Passing the (nuclear) ball—the future of conflict under a Biden presidency
Strategy Note / United States of America

Passing the (nuclear) ball—the future of conflict under a Biden presidency

  • Many will breathe a sigh of relief when President Biden assumes control of the US nuclear arsenal

  • Complexity of controlling the arsenal shows the danger of nuclear proliferation that Trump’s unilateralism accelerated

  • The increasing complexity of asymmetric conflict means the salience of questions of proportionality will only grow

Paul Domjan
Paul Domjan

Senior Contributing Analyst

Tellimer Research
20 January 2021
Published byTellimer Research

Passing the football

What would you do the morning before being inaugurated as President or Vice-President of the United States? Pray? Get an extra hour of sleep? Practice your inauguration speech? In actual fact, every President and Vice-President of the post-war era does the same thing before going to the Capitol steps to be sworn into office by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: The incoming President and Vice-President are given their “nuclear biscuits,” containing their personal nuclear identification codes, and receive a highly classified briefing about how to operate the US’s nuclear arsenal, which President Trump described as “very, very, very scary.”

Then, at exactly noon, while the President-elect is being sworn in, another, much more low key ceremony happens just out of view, as the outgoing military aide passes the nuclear football, a briefcase the contains the codes and radio equipment to allow the President to command the US nuclear arsenal when out of reach of a situation room, to the new President’s designated military aide.

But Trump won’t be attending the inauguration. The nuclear football wasn’t a problem the last time this happened. When Andrew Johnson failed to attend Ulysses Grant’s inauguration in 1869, neither nuclear weapons, nor American football, existed. On the morning of the inauguration, Trump will be flying to Florida to return to civilian life at his Mar-a-Lago resort, where he faces the first of many post-presidential legal disputes, over whether he’s even allowed to live there.

Because Trump will still be President when he leaves Washington, DC – the transition of power legally happens at noon – he’ll fly to Florida on a government aircraft at taxpayer expense, and his military aide will accompany him, carrying the football. At noon, the outgoing military aide will collect Trump’s biscuit and fly back to Washington, DC, presumably on the same government aircraft, with the biscuit and the football.

Fortunately, there are multiple nuclear footballs: Biden will probably initially get outgoing Vice-President Pence’s ball while he waits for the aide who followed Trump to Florida in the morning to bring back the Presidential ball. The third football will be with the designated survivor of the nuclear chain of command, who will be elsewhere to ensure continuity of the chain of command if both the President and Vice-President are incapacitated at the inauguration ceremony. It’s unclear if there is a fourth football, but presumably Biden and Harris can share a football until the aide gets back from Florida.

Whose finger is really on the nuclear button?

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, is worried about Trump keeping control of the nuclear arsenal even until then. Following the storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6th, Pelosi sought, and received, reassurances from General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that there are safeguards in place to prevent an unhinged President Trump from ordering a nuclear strike.

Remarkably, the nuclear chain of command, and safeguards surrounding it, appear not to have changed since the increasingly unhinged Richard Nixon bragged to a dinner party at the White House that “I could leave this room, and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead” and Major Harold Hering was drummed out of the Air Force for asking during missile command training school how he would know that an authenticated launch order was “lawful” and didn’t come from a President who was “imblance[d]” or “berserk.” Or, in today’s terms, is not the result of a cyberattack on the nuclear launch facility. I’ve warned before that the real threat of the Trump Presidency is that there is a Nixon-like figure in the wings, ready to exploit the norms that Trump has dismantled for his own self-aggrandisement for much more nefarious ends.

Indeed, there are questions about basis under which the military could refuse the president’s order to launch nuclear weapons without effectively staging a coup, given that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not in the nuclear chain of command. Shortly after Trump’s election, Gen John Hyten, then Commander of US Strategic Command, which includes the US nuclear force, and now Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that he would insert himself into the chain of command to resist a disproportionate nuclear response on the basis of legality, explaining that “[i]f you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life.” The Commander of US STRATCOM can question the legality of a nuclear order, but there is still no good answer to Major Hering’s question of how a missile operator sitting in a silo deep beneath the American prairie can know that an order was legally issued when they turn the key and launch a fleet of Minuteman-III missiles, each of which is at least twelve times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Conflict under Biden: Nuclear proliferation and a kaleidoscope of asymmetric conflict

As by far the largest democratic nuclear power, the US nuclear arsenal and nuclear command structure has been extensively scrutinised. Although one can certainly raise questions about the checks on a US launch, one has to imagine that the risks in many other countries may be greater. Biden will seek to rebuild alliances, but he cannot reassure US allies that there will never be another Trumpian turn inward. Many allied intelligence services will doubtless have come to the conclusion that 2020 was a defeat for Trump, but not for Trumpism.

Nor can Biden reassure Iran, and other potential foes seeking détente with the US, that the US will honour its agreements after his Presidency. Unsurprisingly, my colleague Hasnain Malik expects covert action from Iran surrounding the inauguration. In this environment of mistrust, US allies such as Japan and South Korea might reasonably seek their own nuclear deterrents, as might historical foes, like Iran and North Korea, or indeed regional powers, like Saudi Arabia. This multipolar world will give rise to many more nuclear threats and make the decision of legality that Gen Hyten poses much more complex in the future.

Gen Hyten’s question is also about to get much more complicated because the nature of conflict is suddenly becoming much more complex. When comparing like-for-like, resisting a nuclear order on the legal basis of proportionality appears relatively straightforward. But warfare is set to become more asymmetric, making such like-for-like comparisons increasing difficult.

When Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with Polonium-210 in London in 2006, hundreds of members of the public were also affected as the poison spread across the city. London was very lucky given that one gram of Polonium could conceivably kill millions. Covid-19 has shown us how quickly a novel virus can spread.

Imagine that the next dissident to be assassinated overseas is killed with a biological weapon that goes wrong. The US would not, and indeed having eschewed biological and chemical weapons probably could not, offer a like-for-like response. But how much conventional, or indeed nuclear, force would be an appropriate response to this sort of biological attack? Would Gen Hyten’s successor be in a position to make that proportionality determination? What about a crippling attack on critical infrastructure, potentially leading to many deaths as hospital power, air traffic control and critical ventilation systems fail? With the tragic exception of 9/11, no asymmetric attack on a Western country has yet been large enough to attract a massive military response, but as asymmetric means of conflict continue to grow, we will sadly have to ask the question again.