I was the former nuclear missile launch officer who in October appeared in a TV advertisement for Hillary Clinton, saying: “The thought of Donald Trump with nuclear weapons scares me to death. It should scare everyone.” The ad featured various quotes from Trump’s campaign rallies and interviews, in which he says, among other things: “I would bomb the shit out of ’em,” “I wanna be unpredictable,” and “I love war.” As I walked through a nuclear missile launch center in the ad, I explained that “self-control may be all that keeps these missiles from firing.”
We will see all of our fears—and the new president-elect’s self-control—put to the test over the next four years. When Trump takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017, there will be no shortage of combustible tensions around the globe. And Trump will need to make some critical decisions quickly—including whether he truly wants, as he suggested during the campaign, a world in which there are even more nuclear powers than we have today.
These tensions are present even now and show no signs of easing. For starters, U.S.-led NATO and Russian military forces are shadow boxing with increasing intensity. The mutual intimidation is steadily escalating, and Trump’s soft commitment to NATO’s defense has not helped. Rather than assuaging the Russians, it has only stoked insecurity in Europe and perhaps tempted Russia to intervene in the Baltic states. In other words, appeasement only makes matters more unstable.
In East Asia, meanwhile, a mercurial and belligerent leader of North Korea will soon be able to brandish nuclear-armed missiles to credibly threaten South Korea, Japan and the U.S. homeland with nuclear devastation. The timeline for this threat to materialize is very short—months or a low number of years. (Trump himself mentioned the threat in his “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday.) Kim Jong Un’s provocations combined with Trump’s soft-pedaling of the U.S. defense commitment in Asia have put the entire region on edge and provoked South Korea to consider acquiring a nuclear arsenal in self defense.
There are other crises brewing as well, including in the South China Sea and the Middle East. As China lays claim to nearly all of this sea in part to create safe bastions for its new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the U.S. has intensified its air, sea, and undersea surveillance and anti-submarine warfare operations, increasing the chances of hostile encounters. In the Middle East, U.S. and Russian forces are operating in very close and not-so-friendly quarters in the Syrian theater, and the specter of a region going nuclear looms larger than ever as Trump warns he will tear up and re-negotiate the hard-won Iranian nuclear deal. This ill-advised move would set Iran free to resume its nuclear program, while spurring Iran’s enemies to follow suit, as well as re-opening the debate over U.S.-Israeli pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
All of these crises are percolating at once. They threaten to overwhelm even the savviest of presidents and advisers. Can we rely on Trump to act with diligence, competence, diplomatic skill, reason and restraint? The verdict of a plurality of the electorate who voted for Clinton and of the vast majority of foreign policy experts is one of profound doubt that he can handle the pressure. He has proved himself over and over again to be quick-tempered, defensive, prone to lash out, adamant in dividing the world into winners and losers, and quick to invoke either the use of force or the backing away from U.S. defense commitments. He is ill-informed about nuclear weapons and the policies that govern their role and use. He offhandedly entertains their use, raising doubts whether he can be trusted with the nuclear codes. The danger exists that the Trump national security team headed by an inexperienced and hot-headed commander in chief will prove too inept to defuse a crisis, and that it will escalate to nuclear conflict with devastating consequences for the country, our allies and the world.
Given that unpredictability appears to be the crux of his national security game plan, predicting his behavior is perhaps a fool’s errand. But let’s consider the two most immediate and fraught crises that he will inherit—the U.S.-Russian stand-off and the imminent nuclear threat from North Korea.
There are grounds for some optimism that the former can be defused. In past, confrontations with the Soviets, such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, presidents sometimes rattled the nuclear saber but rejected using it. Trump has been much more open to the first use of nukes than any of his predecessors since Eisenhower. The better news is that he seems determined to improve relations with Russia. Many of the leading candidates for appointment to his national security team are ideologues who are very likely to advise against extending an olive branch to the Russian bear. They harbor deep-seated suspicions of Russia and will attempt to smother any pragmatic moves toward rapprochement. But if Trump’s pragmatism prevails without eroding NATO solidarity and weakening its security, then he might succeed not only in de-escalating the situation but also in paving the way for security cooperation on many fronts.
One intriguing possibility is that he would pursue détente with Russia through nuclear arms control. A breakthrough in the relationship might even yield a grand bargain that, say, reduces nuclear arms by one-third to 1,000 on each side, pledges both sides not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, stands down their nuclear missiles on hair-trigger launch readiness, establishes a joint center to process early warning data in order to prevent false alarms from inducing an inadvertent launch, reaffirms their obligations to existing treaties and scraps the missile defense systems in Europe that Russia so vehemently opposes.
Trump’s deal-making talent may prove wanting, however as congressional Republicans adamantly support missile defenses and comprehensive modernization of U.S. nuclear strike forces. Other factors could also thwart an overture to Russia, including intentional acts or accidents between rival fighter aircraft that result in loss of life, triggering further escalation of tensions that could ultimately spin out of control. A conventional conflict could ensue and precipitate a nuclear response, probably by Russia, which relies much more on nuclear weapons than does the United States, but who knows how an unpredictable commander in chief who consults mainly with himself might behave.
This raises the perennial question of Trump’s reaction to indications of a Russian nuclear missile attack received in the wee hours of the night in the midst of an escalating crisis. Would he have a steady hand, or lose his composure and convulse with a knee-jerk reaction?
Nobody knows the answer, but we do know two things. First, such a challenge plays to Trump’s cognitive and emotional weaknesses. An imminent threat to the White House from incoming nuclear warheads flying at four miles per second would surely cause intense emotion and unsettle the steadiest of leaders. With only three to seven minutes allowed to assess whether the indications are true or false and decide whether and how to retaliate, any leader could make a bad call. (This system clearly needs to be reformed to greatly increase warning and decision time.) But Trump’s erratic and volatile personality makes for low confidence in his ability to reach the right decision. Second, a mistake would be irrevocable. If the president gives the order, which takes seconds to convey to his military, missiles would fire from their underground silos within five minutes and from their submarine tubes within 15 minutes. The missiles cannot be recalled or destroyed in flight once they are launched. They would reach their targets on the other side of the planet in 15 to 30 minutes.
Perhaps the biggest unknown is how Trump will handle North Korea. He suggested that we outsource the problem of disarming this pariah state to China, which could bring it to heel under U.S. pressure. What else might he attempt to do to defang North Korea of its ability to lob nukes at its neighbors and the United States? Sanctions have proved toothless. High-tailing it out of the region would be counterproductive. He needs to do just the opposite of retreat, in fact, and reassure our Asian allies while engaging more deeply than ever with China and North Korea. If Trump can resist his instinct to bail and instead pursue an out-of-the box solution that allays the insecurity of the North Korean regime and China’s fear of a reunited Korean peninsula allied with the U.S.—then his penchant for defying long-held premises and shibboleths may be the ticket that’s needed to dismantle the Dear Leader’s arsenal.
But the trajectory of this crisis is ominous, and it could easily escalate to the brink of nuclear use. Again, this would test the mettle of any national security apparatus. Managing a complex crisis is hard enough for the most talented security officials, diplomats and military commanders. History shows that in the heat of crisis, the national security apparatus of the belligerent states often verge on collapse from situational confusion, miscalculation, breakdown of communications, fatigue, failure of imagination and lack of empathy. Exasperated leaders tend to get caught up in strong escalatory updrafts. In this case, escalation could all too easily culminate in the outbreak of military conflict and lead to nuclear war.
Nobody knows what could happen inside Trump’s head if Kim Jong Un begins deploying nuclear missiles into battle positions and prepares for all-out war while threatening to turn his enemies’ countries into radiating rubble. But here is a hypothetical scenario that at least plausibly aligns with the evident temperament and judgment of Donald Trump.
Imagine the following:
—Trump receives urgent intelligence of North Korea’s prepping for nuclear attack and calls an emergency session of his National Security Council in the Situation Room. All his key military commanders around the world are patched into the call. The secretary of state reports that his counterparts in Japan and South Korea are appealing urgently for action to protect their nations from the erratic, volatile, and maniacal commander of the North’s nuclear forces. The CIA reports that communications intercepts and space reconnaissance reveal the Dear Leader’s forces are at maximum readiness poised for immediate launch and that he has instructed his military to prepare for nuclear conflict. And then Dear Leader slings vitriol at Trump himself, and demands an immediate cessation of joint U.S.-South Korean-Japanese military exercises in the region or else suffer the consequences of thermonuclear strikes.
—An irked Trump decides to teach the Dear Leader a lesson and returns the insults and the ultimatum: Stand down your nuclear missiles within 24 hours or else they will be taken out. The secretary of state delivers the demarche. Trump orders his military commanders to prepare their forces for a quick surgical strike on the North’s nuclear bases. He is told that a strike with U.S. and allied precision-guided conventional weapons delivered by aircraft and cruise missile stands a 95 percent chance of wiping out the nuclear threat. Trump says he believes that winning requires the destruction of 100 percent, and orders the Strategic Command to prepare to use nuclear weapons in order to ensure that none of the North’s nuclear weapons would survive and that the Kim dynasty is finally ended.
—During the next 24 hours, senior officials and military commanders discuss and debate the pros and cons of attacking the North, let alone employing nuclear weapons, and speculate on the president’s true intentions. Is it all a bluff, or does he in fact intend to strike and bring down the regime along with its nuclear forces. Might he actually order the use of nuclear weapons?
—North Korea, as is its wont, will not stand down—indeed becomes only more belligerent and defiant. A consensus then jells among most U.S. officials that the North’s outrageous behavior and rhetoric are par for the course and that the hot air does not warrant a pre-emptive military strike by U.S. coalition forces, much less a nuclear strike. But the situation on the ground has dramatically changed since the North’s nuclear missile forces became capable of destroying the major cities of its enemies. And when the 24-hour deadline arrives, and the CIA reports that nothing has changed except that intercepts reveal peak readiness to fire the missiles, the denizens of the Situation Room have internalized the distinct possibility that the president will in fact order a nuclear strike. They have prepared for it, and thus tacitly accommodated the decision.
Again, nobody knows how Trump and his senior advisers would behave. It is quite possible that serious objections would be voiced, perhaps with great vehemence. Would Trump listen to them and revise his thinking? Perhaps not. He brags (vacuously) that he has a big brain and primarily consults with himself. Surrounded by many hard-liners, it is also possible that a kind of group-think prevails bearing great deference to the commander in chief’s decision, however convoluted and emotion-racked his thinking seems to be. His team has come to regard the nuclear option as legitimate and perhaps even necessary.
One thing is certain: Trump will have the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons whenever he chooses with a single phone call. This (oversimplified) scenario suggests that even if Trump, consulting nobody, lashes out because of pique over Kim’s disrespect, his advisers might well simply demur, but if they do object and refuse they have no recourse but to excuse themselves from the proceedings and take what comes. That’s because there simply are no checks and balances on his authority, which is derived from the Constitution. There is no congressional or Supreme Court veto. And there would be no veto by anyone in the president’s circle of advisers or the military.
Finally, there is the question of whether Trump would reverse decades of firm policy against nuclear proliferation and allow more countries into the nuclear club. Today, there are nine leaders with their fingers on the button. The four nuclear weapons countries in Asia are building up their arsenals and moving them toward hair-trigger status. India’s Nahrendra Modi has been equipped with a nuclear suitcase linked by dedicated communications channels to his nuclear forces in order to expedite his authorization for their use. The others are following in his footsteps. Meanwhile, some 50 nations around the world have nuclear programs intended for civilian purposes that could be switched to weapons purposes, and at least 10 of them have national security grounds to consider doing so, especially in light of doubts about the reliability of Trump’s commitment to their defense and his irresponsible promise to trash the Iran deal.
Trump’s seeming indifference to these trends is baffling and disconcerting. If they continue, nuclear proliferation will reach the point of no return and nuclear weapons will inevitably be used. Trump’s rhetoric only encourages the world to adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward nuclear acquisition and use.
So, yes, I am still scared. We can only hope that the new president learns quickly that nuclear weapons are not to be trifled with.
Bruce G. Blair is a nuclear security expert and a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton and the co-founder of Global Zero.