A few short months after Admiral Scott Swift, Commander of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, said he would obey a hypothetical order to launch a nuclear strike against China if the president chose to give it, Air Force Gen. John Hyten – America's top nuclear commander – said Saturday he would push back against President Trump if the president ordered a nuclear launch the general believed to be "illegal."
When an audience member asked Hyten, who was speaking at a national security conference in Halifax Canada, about the hypothetical scenario, he responded by assuring his interlocutor that military commanders “aren’t stupid.”
Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Saturday that he has given a lot of thought to what he would say if Mr. Trump ordered a strike he considered unlawful.
"I think some people think we're stupid," Hyten said in response to a question about such a scenario. "We're not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?"
Hyten explained the process that would follow such a command. As head of STRATCOM, Hyten is responsible for overseeing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
"I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do," Hyten added. "And if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen? I'm going to say, 'Mr. President, that's illegal.' And guess what he's going to do? He's going to say, 'What would be legal?' And we'll come up with options, with a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that's the way it works. It's not that complicated."
Hyten said he has been trained every year for decades in the law of armed conflict, which takes into account specific factors to determine legality – necessity, distinction, proportionality, unnecessary suffering and more. Running through scenarios of how to react in the event of an illegal order is standard practice, he said.
And Hyten is not the only one who’s been thinking about how they might react to a hypothetical order to launch a nuclear strike. A few months ago, Vanity Fair reported that Defense Secretary Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had discussed the issue, though it’s unclear, exactly, how they would respond.
Hyten apparently believes that an order from the president could be illegal, under certain unspecified circumstances. And if you execute an illegal order, he said, you could be prosecuted.
"If you execute an unlawful order, you will go to jail. You could go to jail for the rest of your life," Hyten said.
As CBS pointed out, Hyten’s comments come at a time when Congress is reexamining the authorization of the use of military force and power to launch a nuclear strike.
In a hearing earlier this week, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, said Mr. Trump "can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account."
Hyten said the military is always ready to respond to the threat of North Korea, even at that very moment. Trump has been embroiled in a war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un since shortly after taking office, and has repeatedly threatened to respond with overwhelming force if he the North continues to threaten the US.
"And we are ready every minute of every day to respond to any event that comes out of North Korea. That's the element of deterrence that has to be clear, and it is clear," Hyten said.
But Hyten also said handling North Korea and its unpredictable leader Kim Jong Un has to be an international effort. Mr. Trump has continued to put pressure on China to help manage its tempestuous neighbor.
"President Trump by himself can't change the behavior of Kim Jong Un," Hyten said. "But President Trump can create the conditions that the international community can reach out in different ways where we can work with the Republic of Korea, where we can work with our neighbors in the region."
However, Admiral Swift, who has led the Pacific Fleet since 2015, has a very different view of the obligations that come with being a military commander in charge of the US’s nuclear arsenal.
“Every member of the US military has sworn an oath to defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as commander and chief appointed over us.”
When it comes to nuclear war, North Korea, for many, is the first adversary that comes to mind. But in the long run, China, which is reportedly developing hypersonic fighter jets that would be able to reach the Continental US within 14 minutes and has been slowly expanding its military footprint in the Pacific, may pose the bigger threat.