Over the past four years, many Americans have been surprised to learn that a U.S. president can order a nuclear strike at a moment’s notice without the approval of any other official. Though the president might be expected to consult with top military advisers, Congress or U.S. intelligence, there is no requirement that he or she do so. As long as the order can be certified as coming from the president, and as long as military officials involved in implementing the decision do not object to the order as violating the law of armed conflict, U.S. forces are expected to carry out the order.
Several members of Congress and experts have offered proposals to revise nuclear authorization procedures to require the approval of additional officials prior to the release of nuclear weapons. This would be an important step in improving the system, but it does not exhaust the changes needed to ensure the system serves U.S. interests. If and when the United States revises its policies on nuclear use authority, it should also address two other outstanding issues: ensuring that procedures are in place for the president to consult with the leaders of allied countries prior to ordering a nuclear operation that would affect them and reviewing the process by which the military would assess the legality of nuclear operations under the law of armed conflict.