An analysis of strategic SA capabilities according to the attributes and risk factors they could introduce in a crisis suggests some of the ways these technologies could pose escalatory risk, complicate decisionmaking, and challenge traditional notions of information dominance in the strategic SA ecosystem. And yet, real-world case studies or other experiential sources of information to evaluate these assessments are highly limited or overly dated. To evaluate some of the risk assessments identified in research and explore the decisionmaking process of policymakers and technical experts in the throes of crises under a nuclear shadow, the Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) developed and conducted a series of tabletop exercises on two fictitious regional scenarios. These exercises provided insight regarding both the decisionmaking calculus involved in deploying emerging SA technologies and how their use could potentially impact strategic stability.
Conducted eight times over the last year, with nearly 150 people overall, the tabletop exercises involved a wide range of participants, from senior policy experts with significant government decisionmaking experience to several next-generation nuclear scholars, researchers, and operators. The scenarios sought to inform the policy implications of the theoretical analysis, understand how sensitive U.S. decisionmakers might be to the risks associated with these technologies, and draw conclusions on potential ways to improve crisis decisionmaking and escalation management. The tabletops were not designed to emphasize highly uniform and consistent variables and generate replicable, quantifiable data results but rather to inform a discussion and serve as a learning experience for both participants and observers. What this series of tabletop exercises offers is not concrete facts or indisputable knowledge but a deeper understanding of the human aspect of decisionmaking in nuclear crises.[^1] This process provided unique insights irretrievable through traditional academic approaches, raised awareness about strategic SA risk and complexity among both technical and policy participants, and highlighted areas where extant high levels of escalatory anxiety may complicate and even increase escalatory risk—a set of outcomes not fully anticipated in the research phase.
Using two different scenarios across eight different exercises, the study team examined the variation in potential decisionmaker reactions according to the level of intensity of the crisis and different military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear. The China scenario represented a potential “near-peer” in a comparatively early crisis, and the North Korea scenario represented a far more asymmetrical adversary in a more advanced crisis where the initial stages of military conflict are already underway. In both cases, the scenarios took place approximately five years in the future under geopolitical circumstances roughly similar to the present. The SA capabilities discussed and evaluated were all deemed to be technically feasible in the five-year time frame and operationally available for the purposes of the exercise.
[^1]: Ed McGrady, “Getting the Story Right About Wargaming,” War on the Rocks, November 8, 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/11/getting-the-story-right-about-wargaming/.Download full Tabletop Exercise Takeaways_5