Just How Likely Is A Global Nuclear War? - Annie Jacobsen

Added: May 3, 2024

In this podcast episode, journalist and author Annie Jacobsen, delves into the complex world of nuclear warfare, shedding light on the current state of nuclear weapons, the mechanisms of the nuclear triad, the process of a nuclear launch, the role of missile silo operatives, the effectiveness of interceptor missiles, potential targets in a nuclear attack, the concept of nuclear winter, historical close calls, and the importance of communication in preventing nuclear conflict.

Key takeaways


There are approximately 12,500 nuclear weapons globally, with nine countries possessing these arms, highlighting the widespread potential for nuclear conflict.


The nuclear triad, consisting of land-based silos, submarine forces, and bomber forces, serves as a crucial deterrent, with submarines being the most stealthy and dangerous component due to their ability to carry up to 90 nuclear weapons each.


The process of a nuclear launch is initiated by satellite detection of ballistic missile launches, leading to a decision-making process by the president under the policy of 'launch on warning', emphasizing the rapid and high-stakes nature of nuclear response decisions.

The effectiveness of interceptor missiles is questioned, with a success rate of 40-55%, challenging the notion that they can be a reliable defense against incoming nuclear warheads.


The concept of nuclear winter, resulting from a nuclear war, could lead to the deaths of billions and catastrophic environmental consequences, underscoring the grave risks associated with nuclear conflict.

Global Nuclear Weapons Stockpile

According to Jacobsen, there are approximately 12,500 nuclear weapons in existence, with nine nuclear-armed nations possessing these weapons. The US, Russia, UK, France, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea, and Israel are among the countries with nuclear capabilities. North Korea's nuclear arsenal is estimated to be between 50 and 130 weapons, although the lack of transparency makes it difficult to ascertain the exact number.

The Nuclear Triad: A Crucial Deterrent

The concept of the nuclear triad, consisting of land-based silos, submarine forces, and bomber forces, is crucial in maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent. The US, for example, has 400 underground silos, 14 nuclear-armed submarines, and 66 bombers. Submarines are considered the most stealthy and dangerous component of the triad, as they can carry up to 90 nuclear weapons each. Bombers are the only part of the triad that can be recalled once launched.

The Nuclear Launch Process

In the event of a nuclear launch, the process begins with satellites detecting the launch of a ballistic missile in space. Data is then sent to three command centers in the US, including Cheyenne Mountain, the Pentagon, and Stratcom in Nebraska. Within minutes, the president is notified and must make a decision on how to respond. The policy of "launch on warning" dictates that the US must launch nuclear weapons in response to a rogue attack before the weapons hit the country.

The Role of Missile Silo Operatives

Jacobsen highlights the role of missile silo operatives, who are responsible for launching nuclear weapons. Each silo has two operatives with keys around their necks, and if one silo launches, all 400 will fire due to networking. The process is highly regimented, with alarms going off regularly, and the operatives have no knowledge of whether the launch is a false alarm or a real threat.

The Myth of Interceptor Missiles

The myth of interceptor missiles being able to intercept incoming nuclear warheads is dispelled by Jacobsen. The US has 44 interceptor missiles, with a success rate of 40-55%. The interceptors are kinetic and collide with the warhead in space, making it a challenging task. Jacobsen questions the practicality of having thousands of interceptors ready for launch, as they may not be an effective solution.

Potential Targets in a Nuclear Attack

In the event of a nuclear attack on the US, potential targets include the Pentagon, major cities, minor cities, airports, and industrial bases. The primary target would be the Pentagon, as it would decapitate leadership and disrupt the continuity of government. Jacobsen also highlights the fear of a "bolt out of the blue" attack on Washington DC, which would have catastrophic consequences.

The Catastrophic Consequences of Nuclear Winter

The concept of nuclear winter, which would occur after a nuclear war and result in the blocking of sunlight, plummeting temperatures, frozen bodies of water, and widespread agricultural failure, is discussed by Jacobsen. She emphasizes that even a few thousand nuclear weapons could lead to the deaths of billions of people and the onset of nuclear winter, underscoring the catastrophic consequences of such a scenario.

The dangers of human error

Jacobsen recounts a close call in 1979 when a mistaken report of a Russian missile launch almost led to a nuclear war. A training tape inserted into a system caused the false alarm, highlighting the potential dangers of human error and miscommunication in the realm of nuclear weapons.

North Korea's Reckless Nuclear Behavior

The discussion then shifts to the current nuclear landscape, with Jacobsen pointing out the reckless behavior of North Korea in conducting unannounced missile tests. She suggests that a rogue leader like the one in North Korea could potentially trigger a nuclear war due to their disregard for established protocols and norms in the nuclear arena.

The Power of Communication

Jacobsen reflects on the importance of communication and dialogue in preventing nuclear conflict, citing the example of the Reagan reversal, where Ronald Reagan's change of heart after watching a film about nuclear war led to a reduction in nuclear arsenals. She believes that open discussions and engagement with nuclear-armed adversaries can help mitigate the risks of nuclear war and promote peace.

Annie Jacobsen's Nuclear Insights

Annie Jacobsen's insights into nuclear warfare provide a sobering look at the realities of the nuclear landscape. From the sheer number of nuclear weapons in existence to the intricacies of the nuclear triad and the potential consequences of a nuclear war, Jacobsen's analysis underscores the urgent need for communication, dialogue, and diplomacy in preventing nuclear conflict.


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