Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Sidney Drell was director of SLAC.

With nuclear tensions rising around the world, particularly in Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, and nuclear-weapon states coming closer to direct military conflict, Congressman Ted Lieu, ’91, believes it’s time for America to reevaluate its nuclear launch approval process.

U.S. Congressman Ted Lieu delivering the 2022 Drell Lecture. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

“What happens if Vladimir Putin decides to use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine?” Lieu asked an audience Thursday, May 5, at the Bechtel Conference Center. “What constraints are there on the U.S. president if he decides to use a nuclear weapon in response? The short answer is, there are virtually no constraints.”

Lieu’s address was delivered for this year’s Drell Lecture, an annual event hosted by Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). The public lecture is named for the late Sidney Drell, CISAC co-founder and former deputy director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, who was also a leading adviser to the U.S. government on military technology and arms control, including the use of nuclear weapons. The lecture was followed by a Q&A session moderated by Scott Sagan, the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and senior fellow at CISAC.

Lieu represents California’s 33rd Congressional District and is currently serving his fourth term in Congress. He sits on the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees and is a former active-duty officer in the U.S. Air Force. He has established himself as a leader on the issues of cybersecurity and government ethics. He introduced legislation on four different occasions to prevent the president from launching a nuclear first strike without congressional approval.

Launching a nuclear missile

During his lecture, Lieu said that the United States should update its Cold War-era policy that gives the American president the sole authority to issue a nuclear strike. If such an order were issued today, he explained, it would go to the United States military, then down the chain of command, without interference from any other official, and within minutes, a missile would launch.

“That process is entirely unconstitutional,” he said.

Lieu explained that the Constitution’s framers were deeply concerned about the president’s powers, and established constraints through the legislative and judicial branches. They also gave the power to declare war – the greatest power known at the time – to Congress, not the president.

“There is no way the framers would have allowed one person to launch thousands of weapons that can kill hundreds of millions of people in less than half an hour and not have called that war,” Lieu said.

He explained that launching a nuclear weapon is not as simple as pushing a button and that the system is vulnerable to tampering and outside influence. He cited instances when government officials have inserted themselves into the process without the legal authority to do so. For example, prior to President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office in 1974, then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger mandated that presidential orders related to nuclear weapons be cleared through him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Lieu also cited reporting from the book Peril by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, which claims that after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. capitol, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley called a secret meeting and told military officials not to take orders from anyone unless he was directly involved.

“Is this how we want our nuclear launch approval process to be? For random executive branch officials to insert themselves without legal authority?” Lieu asked.

“There’s a better way to improve this system that could destroy the world.”

A safer system

Lieu offered three solutions that could make America’s nuclear launch approval process safer. The first is to simply require the executive branch to follow the constitution. Lieu and U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts have introduced a bill called the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act (HR669), which says that a first-use nuclear strike carried out by the U.S. constitutes a major act of war, and that a first-use strike conducted without a declaration of war by Congress would violate the constitution. If the bill were law, the president would need that congressional declaration before launching a nuclear weapon. Lieu noted that the legislation would not apply in cases of self-defense.

A second solution is for the United States to adopt a “no-first-use” policy, which would commit the U.S. to not using nuclear weapons unless first attacked by an enemy using them. Congressman Adam Smith, chairman of the House Arms Services Committee, has introduced a bill that, if passed into law, would establish such a policy. Lieu noted that some critics have argued that there may be scenarios in which America’s first use of nuclear weapons would be necessary, but he staunchly disagrees.

“They are wrong. There is no such scenario where that exists,” he said, adding that conventional weapons, such as B2 bombers, already have extraordinary capabilities.

Lastly, Lieu said that the nuclear launch approval process can be improved by simply reducing the number of nuclear weapons that can be launched. According to the Arms Control Association, Russia has more than 6,200 nuclear warheads and the United States has more than 5,500.

“The United States and Russia could destroy the world twice,” he said. “We simply don’t need these many nuclear weapons.”

Raising awareness

Lieu acknowledged that the prospect of these solutions being implemented soon is probably low, but said the issue is important enough to keep trying.

“Another reason Senator Markey and I keep reintroducing this bill is because we want military officers in this chain of command to think twice if such an order came down [and] to at least pause for a little bit and consider ‘Is this order constitutional? Is this order legal?’ 

Lieu also urged the public to get involved in this issue, as it affects the entire world. He noted that public sentiment can shift quickly, leading to actionable solutions.

“Simply raising this issue, I think, has its own benefits,” he said. “I also believe Abraham Lincoln had it right when he said ‘Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.’ ”

Lieu’s full lecture is available here.