Uncertainty and complexity in nuclear decision-making

Balancing reason, logic, cognition and intuition at strategic and operational levels
Research paper Updated 9 May 2022 Published 7 March 2022 ISBN: 978 1 78413 515 7 DOI: 10.55317/9781784135157
A close-up image of an illuminated button bearing the words ‘Target 2’.

Complex systems modelling is already implemented in critical policy areas such as climate change and health. It could also play an important role in the nuclear weapons sphere –  by opening alternative pathways that may help mitigate risks of confrontation and escalation –  but such modelling has yet to be fully embraced by policymakers in this community.

By applying a complexity lens, policy- and decision-makers at all stages along the nuclear chain of command might better understand how their actions could have significant consequences for international security and peace. Nuclear decision-making is shaped by, and interacts with, the ever-changing international security environment and nuclear weapons policy. Tackling problems in the nuclear weapons policy field requires the implementation of ‘system of systems’ design principles, mathematical modelling approaches and multidisciplinary analysis.

This research paper presents nuclear weapons decision-making as a complex endeavour, with individual decisions being influenced by multiple factors such as reasoning, intuition (also referred to in the literature as ‘gut feeling’), biases and system-level noise. At a time of crisis, these factors may combine to cause risks of escalation. The authors draw on past examples of near nuclear use to examine decision-making in the nuclear context as a wicked problem, with multi-layered, interacting and constantly fluctuating elements.