The media, amid rising nuclear tensions with North Korea and concern over the potential for war, has captured some unfortunate discussion by the Strategic Command (STRATCOM) commander. He reportedly said that he would resist President Trump if he ordered an “illegal” launch of nuclear weapons. What an illegal launch of nuclear weapons is was never clarified.
STRATCOM is the command that controls the strategic weapons commands of primarily the Navy (submarines and carrier based aircraft) and the Air Force (bombers and silo based missiles). It is STRATCOM that would issue the orders to the selected commands to employ selected weapons system against selected targets. These targets and systems are each accounted for in the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP).
Air Force General John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), reportedly told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada that he had thought a lot about what to say if he received such an order.
“I think some people think we’re stupid,” Hyten reportedly said in response to a question about such a scenario. “We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?”
There are two issues about this story that are worrying:
- The media attempt to characterize the president as unstable and reckless has only the folk image that it is trying to create as a basis for such a portrayal. Such characterization when it involves nuclear weapons would be truly damning.
- Both the question and the answer do not do justice to the way that nuclear weapons would be employed.
As mentioned above, nuclear weapons are targeted based on the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). The SIOP is a master list of targets and these are allocated weapons and delivery systems for multiple different scenarios/contingencies/situations. A president cannot just tell the Secretary of Defense or a field commander to “nuc” a desired target. That is just not how the system works.
The SIOP has matured and changed since the beginning of the nuclear era in 1945. There are numerous personnel from each of the services involved in building and refining the SIOP on almost a continuous basis. Targets change, weapons system availability changes, and contingencies change making the process extremely dynamic and closely controlled and tightly held. When the president would order the execution of some part of the SIOP it would be based upon a situation and the best advice that he could get from both the intelligence and operational communities of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other agencies. It is not a unilateral decision done in the “dark’ as the question and answer would imply.
Unfortunately for the STRATCOM commander the details of the process of using nuclear weapons is highly classified and could not be part of his answer. If he was thinking he probably would have said something to the effect of implying reckless behavior on the part of the president is not something that it is useful to discuss. At this time if I was the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff I would have a “chat” with General Hyten.
It is deplorable that the effort to demean President Trump has reached this level of reporting—the creating of false implications and news.