War games in The Hague: global leaders 1, bad guys 0

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, David Cameron and 50 other world leaders are battling against the clock to protect the world from a “dirty bomb” attack by terrorists in the heart of a major financial centre.

Military officials briefing the leaders do not know exactly where the attack is going to be carried out and they have limited time to come up with a response to avoid mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people could die.

This might sound like the plot of a Hollywood action film.

In fact it is a “war games” scenario faced by the leaders this week when they took part in a role-playing exercise at a nuclear safety summit in The Hague.

The unusual and unexpected Armageddon simulation was part of an effort to get the leaders to think seriously about how they would react to an unconventional nuclear war. Those who witnessed the leaders’ reactions to the unfolding crisis, made up of a series of short movies, said the game felt “freakishly real”.

Heads of state, foreign ministers and defence officials from 53 countries at the summit, including Mr Obama and Mr Xi, were given touch screen tablet computers from which to pick one of four responses from a multiple choice list. As the game proceeded, the scenario “on the ground” also evolved, forcing the leaders to take decisions under mounting pressure. What, for example, should they do once terrorists have seized nuclear material that had been poorly guarded in an unknown country?

“Leaders had to decide whether to inform the public about what was going on or keep the crisis confidential,” said a person who witnessed the game. “They had to decide whether to go for a collective decision or take unilateral action.”

Overall, the majority of leaders opted for a joint and transparent response. “They voted in favour of informing their people and working in a collaborative manner,” said a diplomat who saw the results of the test.

When the game was over, the terrorists had been defeated, and the world was saved. The diplomat said: “The experiment showed we are ready to take on the bad guys”.