe

jamesearljoint200 karma

So essentially, the only thing stopping a nuclear attack from happening initiated by the President through the nuclear football is a subordinate who defies orders? Are the people in this chain of command Generals or high-ranking military officers? Or are we talking about "greener" individuals?

SecDef19149 karma

Further, while one can imagine a scenario where the STRATCOM commander would refuse an order if it were to occur while no major international incidents are occurring, international situations develop rapidly and often without warning all the time.

If an order were to be given after another North Korean missile test, or perhaps Iran conducts another strike on a U.S. military base, and tensions are heightened and STRATCOM is on alert waiting for orders to come down, there is every reason that STRATCOM would follow orders as given.

In addition, the President could fire any individual who refuses his order, and get someone else who will.

SecDef19104 karma

The launch order can go through STRATCOM, where it would be processed by the STRATCOM commander or the deputy depending on who is present, or it can be sent directly from the President to the war room and then directly to the launch officers, bypassing STRATCOM.

GERMAQ152 karma

The Constitution empowers Congress, not the President, the power to declare war and issue letters of marque and reprisal. Congress has ceded so many powers to the President, is it time to evaluate taking some back? Especially in light of what can be seen as the ease in which the executive branch can simply ignore both traditions and statutory constraints?

SecDef19235 karma

Yes, we would like to see Congress reassert its constitutional authority to declare war, and nuclear war in particular. We see presidential sole authority as unconstitutional, unnecessary, and dangerous.

Two ways to fix this: Congress can prohibit the first use of the bomb without Congressional approval, or the President can declare that the US will never use nuclear weapons first (or that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter the use of the bomb by an adversary against the US or its allies).

noidontwantto95 karma

What would happen if a President under the influence of medicine that can alter his state of mind were to order a nuclear attack during a manic episode?

SecDef19191 karma

It would still be a legal launch order. That very scenario could have played out while President Trump had the football at the hospital this week. That is why before the president undergoes medical procedures that may impact his cognitive functions he should transfer nuclear authority to the VP. Trump did not do that in this case.

It is worth noting that other presidents (Reagan, Bush) did transfer their authority before undergoing surgery.

675longtail86 karma

Hello, thanks for doing this!

I've always wondered, what does the Football actually look like inside? Movies often show it as looking like a sort of laptop, but is it really more simplistic than that?

SecDef19142 karma

Inside the briefcase called the football there is a communication device that allows the president to communicate with the war room at the Pentagon and a menu of options for nuclear war. No computer that we know of.

GruntledEx86 karma

You say the goal of your foundation is a world free of nuclear weapons. That seems highly impractical and improbable in the current moment, though I'd certainly like to see that outcome as well. What's your roadmap for getting there, considering the highly militaristic global climate right now?

SecDef19103 karma

We agree that the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is not presently attainable given the current political climate, therefore we focus our current efforts on measures to reduce the danger of those nuclear weapons. That includes removing Presidential sole nuclear authority, and launch-on-warning, either of which could trigger an accidental nuclear war.

Getting back onto a path towards a nuclear-free world will require a President who shares that ambition, and a public that fully understands the dangers of nuclear weapons. This is a vision that has been shared by many leaders, including Regan and Gorbachev, but it will take substantial political will to accomplish. Any progress towards lowering the number of nuclear weapons in the world, as well as strengthening nuclear safety and security, makes us safer, regardless of whether total elimination occurs.

CheapMonkey3478 karma

Is the football just a messaging system (like WhatsApp) or does it communicate some kind of information like an OTP (like Google Authenticator) to confirm authenticity?

SecDef19115 karma

The football contains a communication device and a list of nuclear attack options. The President would need to verbally identify himself with a code (printed on the “biscuit”), which acts as verification, and tell the military officer what launch option he wants.

CTEisonmybrain76 karma

Do you believe that there is any actual chance of a nuclear launch by any current government? I think that the Football and threat of nuclear retaliation keeps all parties from ever unleashing the weapon.

And additionally, I live in a very military heavy city in the US. if there is a chance of a nuclear war, what are the chances I'd even make it out alive as my city would most likely be a target?

SecDef19193 karma

There is very little chance of an intentional launch, since a nuclear attack against the US would mean destruction for the attacker. We would be able to retaliate. But there is a more likely risk of blundering into nuclear war by accident.

If your city is a target, your chances are not good. You saw what happened to Hiroshima, and nuclear bombs today are 10-100 times more powerful than the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima. The only sure way to survive is to prevent the nuclear attack in the first place.

Bualulu10 karma

Would you elaborate on how an accidental nuclear attack would happen? Could it happen from the US to another country?

SecDef1939 karma

I (Bill Perry) go into more detail about some of the different scenarios that could lead to an accidental nuclear war in the first episode of my podcast, “Seek Immediate Shelter.”

Crunch11772 karma

Do you believe a nuclear attack is more likely to come from a state or non state actor? What would you put the odds of it happening at?

SecDef19162 karma

A medium to large nuclear attack is more likely to come from a state. A non state actor attack is more likely to be a single nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb (a conventional explosive modified with radiological material so that it will spread radioactive material when it explodes, but the blast is not enhanced in any way).

I believe that an attack from a non-state actor is more likely than a state actor, although neither of these have a high probability of occurring. The issue is that the outcome of a medium to large nuclear attack would be so catastrophic that it could threaten our civilization. Even a single nuclear bomb, beyond devastating a city, could result in disastrous economic and social effects, and potentially threaten the stability of our democracy. Regardless of the risks being statistically small, the consequences are so great that we have to take it seriously.

Arkeros62 karma

What would happen if the football is destroyed by an attack? I assume the US would still be able to retaliate.

SecDef1986 karma

The football facilitates the process but is not necessary. The president could contact the war room in some other way and issue the order. So yes the US would still be able to retaliate.

Asterlux29 karma

Are there any specifics asked if this president orders a nuclear attack? Does he say, "nuke this country" and the the pentagon figures the rest out?

Does he specify how many nukes to use or how much devastation to cause?

SecDef1989 karma

Within the Football are various preplanned attack scenarios, like a menu at a restaurant. The President would consult this menu, and choose which one he would like enacted.

nice_cool_person49 karma

Presumably, during a nuclear war, broad-scale communications could be cut off. What if the President was killed in an attack, but nobody could find out whether the VP was alive or not? Wouldn't this introduce dangerous uncertainty into the chain of command, and thus control of the nuclear football?

SecDef19111 karma

If the president is killed in nuclear war, launch authority would devolve to the vice president. If VP cannot be found (and is presumed dead), the football would then be passed to the House Speaker, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, in that order.

Of course, making decisions during a nuclear war would be total chaos and should be avoided.

SnowdenX48 karma

Hi. Thanks for taking time to do this.

Please comment on the safeguards in place at the point of the initial request from a president to use our arsenal. If the president gives the order, is there any standards or protocols in place for someone to say no to them right then and there?

SecDef19109 karma

No, there are no standards or protocols for someone to refuse a Presidential order to launch nuclear weapons. The President has unilateral authority to order a launch at all times, no one has the authority to countermand a Presidential order. Even the Secretary of Defense cannot counter the President’s order.

SnowdenX27 karma

Thank you. Now on the flip side, if someone refuses to obey the president at that moment, is there a process of ensuring compliance? Does the secret service get involved perhaps?

MrLeHah38 karma

I'm not OP but I believe if someone refuses to follow the order to launch, they are relieved of duty on the spot and the order is then given to the next in command. If that person refuses, its the same thing until someone acknowledges and moves forward with the President's orders

SecDef1947 karma

This is correct.

Coglioni24 karma

Hi mr. Perry. I'm currently writing my master's thesis about a series of false alarms in the US early warning radar systems that occured during your tenure as undersecretary of defense in 1979 and 1980. Those false alarms are to me some of the most frightening incidents there have been in history, because they demonstrate how a nuclear war could plausibly break out by accident. I have a number of question about this issue:

  1. What is the best way to mitigate the threat of an accidental nuclear exchange?
  2. What is the most important step the US and/or Russia could take to reduce the threat of nuclear war?
  3. Lastly, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the false alarms I mentioned. How do you think president Carter would have reacted? And did these incidents prompt any steps to reduce the likelihood that it happen again?

Thank you so much for doing this AMA, I greatly appreciate the important work you're doing!

SecDef1932 karma

The false alarm I personally experienced in 1979 profoundly affected my thinking as to the reality of the risk of such events. The story of that false alarm was the inspiration for creating my podcast At the Brink with my granddaughter, as a way to highlight similar stories which reveal the true danger of nuclear weapons.

Right now, we believe the best things we can do to prevent an accidental exchange would be to declare a no first use policy, eliminate launch on warning, and retire our land-based ICBM force. In addition, strengthening our communications with other nuclear nations is critical in preventing a misunderstanding.

The US and Russia need to begin talking once again, regardless of current issues. We need to strengthen the relationship between our nations, beginning with more Track 2 dialogue. Together we possess 90% of the worlds nuclear weapons, we must communicate with one another on at least this issue to prevent catastrophe.

It is difficult to say what President Carter would have done at 3am with the notice that 300 ICBMs were on their way from the Soviet Union, but I can tell you that as the National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was on his way to wake the President before a second call came in that it was a false alarm, he decided not to wake his wife to say goodbye, believing that they would both likely be dead within the next 10 minutes, and he wanted to spare her that terror.

All the best on your Masters, the issue of nuclear weapons are now in the hands of your generation, I believe you are capable of what my generation was not.