Just Let Them Compete: Raising the Next Generation of Wargamers
My career in wargaming began by chance, not by design. Initially hired for my writing on national security and my Marine Corps background, I learned to be a wargamer on the job. With no prior wargaming experience, I was taught to combine my storytelling ability, my knowledge of the military, and my personal experience with commercial board games to develop analytical wargames. Surprisingly, my unexpected introduction to the field is not an aberration, but the norm.
Across the defense community, wargaming is cultivating innovation and guiding important discussions. In 2012, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Warrior wargame explored how to overcome anti-access/area denial in a littoral environment. Unified Quest 2019, the Army’s Title 10 wargame, is examining how artificial intelligence can be utilized to support Multi-Domain Battle. Wargames are being used to analyze a range of topics from autonomous weapons to crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
But wargames are only as valuable as the designers who create them. To have longevity, wargaming will require wargamers experienced in time-tested methods who have the vision to incorporate new techniques and technologies.
Wargaming in today’s defense community is the purview of a select few with the necessary niche expertise and experience. It relies on a cadre of senior wargamers who spearheaded professional wargaming during the 1980s and 1990s. The community is best depicted with an inverted pyramid, since senior wargamers significantly outnumber young, more junior ones. Military wargaming also relies heavily on defense contractors and civilian experts. However, this approach can be costly, doesn’t build long-term institutional knowledge, and can be unpredictable in terms of quality. In the absence of an official wargaming military occupational specialty, or a civilian degree in wargaming, most professional wargamers are usually converted hobbyist board gamers with backgrounds in political science, military planning, and operations research. Finally, despite existing wargaming education opportunities, there is no established talent pipeline through which young servicemembers are identified, trained, educated, and nurtured to be wargamers as with other military specialties.
As the demand for wargaming grows, cultivating the next generation of wargamers will become critical to the field’s future. Therefore, the Defense Department will need to draw from a much wider pool of talent, inside and outside the military, and change the way it recruits, trains, funds, and promotes wargamers.
Learning Through Competition
Broadly defined, wargames are games that simulate aspects of warfare at varying levels, aimed at analyzing human decision-making. They can be used to examine military strategies, explore novel concepts and technologies, educate commanders, assess operational plans and devise alternative solutions.
To develop the next generation of avid wargamers, the first step is both radical and simple: Let them compete. Great games make people want to tackle the challenge again and again. Through competition, they learn the principles of chance, strategy, competition, and reward. Eventually, players devise new tactics and strategies, recognize patterns, and employ new concepts. The cycle of learning and competing is intellectually addicting.
Players may be huddled over a map moving pieces across the board, or sitting at a computer, or swiping on a phone. The goal is expose players to a wide set of gaming experiences, each replicating the human decision-making process in different ways. It is this fierce competition between players that serves as a crucible of innovation.
How should the Defense Department institutionalize that kind of competition? It could encourage wargaming competitions across the operating forces, particularly at its educational institutions. Marine Corps University has already experimented with wargaming tournaments to stimulate interest and elicit creative ideas. The contests may use modified commercial board games or digital games. The rewards could be official commendations, commemorative swords, or coveted challenge coins. The critical requirements for stimulating innovation are to foster a competitive environment and to offer public rewards to those who succeed.
The department could also consider creating a distributed wargaming capability through an online platform, such as Steam or Tabletopia, specifically for education. The games could be easily accessible through a digital library, which emphasizes reaching a wide audience, while maintaining the necessary security measures. In the age of ubiquitous phone apps and computer gaming, an Army Specialist at Fort Benning and Marine Corporal at Camp Pendleton should be able to compete on a suite of Defense Department-approved commercial wargames, while data analytics allow senior leadership at the Pentagon to identify creative problem-solvers.
Ideally, the library would host an abundance of custom and commercial wargames, including digital versions of the well-known “What Now, Lieutenant?” tactical game series and advance combat simulation models like “Command.” Already, U.S. Army Futures Command has commissioned the developer of “Flashpoint,” a commercial Cold War-era wargame, to include current active Army battalions. Using this architecture, the Marine Corps is experimenting with AI-assisted wargaming with Athena, an educational wargaming platform.
Soon, hundreds of civilian and military players could be commanding realistic Army formations in Defense Department-sponsored scenarios. Military planners could gather valuable data and use artificial intelligence and data analytics to learn which tactics prove most successful in specific scenarios and which players exhibit out-of-the-box problem-solving skills. Imagine a 21st century Ender’s Game.
The current military personnel and promotion system is not conducive to developing niche skillsets like wargaming. To advance their careers, officers are encouraged to pursue a variety of assignments, cultivate a wide range of skillsets, and conform to rigid rules concerning promotions. This is exacerbated by the constant circulation of talent within the military, with many personnel rotating positions every two to three years. As a result of these factors, most officers placed at military wargaming centers are rarely trained wargamers.
For instance, at the Marine Corps’ Wargaming Division, civilian contractors serve as the primary wargame designers and analysts, while uniformed officers serve as action officers. The quality of officers the division receives is a product of chance, as the division doesn’t have the means or authority to screen or request candidates for billets. This lack of a recruitment process can yield an excellent wargaming officer with the right experience and temperament— or the opposite. Not everyone is interested in or equipped for wargaming.
To solve this problem, the Defense Department could consider establishing and funding a systematic process to expose both enlisted troops and officers to wargaming. There are already several wargaming educational programs that can serve as models . The Naval War College, Naval Postgraduate School, Marine Corps University, Air Force Material Command, National Defense University, and the Army War College all offer various wargaming courses, either in residence or distance. The courses introduce the fundamentals of wargame design, including scenario development and basic gaming concepts. However, to create a long-term pipeline of wargaming talent, these and other institutions need to be given the means and authority to create expansive curriculums and courses – aimed at the novice through the seasoned wargamer. Wargaming education should be incorporated systemically into military education, both as an educational tool and as a topic of study. After repeated exposure, students could sharpen their skills over time. This would likely require intervention by the Joint Force Development (J7) mandating greater integration of wargaming in joint professional military education.
Each service wargaming center could be given greater flexibility and institutional support. First, they could be allowed to request and screen candidates for specific wargaming billets. This would allow wargamers to progress from the schoolhouse to the operating forces, while wargaming centers gain the skillsets they need. Next, wargaming centers could establish inter-service exchanges, so both uniformed and civilian wargamers can serve at different wargaming centers for a year. This would enable the varying centers to exchange ideas, build institutional relationships, and collaborate. But the most important and difficult task will be creating an institutional environment in which wargaming as a skillset is valued and rewarded. Otherwise, military wargamers will never develop the intense specialization required to replace the old guard of long-term wargamers who dominate the community today.
Widening the Talent Pool
For long-term success, the community of wargamers cannot be limited to the defense community and its periphery. Otherwise, wargaming risks becoming parochial, isolated, and intellectually stagnant. The Defense Department should consider supporting a wide range of efforts to broaden its talent pool with top recruits from academia.
A program at Stanford University, Hacking for Defense (H4D), pairs student teams with Pentagon sponsors who challenge them to solve real-life problems. The program has garnered positive reviews and the model has spread to Georgetown University, the University of Colorado and Johns Hopkins University. Likewise, the military service universities, such as the Naval War College, could partner with civilian universities to offer wargaming courses. Eventually, they could offer a wargaming major or minor. The War Studies Department at Kings College, London could serve as a model, as it has taught wargame design successfully for many years.
Several veteran wargamers already teach courses at civilian institutions across the country. Yet, to sustain a talent pipeline for wargaming, coordination and sharing of costs will likely be necessary. Emulating the Wargaming Incentive Fund, which is designed to fund and encourage wargaming, a central educational program could coordinate, fund, and facilitate wargaming education efforts across the defense community. The program could assist military universities in expanding wargaming courses, encourage civilian-military partnerships, and fund a variety of educational initiatives.
For example, the Defense Department could sponsor a series of unclassified wargames designed specifically for university students. These Minerva Wargames (named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and war) could be single-day events that are entertaining and accessible, and represent real-life scenarios. The goal would be to garner differing perspectives and expose a wide range of individuals to wargaming early on in their careers.
Through exploratory and experiential learning, the next generation of wargamers can help drive the next evolution in military tactics, strategy, and human-machine collaboration. All they need are the tools and resources for meaningful competition.
Sebastian J. Bae, a defense analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, specializes in wargaming, emerging technologies, irregular warfare, and strategy and doctrine for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Previously, he served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He has published in Foreign Policy, War on the Rocks, Strategy Bridge, Task & Purpose, the Diplomat, and Georgetown Security Studies Review.
Image: Navy.mil/Javier Chagoya