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My understanding of the United States' first, second, and strategic nuclear strike capacity is that any nuclear strike must be directly approved by the President, and follow a very specific chain of command down to the servicemen who carry out the order.

What laws are on the books (or are they secret?) which govern the ability of the President to initiate such a strike? Does the USA have to be in an active war (war declared by Congress)? Does a specific threshold have to be crossed? Would it be possible for a legal challenge to be filed preventing a nuclear strike order before it is carried out? Or does the President have absolute discretion to initiate a nuclear attack?

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    The nuclear arsenal would be part of the military, subject to military rules and procedures, not civilian law. I believe the President needs to get the agreement of the Secretary of Defense, which would be the only applicable civilian policy that applies; other than that, it's chain-of-command. – Ted Wrigley Sep 4 '20 at 5:40
  • @Ted Wrigley is there a specific act that delegates the nuclear power to the military or does it follow under other acts delegating use of general military force? Also what happens if the Sec.Def is deceased/compromised? Is there a general succession plan or a specific one for this scenario? – ThomasThomas Sep 4 '20 at 7:14
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    The President is allocated authority over national defense in the Constitution. The National Security Act of 1947 sets sets up the National Command Authority, which brings the Secretary of Defense into the loop. The SoD has a deputy who takes over if the SoD is incapacitated. But this isn't really my area of expertise, so I don't know all of the details. – Ted Wrigley Sep 4 '20 at 13:50
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    @TedWrigley The Secretary of Defense himself has stated he'd have no legal authority, it's all on the President: twitter.com/SecDef19/status/1037708761203392513 Should a President in a drunken rage order the nuclear obliteration of Trinidad and Tobago, one would hope someone with some moral authority would prevent such an order from being carried out (don't laugh - I've seen claims that the worst of Joe Stalin would happen when he'd be mad about something and start drinking - leaders with nuclear arsenals are still human...) – Just Me Sep 4 '20 at 20:47
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According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Command_Authority ,

Only the president can direct the use of nuclear weapons by U.S. armed forces, through plans like OPLAN 8010-12. The president has unilateral authority as commander-in-chief to order that nuclear weapons be used for any reason at any time.

While there does seem to be some disagreement, most experts claims' are similar to nuclear specialist Franklin Miller:

There’s no veto once the president has ordered a strike ... The president and only the president has the authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/science/donald-trump-nuclear-codes.html

As @TedWrigley points out in the comments, there is always the possibility that someone along the chain of command refuses, but the system is specifically designed to avoid this, particularly once it gets beyond the high levels of command. There is the famous case of Harold Hering, who -- as @MartinSchröder points out -- was discharged for asking inconvenient questions[1]. After that incident, the military reduced the ability for such people to unilaterally cancel a verified order. Also, even though the Secretary of Defense has to verify the order, they do not have legal veto power. They only exist to verify that the president did indeed order the attack.

Finally, it should be noted that a counterpoint to the general consensus is that military personal are required to disobey unlawful orders. However, by design, the system works extremely quickly. It is designed to go from presidential order to launch within minutes. The whole point of the president having such unilateral power is that if an attack by an enemy (read: soviets) occurs, you have about 2-5 minutes before the missiles hit. Additionally, keep in mind that the orders can be given to people like sub commanders that will have little ability to actually determine if the attack is 'lawful' or not. Again, the system is designed so that verified orders are carried out, not second guessed by low level military personal.

In summary:

Or does the President have absolute discretion to initiate a nuclear attack?

Yes, the President has the sole authority to issue an attack, which would then be verified by the Sec Defense. If that person refused (or another high level official, such as the leaders in strategic command), it would be pure speculation as to what would happen.

Additional Sources of Interest:

[1] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/nukes

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/11/14/jim-mattis-rex-tillerson-cabinet-stop-trump-nuclear-weapon-war-215824

https://apnews.com/4b04d15c1cf345d89de50dd39e98d5f2

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