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How the United States would launch a nuclear strike

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How the United States would launch a nuclear strike

WATCH | The process for launching a nuke.

In the last presidential debate, nuclear weapons were brought up by both candidates, but Hillary Clinton highlighted just how much responsibility the president has when it comes to using our most fearsome weapons.

“The bottom line on nuclear weapons is that when the president gives the order, it must be followed," Clinton said. "There’s about four minutes between the order being given and the people responsible for launching nuclear weapons to do so.”

Clinton got us thinking, what happens in those four minutes?  Is it like a scene out of "Dr. Strangelove," or something a little more strategic?

To better understand the process, let's walk through how we launch nukes. 

First, it is important to understand that generally speaking, we won’t launch one unless we are attacked first-- but that’s not law. So the president could launch an attack at his or her whimsy.

So once the military determines we’re under nuclear attack, officials then brief the president on the impending attack. This briefing is fast. If we are under attack, it should take less than a minute, because if it goes longer, we could be hit before we have a chance to respond.


Once briefed, the president then goes to his or her football. It's a briefcase that contains information on what his options are in terms of attacks, and the authentication codes, so the people responsible for the launch know it's him or her. 


With all the options in front of him or her, the president then tells the Pentagon war room about which attack he wants to launch. 

The Pentagon then puts the orders into codes that they send to the troops around the country (and world) who are in charge of our nuclear arsenal. The codes contain information on where to target the missiles, as well as information on how to unlock the trigger.

At this point, the military launches the strike,  just minutes after the order was given.

From the moment the president learns we are under attack to the instant the military launches the nuclear weapons, there is no input from the courts or Congress. And with tensions rising abroad, it's not surprising to see our nuclear program become an election conversation as it's one of the few areas that the president has sole authority.

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