Analysis / Reform, Strategy

Nuclear Command and Civilian Control: Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Nuclear Weapons

International Security at the Nuclear Nexus Series

Nuclear weapons sit at the pinnacle of military power and civilian control. The most devastating weapons in the U.S. military arsenal—designed to deter existential threats in the most extreme circumstances—can be ordered into use by one person only: the President of the United States. Some might say this constitutes maximum civilian control over maximum military lethality. Why then is command and control of nuclear weapons subject to so much controversy?  Why is there a growing sense of anxiety about the roles and authorities over nuclear weapons in the case where civilian control is most absolute? 

In the conventional realm, civil-military relations in the United States have been shaped by two interactive paradoxes: a paradox of vulnerability and a paradox of control. The former expresses the trade-offs between the country’s security from external and internal aggression. Simply put, larger, more capable militaries are better able to defend against external threats but pose greater risks to abuse of power. The latter refers to the two main theories of civilian control of the military, both of which erode civilian control in practice. These paradoxes compromise genuine civilian control of nuclear weapons, even as they give formal assurance of it. Thus, in the nuclear realm, the challenge of civilian control is solved with presidential authority. But concentrating launch power into just one pair of hands is not without its drawbacks. It means that the main source of that individual’s information and decision criteria wields enormous and irrevocable influence. Understanding and addressing the concessions that presidents might make to military expertise surfaces the precarious nature of civilian nuclear command and control.

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(Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Philip Bryant)