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In what situation can the U.S. military use nukes without the consent of the President, if any situation like this exists?

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Generally, the decision is reserved for the President as Commander in Chief. All other conditions are to assure secure communications and the rule of succession.

  • The Vice President can only decide if the President is (temporarily or permanently) unable to decide. The 25th Amendment and the Presidential Succession Act define the order of succession.
  • There might be a breakdown of communications which leaves the US military unable to contact the President or his or her lawful successor. In the past, the US president pre-delegated launch authority to the military if certain conditions were fulfilled.
  • There is the custom of having a designated survivor away from mass gatherings of the President and most other successors. If something were to happen that kills or incapacitates the President, but leaves a person higher up than the designated survivor alive, then that person higher up is in charge. The designated survivor is just someone in the line of succession who has been briefed and put in touch with strategic communications.
  • Today a confirmation of a launch order by a second individual is required. As I understand it, this does not in any way limit the authority of the Commander in Chief, it is merely a procedure to authenticate the integrity of the launch orders.
  • There are media reports that during the last days of the Nixon presidency, cabinet officials conspired to take the solitary launch ability away from the President. That was arguably treason criminal, but push never came to shove.
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  • 2
    What if a US nuclear submarine cannot reach anyone in the command structure? For example, UK submarines have written orders from the PM which are to be opened in case they can't reach anyone in the UK. Does the US not have such orders? – JJJ Jun 17 at 3:37
  • @JJJ, that would be another case for my second bullet point. But the US considered their communications more survivable than the British ones -- London was much closer to the Soviet Union. – o.m. Jun 17 at 3:58
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    @JJJ: US SSBN warheads have Permissive Action Links and will not detonate without authorisation codes that aren't on board the submarine. So the US relies on its communications, and spends a lot of money on them. The UK can't afford such a communication system, so they don't use PALs and the subs could launch independently. They're just trusted not to do so. – John Dallman Jun 17 at 9:38
  • @JohnDallman, as I understand it a PAL primarily makes sure that a missile warhead will only explode after a missile launch and missile flight (and not in the tube or in the back of a van). For subs, the communication system makes sure that the crew can know if they should turn the key or not. – o.m. Jun 17 at 10:13
  • @o.m.: That's safety fusing, not the PAL. See the link. – John Dallman Jun 17 at 14:12

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