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Launch on Warning: A Nuclear Decision Making Exercise

by Anne Harrington

This exercise uses clips from the movie, The Man Who Saved the World, to place students in the shoes of a nuclear operator. The question is whether or not to send a notification up the chain of command that will initiate a retaliatory nuclear attack. The scenario is a real life event. The first clip, which is approximately 7 minutes long, is a re-enactment of a false alarm that occurred in 1983 when the Soviet early warning satellite system, Oko, picked up what looked like incoming intercontinental missiles. In the second clip the re-enactment is interspersed with interview footage of Stanislav Petrov, the officer responsible for making the decision about whether to report the incoming attack, explaining his thinking at the time.

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Total activity time 50
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Learning Objectives
  • Identify different types of nuclear early warning systems
  • Describe Cold War tensions between the Soviets and United States at the height of the Cold War, including a prominent instance of a false alarm
  • Name the limitations on nuclear crisis decision-making, including time, uncertainty, and confidence in information
  • Understand how nuclear operators might think about reaching a decision under these limits

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  • Last Updated

    December 2, 2022

  • Released

    December 2, 2022

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