Friday, Dec 08, 2023

What Is US President's 'Nuke Button' And How Kamala Harris Once Became Its Sole Keeper For 85 Mins


What Is US President's 'Nuke Button' And How Kamala Harris Once Became Its Sole Keeper For 85 Mins

The United States has a so-called 'nuke button' that enables the President to launch ballistic and nuclear missiles worldwide. But for one brief moment in history, present US Vice President Kamala Harris became the first US woman to be in charge of it.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris turned 56 on Tuesday
US President Joe Biden with Vice President Kamala Harris Joe Biden/Twitter

US President Joe Biden recently sounded off the warning for an impending “Armageddon” in wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats of going nuclear against Ukraine following setbacks. Last week, Biden said that the world is at the highest risk of an “Armageddon”, or nuclear war, for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis. Biden said that there now existed "a direct threat of the use of the nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path they've been going".

So what would the US do, in case a nuclear war breaks out? As Polish President Andrzej Duda said last month, the US “has a nuclear button too”. 

"The U.S. also has buttons that launch nuclear missiles. The USA is a major nuclear power, the largest military power in the world. The fact that the USA takes this Russian threat seriously is also a threat to Russia," Duda had said on the sidelines of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September. 

The stament is not untrue. The United States has a “nuke button” that can launch ballistic and nuclear missiles worldwide and is controlled by the US President at all times. But for one brief moment in history, for 85 minutes, present US Vice President Kamala Harris became the first US woman to be in charge of the “nuke button”.

What is the nuke button? - A football and biscuit

First, let us clarify what a “nuke button” is. Unlike the images the words evoke, there is not one “button” or level that can be pushed or pulled to launch an attack. Instead, the US President has a “nuclear Football”, a black attache case that contains all the top secret and classified codes and plans that enable a president to authorize nuclear strikes. It also contains a so-called “menu” of targets across the world that the resident can pick from. 

The football, or Presidential Emergency Satchel, as its officially known, dates back to the Presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower but was first seen in public in its its current form of usage at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 when then President John F Kennedy’s entourage was seen carrying it behind him ub Massachusetts at his family home. Later, US President, Ronald Reagan was also seen with one in 1988 when he attended a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Football isn’t the only so-called “nuke button”. The President also has complete and omnipresent access to the “biscuit”, a keycard like object that contain “gold codes” using which a President can identify himself and order a strike. 

Both the football and biscuit together form important components of the “nuke button”. 

The Football and biscuit are only used when the President is transit. At any ordinary situation, The President can rely on his highly secure ‘Situation Room’ inside the White House where he can communicate or deliberate with military leaders and order war if needed.

Who has access to the football and biscuit?

Both football and biscuit are to be accompanied by the President of the United States at all times. However, back-up football and biscuit are always to accompany the Vice President as well. 

When Kamala Harris was the sole keeper of the Football

President Joe Biden underwent anaesthesia for a colonoscopy procedure on November 19, 2021. That’a when his Vice President Kamala Harris, became the first US woman to serve as commander in chief for 85 minutes. During that time, Biden had to temporarily transfer power to Vice President Kamala Harris because he was sedated for a routine colonoscopy at Walter Reed Medical Center, essentially making her the President for a very short time. 

How does US President launch a nuclear attack?

The US government follows a two-man rule in place at nuclear launch facilities. As per the rules, only the president can order the release of nuclear weapons. However,  the order must be verified by the secretary of defense to be an authentic order given by the president, in keeping with the hierarchy of succession in case of an unforesenn event like the sudden death of a serving President. 

This, however, does not mean that the Secretary has a veto power over the President. The two-step verification process is to ensure that the the order is actually coming from the President. 

Upon verification, the President "may direct the use of nuclear weapons through an execute order via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the combatant commanders, and, ultimately, to the forces in the field exercising direct control of the weapons as per a 2020 US Air Force Doctrine Publication on ‘Nuclear Operations’. These orders are given and then re-verified for authenticity.

However, this does not mean that the President has the sole authority to decide on a strike. First, the President has to identify himself and it is customary for him to “seek council”, as per a report in NDTV. Furthermore, the decision to launch a strike can be vetoed by US military personnel who are bound to disobey order that’s are “illegal”. In such case, the personnel is supposed to discuss and provide the best and “legal” course of action with the President. 

In certain situations, the In a more extreme situation, the cabinet may also theoretically intervene by invoking 25th Amendment with a view to strip the president of his powers.