The U.S. Capitol.

The U.S. Capitol. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — For the first time in more than 40 years, senators debated whether the president should possess the power to unilaterally launch a nuclear first strike.

Concerns have arisen amid tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program and the escalating war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday addressed the issue and whether Trump could put the U.S. “on the path to WWIII,” according to Sen. Bob Corker, R.-Tenn.

“A number of members on both sides of the aisle, on and off the committee, have raised questions about the executive’s authorities with respect to war-making, the use of nuclear weapons, and from a diplomatic perspective, entering into and terminating agreements with other countries,” committee chairman Corker said.

This follows questions at an earlier hearing on the possible use of nuclear weapons in a first strike. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were asked repeatedly during an Oct. 30 hearing about what safeguards and oversight existed to prevent a potentially unstable president from launching such a strike, triggering a nuclear conflict. Both declined to say whether the U.S. would refuse to launch a first strike if circumstances warranted it.

“Don’t tell the enemy in advance what you’re not going to do,” Mattis said.

The hearings marked the first time since 1976 that nuclear authorization and process has been looked at by Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Corker said Tuesday that the realities of nuclear weapons on high alert and the old Cold War between the U.S. and Russia made it is essential for the president to have sole authority over the use of nuclear weapons. A wave of incoming Soviet missiles could strike in minutes and there would be no time for debate.

“But this process means the president has the sole authority to give that order, whether we are responding to a nuclear attack or not,” Corker said at Tuesday’s hearing.

He denied that the inquiries were solely directed at Trump.

U.S. nuclear arsenal

The United States possesses about 4,000 nuclear weapons; 1,800 are deployed with 852 of those on alert status, meaning they are capable of being launched in 15 minutes or less upon receiving the order, according to the nuclear watchdog Federation of American Scientists.

The 852 alert warheads — spread between land-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and Ohio-class missile submarines, sailing almost undetectable on underwater patrols — give the president the ability to devastate a continent within 30 minutes.

North Korea is believed to possess over a dozen warheads and possibly thermonuclear models with a much higher yield than the small fission devices it has tested for years. It also has a large number of ballistic missiles and has said that it intends to mount nuclear weapons on them for possible strikes against U.S. territory.

The majority of U.S. weapons are aimed at their counterparts in Russia, but could be swiftly retargeted if necessary. The consequences of such a strike in terms of sheer destruction are a staple of post-apocalyptic fiction.

“Once that order is given and verified,” Corker said, “there is no way to revoke it.”

Reducing the risk

On Wednesday, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D.-Wash., introduced a bill that would bar the U.S. from being the first to use nuclear weapons. It says, simply: “It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

The policy “will increase strategic stability, particularly in a crisis, reducing the risk of miscalculation that could lead to an unintended all-out nuclear war,” Smith said in a statement.

“Paired with our reliable, survivable, assured nuclear deterrent, which is second to none, we retain nuclear forces that would inflict devastating retaliation against any nuclear attack against the United States or its allies,” he said.

Tim Collina of the arms control group Ploughshares Fund told Stars and Stripes that legislation restricting any first strike by the U.S. would enhance security, since it would reassure other nuclear armed countries that the U.S. would not unilaterally engage them.

“The current debate is about restricting the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons first, which is not dangerous — in fact it would make us safer. There is no time pressure for first use, so there is time to consult with Congress or others,” Collina said.

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