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April 29, 2021

King Convenes Top Experts on Nuclear Deterrence in Inaugural Hearing as Chair of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee

Senator explores declaratory policy, nuclear command and control, the threat of rogue actors, and warns of “mutually assured destruction” in potential large scale nuclear standoffs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – During the 117th Congress’s first open hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Subcommittee Chairman Angus King (I-Maine) convened top policy experts for an in-depth discussion on America’s preparedness and accountability of leadership for nuclear deterrence strategy. Chairman King underscored the importance of strengthening the chain of nuclear command and control so that the U.S. has the ability to respond to potentially catastrophic attacks in an effective manner, and questioned whether current policies in place are sufficient to prevent nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands – such as terrorists and other non-state actors.

Today’s hearing featured testimony from: Dr. Brad Roberts, Director Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Dr. Paul Bracken, Professor of Management and Professor of Political Science, Yale School of Management; USAF General Claude Kehler, Former Commander, United States Strategic Command; and Franklin Miller, Principal of the Scowcroft Group.

Senator King asked the witnesses for their thoughts on the U.S. chain of command – who declares the launch of nuclear weapons in the case of a disaster? In response, each witness provided thoughtful responses to Senator King’s question, with General Kehler stating that the most important factor in this scenario would be “clarity of command” – there must be clear leadership.

CHAIRMAN KING: “I guess the short way to [ask] this question is should one person in the United States have the sole authority to unleash what could be the end of civilization? Do we need to think about how our chain of command works? And I think General Kehler, you said its fine, we want to keep it the way it is, but I just want to pose that question. That’s a question that I get from my constituents is ‘you mean one person has this sole decision?’ …should we be thinking about, for example, the decision to launch should be the President, the Speaker of the House, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, two out of three? I understand time constraints and all those kind of things, but the alternative is one person with this enormous responsibility… General, do you have any thoughts on Nuclear command and control?”

GENERAL KEHLER: “Yes sir. First of all, I think there’s a couple of things that are really important when we’re talking about nuclear weapons, one is clarity of command. We’ve got to understand clearly who’s in charge. The United States has decided to put the authority in the hands of the nation’s senior-most elected-official. I think this absolutely has to be civilian control, no question in my mind, and it seems to me as though that’s the place where this belongs for clarity of command. Second, we have to be able to meet the time demands for a wide variety of scenarios. It isn’t just the time urgent, bolt out of the blue, which I agree is the least likely of the things that we would face, but it’s an entire range of things. So, I think there is two issues here for you to consider. One is the authority of the commander in chief – any commander-in-chief – to order the use of military force, in this case nuclear force. That question is a question between the legislative and executive branches…the second question though is about the decision process itself, and what are the safeguards in the decision process. So, can you have assurance that there are sufficient safeguards in there – there can’t be some mistake or accident or something from the sole authority or even some nefarious activity, all of which I think is extremely unlikely.”


Additionally, Senator King and Dr. Paul Bracken discussed the grave possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors and strategies the U.S. can take to prevent that scenario from ever happening.   

CHAIRMAN KING: “As I was sitting here, and I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before, but 55 years ago, right now, I was writing my senior thesis in college on nuclear deterrence, in the spring of 1966 – I’d give anything to be able to find that paper, [though] I’d probably be appalled if I read it. Let me begin with several questions…We’ve been talking about state actors, [but] technology is advancing apace. I don’t want to pose this as a likelier scenario, but it’s certainly possible – what happens when a non-state actor gets ahold of a nuclear weapon, who is a suicide bomber? What do they care? Deterrence, mutually assured destruction, has no relevance to them. How do we deal with that threat? Because I think that is a threat that we are going to face – either through technological development in some cell, wherever they are, or through purchasing from nuclear country that has less scruples about this than others. How do you apply the deterrence theory – or I guess, what is the theory to prevent a nuclear attack by a non-state actor?”

DR. PAUL BRACKEN: “I think there is a lot that actually can be done, but it isn’t in increasing deterrence of that, it’s increasing intelligence. This is a real issue with India-Pakistan, clearly it could be for other countries. I would also say it’s one of the huge differences in the current environment compared to the Cold War where it was the sort of threat you would see in James Bond movies, but that’s about all – today, it is a very real threat. Because of the security of existing nuclear weapons in Pakistan, India and perhaps other places. I think there should be, and there already is starting to be intelligence sharing, technology and such, with other countries who face this threat. And those in [the Defense Department] who are doing this, should be commended for taking the initiative there in my view.”

CHAIRMAN KING: “This is a place where we have something in common with our nuclear rivals?”

DR. BRACKEN: “Most of the major powers might not agree about a lot of things, but they do agree that they don’t want a nuclear war, number one. And they agree that they don’t want a terrorist attack on themselves or one of their allies, because it could drag them in.”

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator King is recognized as a thoughtful voice on national security and foreign policy issues in the Senate. In addition to his committee work, Senator King serves on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the Senate North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Observer Group, and is co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. He voted in favor of the Senate’s passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, which includes several funding and policy priorities advocated for by Senator King to support military facilities and communities in Maine and advance the national defense. The legislation – containing 25 bipartisan cybersecurity recommendations from the Cyberspace Solarium Commission – became law earlier this year after Senator King and the overwhelming majority of his colleagues voted to override President Trump’s veto.

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