Welcome to Fight Club: Wargaming the Future
Yes, I am going to violate the first rule of Fight Club and talk about it.
The U.S. Marine Corps, in partnership with a network that includes the U.S. Army and multiple agencies in the Department of Defense, has created a place where top officers go to fight each other and test how emerging technologies alter warfighting. There are winners. There are losers. Most importantly, this initiative, dubbed “Fight Club,” allows participants to talk openly and improvise, identify new concepts and capability requirements, and hone their operational judgment.
Since 2015, the U.S. Marine Corps University, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, U.S. Army Future Studies Group, and 75th Innovation Command, as part of the new Army Futures Command, have used this Fight Club to explore the changing character of war. The results are clear: Iron sharpens iron. Wargaming provides a competitive forum to test key assumptions and identify critical vulnerabilities and opportunities. Simulating mobilization planning, multi-domain operations, and the strategic risk of inadvertent escalation helps military professionals become better warfighters and understand modern capabilities and operational art.
Amplifying Sebastian Bae’s call to let military professionals compete and Clayton Schuety and Lucas Will’s use of games to explore new concepts, I contend that the U.S. military should expand its investment in wargames. Specifically, the military should invest in games that help define the future force in terms of new equipment and concepts to educate professionals about challenges in modern warfare . These wargames should create a nexus between professional military education and military modernization activities that fosters a culture of competitive learning, creativity, and prudent risk-taking. To explore this proposal, this article will establish what has been done, and more importantly, what can still be done with minimal investment to create a new class of wargames in the U.S. military.
The Revolution Begins
Wargaming has been experiencing a renaissance since 2015, when, in these electronic pages, Gen. Paul Selva and then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work called for the Department of Defense to examine how rapid technological change and constrained budgets would shape future war. Their advocacy led to the creation of the Warfighting Lab Incentive Fund to sponsor games that explored emerging concepts and capabilities related to the third offset. Parallel to the resulting studies and experiments, one of which I recently discussed here, defense analysts began reflecting on the value of wargaming. Wargames can be used to support decision-making, help officers understand critical historical cases, and test new technologies.
There are deep historical antecedents to the current revival. Wargaming has roots in games such as chess and go. Contemporary forms arose during the industrialization of warfare in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, alongside most modern defense analysis methods. During the interwar period, the Naval War College used a series of games and related fleet experiments to develop new concepts for carrier strike operations. During World War II, the British Navy formed the Western Approaches Tactical Unit to counter German submarine attacks. The unit used a series of games to explore how to adapt convoy tactics. These games cut across two areas that the modern military professional should replicate: analyzing how to modernize the force and honing operational judgment.
Games for Force Development: What Has Been Done
Wargames that support force modernization consist of testing new concepts and capabilities, which often reflect how new technology alters the battlefield and creates entirely new military opportunities. For example, in the early 1960s, the U.S. Army used a series of tabletop games through the famous Howze Board to accelerate the concept and capability development associated with integrating helicopters into combat formations. In the early 1990s, the Office of Net Assessment similarly conducted a tabletop series organized around emerging 21st century capabilities to explore how to position U.S. forces to take advantage of the Revolution in Military Affairs.
Expanding on this tradition, since 2015 the Marine Corps University and Marine Corps Warfighting Lab have used a special series of wargames to reimagine amphibious operations for the 21st century. In this initiative, dubbed “Fight Club,” students from the Command and Staff College work with groups ranging from DARPA to the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Potomac Institute to stress-test capstone Marine Corps concepts associated with amphibious operations. The results of these games have produced four major lessons-learned studies on topics like manned-unmanned teaming and narrow artificial intelligence applications.
Fight Club splits the students into competing sides and asks the groups to develop a plan and fight against each other in multiple iterations, including redoing the exercise as a controlled experiment by adding a new capability or concept. For example, one team might try an amphibious assault with current force structure and equipment and then retry it with future capabilities, such as the use of swarms to reduce risk and compound shock and dislocation. Having military professionals fight each other in secure environments and allowing for controlled excursions allows them to imagine future war and think through the concepts, capabilities, and organizations required to maintain a competitive edge.
There are four aspects of Fight Club that make it unique. First, all games are competitive and involve teams fighting other teams. There is a big difference between fighting an algorithm or scenario and fighting another human being. Fighting other people highlights fog, friction, uncertainty, and how new technologies risk compounding their effects.
Second, the games are designed using social science methods to analyze the difference between control and treatment groups. That is, participants start with a baseline game that involves current capabilities, and then another group fights with new capabilities. This allows the designers to assess the utility of new concepts and capabilities like manned-unmanned, teaming, deception, and various technologies associated with swarming.
Third, unlike many large Department of Defense wargames, the participants in Fight Club are top officers with recent operational experience. Instead of combing the Pentagon to find random bodies or relying solely on retired officers-turned-contractors, the effort targets field-grade officers in professional military education programs or military fellowships.
Fourth, the games involve creative combinations of seminar-style and computer-based adjudication methods. Through seminar-style components, wargame designers capture participants’ novel ideas and insights. Through low-cost but high-fidelity computer-based adjudication, including the Joint Warfare Adjudication Model developed by the Center for Army Analysis and commercial games, the game designers generate the data they need to better analyze the results, test assumptions, and rerun portions of the game.
Games for Force Development: What Can Still Be Done
Fight Club’s utility emerges from a simple idea: Create a space for traditional concept and capability development wargaming as part of military professional education and coordinate the games directly with the combat development community. These games thus tend to occur at the joint task force level and below. Therefore, the results tend to be tactical and functional rather than strategic. The insights focus less on new joint concepts and defense strategy issues — like the health of the industrial base and the nation’s ability to mobilize for a major contingency — and more on service-level combat development, such as what capabilities to invest in and how best to employ them.
Therefore, future iterations should focus more on competitive strategies associated with defense modernization investments. The competitive strategies approach, pioneered by the Office of Net Assessment, is designed to ensure long-term competitive advantage and helps defense planners invest in concepts and capabilities that make it difficult and/or expensive for a great power rival to compete.
To this end, the 75th Innovation Command is receiving support from the Department of Defense to conduct a series of competitive strategy games with major think tanks in 2019. These games will explore how investments in defense modernization that states and non-state actors make prior to conflict shape long-term competition. The goal is to see how each side responds to shifting investments by the other over a 20-year period. For example, if Russia opts to invest heavily in hypersonic weapons and nuclear modernization, and the United States prioritizes fifth-generation fighters and long-range precision fires, these competing investments create strategic mismatches. Manipulating those mismatches is the essence of defense strategy. Wargames are a key mechanism for identifying how to exploit these mismatches and ensure the United States retains a competitive advantage.
These competitive strategy games will seek to find cost-effective ways to shape how major adversaries allocate scarce defense resources. During the Cold War, U.S. investments in manned bombers helped encourage the Soviets to invest in air defense. Today, the United States may prefer that China invest an estimated $1 trillion in the Belt and Road Initiative rather than in nuclear submarines.
The question, then, is: What types of investments should combat development and modernization organizations like Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and Army Futures Command prioritize to shape the way America’s enemies spend the marginal defense dollar? Outspending adversaries to sustain a higher rate of innovation is no longer sustainable. The goal should be to innovate faster at cost and scale than the adversary can match.
Games for Educating the Force: What Has Been Done
A second category of games focuses on enhancing judgment. There is a deep tradition in the military profession of using decision games to visualize how to prepare for combat. To this end, since 2015 Marine Corps University has allowed faculty to experiment with educating through games, including wargame competitions like the Sea Dragon 2.0 initiative and Keller E. Rockey Award for Operational Judgment. At Command and Staff College, this effort also involves CG X, a testbed seminar in which students spend more time on practical applications involving warfighting scenarios. Alongside studying military history and contemporary social science research methods, students cut their teeth developing operational approaches, often playing other nations like Russia and China to gain exposure to different perspectives on future war. For example, rather than simply read about Chinese approaches to systems competition, why not plan a joint anti-aircraft raid using the concept? Instead of talking in circles about the Gerasimov doctrine and information warfare, why not plan a hypothetical contingency using the underlying concepts in a multi-domain setting?
Well-designed wargames encourage military professionals to explore strategy, doctrine, friendly and enemy capabilities, and population dynamics. Most importantly, they help participants synthesize information to develop judgment. In a manner that recalls how Clausewitz viewed the use of history in support of cultivating a deeper understanding of the nature and character of war, professionals build pattern recognition. They become natural Bayesian thinkers, estimating situations and updating their estimates as new information becomes available. They learn how to generate maneuver options while limiting the enemy’s freedom of action and grasp the difference between risk and uncertainty. It is difficult to replicate this synthesis in a traditional lecture or seminar.
Furthermore, effective wargaming for force education requires stress-testing actual plans and designating winners and losers. Planning exercises that end with a PowerPoint brief are the death of the military profession. You only really see if your plan worked once you fight it, and you learn as much, if not more, by losing than by winning. Creating spaces where students can take risks, compete, and learn should be a national security priority. If the United States wants sound tacticians and nimble strategists, the investment starts in the classroom.
Games for Educating the Force: What Can Still Be Done
A distributed micro-learning and gaming revolution could cultivate a new generation of adaptive leaders. The military should create a portal of easy-to-play, networked games linked to educational resources. These investments would complement, not replace, traditional professional military education. Imagine a young captain who logs on to an unclassified portal and watches a video on Russian rocket artillery attacks and their supporting kill chain in Eastern Ukraine. Like a wiki, the portal would have links to doctrinal publications, articles of interest, and tactical decision games. The captain decides to try her hand at the decision game and fights a company team conducting a movement to contact against Russian-supported separatists. The gaming platform, consistent with the Athena vision, gives the captain feedback as she plans. After the fight, it shows her where she rates compared to other officers who fought the same scenario.
These games should be simple, scalable, and usable across the forces. Too often, traditional vendors sell the military robust simulation packages that require weeks to use and trained professionals to run them. Few, from squad leaders to battalion commanders, can allocate that much time to a single game.
More importantly, the U.S. military can use tactical games to evaluate basic warfighting skills. The Marine Corps went down this route in the 1990s with its Warfighting Skills Program. It is time to revitalize that program and expand it to include online wargames that allow marines to fight in modern scenarios against near-peer competitors. Unlike static tactical decision games, the results of these games can be captured and used to generate a warfighting skills score as part of their personnel file.
Sustaining the Revolution
Great power competition involves investments not just in hardware, but also in software. The Department of Defense needs sustained investments in fight clubs that sit at the intersection of professional military education and combat development. Creating spaces where top officers can fight each other and, in the process, test new concepts and capabilities will help the department optimize its modernization investments and groom a cohort of future leaders.
The difficulty will be aligning bureaucratic priorities within the Department of Defense. There is no reason these wargames shouldn’t count towards professional military education graduation requirements. Game designers also need policies and procedures that help them navigate the labyrinth of defense bureaucracy. There is often money available to host games, but strange rules governing what counts as a workshop versus a conference or how researchers can and cannot use funds to support wargames create real barriers to forming fight clubs. The fact is, the modern defense bureaucracy disincentivizes innovative wargames. Fixing that requires senior leaders to push back against bureaucratic regulations and create flexible frameworks for connecting academic institutions, combat development communities, and professional military education.
Rising powers like China can, and may, match military expenditures in the next 20 years. What they will struggle to match is a culture of experimentation and competition. Fostering that culture starts with a renewed commitment to wargaming. The U.S. military needs to start more fight clubs and groom future leaders who will exercise the refined operational judgement that comes from wargaming.
Benjamin Jensen is a faculty member at the Marine Corps University, where he runs the Gray Scholars Program. He holds a dual appointment at American University’s School of International Service and is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He has written three books, including, most recently, Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition. The views expressed are his own.