Jeffrey LewisCheater's Risk

The Stimson Center has a fun scenario, Cheater’s Risk, in which you can attempt to evade international detection in pursuit of bomb.

The odds are stacked against you (well, so they are in real life!)

I did pretty well, I must admit.

I had the UAE pursue aerodynamic enrichment, recovered the uranium from sea-water and then rendered it into a small arsenal of 1-5 nuclear weapons. (In retrospect, I had a 46 percent chance of success.) I decided to skip testing.

Imagine my pleasant surprise to receive a lecture from Ward Wilson encouraging me to abandon my illicit weapons.

From my cold dead hands, Mr. Wilson!

Seriously, who hired Ward as National Security Advisor? Was Brent Scowcroft busy this weekend?

I also managed to pilot Madagascar up through a heavy water reactor, reprocessing and weapons assembly until I decided to test the device. There was no “flash in the South Atlantic” option, but you bet those jackasses in Mozambique were surprised!

For the record, we are still claiming it was a clandestine American weapons test run out of Diego Garcia. I mean, Madagascar? And no, Mr. Blix, you cannot inspect that large box nestled in the hillside. It is my private lemur breeding facility.

One might have small differences of opinion about risk here and there, or moan that the scenarios aren’t detailed enough. For example, it looks like you have a set 98 percent chance of having your nuclear test detected, regardless of location.

But those are minor things.

I have only one serious objection, which is illustrated by my two country choices: The scenario permits no ambiguity on the issue of detection. Yet, the UAE is well positioned to acquire nuclear weapons components precisely because it is such a major transshipment point. If you discover a controlled component en route to Dubai, you can’t really be sure its ultimate destination isn’t somewhere else. Similarly, having successfully evaded detection of my heavy water reactor and reprocessing plant, how does one attribute that the surprising flash of light and resulting plutonium particles to me instead of, say, Israel? I picked a pair of countries that minimized detection by shrouding the most obvious indicators with ambiguity.

You can see an example of this with Burma right now: Has Burma been “detected”? Maybe. But there are a lot of people who think the jury is still out. I don’t have any brilliant idea about Cheater’s Risk might have handled this, but it is something to think about.

Which is, it turns out, the great value of this simulation — as a heuristic device. I am glad Barry and Alex created it.


  1. AggieNuke

    So I took the “bombs in the basement” route and resurrected hidden US weapons. Note: US/Russia odds of detection using the “existing weapons” route was 7% while everyone else was 95%.

    For some reason I still had to shape the metal, design the weapon, and develop the trigger and non-nuclear components. After I decided not to test, presumably because the US had tested this design previously, I still wound up with an arsenal of 1-5 weapons (which was the same result from my Sri Lankan HEU program (Blixed from diffuser detection)and Canadian Pu program(not Blixed until testing)).

    Some of this seems unrealistic. But it was still fun. I appreciate the creation of the verb “Blixed”.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    I am sort of bummed that I can’t make an arsenal bigger than 1-5 weapons. What the hell do I have to do to really breakout with style?

  3. George William Herbert (History)

    I was Blixed not once but twice, taking Mexico’s seawater / calutrons HEU gun program through completion. Once at the design stage (?) and once at the assembly stage (?).

    Also, the resulting weapons were too big to do anything terribly useful with. Apparently this scenario’s technical world has not advanced past Little Boy. Did anyone show the authors the W-33 during its creation?

  4. Robert Merkel (History)

    Um, Jeffrey, maybe I’m missing something, but if you’re playing as the United States you really should be able to do a breakout with style.

    If I’m doing my sums right, the Paducah gaseous diffusion plant can produce enough HEU for around forty bombs a week.

    Which is a major quibble with the whole thing – it doesn’t seem to take into account a country’s pre-existing technological base and industrial capacity.

    The second problem with Mr. Wallace’s little lecture is that it seems to assume that any breakout is occurring because Madagascar (or your evil nasty breakout nation of choice) wants to play schoolyard bully.

    That’s hardly the only plausible scenario for a breakout attempt.

  5. Doc Strangelove (History)

    I chose South Africa, managed to build a heavy water reactor, reprocessing plant, did it all indigenously and got 1-5 warheads. Got blixed when I tested. Second try same path without testing gave me also 1-5 weapons. That’s silly!

  6. Gridlock (History)

    I abandoned my program after a defeated invasion of a neighbour but still got invaded and hanged 12 years later 🙁

  7. Ward Wilson (History)

    Robert Merkel: The reason Mr. Wallace is so concerned with breakouts that are going to be used to coerce is that they’re the only ones that matter. A breakout that’s “defensive” just results in a world that is re-nuclearized. The treaty’s busted, the world is nuclear again, it’s a bad outcome, but basically you’re no worse off than before the treaty was negotiated. You’re status quo ante. The only scenarios that count are the ones that are about people who want to use nuclear weapons for something aggressive. (Plus Mr. Wallace has looked into the wicked hearts of those of you playing Cheater’s Risk. He knows you want to conquer the world.)

    Jeffrey, They wanted to get Scowcroft but there was some dispute about residuals and a demand that the green room be stocked only with Fuze Goji Wild Berry. (Or something. I got all this secondhand.)

  8. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Did you know the late Arnie Kanter nicknamed Scowcroft “LBG” — for “Little Bald Guy.”

    The Fuze Goji Wild Berry joke reminds me of the first time I saw Scowcroft in person — at a CSIS conference where he got up for some orange juice one of the panelists made a crack about it.

    Something like, “This is CSIS, General Scowcroft gets orange juice.”