Roll for Initiative: NATO’s Navies Need a Wargaming Series


The conventional wisdom in Washington is that winning a war in Europe is largely about landpower, not seapower. The U.S. Navy has little to contribute, so the thinking goes, since combat with Russia, should it occur, will mostly be land-based. Since the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014, however, the Navy has stepped up existing efforts to play a more prominent role in European security. This has included using a portion of the USS Harry S. Truman’s 2018 deployment to push above the Arctic Circle off the Norwegian coast, sending thousands of marines and sailors to exercise Trident Juncture in Norway in fall 2018, and deploying the recently re-established Norfolk, Virginia-based Second Fleet to lead this year’s Baltic Operations (BALTOPS). In the event of conflict with Russia, NATO navies will likely need to transport troops and equipment; provide fires in support of land forces; and possibly reinforce Norway, the Baltic states, or Poland from the sea.

NATO’s navies should draw a lesson from history and begin wargaming for a potential future European conflict now. Fortunately, NATO can use an existing foundation to do exactly this with “War at Sea,” a game the U.S. Naval War College’s Joint Military Operations department originally developed in 2017 and has continuously revised since. So, what is the problem with existing NATO naval wargaming? It is high time to tackle this question. In answering it, I draw on my own experience with “War at Sea” — in my capacity as the U.S. Navy liaison officer at the German Armed Forces Staff College — to explain how this game can help plug an important gap in the alliance’s training efforts. Given the minimal additional investment in both time and money required, this wargame offers a golden opportunity for NATO to begin the learning process to succeed in a future conflict.

For the purpose of this article,  it is important to differentiate between a wargame, training, and exercises. Even at the highest levels of the Department of Defense, this isn’t easy. I prefer to default to the RAND corporation’s definition: “analytic games that simulate aspects of warfare at the tactical, operational, or strategic level.” The games do not normally involve actual forces, and participants typically fulfill the roles of opposing staffs. Training and exercises, by contrast, involve forces in the field working together to achieve tactical and operational objectives. Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva made a similar distinction in their 2015 article for War on the Rocks calling for more wargaming within the Department of Defense.

Existing Shortfalls

Based on my experience with two different seminar groups and the German Navy faculty here in Hamburg, existing NATO naval wargaming fails to do the following: address existing geography and the likely opponent, capture modern capabilities, subdivide the European theater, generate lessons learned, and conduct trend analysis.

Address Actual Geography and Realistic Opponents

The European theater is different from the Pacific. In Europe, rather than dealing with a vast ocean with allies and bases thousands of miles apart from one another and the American mainland, NATO will work in what Naval War College Professor Milan Vego describes as a mature theater. America’s European partners offer nearby options for refueling and re-provisioning allied shipping (munitions are a matter for another article). The European landmass, British Isles, and neutral parties (e.g., Sweden and Finland) divide the theater into sub-theaters including the North Atlantic and the Baltic, North, Norwegian, Mediterranean, and Black Seas. Each of these sub-theaters, save the North Atlantic, represents what Vego defines as a “narrow sea,” an area wholly within the reach of land-based aircraft. Each of these narrow seas thus offers a prospective opponent the option to rapidly construct an anti-access area denial bubble.

The Baltic and Black Seas, in particular, are a nightmare for anything larger than a corvette due to the seas’ small sizes and Russian sensor and weapon coverage. However, recent articles have pushed against the idea that Russia has achieved something close to sea denial. These commentaries argue that while NATO should gird itself for a tough fight in the Baltic Sea, the task is not as difficult as imagined, and certainly not impossible. NATO navies would grapple with a Russian Navy that, while smaller than its Soviet predecessor, has increasingly sophisticated technology, multiple types of long-range strike capability, a dense sensor network, and the ability to strike NATO command-and-control.

During the interwar period, U.S. Navy wargaming was effective because the games considered actual opponents (e.g., Japan) and geography (e.g., the Western Pacific). By contrast, the NATO scenario catalogue subdivides actual geography into fictional countries with non-representative enemies. According to a colleague, this is done to avoid overwhelming novice planners just learning the fundamentals of the NATO process with a problem that is “too difficult.” In the NATO scenario NAABEZIEA, for instance, the alliance operates against a made-up country on a sub-divided Iberian peninsula that includes fake islands. The “enemy” order of battle has a mix of Western and Russian hardware, all of it comparatively low-tech and underwhelming in comparison to the imagined NATO forces. Scenario SKOLKAN transports the problem to the Baltic, adds some more islands, but again waters down the enemy capabilities.

While these scenarios are fine for practicing the basics of NATO’s planning process, they do little to prepare operational planners for the complexities of operating in the Baltic against a determined enemy.

Address Actual Capabilities

Wargames should replicate actual capabilities. While it’s tempting to make the game “easier” for the friendly side and achieve a result that briefs well, it does a disservice to participants. A patrol boat with minimal armament is not the equivalent of a modern air defense frigate, and wargame authors should not represent it as such to soothe anyone’s feelings. Ignoring an enemy capability just means refusing to address a future threat. Enemy and friendly capabilities and these aspects of modern combat should all be treated realistically. The team in Newport that developed “War at Sea” has already developed game mechanics that emulate cyber warfare, satellite coverage, Emissions Control (the decision to operate radar and communications systems in a way an enemy could detect), logistics, and civilian traffic.

Subdivide the Theater

Ideally, a scenario based on NATO’s north flank (Baltic, North, and Norwegian Seas) would include participants from Norway, Denmark, Poland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Likewise, a scenario based in the Mediterranean and Black Sea should include Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. Scenarios based on protecting the North Atlantic sea lines could include all NATO nations. This would allow senior leaders looking for frank conversations to determine what forces will be available in the event of a confrontation.

Generate Lessons Learned

The greatest value I have derived from using wargames as a didactic method has come not from play itself but rather from the de-briefings I conducted immediately afterwards. Were successes the result of poor adversary decision-making? Were failures the result of a lacking capability, an unexploited asymmetric advantage, or were they the result of tactical errors? As my students can attest, debriefings can be ruthless affairs. Debriefings, however, must be immediate, succinct, participant-based, and devoid of egos in order to be relevant. Based on observations of wargames that, while NATO did not necessarily sponsor them, included many NATO members, generating post-game products still takes too long, and political considerations continue to hamper the process.

Conduct Trend Analysis

The interwar U.S. Navy was successful because there was a dedicated full-time staff running multiple iterations of each wargame. This staff conducted trend analysis that led to conclusions that included, among others, the realization the United States was likely to lose the Philippines at the start of a conflict with Japan.

The Tool and the Way Forward

“War at Sea” was the brainchild of Marine Col. Tim Powledge. With support from others, he developed the game’s first three scenarios: the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Falklands campaign, and a notional 2020 scenario between the United States and a fictional opponent set in the Coral Sea. I have developed additional scenarios for the battle for Norway in World War II and a 2020 scenario, North Flank, that involves NATO. This scenario is set in the North, Norwegian, and Baltic Seas.

Scenarios replicate warfighting in each of those time periods, and modern capabilities include emissions control, satellite coverage, long-range weapons, logistics, and cyber warfare. While the historical scenarios are interesting for students engaged in professional military education and for older professionals who want to work on operational-level decision-making, the hypothetical NATO scenario represents the logical jumping-off point for a NATO wargaming series.

Once students have completed a play-through and developed their own operational ideas, teams of no more than six face off. Students develop plans for movement; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and fires in eight minutes and submit these cards to a team of facilitators. The facilitators spend approximately 25 minutes adjudicating results and eliciting decisions from the various tactical commanders before the students enter the next eight-minute planning round. The game forces players to make multiple decisions with limited information in a compressed amount of time against a thinking opponent. A typical game lasts approximately four hours.

The Naval War College has already established a European beachhead along the Elbe River at the German Armed Forces Staff College. “War at Sea” has served more than German students, however, to include students from Denmark, Norway, France, Greece, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Pulling a total of 32 participants together four times per year for a three-day gaming/debrief period is a low-cost proposition. Most NATO countries have defense academies that could serve as ideal locations for these types of exercises since they have facilities to host the games and affordable lodging. U.S. Navy participation should come from the fleets expected to regularly engage with NATO allies, the Norfolk-based Second Fleet and Naples-based Sixth Fleet, depending on division of responsibilities and the planned scenario. Rigorous debriefs should be conducted and results presented every time NATO navy leaders congregate. Finally, someone will need to conduct trend analysis to draw out long-term lessons for operational and strategic planners.

The German Navy faculty at the German Armed Forces Staff College has developed a core of facilitators and moderators who can run scenarios up to and including the Falklands campaign. The continued relationship with the U.S. Naval War College means a low-cost option for exercising NATO responses to a European conflict exists in Europe already.

Benefits of “War at Sea”

A single wargame will generate limited benefits, but as Elizabeth Bartels indicated in her 2017 War on the Rocks article, this series of wargames could form the exploratory portion of a cycle designed to better understand what a future naval war around the European continent might look like.

Data Collection

Lessons learned should not be limited to the tactical or operational levels. As students repeatedly play and analyze the existing NATO theaters, patterns will emerge. These patterns may point to previously unrecognized asymmetric advantages for the adversary or a lack of capability for friendly forces. If future NATO operational and strategic commanders routinely face wargame results that bemoan the lack of NATO munitions, for example, each “result” becomes a data point to present to finance ministers at the next year’s budget negotiations. NATO already has an organization dedicated to the capture of both lessons learned and trend analysis. NATO’s Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre is located in Lisbon, Portugal. Its current mission includes analysis of ongoing operations and exercises. Adding analysis of a wargame series appears to be a natural fit.

Force Management

Force management is the process by which resource sponsors and operational commanders determine which ships, maritime patrol aircraft, and submarines a given theater will receive. The normal process involves the operational commander identifying a necessary capability and then requesting that capability from the resource sponsor. The benefit of subdividing the European maritime theater and then overlaying the various NATO nations’ capabilities is that NATO decision-makers can examine potential force allocations and shortfalls. For example, in the event of a NATO-Russia confrontation, the theater of conflict would likely include not only northern Europe but also the Mediterranean and Black Seas. When my students evaluated a potential North Flank scenario, one student pointed out that France would more likely commit its carrier, Charles De Gaulle, in the Mediterranean as the Mediterranean was more critical to French national interests. As James Lacey noted in his recent article in War on the Rocks, calculating total NATO forces and then forcing commanders to allocate forces to each scenario is a worthwhile exercise.

Cost Savings

An event the size of last year’s Trident Juncture, a power projection exercise that brought more than 50,000 troops, 65 ships, and 250 aircraft to Norway, cost an estimated $172 million. Such exercises are valuable as political symbols, generators of lessons learned, and as invaluable opportunities for small-unit integration. The cost, however, means they occur rarely. On the other hand, the cost of executing the U.S. Naval War College game “War at Sea” is comparatively miniscule. Running two games only requires covering expenses for four moderators, four facilitators, and 24 players. Moreover, involving multiple countries means those already minimal costs can be shared.


The German Armed Forces Staff College and U.S. Naval War College diverge in one critical aspect in the way the institutions view “War at Sea,” and that divergence is directly related to their respective student bodies. The Naval War College typically enrolls 200 or more students. Of that group, a large number are non-Navy. Of the Navy students, many do not have operational backgrounds, meaning they are unlikely to command a fleet or even to function as a tactical commander in a future conflict. By contrast, my last seminar in Germany had only 20 students, two of whom were not naval officers. Of the remaining 18, the majority were operators and likely to command ships and squadrons in the future. The games at the German Armed Forces Staff College are able to reach a tactical depth not possible with a larger group less familiar with naval weapons systems and tactics. This more closely replicates a future NATO wargaming series, in that countries send the officers most likely to command operational forces to receive the training benefit, test themselves against other countries’ best, and build a relationship with their peers that will be critical to wartime success.

What NATO should not do is allow a wargaming series to become a “good deal” for idle officers. Each scenario should be an assembly of top warfighters from the NATO navies involved: the trusted commanders and captains who a fleet commander calls in when confronting a difficult problem. Those are the future operational commanders who will face the situations a wargame presents. Making a mistake that costs pretend forces at the gaming table is preferable to losing ships and sailors in a future conflict.

Gaming the Next European War at Sea

I am not suggesting that NATO’s navies do not conduct any wargames, but the last 19 months spent working side-by-side with instructors and students who have completed tours at NATO’s Allied Maritime Command in Northwood, and their subsequent reactions to the game in use at the Bundeswehr Staff College, led me to believe that NATO naval wargaming efforts are few and far between, and commands other than NATO often initiate them. The suggested series above would allow senior leaders to test operational ideas, initiate the difficult political discussions related to force management, provide data for future procurement decisions, and come to the table with their counterparts from the ground forces with more concrete ideas about how NATO’s navies can contribute to a future ground campaign.

Cdr. Jared Samuelson is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. He recently completed a tour as the personnel exchange officer with the Navy faculty at the German Armed Forces Staff College in Hamburg. He is slated to serve as the prospective executive officer/commanding officer of LCS Crew 204 (USS Jackson).

Image: Department of Navy, A rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) from USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79), approaches the German Brandenburg class frigate Mecklenburg-Vorpommern during their underway for Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2014.