Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces



Updated November 19, 2021
Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces
The U.S. President has sole authority to authorize the use of
systems provide “unambiguous, reliable, accurate, timely,
U.S. nuclear weapons. This authority is inherent in his
survivable, and enduring” warning about attacks on the
constitutional role as Commander in Chief. The President
United States, its allies, and its forces overseas. If these
can seek counsel from his military advisors; those advisors
capabilities identified an attack or an anomalous event, the
are then required to transmit and implement the orders
President would participate in an emergency
authorizing nuclear use. But, as General John Hyten, then
communications conference with the Secretary of Defense,
the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command
the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military
(STRATCOM), noted, his job is to give advice, while the
advisors. They would offer the President details and an
authority to order a launch lies with the President.
assessment of the possible incoming attack, while the
STRATCOM commander would explain the President’s
General Milley, the current Commander of the Joint Chiefs
options for a retaliatory attack.
of Staff (CJCS), made a similar point in a memo he
provided to Congress in September 2021. He noted that he
The President would then evaluate and respond to this
is a part of the “chain of communication,” in his role as the
information and decide whether to authorize the use of U.S.
President’s primary military advisor, but he is not in the
nuclear weapons. He would communicate his choices and
“chain of command” for authorizing a nuclear launch. He
provide this authorization through a communications device
also noted that, if the President ordered a launch, the CJCS
known as the nuclear “football”—a suitcase carried by a
would participate in a “decision conference” to authenticate
military aid who is always near the President. The suitcase
the presidential orders and to ensure that the President was
is equipped with communication tools and a book with
“fully informed” about the implications of the launch.
prepared war plans for certain targets. The President could
choose from these prepared plans or, time permitting, ask
The President, however, does not need the concurrence of
STRATCOM to prepare an alternative.
either his military advisors or the U.S. Congress to order the
launch of nuclear weapons. Neither the military nor
If the President did choose to respond with a nuclear attack,
Congress can overrule these orders. As former
he would identify himself to military officials at the
STRATCOM Commander General Robert Kehler has
Pentagon with codes unique to him. These codes are
noted, members of the military are bound by the Uniform
recorded on an ID card, known as the “biscuit,” that the
Code of Military Justice “to follow orders provided they are
President carries at all times. Once identified, he would
legal and have come from competent authority.” But
transmit the launch order to the Pentagon and
questions about the legality of the order—whether it is
STRATCOM. The Secretary of Defense would possibly
consistent with the requirements, under the laws of armed
contribute to the process by confirming that the order came
conflict (LOAC), for necessity, proportionality, and
from the President, but this role could also be filled by an
distinction—are more likely to lead to consultations and
officer in the National Military Command Center at the
changes in the President’s order than to a refusal by the
Pentagon. STRATCOM would implement the order by
military to execute the order.
preparing to launch the weapons needed for the selected
option. According to Bruce Blair, an expert on U.S.
The Nuclear Command and Control
command and control, once the order is “transmitted to the
System (NCCS)
war room, they would execute it in a minute or so.” If an
According to DOD’s Nuclear Matters Handbook, the
immediate response was selected, “the (land-based)
elements of the nuclear command and control system
Minuteman missiles will fire in two minutes. The
(NCCS) “support the President, through his military
submarines will fire in 15 minutes.” Blair also noted that
commanders, in exercising presidential authority over U.S.
there is no way to reverse the order.
nuclear weapons operations.” The system relies on “a
collection of activities, processes, and procedures
Options for Nuclear Use
performed by appropriate military commanders and support
Because this system was designed during the Cold war, it
personnel that, through the chain of command, allow for
was, as former director of the CIA General Michael Hayden
senior-level decisions on nuclear weapons employment.”
noted, “designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not
Specifically, the NCCS provides the President “with the
designed to debate the decision.” Long-range missiles
means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis
attacking the United States from Russian territory could
and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.”
reach U.S. territory in around 30 minutes; sea-based
systems deployed closer to U.S. shores might arrive in half
The NCCS collects information on threats to the United
that time. If the United States wanted to retaliate before
States, communicates that information to the President,
U.S. weapons, or, more importantly, the U.S. command and
advises the President on response options, communicates
the President’s chosen response to the forces in the field,
control system, were degraded by an attack, then the entire
process of identifying, assessing, communicating, deciding,
and controls the targeting and application of those forces.
and launching would have to take place in less than that
Within this system, radars, satellites, and processing
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Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces
amount of time. Given that some time would be needed for
environment where the threat of a massive nuclear attack
mechanical or administrative steps, analysts estimate that
seems more remote than during the Cold War, they argue
the President would have less than 10 minutes to absorb the
that the President could take the time to consult with
information, review his options, and make his decision.
Congress before launching nuclear weapons in less extreme
circumstances.
During the Cold War, U.S. doctrine argued that, to deter a
Soviet attack, the United States would need to be able to
Some analysts outside the U.S. government have also
retaliate even if the Soviet Union launched a massive attack
questioned whether the United States should retain the
with little warning. Hence, the United States planned for
option to launch nuclear weapons promptly because, they
scenarios where the Soviet Union deployed thousands of
argue, the time pressures could lead to the accidental or
nuclear warheads that could reach the United States. The
inadvertent start of a nuclear war. They note that the United
short time lines and preplanned responses provided the
States received false warning of nuclear attack several times
President with the option to launch U.S. weapons before
during the Cold War, and if the President had responded to
most of the attacking warheads detonated on U.S. soil.
that warning within the 30-minute time line of a nuclear
attack, it would have triggered global nuclear war. If the
But, even during the Cold War, an attack or anomalous
President could not launch the weapons in such haste, he
event was not the only possible scenario for the start of a
would necessarily have the time to wait for more accurate
nuclear war, and a massive U.S. response launched in under
or less ambiguous information.
30 minutes was not the only option available to the
President. If the nuclear war escalated out of a conflict in
Others, however, argue that there is nothing inherently
Europe, or if the Soviet Union launched a more measured
destabilizing or dangerous in the prompt launch options.
attack, the President might have more time to assess the
The President has options to delay a response and await
threat and determine his response. Moreover, because U.S.
additional information. In addition, even in the current
bombers could fly away from their bases earlier in a crisis
security environment, a President and his advisors would be
or conflict and U.S. submarine-based missiles might
unlikely to interpret ambiguous warning information as
survive an attack on U.S. territory, the President could
evidence of an all-out attack from Russia or another nation.
decide to delay the U.S. response. Nevertheless, some
Instead, they note that the presence of both prompt and
analysts have speculated that a launch under attack was the
delayed options bolsters deterrence by providing the
dominant option during the Cold War, and that the
President with the flexibility to choose the appropriate
command and control system was designed to permit such a
response to an attack on the United States or its allies.
prompt launch of U.S. nuclear weapons.
Legislation
The United States has reviewed and revised its nuclear
employment plans several times since the end of the Cold
H.R. 921, No First Use Act
War. According to unclassified reports, these reviews have
H.R. 669, Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of
added options to the plans available to the President. While
2017
some options probably still provide responses to an attack
from a nation, like Russia, with a large nuclear force, others

might provide for more measured and discriminate attacks.
In addition, even though the plans likely include options for
CRS Products
a prompt response in the face of an unexpected attack, they
CRS Report RL33640, U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background,
also likely have options for delayed responses. As a result,
Developments, and Issues, by Amy F. Woolf
although the prompt launch options may have dominated
U.S. planning during the Cold War, they may no longer

dominate U.S. nuclear war plans.
Another scenario could see the United States choose to use
Other Resources
nuclear weapons prior to a nuclear attack against the United
DOD. Nuclear Matters Handbook. April 2016.
States or its allies, on a time line that did not reflect an
Steve Liewer, “A Nuclear Decision: As global tension builds,
imminent nuclear attack against the United States. The
voters must choose which candidate they trust with the
United States has never declared a “no first use” policy, and
codes," Omaha World Herald, November 1, 2016.
the President could order the first use of nuclear weapons.
As noted above, his military advisors may seek to adjust his
Jeffrey Lewis, “U.S. presidents are currently given a four-
orders to meet the laws of armed conflict, but there is,
minute window to decide whether or not to initiate an
otherwise, no legal barrier to first use.
irreversible apocalypse,” Foreign Policy, August 5, 2016.
Peter Huessy, “The Prompt Launch Scare,” Real Clear Defense,
In recent years, some Members of Congress and analysts
November 9, 2016.
outside government have questioned whether the
Commander-in-Chief should have the sole authority to

launch a nuclear attack in all circumstances. They agree that
the President would not have the time to consult with
Amy F. Woolf, Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy
Congress or seek approval from other officials if the United
States were under attack with nuclear weapons. But, in an
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Defense Primer: Command and Control of Nuclear Forces


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