Annie Jacobsen: ‘What if We Had a Nuclear War?’

The Titan nuclear missile in the silo in Arizona, US
Michael Dunning/Getty Images

Annie Jacobsen in New Scientist: As an investigative journalist, I write about war, weapons, national security and government secrets. I’ve previously written six books about US military and intelligence programs – at the CIA, The Pentagon, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency– all designed to prevent, or deter, nuclear world war III. In the course of my work, countless people in the upper echelons of US government have told me, proudly, that they’ve dedicated their lives to making sure the US never has a nuclear war. But what if it did?

“Every capability in the [Department of Defense] is underpinned by the fact that strategic deterrence will hold,” US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which is responsible for nuclear deterrence, insists publicly. Until the autumn of 2022, this promise was pinned on STRATCOM’s public Twitter feed. But to a private audience at Sandia National Laboratories later that same year, STRATCOM’s Thomas Bussiere admitted the existential danger inherent to deterrence. “Everything unravels itself if those things are not true.”

If deterrence fails – what exactly would that unraveling look like? To write Nuclear War: A scenario, I put this question to scores of former nuclear command and control authorities. To the military and civilian experts who’ve built the weapon systems, been privy to the response plans and been responsible for advising the US president on nuclear counterstrike decisions should they have to be made. What I learned terrified me. Here are just a few of the shocking truths about nuclear war.

The US maintains a nuclear launch policy called Launch on Warning. This means that if a military satellite indicates the nation is under nuclear attack and a second early-warning radar confirms that information, the president launches nuclear missiles in response. Former secretary of defense William Perry told me: “Once we are warned of a nuclear attack, we prepare to launch. This is policy. We do not wait.”

More here by the author and Pulitzer prize finalist, who has written the latest pick for the New Scientist Book Club, Nuclear War: A scenario, on the “shocking truths” about a nuclear attack.