When War Games Meets a Model UN

World leaders attend the opening session of the Nuclear Security summit (NSS) in The Hague on March 24. The Nuclear Security Summit on March 24-25, aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism, will bring together several world leaders.
World leaders attend the opening session of the Nuclear Security summit (NSS) in The Hague on March 24. The Nuclear Security Summit on March 24-25, aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism, will bring together several world leaders.POOL / Reuters

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The NETHERLANDS -- The 53 world leaders gathered here for the Nuclear Security Summit spent Monday pondering a scenario more typical of a Hollywood script than a meeting of heads of state.

The leaders were presented with a so-called war game -- nukes on the loose -- that called for decisions to be made collectively by the group in real time, using touch screens to answer multiple choice questions on what to do.

It was a simplified version of the famous 1983 Cold War thriller “War Games,” where Matthew Broderick’s character famously hacked into and interacted with a government computer.

In the movie version, the computer and Broderick go back and forth to see if they can either avert or win a nuclear war.

But in the Dutch-created scenario, an unidentified global terrorist network stole nuclear material from an unidentified country that had poorly secured its radiological and nuclear stockpiles.

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, President Obama’s lead National Security adviser on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, was by the president’s side during the war game and described the process to NBC News.

President Barack Obama, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the opening session of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on March 24, 2014.YVES HERMAN / AFP - Getty Images

The leaders were presented with four separate 3-minute videos outlining various facts of the potential nuclear nightmare. After each video, questions were posed for the world leaders to respond to.

They answered on a touch screen and the results were presented to the group anonymously and followed by discussion.

The first video was a mock intelligence assessment given to the leaders by each country’s “own chief intelligence officer.” The intel officer in the video laid out the facts about a global terrorist network with aspirations to use a nuclear device to attack the international financial system.

The second and third videos updated the situation and indicated the terrorist network had stolen some radioactive material, but it was not highly enriched uranium. At that point, though, the use of radioactive material was still of grave concern, with decisions needing to be made by the world leaders on how they would respond domestically and coordinate internationally.

The final video was the denouement of the war game. The Dutch-based model found the collective decisions by the world leaders were able to stop the terrorist network before they could actually build a dirty bomb – an explosive that uses a conventional weapon to disperse radioactive material.

Sherwood-Randall said that each of the answers to the multiple choice questions could possibly be correct depending on a specific country’s size and history.

During the discussion period after each video, the leaders shared some “best practices” ideas on crisis manage.

Sherwood-Randall said Obama shared with the group how the U.S. government frequently does drills similar to this and made the case for other countries to do the same.

The president told the group that it was security drills like this one that helped Boston’s first responders to act quickly to last year’s Marathon bombing and prevent further destruction.

Bottom line, this scenario had two goals:

  1. Get countries that don’t do drills like this to do similar tests to what the U.S. does in cities like Boston and New York.
  2. Get individual countries to better inventory both nuclear material and radiological material. The reason this scenario included radiological material is because the fear is that many countries don’t realize how insecure their health care-related radiological materials actually are.

Inventory is a key issue that all countries, including the U.S., needs to improve on, according to Sherwood-Randall. Countries unaware of what radiological and nuclear material they have will not be able to identify when it goes missing, she said.

For some countries, this has not been a priority and this sceneraio is meant to be a wake-up call for leaders that have unsecure inventory.

“War Games” the movie existed in a binary world of two nuclear powers where the only winning move was not to play. But in a world of dirty bombs, the only winning move, as far as these world leaders are concerned, is to play an active role in securing what is out there.