Most countries that have access to nuclear weapons put the final decision to launch an attack in the hands of one individual
Donald Trump can currently order a nuclear missile launch without consulting Congress.
As the US president’s Twitter rants over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal escalated, senators debated this during a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
While some senators argued that the “military does not blindly follow orders,” including those of a military nature.
Another said: “No one human being should have the power to unilaterally unleash the most destructive forces ever devised by humankind.”
Who holds the power to launch nuclear attacks in other countries?
In Russia, Putin can decide to use the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Little information exists on specific details of the country’s nuclear weapons programme, but open sources say Putin carries a “Cheget” (nuclear briefcase) with him, weighing nearly 11 kg along with the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff.
In the event of a nuclear attack in the country, the three Cheget would alert their owners simultaneously.
They are connected to a communications system code-named “Kavkaz” which allows communication between senior government officials if they needed to make a decision whether to use nuclear weapons.
Russia also has a backup system in place called “Perimeter,” known in the US and Western Europe as the “Dead Hand”, which means a retaliatory strike with the full power of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces would be provided in the event that Chegetov carriers and command posts were disabled.
The United Kingdom
The UK’s nuclear deterrent is called “Trident” and dictates that the final decision on firing the missiles is the responsibility of the prime minister or of a nominated deputy while if they are out of the country.
When a new PM takes office they write four identical “letters of last resort,” that are then stored securely on board Vanguard submarines, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which make up part of the UK’s nuclear arsenal.
If the vessel loses contact with the UK and its commanding officer believes that the country has suffered an overwhelming attack, they must follow directions on the letter, which can include:
- Retaliate with nuclear weapons – Do not retaliate – Putting the submarine under the command of an ally
The letters’ contents are top secret and are destroyed, without being read, upon the election of a new prime minister.
The decision to launch a nuclear attack also rests solely in the hands of the French president.
They alone can decide to order a strike if “the independence of the nation, the integrity of its land are seriously and imminently threatened,” according to article 16 of the Constitution.
If the government feels that the president is “politically failing” it can ask the Constitutional Council to legally block the president, an action which automatically triggers a new presidential election.
Little is publicly known about China’s nuclear launch protocol.
However, a 2004 Chinese military text, translated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested that the Central Military Commission, or just its chair, holds the authority to command a launch.
The Commission’s 11 members are senior generals and senior party officials and its chair is China’s president. It’s also possible that recent reforms have changed this process.
Narendra Modi currently has the ability to ‘push the country’s nuclear button’.
As PM, he chairs the Nuclear Command Authority’s (NCA) “political council,” which is the sole body that can authorise a nuclear strike against an adversary in retaliation.
The final call rests with the prime minister.
Prime Minister of Pakistan Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is chairman of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) and therefore has the right to launch a nuclear attack.
The country operates a three-tier activation structure involving: the National Command Authority, the Strategic Plans Division Force (SPD) and the Services’ Strategic Forces Command (SSFC).
The NCA’s strategic operational policy guidelines dictate a decision to launch a nuclear strike would be made by consensus within the NCA, with the chairman casting the final vote.
The other organisations would communicate decisions and implement the command.
Information on Israel’s nuclear policies is scarce, but multiple experts have suggested that the country’s arsenal isn’t controlled by a single person, but “subject to a system of tight civilian control”.
Israel has never officially denied nor admitted having nuclear weapons.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, little is known about North Korea’s nuclear launch procedure, but it might be assumed that Kim Jong-un holds the power to press the big red button.