July 18, 2024

Adversaries will deliberately create situations for which U.S. military leaders have not been educated, trained, or equipped to overcome.

The United States’ enemies are smart, dedicated, and determined. They will not attack strengths; they will attack weaknesses at times and places of their choosing and seek to do so in ways for which the DOD is unprepared. American enemies will transform their force structure, technology, and processes faster than the United States can transform its own.  They can do this precisely because the United States’ most potent power projection and warfighting capabilities are technologically advanced but hugely expensive, with near half-century service lives.

Advanced technologies give military leaders a warfighting edge while expensive systems grant civilian leaders domestic political advantages. Long service life locks in high maintenance and upgrades expenditures for many years to justify the initial sunk costs as though they were investments. The combination of advantage and sunk cost momentum solidifies a U.S. national security trajectory that lacks agility and resists change. This challenge is due to U.S. military and civilian leaders’ short decision horizons compared to the technology acquisition process timelines and program service life. Critically, the  United States’ security trajectory is transparent, providing its adversaries information and time to adapt with cheaper capabilities. Its adversaries have the opportunity to be more agile and thus are inside the  United States’ strategic OODA loop. Adversaries will deliberately create situations for which U.S. military leaders have not been educated, trained, or equipped to overcome. The enemy has the innovation initiative.

The Department of Defense (DOD) needs military leaders with the mental agility to outmaneuver enemies in the cognitive domain, to have what the Joint Chiefs of Staff call “intellectual overmatch,” and to have the ability to innovate when faced with completely novel situations created by an adversary. The U.S. officer corps must also be able to devise novel concepts in force structure, technology, processes, and procedures for assessing their deterrence and warfighting value. Wargaming does both. History demonstrates the practical ability of wargaming to develop mentally agile officers and assist engaged forces in adapting. The Defense Department must also understand how to use wargaming to explore fundamentally novel situations in the future.

There are three categories of novel situations that DOD leadership will face, depending on the presence or absence of novelty in the scenario and the warfighting techniques being used. For novel situations or concepts, they are by definition not enough previous real-world cases or events from which to draw conclusions. Consider the following fictional example of a novel situation:

“The scenario is a war between Pakistan and India in which China is (highly) concerned. Theater/tactical nuclear weapons have been used. China is deploying major forces to its southwest border and engaging in a massive worldwide cyber and media campaign. Meanwhile the US is attempting information operations to de-escalate the conflict, reduce China’s influence, and regain US influence with the protagonists.”

In this situation, both the scenario (theater nuclear war) and the techniques (information operations) have novel aspects, since the scenario has never occurred, and the techniques have not been used after the employment of nuclear weapons. The fact that the situation also has familiar aspects (such as joint warfare, propaganda, and diplomacy) is no reason for assuming that senior leaders’ intuition will be successful or even not catastrophic. Attempts to wargame future novel situations face three major obstacles:

  • the sheer proliferation of possible futures combined with the proliferation of relevant variables means that each individual future has an ever-dropping likelihood the farther out one looks,
  • the difficulty of taking discontinuous or black swan changes and their effects into account, and
  • the human inability to analyze the interacting effects of even small numbers of variables and their feedback loops.

Since each novel situation will contain familiar aspects, it is tempting to rely on intuition based on similarities between the past and present to inform and guide decision-making – this temptation must be resisted. Research has shown that while “intuition can sometimes be brilliant,” it suffers “two common flaws … random inconsistency and systematic distortion.” Wargaming adds the procedural structure that limits the effects of intuition’s flaws while enhancing its benefits.

Central to wargaming is adjudication, during which the outcomes of the opposing players’ decisions are determined. Frequently this is done by an adjudication cell that relies on some combination of professional subject matter expertise, the outputs of one or more simulations, and combat results tables. Adjudicators must understand the situation enough to decide the outcome of the interactions. This clear understanding of well-understood situations is simply not true when dealing with novel situations.

Many wargames are weeks long with dozens of participants, and they often, except for a small number of branches, represent a single trajectory through the space of all possible decisions and possible outcomes of those decisions. At best, such games might demonstrate how a novel concept could fail, but they do not indicate the likelihood of failure, other failure modes, or the possibility of successfully achieving the objectives. The game does not provide in-depth knowledge into the novel situation, and what insight it does provide comes with no indication of how likely it is that the insight will be useful.

When wargaming novel situations, the following surface:

  • Constraint: the adjudicators and the players are equally inexpert in the novel aspects of the situation, and
  • Requirement: explore a large number of trajectories through the space of possible decisions and outcomes.

One approach to deal with the constraint is open adjudication where the players participate with the adjudicators in determining the outcomes of interactions. The wargame becomes a structure within which the participants explore the novel scenario as they decide about novel warfighting concepts. The structure forces decision-making within a competitive environment followed by a cooperative exploration of possible outcomes, and this sequence is repeated as the game progresses.

The iterations spawn multiple trajectories and create breadth across the decision and outcome space.

The requirement can be satisfied by many small games run in parallel where each game is repeated multiple times with game design between each iteration modified by insights generated by the previous iteration. The iterations spawn multiple trajectories and create breadth across the decision and outcome space. Both Matrix Game and map/board based Hobby Game techniques can satisfy these requirements.



Each small wargame has one player per side and one adjudicator who also acts as a data recorder. Each subgame is played many times with players rotating between sides and the adjudication position. Rotating roles is critical for games that explore novel situations, as it forces players and adjudicators to see the situation from different perspectives and be innovative about adjudication. Repetition forces the players to think harder about how to win as they face players who have seen their previous attempts. Whether players stay in the same groups for all the subgames or are shuffled between subgames is an open question. I call this “Swarm Gaming” (not wargaming swarms, that is a different topic).

Two features facilitate a deeper understanding of the novel situation being gamed:

  • Players make more decisions: We get more player decisions from Swarm Gaming than from traditional gaming. For example, a single Red versus Blue game with ten-person cells is replaced with ten two-person games. The lack of group discussions during play means that play will be faster, allowing the scheduling of multiple iterations of play and more player decisions than in a single large game.
  • Players are more engaged: Since every player is making individual game decisions in their subgame (they are the only player on their side) and acting as adjudicators in some games, each player is more fully engaged than if they are part of a large group.

Not every individual will be an expert in every facet needed to play all parts of the game effectively, and none of them will be an expert in the novel aspects of the situation. Participants gain experience through multiple iterations of the game, by rotating players between sides and adjudication between games, and by scheduling a plenary session at the end of the event to share ideas and reasoning, including moves not taken. Rotating players between roles (Red, Blue, and Adjudication) brings more diversity of thinking and experience to each role and increases player engagement.

An obvious objection to the Swarm Gaming approach is that it removes group discussions during play and is therefore less valuable than a single traditional game between group cells involving pre-decision discussions. The following reasons dismiss this objection:

  • the productivity of pre-decisional discussion groups, no matter how popular, is a proven illusion,
  • DOD poorly designs most group processes for what is needed; even the well-designed group processes attempted by the DOD are usually incorrectly executed in that the four requirements for group processes to be productive are ignored, producing group think, and
  • the additional downsides to pre-decisional group discussions, such as the risky shift and the dishonesty shift, make the resulting decisions intuitively attractive but dangerously flawed in ways that are not obvious to the decision-maker.

This leaves the inevitable conclusion that, at best, pre-decisional discussion is not always a necessity, and its presence is, more often than not, a problem.

It is tempting to draw on the Good Judgment Project and the creation of superforecasters as a counter to the research about the failure modes of group discussions. Although valid concerning forecasting, the conclusions are not relevant to most DOD wargaming. The Good Judgment Project approach identifies superforecasters and has developed techniques for training those identified superforecasters. It deals with forecasting rather than decision-making: the individuals in the group engage in a normative process of making their forecasts as individuals and then discussing, and the process takes significantly longer than that available for wargaming. This is quite a different participant selection and activity process than used in DOD wargaming. Wargame participants are unlikely to be trained superforecasters, and there is no time during most games to train them.

The Department of Defense’s reliance on expensive advanced technology power projection and warfighting capabilities with long service life has simultaneously removed its agility while providing our adversaries the opportunity and motive to innovate in ways that will surprise and shock the U.S. in future conflicts. Congress and the defense industry are unlikely to change their symbiotic vote maximizing and rent-seeking behaviors, which are detrimental to national security. Swarm wargaming provides DOD decision-makers deep and broad insights into using its expensive and slow-to-change assets when dealing with the unknown and novel warfighting situations. It does so using open adjudication, rapid iteration of multiple parallel and small subgames, and role rotation. Every player, not just the senior officer, makes numerous game decisions and is personally responsible for the consequences of their decisions, is forced to be mentally agile and innovative. Swarm wargaming produces the JCS’s intellectual overmatch while using a wargame design with characteristics demanded by the JCS.

The DOD cannot rely on Congress and Industry to stop locking it into a highly visible long-term platform acquisition strategy. It must not be content re-playing traditional methods against novel situations that at best explore how surprised people will flail. The DOD must transition to flexible gaming techniques that explicitly develop intellectual agility and innovation in all players. For a similar investment of personnel, time, and resources, swarm wargaming can deliver better results than the traditional large-format wargames over a more flexible period. The DOD has ceded the strategic innovation initiative, but it can take it back with Swarm Wargaming.

Dr. Stephen Downes-Martin is a Research Fellow at the US Naval War College and is an independent scholar researching, teaching and supporting wargaming, game theory, confrontation analysis, systems thinking, decision support and analysis, negotiation analysis, deception and assessments methods applied to problems at the strategic, operational and tactical levels of warfare and business. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Credit: COL Ken Gilliam, U.S. Army

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  1. This is a very interesting concept and it may have significant value in select cases. There are potential challenges. Quite often the reason for conducting a matrix style game is the need to bring together a range of expertise on a topic. Breaking up the group too early may atomize the very reason for the collection of experts. The Matrix games will enable cross pollination of ideas. The Swarm game style may be valuable after a set of matrix style games where you have reached a leveling of knowledge between participants or determined there is not a lot of “expertise” on the issue and so now want to generate as many potential outcomes as possible for further comparison and analysis.

    Game design for swarm games will have to be cognizant of span of control issues. The game will have to be relatively simple to enable a single player to maintain situational awareness of the elements under his control, the range of actions those elements can take, and their status. Three to five elements, three to five actions, up to three states starts to reach the limits of most normal players. Experienced wargames can do more. Just remember why the military has echelons of command, etc.

    Collecting data from the various swarm games will be challenging, doubly so if you force the rotating white cell player to also act as referee and rapporteur. Again an issue of span of control.

    Some of these issues can be addressed with computer automation, but that usually means a rigid Kriegspiel, but the topic drove the game designer to need a matrix adjudication processes. So there will be a need to offload data management to the computer for those elements which are rigid Kriegspiel in nature, leaving the less known element for the human players to explore.

  2. I’ve posted a mind map of the thinking I put into the article at:

    When writing a paper I iterate between a mind map and the paper, refining both. The directed links in the map are color coded questions, the subject of the question is the start of the link, the answer the arrow end.

    There is additional discussion about this paper on the PAXsims site at:

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