At Munich Security Conference, World Leaders Experience Nuclear Crisis in VR

Players Assume Role of President and Get First-Hand Look at Decision-Making Under U.S. Nuclear Warfighting Strategy

MUNICH This weekend, the international Global Zero movement debuted a cutting-edge virtual reality (VR) simulation of U.S. presidential decision-making in a nuclear weapons crisis for senior government officials, national security experts, and civil society leaders attending the Munich Security Conference. The VR simulation is the first of its kind and offers a revealing, credible, and first-hand experience in how a decision to launch nuclear weapons might unfold in a fast-paced crisis under current U.S. nuclear warfighting strategy and protocol. 

Throughout the Conference, participants donned the VR headset, assumed the role of President of the United States, and were thrust into a rapidly unfolding crisis involving nuclear weapons. Over the course of 15 minutes – the real-life decision-making window in such a scenario – participants had the opportunity to interact with advisors, ask questions, and determine a course of action. The immersive experience replicates the uncertainty and pressures of the proverbial “3:00AM phone call” and allows users to diagnose the current ability, or inability, of a president (or presidential candidate) to respond rationally to a nuclear crisis. 

The technology behind the VR program is unlike any other simulation or war game in existence, and provides a real-time, experiential (as opposed to abstract) assessment of current U.S. strategy and protocol, while addressing the shortfalls in meeting current nuclear threats. It was designed by Prof. Sharon K. Weiner (School of International Service, American University) and Dr. Moritz Kuett (Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg), in collaboration with Dr. Bruce G. Blair (Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, and Global Zero).

Preview images from inside the VR are available here:

What MSC participants are saying about the VR experience:

You walk into that simulation and come out a changed person,” said Amb. Richard Burt, former U.S. Chief START Negotiator.

“Global Zero’s VR experience provides policy makers and experts a powerful innovative tool for understanding the pressures and risks inherent in the impossibly short time leaders have for deciding whether to launch nuclear weapons in a crisis,” said Joan Rohlfing, President of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

“This simulation shows how truly terrifying it would be if a president had to decide on launching US nuclear weapons in the few minutes after receiving warnings of an incoming strike — and why we need to do everything we can to prevent such a situation from ever occurring,” said Amb. Ivo Daalder, former U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO.

With less than 15 minutes to make a decision, the VR experience required more of me in far less time than a traditional table-top exercise. It tested and challenged my ability to measure my actions against consequences in a way that scared me,” said Ottilia Maunganidze, Head of Special Projects at the Institute of International Studies.

“There are no good options with the current nuclear posture. All politicians should go through this sobering experiment,” said Dr. Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, President of Women in International Security. 

Statements from the team behind the project:

Current U.S. policy and posture create unacceptably and unnecessarily high risks of starting a nuclear war based on false alarm, incomplete information, or even misinformation. US land-based ICBMs create enormous pressure to launch nuclear missiles before they are destroyed in a perceived attack. These weapons are kept on hair-trigger alert and geared for rapid launch on warning. The plan to replace old ICBMs in vulnerable silos with new ICBMs in vulnerable silos will do nothing to relieve these ‘use or lose’ pressures. There needs to be a real debate about how the planned $2 trillion overhaul of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is going to lock in or exacerbate the worst aspects of nuclear decision-making,” said Dr. Bruce Blair, Co-Founder, Global Zero.

“No matter your view on nuclear weapons, we can all agree that 15 minutes is not enough time to make the single-most consequential decision a human being can make. As it stands, the nuclear decision-making process is a hot mess: it’s not going to be well-informed, deliberative, or even rational. The fates of hundreds of millions of people will be decided by one person under overwhelming pressure to react in a chaotic moment. Given the extraordinarily high stakes, we should pursue every reasonable option to expand decision-making time. Abandoning unsound nuclear warfighting strategies in favor of No First Use is a good place to start. We also need to operationalize that policy by ending launch-on-warning practices, taking all nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, and phasing out ICBMs and all first-strike weapons. All of this would put world leaders on more stable footing and strengthen global security,” said Derek Johnson, Executive Director of Global Zero.

“Our goal in creating this virtual reality experience is to force people to grapple with the consequences of current U.S. nuclear strategy. In a crisis, any president would have little time to make a decision of enormous consequence. VR allows people to experience this problem first hand. We hope to not only raise awareness about the dangers of current US nuclear policy but to use the experience to better understand how people are likely to behave in a nuclear crisis,” said Dr. Sharon Weiner, Associate Professor, American University.“Virtual reality is a powerful new technology that allows people to experience situations they could not in reality. The issue we address with our VR experience is not solely an American problem. Any wrong decision in a nuclear crisis situation is likely to have global consequences. Through our project, we hope to help inform world leaders, security strategists, researchers, and also the general public about this issue. In short: Virtual reality is cool. Nuclear war is not,” said Dr. Moritz Kuett, Senior Researcher, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.

Following its debut at the Munich Security Conference, Global Zero plans to take the VR crisis simulation on tour at conferences and international fora throughout the year. If you would like to speak with Global Zero leaders or the VR designers, or are interested in trying the VR experience at Princeton University, please contact Jordan Wilhelmi at [email protected] or +1 612.281.2310.

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The project was made possible with the generous support of Global Zero. Additional support was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, the School of International Service at American University, and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. The VR experience was programmed by Holosphere VR. The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance provided by Anthony Arnove, Alex Glaser, Robert Goldston, Holosphere VR, Robert Jensen, Matthew Hartwell, Geralyn McDermott, Zia Mian, Tamara Patton, and Pat Wall. For more information on the project, visit