Abstract: In the movie WarGames, a 1980s teenager hacks into a U.S. nuclear control program, almost starting a nuclear war. This movie has become a common illustration for the dangers of increasingly digitized nuclear arsenals and reflects what many scholars and practitioners see as the most perilous implication of the rise of cyberattacks--instability to states' nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3). Research conducted during the Cold War suggested that even the threat of serious vulnerabilities to states' NC3 could incentivize preemptive launches of nuclear weapons. Despite this widespread concern about the destabilizing effects of NC3 vulnerabilities, there is almost no empirical research to support these conclusions. In order to test these theories, this paper uses an experimentally-designed war game to explore the role that vulnerabilities and exploits within a hypothetical NC3 architecture play in decisions to use nuclear weapons. The game, which uses 4-6 players to simulate a national security cabinet, includes three treatment scenarios and one control scenario with no vulnerabilities or exploits. Players are randomized into the scenario groups and games are played over the course of a year in seven different locations with a sample of elite players from the U.S. and other nations. Together, a longitudinal analysis of these games examines the role that culture, cognitive biases, and expertise play in the likelihood of thermonuclear cyber war with significant implications for both cyber strategy and nuclear modernization.
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Dr. Schneider is a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a non-resident fellow at the Naval War College’s Cyber and Innovation Policy Institute. She researches the intersection of technology, national security, and political psychology with a special interest in cyber, unmanned technologies, and wargaming. Her work has appeared in a variety of outlets including Security Studies, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Strategic Studies, Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, War on the Rocks, Washington Post, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She has a BA from Columbia University, a MA from Arizona State University, and a PhD from George Washington University.