One might say that launching a nuclear weapon is not the same thing as declaring a war, and technically it's absolutely right. But any nation which is being attacked by a nuclear weapon would consider a nuclear attack as an act of war and thus would retaliate with full force (which can go wrong if the attacking force is also a nuclear power like China or India). So even though President has no power to declare a war (as only congress has that power), even then he has the power to actually start a real war with devastating consequences even without declaring a war.

So why does POTUS still have the power to launch a nuclear weapon ?

3 Answers 3


The most likely scenario for a US president to order a nuclear strike would be if an incoming strike of nuclear nature has been detected. That decision has to be made and implemented within about 15 to 20 minutes, the time it takes for ICBM's detected in flight to reach their targets. It can be less in the case of submarine launched missiles, if the submarine has been able to approach the US coast, shortening the flight time.

Getting congress to agree on that in 15 to 20 minutes simply isn't practical. This is known as Launch On Warning - multiple ICBM's have been detected approaching the US in a ballistic profile that matches what would be expected of an incoming warhead.

Because the US is prepared to launch a full counterattack on a moment's notice, destroying the country that initiated the event, the US has not had to take this option. Neither do Russia, China, India, France, or the UK... the other nuclear/ICBM armed powers, because they have similar systems in place to immediately respond to a detected nuclear strike.

This is MAD - mutually assured destruction. While the acronym describes the theory quite well, it has prevented a major nuclear exchange for over 60 years.

However, in the absence of Launch On Warning, the military will want to verify any nuclear strike order. The officers tasked with initiating the launch will be held accountable for verifying that the order is legal, especially as it is very unusual and the consequences extremely severe. High ranking US military officers are not robots, especially those tasked with maintaining the nuclear arsenal. They are aware of both the circumstances that might justify a non LOW nuclear strike, and the consequences of such a nuclear strike.

The key here is the presence of an imminent threat. The only imminent threat that is considered justification for an immediate nuclear strike is the detection of an incoming strike... launch on warning. In that case, the president hasn't started a war, whomever launched the missiles has started the war. The president is simply responding.

It is true that a president can order a military strike of non nuclear nature, provided congress is notified of the action within 48 hours, and has 90 days to get congressional approval of the action or the funding gets cut off.

But, there is no possible outcome from launching a nuclear weapon that does not end with a full war. It's a red line that no president since Harry Truman has crossed, so any such order would be subject to extreme scrutiny by multiple people tasked with carrying the order out, because it is so unusual and the implications are so severe. This judgment would fall to the secretary of defense, who was approved by congress.

The president can fire the secretary of defense and put someone else in their position, but that takes time. Meanwhile, the vice president and either the majority of the executive cabinet or the majority of congress can declare the president unfit for office and remove them.

So it's not like a president can just wake up tomorrow and order a nuclear strike. In reality, the president's authority to order a nuclear strike is limited to a retaliation against a verified nuclear strike coming at the US.

  • Well constitution doesn't binds president to launch a nuclear weapon only in the case of an incoming attack so it's just his choice to launch a nuclear weapon and more over Congress is not needed - A small team which let's say can include VP and other people cabinet members could decide what should be the necessary step.
    – user17709
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 15:11
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    The constitution isn't the only document governing the use of nuclear weapons. The US military has a series of rules that must also be followed in the absence of an imminent and verified threat... to prevent unauthorized use of those weapons. Those rules must also be followed by the president.
    – tj1000
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 15:23
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    As much as I remember POTUS is the commander in chief of all armed forces and is the only person on whose discretion nuclear weapons can be deployed.
    – user17709
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 15:38
  • There are no actual missile-launch buttons in the Oval Office. A President can give an order, but the people in the chain of command have to execute it - and AFAIK it takes several people to launch a missile. So if there are no incoming missiles, it's more than likely that the launch order would be regarded as a illegal order, and not followed: washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2017/11/20/…
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 18:45
  • @jamesqf: quite true. I spent some time in the AF, and can state that their officers take their jobs very seriously, and they are very aware of the great responsibility they have. In the absence of an imminent threat, such an order has to pass several levels of command, and every level will take great precautions to insure that it is a legal order. With nukes, you don't take any chances. The consequences of error are simply too terrible to consider.
    – tj1000
    Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 19:02

It is a simple division of authority. Congress has the power to start and end wars, and the president has the power to wage war. Thus, the president, as commander in chief, needs to have authority over all weapons.

A nuclear weapon is, in this regard, a weapon as any other weapon, even though the use of nuclear weapons would have strong implications.

As commander in chief, the president is (morally, legally?) bound to use appropriate measures in the conduct of military operation, and the use of nuclear weapons would in most cases just be wildly inappropriate.

Think of the US, instead of sending a raiding party to take Bin Laden, carpet bombing the whole city of Abbottabad. That would also be an insanely excessive use of force, as would be using nukes in most cases other than nuclear war.

  • The U.S. Senate has treaty power, but a war doesn't necessarily end by a treaty. Usually the President has to end the wars Congress starts, in practice. Also, what is a "raining party"?
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 2:46
  • Ah. That makes much more sense. I thought it might just have been military terminology that I wasn't familiar with.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 2:49

In the event of a sudden nuclear threat, there won't likely be enough time to obtain congressional approval. The ability for the President to authorize a nuclear strike ensures a rapid response to imminent danger.

Moreover, this ability to respond rapidly is a deterrent against other nuclear powers. So this authority for the President is necessary for U.S. security interests.

  • I don't see how this is relevant or adds information not present in other answers. Congress also does not have to approve use of large conventional bombs or napalm, etc also capable of leveling cities or fighter jets or missiles capable of interception. Thats because Congress is not in charge of military action at all; the president, who leads all of the armed forces of the US, is.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented May 8 at 18:34

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