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According to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution, the President of the United States is commander in chief of the United States Armed Forces.

Source: Wikipedia

How does launching a nuclear bomb work in the US? I would imagine that there is a human "next to" the bomb who has to do something to prevent hackers from taking control over it. But besides that, is there any oversight? Could the US president give the order to nuke Belgium and it would just be done (except for people denying the order)? Or is there a person / group of people who actually have the right to not follow this order / revoke this order?

Is there a set of rules which have to apply first so that the president would be allowed to give this order (e.g. the US has to be formally at war with the country which e.g. has to be done by Congress)?

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Every enlisted member of the military in the US takes an oath to obey the orders of the president of the united states. (Every officer has a slightly different oath that refers the constitution, rather than the POTUS)

The Uniform Code of Military Justice, however, is a bit more specific. Article 92 of the UCMJ states:

Any person subject to this chapter who (1) violates or fails to obey any lawful general order or regulation;...shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

Note the key word lawful. This has been interpreted to mean that any unlawful order does not necessarily need to be obeyed within the military.

In fact, obeying an unlawful order can be punishable.

So that leaves the question when is it lawful for the President to order a nuclear strike?

As I am not a scholar on this topic, I'll do my best here to understand what the president can and can not do.

For starters, the command to launch a nuclear weapon requires 2 people approving. One being the president, the second being the Secretary of Defense:

The United States has a two-man rule in place, and while only the president can order the release of nuclear weapons, the order must be confirmed by the Secretary of Defense

If the SoD disagrees with the president, the president has the right to relieve them of duty, and ask the person next in line to take the position and approve the command.

However, the VP among others have the right to enact Section 4 of the 25th Amendment and have the President declared disabled.

In addition to the above, there appears to be some other protocols in place that make it not as simple as just pushing a button. Alas, I can't find any conclusive sources for these (so other's, please refute or confirm these)

  • While it appears the 2-man rule is in place to actually launch the codes, the president must also notify many other parties in government that it is happening
  • The military may want to see signs of imminent threat before deciding the order is warranted and lawful
  • In addition to US law, there are also international treaties that may restrict how and when nuclear weapons can or can not be used.

To answer the question: No, it appears that the president cannot uni-laterally launch nuclear weapons.

  • But if the President and the SoD were both crazy enough to do it, we'd end up with Fallout being worshipped as a prophet in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. – PointlessSpike Feb 2 '16 at 8:46
  • @pointlessspike that woul be the biggest hurdle but see the bullet points. There still seems to be some failssafes of a sort – user1530 Feb 2 '16 at 14:59
  • AFAIK, only enlisted personnel take an explicit oath to obey orders. Officers instead swear that they will faithfully discharge the duties of the office they are about to enter. And I'm pretty sure the missile operators are officers. – cpast Feb 2 '16 at 15:03
  • @cpast but they all are under the UCMJ, which is where they key 'lawful' phrase is at. – user1530 Feb 2 '16 at 15:08
  • @blip Correct; I was commenting on your first paragraph. – cpast Feb 2 '16 at 15:35
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Wrong. The president can launch nuclear weapons in under 30 seconds without congressional approval as part of the rapid response mechanism which is the basis of the nuclear deterant programme. The president must seek congressional approval of any act of war after 60 days of initation. This doesn't really apply to nuclear attack or defence because of the limited time scale. The president must have complete legislative power to imitate decision and response.

  • The president cannot launch nuclear weapons. He can order the military to launch nuclear weapons. Obeying this order, especially from a cold start, would take much more than 30 seconds, and if anyone in chain of orders feels that he or she should refuse things would get messy. Even in the "best" case for a quick response, which would be NORAD calling the president (and not vice versa) because they see incoming missiles, it will take minutes to execute a well-rehearsed counterstrike. – o.m. Aug 18 '18 at 11:11

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