Annie Jacobsen’s account of what nuclear war could look like based on facts sourced from exclusive interviews with presidential advisers


Important Takeaways:

  • Nuclear war so devastating survivors will envy the dead: As newly declassified documents reveal what Armageddon would look like – how a lightning attack from North Korea would leave a US President six minutes to decide the fate of the world
  • Ballistic missile launches are not uncommon. As a general rule, nuclear-armed nations inform one another of ballistic missile tests, usually via diplomatic back channels, because no one wants to start a nuclear war by accident.
  • Even Russia continues to notify the U.S. of its test launches. The exception is North Korea. None of the more than 100 missiles it has test-launched since January 2022 — including nuclear-capable weapons — was announced beforehand.
    • 1-5 seconds after launch
      • Measurements reveal the missile is not heading into space, as it would be for a satellite launch, or towards the Sea of Japan, as is commonplace in a test. Is this a provocative test or a nuclear attack?
      • A vast, world-wide network of U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets begins churning out information.
      • In Colorado, combat pilots run towards fighter jets waiting on the Tarmac, ready to take to the air.
    • 15 seconds after launch
      • The ICBM has travelled far enough for satellite sensors to determine its trajectory more precisely. The outlook is catastrophic: the Monster is travelling towards the continental U.S.
    • Two minutes after launch
      • Beneath the Pentagon, inside the nuclear command bunker, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff take charge.
      • Once ground radars provide secondary confirmation that an attacking missile is on its way to the East Coast, a perilous nuclear warfighting strategy comes to the fore: Launch on Warning.
      • This means that once its early-warning systems have warned of an impending attack, the U.S. will not wait to physically absorb a nuclear blow before launching its counterattack.
    • Three minutes after launch
      • The president now faces an inexorably small decision-making window of time. What must happen next has been rehearsed by everyone in attendance on satellite comms, except, most likely, the president himself. Like almost all U.S. Presidents since John F. Kennedy, he is entirely underinformed about how to wage nuclear war when it happens.
      • As Ronald Reagan lamented in his memoirs: ‘Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason to a time like that?’
      • ‘Into the emergency bunker now,’ the special agent in charge shouts at the president. Two members of the Counter Assault Team (CAT) grab him by his armpits. He does not yet fully comprehend all that is going on, or how fast a counterattack must unfold.
    • Nine minutes after launch
      • At Clear Space Force Station in Alaska, the Long Range Discrimination Radar gets its first sight of the attacking missile as it comes over the horizon. A member of the Air Force picks up the red phone in front of her. ‘This is Clear,’ she reports. ‘Site report is valid. Number of objects is one.’
      • Now begins the attempt at interception, a feat ‘akin to shooting a bullet with a bullet’. But nine out of 20 hit-to-kill interceptor tests have failed. This means there is only a 55 per cent chance that the Monster will be shot down before it reaches its target.
      • Sure enough, the interception fails. So do three more consecutive attempts. The die is cast.
    • 16 minutes after launch
      • Satellite sensors have detected the exhaust on a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) which has breached the surface of the Pacific Ocean, 350 miles off the coast of California.
      • The dreaded SLBM can strike and hit a target inside the U.S. even faster than an ICBM.
    • 21 minutes after launch
      • The incoming submarine-launched missile races towards Diablo Canyon Power Plant, a 750-acre facility 85 ft above the Pacific. Diablo is the only nuclear power plant in California that remains active. When a nuclear weapon explodes in the air, the radiation released into the atmosphere will dissipate over time.
      • Attacking a nuclear reactor with a nuclear-armed missile is entirely different. It all but guarantees a core reactor meltdown, resulting in a nuclear catastrophe that will last for thousands of years.
      • The missile launched from the submarine explodes in Diablo Canyon. The nuclear power plant is consumed in a flash of nuclear light. There is a massive fireball. A facility-destroying blast. A nuclear mushroom cloud and a nuclear core meltdown.
      • Known to insiders as The Devil’s Scenario, the worst of the worst-case scenarios has come to pass.
    • 23 minutes after launch
      • As Marine One takes off, the president is told that a nuclear bomb has hit California. He removes the code card from his wallet and prepares to authorize a counterstrike against North Korea — one involving 82 nuclear warheads. This retaliatory strike will all but guarantee the deaths of millions of people — maybe even tens of millions of people — on the Korean peninsula alone.
    • 32 minutes after launch
      • The secretary of defense remains focused on getting the Russian President on the line. American ICBMs, launched from a missile field in Wyoming, must travel directly over Russia in order to reach North Korea.
      • A motherload of American ICBMs travelling through Russian airspace will almost certainly be interpreted as an incoming attack. Russia needs to be warned.
    • 33 minutes after launch
      • Hurtling towards the Pentagon, the North Korean ICBM enters Terminal Phase — its last 100 seconds before it detonates.
      • In the first fraction of a millisecond after detonation, a flash of light superheats the air to 180 million degrees Fahrenheit, creating a massive fireball that incinerates everything nearby in a holocaust of fire and death.
      • Ten seconds pass. The fireball rises three miles up into the air. Those who have survived the initial blast several miles from ground zero get trapped on melting roads and burn alive.
    • 42 minutes after launch
      • No one has heard from the U.S. president because when the nuclear bomb hit the Pentagon, Marine One experienced a system failure from the electromagnetic pulse and began to crash. The CAT operator tandem-jumped the president out of the open door of the aircraft in an attempt to save his life.
    • 43 minutes after launch
      • The Russian president is furious. The U.S. president has not reached out to him yet.
      • Faced with what he believes are hundreds of nuclear warheads bearing down on Russian soil — launched by the opportunistic Americans in a pre-emptive sneak attack — the Russian president chooses to launch a nuclear counterattack at the United States. One thousand ICBMs are now headed for America.
    • 72 minutes after launch
      • Across the U.S., Europe, and the Korean peninsula, hundreds of millions of people are dead and dying, while hundreds of military aircraft fly aimlessly in the air until they run out of fuel. The last of the nuclear-armed submarines move stealthily out at sea, patrolling in circles until the crews run out of food.
      • In the event of a nuclear war, he said: ‘The survivors will envy the dead.’

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Monster swallows monster: Fossil reveals doubly fatal Triassic encounter

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a warm shallow sea about 240 million years ago in what is now southwestern China, a large dolphin-like marine reptile attacked and swallowed an almost equally big lizard-like marine reptile in a savage encounter that left both beasts dead.

Scientists on Thursday described a fossil unearthed in China’s Guizhou Province that reveals this Triassic Period drama in exceptional detail and changes the understanding of “megapredation” in prehistoric seas.

While it long has been presumed that large apex predators preyed upon other big animals – megapredation is defined as feeding on prey of human size or larger – the Chinese fossil represents the first direct evidence of it, as demonstrated by a prehistoric animal’s stomach contents.

The fossil shows the skeleton of a 15-foot-long (5 meters) Guizhouichthyosaurus, a type of marine reptile called an ichthyosaur. Its body design married elements of a dolphin and a tiger shark though it lacked a dorsal fin, also boasting four strong flippers and a mouth full of powerful but blunt teeth.

Inside its stomach was the torso of a 12-foot-long (4 meters) Xinpusaurus, a type of marine reptile called an a thalattosaur. Its body design resembled a komodo dragon with four paddling limbs and teeth equipped for crushing shells. The Xinpusaurus was beheaded in the melee and its tail severed.

“Nobody was there to film it,” but it is possible to interpret what may have occurred between the two animals, said paleobiologist and study co-author Ryosuke Motani of the University of California, Davis.

The Guizhouichthyosaurus literally may have bitten off more than it could chew.

“The prey is lighter than the predator but its resistance must have been fierce,” Motani said. “The predator probably damaged its neck to some extent while subduing the prey. Then it took the head and tail of the prey off through jerking and twisting, and swallowed the trunk using inertia and gravity.”

Motani added, “These activities may have expanded the damage of the neck to the point it was fatal. The neck vertebral columns of these ichthyosaurs are quite narrow and once they could not hold the skull in place anymore, the predator could not breathe. Soon, it died not far from the site of the predation, where the detached tail of the prey lay.”

The fossil bore evidence of this broken neck. The prey in the stomach showed little signs of digestion, indicating the ichthyosaur died soon after swallowing it.

It is among the more dramatic fossils on record, joining others such as one showing the Cretaceous Period dinosaurs Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in combat and another of the large Cretaceous fish Xiphactinus that had swallowed whole another sizeable fish.

Guizhouichthyosaurus was the largest-known marine predator of its time, about 10 million years before dinosaurs appeared. Its teeth, however, were not the type thought to be needed for megapredation: blunt rather than having cutting edges for slicing flesh.

“Its teeth look like they are good for grasping squids. So, it was a surprise to find such large prey,” said Peking University paleontologist Da-Yong Jiang, lead author of the research published in the journal iScience.

Motani noted that crocodilians also have blunt teeth and attack large prey.

“Megapredation,” Motani said, “was probably more common than we used to think.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler)