- National Command Authority
National Command Authority (NCA) is a term used by the Department of Defense of the United States of America to refer to the ultimate lawful source of military orders. The NCA comprises the President of the United States (as commander-in-chief) and the Secretary of Defense (as the deputy to the commander-in-chief) jointly, or their duly deputized successors, i.e. the Vice President and the Deputy Secretary of Defense.The NCA consists only of the President and the Secretary of Defense or their duly deputized alternates or successors. The chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense and through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Commanders of the Unified and Specified Commands. The channel of communication for execution of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) and other time-sensitive operations shall be from the NCA through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the executing commanders.—Section 3.1, Department of Defense Directive Number 5100.30 December 2, 1971
After the 1986 reorganization of the military undertaken by the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the Joint Chiefs of Staff does not have operational command of U.S. military forces. Responsibility for conducting military operations goes from the President to the Secretary of Defense directly to the commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands and thus bypasses the Joint Chiefs of Staff completely.
The use of the term dates from the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union both had nuclear missiles on constant alert, and a responsible official had to be available to authorize a retaliatory strike to an attack within minutes. Detailed Continuity of Operations Plans provided for monitoring the whereabouts of certain key government officials who would assume the National Command Authority if the President were killed in an enemy attack.
Only the President can direct the use of nuclear weapons, including the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). While the President does have unilateral authority as commander-in-chief to order that strategic nuclear weapons be used for any reason at any time, the actual procedures and technical systems in place for authorizing the execution of a launch order does require a secondary confirmation under a two-man rule, thus the system does in effect serve as a self-imposed restriction upon the President's powers and cannot simply be set aside by whim. The President can directly order the Secretary of Defense to confirm such an order and, if necessary, can fire him for refusal to do so. Secondly, the President can fire and replace until he gains that second. Thus, the two-man rule primarily serves to ensure that it is a genuine order. Once the NCA has authorized a launch order under the proper procedures, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will in turn direct a general officer on duty in the National Military Command Center (NMCC) at The Pentagon to execute the SIOP.
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