The Second Nuclear Age

Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics

Paul Bracken

Times Books

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GAME CHANGER

War games have been used for a long time to discover and test strategies. The U.S. Navy gamed out the war against Japan for twenty years before Pearl Harbor. Reflecting on this afterward, Chester W. Nimitz, the commander of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific, said that little surprised him during the war because he had seen it played out so many times before at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Only the kamikaze attacks came as a surprise—they hadn’t been imagined in the Newport war games.

During the cold war, analysts at the Rand Corporation used games to explore the strange new world of nuclear strategy. What contributed to deterrence? How might a nuclear war start? What, exactly, did it mean to “win” a nuclear war? This last question led them to drop the term war from their work. New terms were used to capture a shift in strategic emphasis: crisis games, politico-military exercises, escalation games—the idea was that nuclear wars were not something the United States might win or lose like World War II. The focus shifted to managing them, not winning them, so that they didn’t go all the way to nuclear annihilation.

Games use another tool, the scenario. Scenarios set the stage for a game’s interactions. Scenarios—the term and the idea were borrowed from Hollywood by Rand analysts in the 1950s—are hypothetical plot outlines of plausible future developments. They are not forecasts or predictions like “China will fire missiles at the United States on March 12, 2015.” Rather, they describe the context and the dynamics as seen by the different actors, along with the interactions that may lead to conflict.

As nuclear weapons have spread in recent years, basic questions needed to be asked about the difference a nuclear context makes. To discover these questions as they apply to the Middle East, games have been played in the United States and Israel. I have been involved in some of these exercises and find them insightful—and troubling. The questions they raise are not unlike those asked at the start of the first nuclear age, updated to today’s environment. Would a nuclear Iran just sit on its bomb or would Iran use the bomb in some way? How might a nuclear war start, and how might it end, in the Middle East?

In free-form games, teams are set up for the principal actors—the United States, Israel, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The members of each team are told to role-play what they believe their countries or groups would do. The participants are diplomats, retired officials, and military officers. Academics are often included for good measure and to wander around the teams and pick up insights on what is taking place.

Games can be controversial even before they start. The U.S. government’s official policy is nuclear nonproliferation. The United States, working with the international community, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the UN, is determined to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. With official Washington declaring that Iran won’t get the bomb, a game presupposing that it will suggests that the current policy will fail. Some officials fight the scenario for this reason. What, they ask, is the point of wasting time over something that isn’t going to happen? Better, they argue, to focus on stopping Iran from getting the bomb than gaming out what happens if it does.

Something else is going on here beyond a narrow objection to not sticking to official U.S. policy. It’s one of the features of games that make them so thought-provoking. Some people in Washington and Tel Aviv smell a rat when they see a game featuring a nuclear Iran. They know that government departments rarely oppose official policy out in the open. They fight it behind the scenes, saying that they are only preparing for contingencies that might develop. This is the way policy often changes, not from some meeting of big shots at the White House. Smaller changes set the stage for a policy shift. It might be the subject of a game or words used in a staff paper. These small changes give early warning of what’s really coming. Many experienced old hands know this, and they don’t like gaming a nuclear Iran one bit because they foresee a policy change ahead. They even have a name for it: “soft acceptance” of a nuclear Iran.

Most people, though, accept their game roles. Games bring different agencies together in a protected and confidential setting. Often these agencies have never talked to one another before, except through official bureaucratic channels.

The team interactions make games an example of organizational learning, not just individual learning. In an MBA program they call it “experiential learning.” It contrasts with individual learning, where you sit passively at a desk and listen to a talking head flip through his or her PowerPoint slides, usually with no interaction, or at least no dynamic interaction. By the time the audience reaches the end of a PowerPoint briefing, most people want to flee the room, not to prolong the agony of listening to scripted questions and answers.

Games force senior officials to pay attention to problems that many of them would rather not think about. No one can guarantee that a game won’t veer into areas of sensitivity that go well beyond official policy. Hiding behind official policy is much safer. A leader won’t get into trouble with a good official story, as long as it isn’t challenged. This is much easier to ensure in a one-way briefing, speaker to audience, than it is in a free-form game. That’s why some senior officials steer clear of games.

Games have the opposite characteristics of an official study. It is harder to rig them with predetermined conclusions. People get emotionally involved in games. There are unanticipated moves. Mistakes are made. Some think that’s bad, that it’s a departure from objective rationality. But I think it is the advantage of games because it’s more realistic.

Some of the most interesting insights about the cold war came from crisis games played by the Rand Corporation, the Hudson Institute, and other think tanks. Games were employed to discover dynamics that no one had ever thought about before. The course of play wasn’t tightly scripted the way a study often was. Games do something no other methodology I know does: show you things you hadn’t thought about before. Each team can pretty much do what it thinks the real-world players would do. There’s an umpire who rules out impossible actions. No one is allowed to have perfect intelligence on the enemy. Nor are “laser zappers” permitted, weapons that immediately kill all the bad guys with the push of a button.

Let’s consider a game of a nuclear Middle East to see some of the things that come up and make nuclear weapons a game changer for the region. This generic synthesis of several games shows that a country doesn’t have to detonate a nuclear weapon to use it. It’s a lesson from the first nuclear age as well, but it seems to have been forgotten in the discourse about a nuclearized Middle East.

The game starts with an incident: Hezbollah kidnaps Israeli soldiers, or there is a big terrorist strike inside Israel. Israel hits back with air strikes on villages believed to be Hezbollah ammunition dumps. Next, the West Bank and Gaza flare up.

After the Israeli air strikes on Lebanon, Hezbollah fires Scuds with cluster bomb warheads into Haifa and Tel Aviv. These weapons came from Iran. There even are Iranian “advisers” with them. Hezbollah also has Mach 2 anti-ship cruise missiles. They had a slow cruise missile in the real war in Lebanon in 2006, but it exploded prematurely when it struck an Israeli combat ship. Had it gone off as intended it would have exploded inside the Israeli ship, probably causing a catastrophic kill. But that was an ancient, slow-flying missile. Everyone wondered what it would mean if Iran gave modern, faster missiles to Hezbollah. No Israeli ship could defend against them; it would know it had been hit only from the light flash of the explosion.

The weapons Hezbollah used in the game were deadlier, and they killed a lot more people. But that wasn’t their main effect. They slowed down the game’s rhythm. The expectation of most players was that the deadlier conventional weapons would accelerate Israeli attacks. But they did the opposite. Israel slowed the tempo.

This wasn’t the pattern of pre-nuclear war games in the Middle East. Israel immediately went on the offensive after an Arab provocation. In the Gaza war of 2009 and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel quickly upped the ante. The other side might get in the first punch, but Israel was going to immediately answer with quite a wallop.

But not here. I noticed that players, on whatever team, were perking up, curious about how Israel was going to handle this. The side conversations, what I have dubbed “the shadow game” in some academic writings, are where participants talk informally, out of their roles, over coffee and lunch. It’s the water-cooler conversation where people give their candid views of what they see. Side conversations are often where the most interesting insights are found. The official game is written up for lessons learned. But often the most penetrating insights are watered down as participants default back to their bureaucratic rather than game roles.

There was a lot more Israeli caution here. Hesitation even. And everyone saw it. No air strikes on Syria. The Israeli navy backed off from the Lebanon-Syria coast for fear of losing a ship. If a ship was lost, Israel would have to escalate. And that was the heart of the matter, something I don’t think anyone really appreciated beforehand. Escalation in a nuclear context wasn’t like escalation in earlier conflicts without the bomb.

The bomb was a game changer. Israel knew how to escalate in a conventional war or against an intifada or an insurgency. These were bread-and-butter problems for the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad. But a nuclear context was different. Conflict was no longer about how much pain to inflict before the other side gave up. Now the game was about risk. It was like suddenly switching tables in a casino from a roulette wheel with betting limits to one without any limits. Even in the roulette game with limits there was chance for a run of bad luck. But in the limits game it couldn’t get that bad for Israel. The United States would come in after a decent interval and make up the loss anyway.

The nuclear roulette wheel had no limits, and this changed not only the big decisions but also the small ones, like pulling back warships from the Lebanon coast. An unwanted escalation spiral might drive the game in a very bad direction.

Israel wasn’t at all confident in this game. What would Iran do? That’s what the Israel team needed to know. The Mossad couldn’t say. They debated but couldn’t agree on what the red lines were. Maybe Israel’s red lines were different from Iran’s. That could spell national disaster. Maybe at the higher levels of escalation there weren’t any recognized limits. Or maybe escalation would throw the game into the hands of dame fortune. A glitch—a mistaken warning blip on Iran’s radar, a garbled message to its rocket forces, a “mad major” in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—might tilt the game to catastrophe.

Israel liked the old game much better. But this didn’t matter, because now the tempo increased. Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah pressed harder. Israeli civilian casualties climbed from the cluster-loaded Scuds. The Israel team debated a big escalation to shock Iran. It was tricky, though, because there were several factors that had to be considered. There was also Egypt to think about. A big attack on anyone might tip Egypt to actively fight Israel. This could mean a two-front war, as in 1973.

But the biggest unknown was the results of escalation itself. If escalation led to more escalation, Israel could be worse off. Some on the Israeli team argued that perhaps they should de-escalate. Put out peace feelers, work the back channels, and ask the United States to demand an immediate cease-fire. Do something to slow down the tempo of the war. That’s what drove their decision to hold the Israeli navy and other forces back.

But how to de-escalate when Iran was emboldened? The conventional rockets kept coming in from southern Lebanon. So the Israel team began to think the unthinkable. They considered firing a demonstration nuclear shot, a missile warhead that would explode 100,000 feet over Tehran. This was an option in top-secret war plans devised years earlier. It was designed to suddenly nuclearize a crisis. Israeli plans since the 1970s had called for doing this as a last-ditch alternative to firing all-out atomic attacks.

A high-altitude nuclear detonation would shatter windows in downtown Tehran, but it wouldn’t kill anyone, or hardly anyone. Surely it would shock Iran into a cease-fire. Iran would pressure Hezbollah to stand down and fold its cards. That was the hope of the Israel team anyway.

But what about the United States? Should Israel just do it, or discuss it with Washington first? This was debated, but the Israel team couldn’t agree one way or the other.

Events overtook debate, as they so often do. Iran upped the ante by declaring a full nuclear alert. This was done “to defend against nuclear Israel.” Atomic rockets on truck launchers were flushed from their peacetime storage bases, along with hundreds of conventionally armed rockets and shorter-range missiles that could hit U.S. bases throughout the Middle East.

Iran’s tactics were fascinating. Tehran barely had a nuclear force. But a great deal of thought had been devoted to it. When a country has only a few weapons it is acutely aware of how easy it might be for the enemy to knock them out. Iran also understood the psychology of the West. Iran’s enemies didn’t want to kill millions of innocent people, so the Iranian government placed some mobile missiles in city parks in Tehran, Esfahan, and Mashhad. Camouflage nets were placed over many parts of these cities to conceal the missiles and to mislead American satellites. But in some city parks Iran’s missiles were deployed right in the open for every U.S. and Israeli satellite to see. Iran wanted its enemies to see these urban missiles.

Other nuclear rockets were mixed in with hundreds of conventionally armed missiles. Effectively, the conventional missiles served as decoys because U.S. and Israeli intelligence couldn’t tell a conventional missile from a nuclear one. Iran even had dummy missiles. They looked real enough, at first. Given time, CIA experts might be able to distinguish them from subtle differences. But the mobile missiles—nuclear, conventional, and the dummies—kept scrambling about to new locations. This process was faster than the intelligence cycle times needed to make accurate estimates.

Putting missiles in cities meant that tens of thousands of innocent people would be killed if Israel or the United States attacked them with conventional arms. Iran then might hit back at Israel with atomic weapons. As for an Israeli nuclear attack, that would drive casualties into the millions because it meant firing bombs directly into Iran’s cities. No one thought Iran would hold back after that.

Iran also kept a few nuclear missiles in hardened, underground silos. It looked as if these were for quick-reaction firing, ready to launch on short notice. Mobile missiles could take hours to move and set up. Someone in Iran had thought through the various possible scenarios to understand that Iran needed a prompt firing deterrent, just in case Israel or the United States got any ideas about preemption. These silo-housed missiles could fire as soon as an enemy attack was picked up on radar. They could be set to what is called “launch on warning”—a classic cold war tactic.

No one was quite sure exactly how hard the silos were. Some participants argued that they could be taken out with conventional precision weapons, such as cruise missiles. Then, someone asked about Iran’s launching on warning. Could a local Revolutionary Guard commander order them to fire? Maybe he had standing orders to launch if a blip showed up on a radar screen.

Iran’s nuclear alert did something else. It stretched Israel’s relations with the United States to the breaking point. The U.S. team wanted to act as if nuclear war was completely unthinkable. They didn’t want to go there, even hypothetically, not in any way, shape, or form. It was amazing to watch this dynamic play out. Several participants on the U.S. team had been schooled in nuclear nonproliferation through graduate programs and government service. Their careers had been built around stopping the spread of the bomb, and they brought this view into the game. Nuclear war was something you had to prevent, that was the goal.

But the Iran team didn’t see things this way. Not at all. Someone had thought through the missile dispersal scheme, putting some of them in cities. There was genuine forethought in having mobile missiles and missiles in silos, too. The combined deterrent effect of both deployments made it very hard to preempt Iran. Iran had a small, crude nuclear force, true, but its political strategy for using that force was complex—shrewd, even. This came as a surprise to the United States team. They had come into the game convinced that Iran would never be crazy enough to fire at Israel. The two nuclear deterrents, of Israel and Iran, would produce a mutual standoff. But this wasn’t happening. The dynamics were taking an ominous new turn, and it didn’t look good.

Another surprise to the United States and Israel teams arose from the communications they had with each other. Two allies in lockstep, of course, at least that was the official line. But certain delicate matters that should have been discussed in peacetime were ignored because it would have meant actually discussing how nuclear weapons might be used. Nobody on the U.S. team wanted to touch this one. But now the topic couldn’t be avoided. How far would the United States really go to support Israel? Would America authorize strikes on Iran? Should Washington demand a no-first-use pledge from Israel? How could Israel be restrained? In the time-compressed, stressed fever of a crisis it was impossible to analyze all of these questions adequately.

So the two teams spoke past each other. It was like watching parallel play among young children. Israel wanted to know concretely what the United States would do to stop Iran. The United States had said that Iran wouldn’t be allowed to go nuclear. Now Tehran had done so. Moreover, Iran was threatening Israel with nuclear weapons. The U.S. team responded to the Israeli question with a message that Washington “would take all measures necessary.” But the Israel team wanted to know exactly what that meant. Would the United States join in a preemptive strike on Iran?

The U.S. team was worried that the crisis would accelerate the bomb’s spread. There were secret Saudi Arabian and Egyptian nuclear programs. Japan, Brazil, and Algeria were also possible candidates for going nuclear.

But the Israelis weren’t in any mood to receive a U.S. lecture on the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Their survival was at stake. So they ordered two Jericho missiles alerted under a special plan certain to be photographed by American satellites. They were timed to move to their launch positions just as the U.S. satellites were passing overhead. It was a plan that had been worked out years ago to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The intent of this esoteric communication from Tel Aviv to Washington, obviously, was to shock the White House. “We hope it leaks to the media, too; maybe we should make sure it does,” one Israel team member said.

Israel’s move forced a U.S. decision. Washington wanted to restrain Israel, defend Israel, and scare the living daylights out of Iran. So the United States publicly gave Israel a nuclear guarantee. Making it public was an escalation, because it put the American reputation on the line. If one atomic missile hit Israel, the United States solemnly announced, well, that would be it for Iran. The guarantee was cleverly worded. Maybe too cleverly. It didn’t specify which weapons America would use. The term nuclear made reference only to Iran’s attack on Israel.

There was more going on than in the game play itself. At the sidebar coffee breaks, in the shadow game, several U.S. team participants expressed genuine frustration with the designers for putting them in this terrible position. There was also anger at the Israel team and, actually, with Israel. “Why the hell didn’t the United States force Israel to sign the NPT long ago, to give up the nukes? Then we wouldn’t be in this crazy situation,” one of them said.

The U.S. team wanted to end the crisis and avoid nuclear war. But here they were getting pulled more deeply into it. What if payment on the U.S. guarantee was demanded? This wasn’t some college seminar, after all, where the different sides of a problem were debated, the bell rang, and students went out to play Frisbee.

So many issues hadn’t been thought through. The Joint Chiefs were screaming for guidance. What if the United States actually had to launch against Iran? What, exactly, would they fire at? And with what—conventional or nuclear weapons? The chiefs needed to know in order to make plans and get airplanes and ships in position. The United States hadn’t fired an atomic bomb in anger since 1945. It hadn’t conducted a realistic nuclear exercise since the end of the cold war. That was a long time ago. You can’t just pick up the phone and order someone to do something that hasn’t been considered for decades.

The chiefs pointed out some unsettling facts. Iran’s atomic missiles, presumably the legitimate targets, couldn’t be located. Perhaps Iran’s cities should be hit? Would the United States use nuclear or conventional weapons? One argument was that only a nuclear attack would teach Iran (and others) the appropriate lesson. But what exactly was that lesson? The individual playing the president said that he didn’t want to go down in history as the first leader to kill five million people in an afternoon.

Some on the U.S. team argued that it was immoral to use nuclear weapons against civilians. They called instead for a massive conventional strike, one that would destroy Iran’s military power for decades. They added that if Iran’s leaders ordered nuclear retaliation in response to a conventional strike they would be put on trial for war crimes in the Hague, and hanged. That sounded great, but the president asked if Iran would simply kick back and watch an attack unwind over ten weeks’ time, withholding an atomic strike on Israel (and others) as it rolled in. The president was very angry. He asked why better options and intelligence hadn’t been developed over the years as the world watched Iran go nuclear. Iran’s bomb program wasn’t exactly a surprise, after all. It was the most closely watched of any in history. While every damn centrifuge had been counted, no one was looking at what the whole thing meant for the United States. Everybody talked about deterrence. But now Iran had an offensive deterrent. Why hadn’t anybody seen this coming? Why hadn’t anyone thought about this before?

Attention shifted back to Israel. The Israelis didn’t like the U.S. nuclear guarantee one bit. It gave Iran and Hezbollah a green light to throw more conventional missiles at Israel. Tension, fear, and stress increased. This wasn’t faked, at least in my view. It spilled over to the lunch and coffee breaks. People were getting angry outside of the game. But at whom? That, they weren’t sure about.

Distrust infected the Israel team. Maybe it was paranoia. They smelled betrayal, that the United States was going to hide behind its global nonproliferation responsibilities to ignore that this was a life-or-death crisis for the Jewish state. Was America selling Israel out with cheap talk about stopping the spread of the bomb, while Israel went down the drain? Maybe it was like 1975, they said, when the United States watched South Vietnam go down while debating lofty issues of presidential power and purpose. Given Jewish history, who could blame them for thinking like this?

The crisis was spinning out of control.

Iran’s next move jacked the tensions to a fever pitch. It was an inspired move, actually. Without saying anything, Iran evacuated its big cities. The population packed into buses, cars, and trucks and rode out of Tehran, Mashhad, Esfahan, out to the distant suburbs and beyond. In a day, Iran’s cities were at 25 percent of their normal population. The United States watched this fantastic exodus over satellites. Soon, CNN put videos taken on the ground on the Web.

Iran was now poised for nuclear attack. On the brink. The missiles were ready to fire, on a hair trigger, and most of Iran’s population would survive an Israeli counterstrike.

Israel, by contrast, was in chaos. There was nowhere for the Israelis to go. Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv was closed by the rockets bombing it. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were mobbing the coastal marinas, desperately trying to escape to Cyprus in small boats. TV showed the panic. Deterrence, and the myth of Israeli invincibility, the bedrock of Israeli security, were disappearing.

But suddenly Iran declared that in the interest of world peace it would step back from the brink, having exposed the true nature of “the Zionist nuclear entity.” This came as a welcome relief, especially to the U.S. team. They wanted out.

So the game ended. I believe this abrupt termination was artificial, but it was no accident. I’ve played in games that just got too intense. The design team had to break it off to prevent the animosity from getting out of hand.

Lessons were drawn, as they always are after a game. The United States needed better intelligence. Cruise missiles are a problem. The list went on with the usual items.

But there was an overarching lesson. Iran had thrown Israel into pandemonium without firing a shot. The population was terrified. The economy was in ruins. Israel’s reputation as the Prussia of the Middle East was smashed. Yes, nuclear war had been avoided. Deterrence worked. But who in Israel, the United States, or, for that matter, Iran would claim this was the real lesson? Iran had used a small nuclear force to overturn Israeli deterrence and rupture the Middle East order. That is what people took away.

Next time the revolver might be fired with a nuclear bullet in the chamber. And there was little doubt that there would be a next time. This was the Middle East after all. Tehran was now empowered with a tremendous psychological victory. Iran had stood up to the Israelis and the Americans and had gotten away with it. The sidebar conversations dealt with this impact. Who was going to invest in Israel when their plants might be blown up? Many participants thought that Israelis would see the writing on the wall and that many would get a second passport to get out, just in case.

What fascinated me almost as much as the lessons of the game was the mood. Games have moods, just as dramas do, which after all is what these exercises really are. Fear is the overriding mood I’ve seen in nuclear crisis games. I’ve seen it in games I was involved in during the cold war. I’d run crisis games for the Pentagon and others, and there was high drama in them. I’ve also seen this kind of fear in the faces of leaders who had lived through the Cuban missile crisis and other near misses, people such as Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Ted Sorensen, and Andrew Goodpaster. In each instance, whether in Pentagon simulations or in actual crises, it’s this fear more than anything else that stands out. It’s a very different type of fear than the fear of being in combat, like in the film Saving Private Ryan, hitting Omaha Beach, or among people I’ve known who fought at Hue or in Fallujah. Because in the nuclear games the participants aren’t getting shot at. It’s not their lives that are at risk, at least not directly. It’s that they have to make transcendent, life-or-death decisions for millions of people. It’s a very different kind of fear. The stress is over making a wrong choice—and losing cities.

The players in this game were too young to have known this type of fear. They had never experienced the cold war, the duck-and-cover civil defense drills and air-raid sirens. The horrific potential of the cold war for them was portrayed as a sick, comic insanity, as portrayed in Dr. Strangelove. You laugh at it. You see how foolish it was.

Or you treat it like an academic debate. I don’t think any of the game participants believed such monumental life-and-death choices could actually exist. Yet they surely did exist for leaders in the first nuclear age. Now, as we enter the second nuclear age, they are back. This is another lesson, one I’ve learned in other games in recent years. It doesn’t have to be the Middle East. It could be South Asia or East Asia. Long-suppressed nightmares are returning. In different form, yes, but still the ultimate horror of the vast destruction inherent in these weapons is there. It’s only been offstage.

These choices are no longer academic debates. People have been taught all kinds of things. An older generation wants to make the nuclear nightmare go away by inoculating the young with protective ideas. Nuclear weapons are useless and we should get rid of them. Strengthen the NPT. Get rid of ballistic missiles. Deterrence will work. This game was a rebuttal to these parlor fantasies.
Copyright © 2012 by Paul Bracken