The Chaos of Nuclear Launch Decision-Making is Coming to Munich

Jessica Sleight, Program Director | January 30, 2020


Earlier this month, Global Zero Co-Founder Dr. Bruce G. Blair laid out, minute by minute, what happens when the nuclear decision-making process is triggered in the United States. Under launch-on-warning protocol, the president has minutes to decide how to respond to indications of an incoming nuclear attack. Vulnerable to a first strike, hundreds of nuclear weapons are kept on high alert, ready to launch within minutes of receiving the order. 

On paper, the process looks clean, routine. And while the timeline shows just how short the president has to decide on a response option – as little as 6 minutes – there is nothing to indicate how the process operates in the fog of conflict, and all the confusion and pressures that come with it. Blair, one of the foremost experts on U.S. and Russian nuclear launch procedures, notes in reality the process quickly descends into “discombobulating chaos.”  

In order to bring the chaos to life, 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 coordination with Global Zero and Princeton University, designed a virtual reality experience that puts participants in the seat of the president when a possible incoming nuclear strike is detected. The project immerses participants in a stressful scenario precipitated by current U.S. and Russian launch protocols. 

The project will be unveiled at the Munich Security Conference, the world’s foremost gathering of senior political leaders and defense officials to debate pressing challenges to international security. Well-versed in national security strategies, many of even the most senior government officials are unaware of the extent to which the effects of current nuclear launch strategies are dangerously absurd. From February 14-16, participants will take on the role of decision-maker, exposing them to the high risks of current accident-prone operations.

We are at a turning point. The risk of nuclear use is as high as it has ever been, yet the U.S. and Russia continue practices that unnecessarily increase nuclear risk and instability. The only way to eliminate the risk is to eliminate the weapons, a process that will take sustained effort from all nuclear weapons countries. In the meantime, there are immediate steps nuclear-armed countries can take to increase nuclear launch decision time and reduce the risk stemming from current nuclear launch protocols: End launch on warning, take nuclear weapons off high-alert, phase out intercontinental ballistic missiles, and commit to never using nuclear weapons first. 

Leaders descending on Munich for those few days in February have the ability to take up these measures. Our message to them is simple: The U.S. and Russia must take steps to reduce the inherent dangers of current nuclear launch strategies.