What are the steps for the U.S to launch a nuclear attack?

I am curious about what steps would have to be taken and who has the authority to launch a nuclear attack.

  1. Who has the authority to do so?

  2. Would this matter if it was preemptive or we were attacked first (with nuclear weapons)?

  3. What actual steps, to the best the U.S. government has made available, would have to be undertaken to launch one? About how long would it take from the time we were attacked until we could actually have one in flight at our target?

Thanks guys!

  1. Only the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces (the President), or his designated successor, has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons (although I’m a little hazy on whether there is any standing “delegated authority” to military commanders if the chain of command is disrupted).

  2. If it was preemptive, it would be preceded by a furious debate over whether nuclear weapons should be used. The president would more or less have to have the acquiescence of his staff and the top military brass to take such a step. If it’s in response to an attack, then once it’s been thoroughly confirmed that an attack is indeed underway, then there are longstanding procedures on how to retaliate that are implemented based on the situation.

  3. The President opens up the “football” of launch codes, contacts the major players (commander on duty of NORAD, etc), gives the codes and goes through a protocol to ensure yes, this is the president and yes, we really mean it. Once that’s done, the relevant orders and codes branch out to subcommands down to the silo/ sub/ bomber level. I believe the entire process is supposed to take no more than 15 or 20 minutes from the go ahead order.

Yes we do. I believe it is designated Plan R.

This was one of the questions done on the Straight Dope TV show. Host Mike Lucas was heard to say, “ush-pay, the utton-bay!”

Not to pick a nit, but I’m pretty sure the use of nuclear weapons is a two-man procedure of the National Command Authority - the President and the Secretary of Defense. I’m not sure of the terminology; I’d assume that you’re correct that only the President can “order” it, but both of them have to acknowledge it, I think.

Of course, in practice, the POTUS could just shitcan the SecDef and eventually find a yes man to confirm the order. (What’s that called again? Saturday evening massacre?)

The POTUS has first say.

The raw military command elements required are based on land - USN and USAF. The USAF handles the bombs and the land-based missiles, and the USN handles the SSBN-based missiles, and bombs also.

There is, or used to be, a special Boeing 747 airframe called an AABNCP: Advanced Airborne National Command Post, which serves as a survivable facility for the National Command Authority, the civilian leadership: POTUS, SECDEF, …

If we’re hit first, then parts of the NCA might be clobbered - that’s where the succession orders come into play.

Strategic Air Command maintained 24/7 command flights to ensure that enough general officers were survivable in case the ground-based facilities were hit.

I suspect that there are survivable airframes supporting both civil and military command staffs on an ongoing, or on-call basis. These airborne staffs would handle nuclear orders if need be.

The USN has ballistic missiles launchable from SSBN, and gravity bombs deployable by fixed wing aircraft. I imagine that there are strict protocols on deploying these things.

If the civilian National Command Authority was disabled, I suspect that the military commanders would be free to exercise their judgment.

From a standing start, with no prior elevation of alert status, it is unlikely that the President could “Just push the button” and launch nuclear weapons in any short term fashion. (Iraq war not withstanding, there are few targets for nukes that are still at +15 alert status.)

With prior elevation to say, Defcon 3 or so, the time is supposed to be fifteen minutes to launch for a significant fraction of our nuclear ready arsenal. I doubt the old +5 level of readiness is still really available, but I could be wrong.

The president has to give the order, it has to be concurred with by at least one level of command, although the President can dismiss and appoint until he finds one who will concur. Carter found out that “one hour alert” status in peacetime was pretty much a daydream, though. The world situation has deteriorated to the point where nukes were at +5 for days on end, in one case. (Cuban Missile Crisis) In that case, five minutes was a very reasonable estimate. The order could easily be given, verified, authenticated, and executed in five minutes.

Most of the time, though, two hours would be more than enough to initiate a nuke the crap out of some poor bastard mission. Ballistic missiles from forward launch platforms would be able to reach some targets within minutes of launch. So, an hour or so until doomsday is still pretty realistic.

Reliance on long distance stealth bombing would increase that to 48 hours, or so, but could be launched with a recall capability. I don’t think we have the loitering nuke force we once did, though. I suppose we must still have the capability to launch upon detection of a potential attack, but I have no current information on how much, and how long we currently keep on deck. Submarines are deadly enough to make being a day late an issue that only affects our morale, not the inevitability of the end of the world.


Good discussion so far. I would add only, it has long been rumored that in Nixon’s last days in the White House, when there were widespread concerns about the President’s mental health and borderline alcoholism, SecDef James Schlesinger quietly passed the word to the JCS and other top Pentagon brass that any presidential orders pertaining to nuclear weapons should be run by him before any action was taken.

Very interesting information. Thanks guys.

Is…but you’ll have trouble finding anyone in the government to confirm that. An E4-B aircraft (modified 747) was almost certainly seen over Washington in the midst of the 9/11 attacks, likely waiting to see if it was going to be needed to evacuate Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.

Recent CNN story
Tin foil hat-ish article

I’d never heard of this 9-11 mystery plane before. I agree that it certainly looks very much like the E4-B. I wonder, though, if it was scrambled and sent directly over Washington in order to ram any inbound hijacked jet before it could strike the Capitol or White House? It’s possible no other military jet was available on such short notice, or the Air Force or Secret Service were unsure if anything else would have sufficient mass. I don’t see, though, why it would be in restricted airpace, already airborne, to evacuate anyone. How would Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. get up to it?

Just a thought.

I’m running on memory here, but IIRC, the NAOC/Looking Glass/Kneecap plane doesn’t necessarily have to have the bigwigs on board. If I recall correctly, it’s there to serve as an important cog in the machine from order to button-push to launch. Could it serve as an airborne White House? Sure. But it could also be a pretty resistant (and/or redundant) way to make sure that the launch order got to our SSBNs or ICBMs.

Good speculation that the E4-B might have been up in the air to intercept an incoming airliner. I hadn’t thought of that. That might have been why John King in the CNN report reported that the Secret Service agents at the White House were taking such an interest in it.

The plane probably serves as a critical backup point for the command structure and disaster planning probably calls for the plane to scramble into the air in such cases. But the plane likely doesn’t need to be circling over downtown DC to be able to relay orders and signals from the White House complex or Pentagon.

It may have been put in the air as a precaution, so the command, control, and communications functions would be available in case the situation developed to even more serious levels (remember that initially there was really no idea what was actually happening), or even to get it out of possible harm’s way on the ground. It may have been relocating from somewhere else to be available in DC in case of need and unable to get landing clearance for a while due to the uncertain situation.

It’s VERY unlikely that intercepting an airborne attack was the purpose - there would have been lots of other aircraft available at Andrews AF Base which would have been better choices for that.

Um, you don’t happen to live in Washington DC, do you, “drgdfd”? On Pennsylvania Avenue by chance? Around the 1600 block? :smiley: :smiley:

Watch out, Teheran!

LMAO, you caught me. I am the Decider looking for a refresher course. I forgot my training. :smiley:

Looks like the Navy E-6B might have taken over the job of the 747.

I wonder, realisticly how long you could stay in the air. Food? I suspect they carry a few tons. Water? They should be able to get that out of the air.