On the Nuclear Brink
Escalation Management Exercises

On the Nuclear Brink is a set of escalation management exercises tasking participants to provide policy guidance to the President as a nuclear crisis unfolds. Players assume the role of a Senior Director at the National Security Council, analyzing intelligence, news, and other information to respond to escalating hostilities and provide policy recommendations. After reading the introduction and background materials, participants select from three policy options over three turns, attempting to mimic real life choices based on imperfect information. Though these choices are by no means comprehensive, they serve as a mechanism to introduce participants to the complexity of escalation management by facilitating discussion on the perceived benefits and risks of each choice. Although some high-level intelligence will be provided, participants must ultimately define their own objectives based on leadership guidance, assumptions, and interpretation of unfolding events.

The original On the Nuclear Brink exercise centers around an emerging crisis set in 2024 that begins in Lithuania and evolves to a broader U.S.—Russia confrontation. Participants are tasked with achieving U.S. national security interests, including NATO political and territorial integrity, while also managing escalation between nuclear-armed adversaries.

The second On the Nuclear Brink scenario takes place in 2028 as a close-approach incident between the Chinese and Taiwanese navies in the Taiwan Strait sets off a string of political and military maneuvers that raise concerns of cross-Strait conflict. With a narrowing gap between U.S. and Chinese military capabilities, participants must identify U.S. objectives and attempt to achieve them with a range of diplomatic, economic, and military tools.

Both of these exercises aim to expose participants to a wide range of escalatory outcomes possible in high-stakes crises between nuclear-armed states. Policy options and resulting outcomes were written based on think tank and academic research, open-source government documents, and expert advice.

If interested in gaining access to On the Nuclear Brink, please contact the Project on Nuclear Issues at CSIS ([email protected]).

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