A Nuclear Policy Tapestry: From a Code of Responsibility to Greater Stability

Location of Navy and Soviet ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis

By Rear Admiral John Gower

Concept #2: National Nuclear Decision Protocols: Building on the Code of Responsibility that I and CSR colleagues set forth in previous work, a clear next step would be for nuclear weapon-possessing states to declare their current decision protocols and institute nuclear decision protocols which emphasise and improve restraint. 

According to the declared policies of the nuclear-armed states that make these public, the decision to use nuclear weapons rests solely with the political head of the State (Presidents and Prime Ministers).  Each country has protocols in place to both verify the legitimacy of any order to launch nuclear weapons and to guard against any attempt to decapitate the decision capacity.  On the positive side, this concentration of the decision at the highest political level is a bulwark against militarization of the decision process in crisis.  All nuclear-armed states should work to cement this principle and remove any automatic delegations to Military Commands in a crisis.

This figurehead focus raises a concern, however, that the character or judgment of an individual might be the decisive factor in a decision to use a nuclear weapon, particularly in a nuclear-armed state where the political head has direct authority over the military or is part of the military.

While there will be complex layers of intelligence, briefing and planning below the nuclear command authority, the decision rests in a single person.  To show restraint and further reduce the chances of a crisis or conflict achieving a nuclear dimension, there would be significant merit in nuclear-armed states adding one or more layers of preparatory decision to their declared posture.

Taking the United Kingdom as an example: a public declaration that, while the ultimate decision rests with the Prime Minister, he or she would not consider that decision unless a triumvirate of (for example) the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and the Defence Secretary had agreed that the situation was one in which such a decision was necessary and would bolster restraint, by maintaining the positive and diminishing the negative of one-person political decision-making.   

While additional protocols would be needed to prevent a simpler “decapitation” pre-emption, this policy would add considerable extra restraint on the UK in a developing crisis and add reassurance to other states.  Such a model could be adopted and adjusted for the constitutional differences in each nuclear-armed state, either through a succession of unilateral announcements or by coordination between them.  For the U.S., the Lieu-Markey proposal in 2016 to make a U.S. first-use decision contingent upon Congressional approval is another example of such a unilateral measure of restraint.

There is one historical precedent for such a “broadening” of the plinth upon which nuclear decision making rests: the example of Soviet submarine B-59 in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The launch of their single nuclear-armed torpedo was contingent on the unanimous agreement of the Captain, the Zampolit (Political Officer) and the Executive Officer (who rather uniquely in this circumstance was also the Flotilla Commodore – thus he was at once subordinate to and superior to the Captain).  At the critical moment, under great stress and mock attack (which they considered real) the wisdom and restraint of Vasily Arkhipov tempered the inclination of both Captain and Zampolit and the weapon was not fired.  No circumstance of contemplation of nuclear weapon launch is alike, but this example demonstrates the likely restraining effect of empowered multiple decision-makers.

We could do worse than learn from this experience.


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