All games can be used to understand how humans make decisions in environments shaped by competition.
While this is a Whiteboard post we thought it would be a great way to introduce our readers to the Wargaming Room, a new recurring series focused on the design, development, and playing of wargames. The articles and podcast episodes in this series will examine a wide range of topics related to wargaming to support national security, professional military education, and strategic decision-making. At the heart of each article or podcast is the idea that wargames are about humans making decisions and dealing with the consequences of those decisions in a synthetic environment.
Wargames have a long history in the military profession, and for good reason. Wargaming allows decision-makers to practice their craft in a relatively safe, inexpensive environment to gain valuable knowledge about their own forces, their potential adversaries, and their environments. Wargames are powerful tools that can expose weaknesses, highlight strengths, and enable resourcing decisions. A good briefing can persuade, but a good wargame can embed emotion and conviction akin to actual experience.
While this series will place a particular emphasis on wargames related to military conflict or competition, we also recognize that the Army and Defense community are connected to a complex society, do not have a corner on the wargaming market, and cannot cover all of the relevant issues. Therefore, in the spirit of the WAR ROOM, we seek innovative and publish provocative content intended for a broad audience of well-informed leaders and listeners, including other governmental, business, and education, where wargaming is used to educate, inform analysis, or provide experience.
We hope you enjoy the series, and welcome comments and suggestions for future articles and episodes. Take a chance, roll the dice, and join us in the Wargaming Room.
For this Whiteboard we reached out again to several scholars with the following prompt:
What strategic decisions on the horizon for the Department of Defense can best be shaped through wargaming?
Readers are invited to make their own contributions in the comments section.
1. Sebastian J. Bae, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University and Defense Analyst, RAND Corporation
Two strategic decisions hang heavy over the Department of Defense (DoD): 1) How does the DoD redesign the Joint Force to meet the challenges of future contingencies and wars? 2) How will the department pay for it? These questions are not new, but their importance cannot be understated. For years, all the services have been diligently pursuing potential answers, spurring a litany of emerging warfighting concepts and organizational restructuring. Examples abound from the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations and the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations to the establishment of Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability and Army’s Future Command.
So, how could wargaming shape these decisions? The answer is simple: wargaming is already an integral part and should continue to be. As an incredibly adaptable analytical tool, wargaming can examine competing courses of action, explore the effects of emerging technologies, and assess operational concepts. This is reflected in the plethora of wargames examining the future force, both within the military and its federally funded research and development centers.
The role of wargaming in the ongoing transformation of the Marine Corps serves as a poignant example. In his 2019 Commandant’s Planning Guidance, General David H. Berger, 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC), repeatedly emphasized the pivotal role of wargaming in force design, education, and training. The CMC argues that wargaming will not only inform future force design but could help educate and train future commanders. In the subsequent Force Design 2030, the CMC again reinforced the utility of wargaming – ranging from concept refinement to the programming process. Moreover, Expeditionary Warrior, the Marine Corps’ Title 10 wargame series, continues to support future concept development, including Future Maritime Operations and the Joint Operational Access Concept. The forthcoming state of the art wargaming center at Marine Corps Base Quantico reflects the service’s embrace of wargaming, both as an educational and analytical tool.
The Marine Corps is not alone in its avid use of wargaming to shape its decisions of the future. The other services are conducting similar efforts with equal rigor and zeal. And as the national deficit grows and budgetary constraints mount, the DoD will most likely increasingly leverage all its analytical tools, including wargaming.
2. Ellie Bartels, Associate Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation
Often when we think of the impact of wargames, we envision operational warfighting or strategic crisis management games. However, applying games to the internal policies of the Department of Defense can also offer strategic advantage. Defense acquisition, personnel, and management systems have long been seen as areas in need of reform, as costs and man-hours continue to increase over the years. Gaming new policies that govern these areas can offer early insights into potential stumbling blocks and provide leaders valuable feedback on decisions before major costs are incurred.
All games can be used to understand how humans make decisions in environments shaped by competition. Classically, we think about opposing “blue” and “red” players in conflict. But when it comes to managing the DoD, bureaucratic competition plays a major role in policy outcomes. For example, in acquisition policy, tensions between Congress and the DoD, between joint and service interests, and between government and commercial standard operating procedures, have long been cited as sources of delay and increased costs. Understanding how these actors might make decisions under a new system — and how decisions will intersect — is critical to implementing any new policy successfully. Here, games can be of clear value.
These insights are particularly valuable when designing and implementing new policies aimed at reforming the existing system. Precisely because of the scale of desired change, historical data on past performance are a relatively poor guide to how new policies will work. For example, consider the DoD’s new Agile Acquisition Framework’s Middle Tier Acquisition (MTA) Pathway. Intended to promote rapid prototyping and fielding of critical capabilities, the MTA pathway offers a dramatically streamlined process. A RAND game was able to simulate this process using draft guidance, and offer recommendations about some of the ways in which program characteristics and stakeholder interests might shape how the policy works in practice. That is, the game was able to offer recommendations to refine the policy before it was implemented.
3. Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin, Research Fellow, U.S. Naval War College
One might be tempted to answer this question by considering how wargaming can shape the strategies necessary to deal with hostile powers (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, violent extremists) while taking into account the impacts of natural disasters (pandemics, hurricanes, etc.) and trends (technology advances, demographics, etc.) on our armed forces. This would be a mistake. There is a deeper underlying strategic problem. The DoD must not only deal with these identified challenges, more importantly it must deal with unidentified challenges. Our enemies are smart. They will not attack our strengths; they will attack our weaknesses at times and places of their choosing and they will seek to do so in ways for which the DoD is unprepared.
The DoD must be innovative and agile to deal with this. Of the three components that make up an organization, technology and process are neither. Only the people component can provide the necessary agility and innovation to create the “intellectual overmatch” necessary to defeat our enemies in future war. To gain this overmatch the Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued vision and guidance to PME for “developing today’s joint officers for tomorrow’s way of war”, in which they argue that wargaming must replace less important parts of the PME curriculum. The Naval War College demonstrated during the interwar years that wargaming under stress is an excellent mechanism for developing mentally agile officers capable of dealing with unexpected problems, They did this by inventing scenarios with which the officers could not possibly have experience. The Western Approaches Tactical Unit wargames in Britain proved wargaming can help engaged forces adapt from losing to winning.
The most important strategic decision for the Department of Defense is how to deal with the completely unexpected, and to cease assuming it can already do so. As Thomas Schelling said “one thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him”. Wargaming generates the only resource capable of defeating peer competitors in a future world, an officer corps with “intellectual overmatch”. To achieve this we must go beyond the JCS guidance for gaming in education, and add wargaming to the culture and daily work of the US officer corps. History has proved that wargaming produces a winning combination of agility and innovation in both planning wars and during combat.
4. Dr Jim Lacey, Marine Corps University’s Horner Chair of Military Theory
The simple answer, and with no intent to be flippant in my response, is that every strategic decision that DoD will ever consider can and should be shaped through wargaming. In fact, it is almost always non-sensical to make any crucial decision without first putting the options through a serious wargaming series. The only exception to this rule should be those decisions that arise in a crisis and require an immediate response. But, even here, such responses should be shaped by considerations and mental models formed by earlier gaming events.
But allow me to qualify my position; wargames are only effective if they are:
– Frequent – to allow for a variety of assumptions to be tested and the results diffused over many players. Most crucial games happen once, or at best twice.
– Well designed – to expose weaknesses and flaws in plans. Most don’t meet this criteria, and the number of wargames I have attended that miraculously discover that every assumption made by the flag officer running the game is absolutely correct is staggering.
– Well played – we spend too much time worrying about having superior red teams capable of given the blue team a real challenge. That, however, is rarely the problem. Rather, most wargames see a pick-up blue team with no wargaming experience being repeatedly crushed by professional red team players. My advice to senior leaders making war planning decision or a major acquisition based only on wargaming results, is to make sure that both sides of the game are staffed with first-class wargamers.
5. MAJ Krisjand Rothweiler, U.S. Forces Korea
The short answer to this is simple; all of them. Wargaming, the type of strategic wargaming that comes before deliberate planning, should be employed as often as possible to work through the potential consequences of major strategic decisions and explore the inherent assumptions that exist in decision-makers’ minds. Will allies and adversaries behave as we expect? Is the environment in question really aligned in the way we expect? When resources are constrained and “all of them” isn’t possible, the answer may simply be that wargaming must be prioritized to those decisions hardest to undo once commitment is made.
To prioritize these decisions, I would start with those that impact acquisitions / force structure (big money) and those decisions that impact alliance relationships (big trust). In both cases, these are strategic decisions that take years to implement and can last a generation or more before adjustments can be made, particularly when contracts are signed, or trust is broken.
In the case of acquisition & force structure, timelines can last decades for major end items or software (The F-35 began, in concept in the late 80’s, with a contract in 1996 and first flights in 2000). For programs such as the F-35, or the more recent exploration of the Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) outlined here, wargaming becomes an integral part of the creation and continued advancement of the acquisition process. From personal experience, wargaming the content and structure of the Army’s MDTF enabled decisions on capabilities ranging from munitions, to ISR platforms, to joint interconnectedness. Moreover this (and other) wargames continue to enable decisions for employment and doctrine of the MDTF.
The second class of strategic wargames that deserves prioritization is that which impacts relationships with allies. The recent decision to remove some U.S. military from Germany, and continued talks between the U.S. and South Korea are just two examples of U.S. alliance issues that deserve in depth wargaming to study the implications of these decisions and explore the immediate as well as lasting consequences on these relationships and those of other allies that may be watching closely to decide how close they wish to remain with the U.S. These decisions, particularly when they reduce or end relationships, cannot be easily reversed quickly, if ever.
Wargaming cannot validate a decision but it can reveal pitfalls and consequences that may be otherwise unforeseen by strategic leaders. Through wargaming, we are able to commit limited resources in order to protect greater resources which cannot be recovered once committed and deliberately consider those actions which will last longer than the service of most leaders required to make them.
6. Natalia Wojtowicz, Lecturer at the Hague University of Applied Sciences, Safety and Security Management Studies Programme and the author of Wargaming Experiences: Soldiers, Scientists and Civilians (2020).
Borders. DoD needs to wargame borders. Not only due to recent military deployments to the US border with Mexico, but also due to an increasing probability of American political leaders demanding an intervention in very contested scenarios, including domestically. In 2017, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis urged American troops to “just hold the line”.” However, now he denounces President Donald Trump for divisive politics and speaks against using the military against protesters on American soil.
The Grey Zone is often described as the dimension between peace and war, that disregards rules of both. The US military might soon be ordered into that dimension if active-duty soldiers get ordered to execute riot control. If this scenario remains fictional, it can be forgotten. If it comes to be, it is better to have the dilemma wargamed before there is a need to answer. Wargaming can support understanding of the dilemmas before they are posed in real life. It is easier to scale down from a worst-case scenario than to rapidly escalate with lack of prepared strategies.
Wargaming can shape how DoD protects their own borders of civil-military relations – when the environment is a Grey Zone and might require intelligent disobedience. When it is impossible not to take a stand and leadership is conflicted. When responsibility for security does not equal dominating the battlefield. When the fight is to avoid fighting.
The strategic decisions on the horizon for the DoD that can be shaped through wargaming include: the limits of domestic military deployments, the use of force in the Grey Zone, and the delineation of political values which are commonly recognized as impassable.
The views expressed in this Whiteboard Exercise are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.
Photo Description: The Pentagon isn’t just a South Korean K-Pop boy band. It’s also the most widely known symbol of the U.S. Department of Defense. Every program, every budget, and so many leaders, both civilian and military walk the halls of this iconic building. The decisions made here, good and bad, impact nations, economies and of course people the world over.
Photo Credit: By Touch Of Light – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72600649
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- WAR(GAMING) WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? A WHITEBOARD
- LEADERSHIP ROLE MODELS IN FICTION REVISITED: A WHITEBOARD
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- LEADERSHIP ROLE MODELS IN FICTION: A WHITEBOARD
- THE MOST IMPORTANT LEGACY OF THE VIETNAM CONFLICT: A WHITEBOARD
- WHERE HAVE WE SUCCEEDED: A WHITEBOARD
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