Just a day after the U.S.’s top nuclear commander said he would resist President Trump’s order if he called for an “illegal” nuclear launch, a fiery debate emerged about the president’s authority to order the firing of a warhead.
Brian McKeon, a senior policy adviser in the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said a president’s first recourse would be to tell the defence secretary to order the reluctant commander to execute the launch order.
“And then, if the commander still resisted,” McKeon said as rubbed his chin, “you either get a new secretary of defence or get a new commander.” The implication is that one way or another, the commander in chief would not be thwarted.
Air Force General John Hyten, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), started the debate when he told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada that he had thought a lot about what to say if he received such an order.
“And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I‘m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.”
Hyten said running through scenarios of how to react in the event of an illegal order was standard practice, and added: “If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life.”