Wargaming Has a Place, But Is No Panacea for Professional Military Education


“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
-Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

The school year is about to start, and not just for the kids. Senior-level professional military education is about to begin a new academic year, with new classes of students from across the services preparing to embark upon ten months of education that is meant to elevate their thinking from the operational and tactical to the strategic level. In the two years since the release of the National Defense Strategy (and the now-infamous paragraph that declared professional military education to be “stagnant”), a heated debate has emerged on the pages of this website about the best ways to accomplish the mission of professional military education. Suggestions for improvement have spanned the gamut, from teaching students to be good staffers to introducing diversity — both in the faculty and the curriculum — to improving the ways in which we assess strategic competency. Others have pushed back, pointing out that professional military education already is highly responsive to change and warning about the dangers of the “good idea fairy.” In April, James Lacy of the Marine War College proposed another solution: All professional military education institutions should include board game wargaming as a part of their curriculum.

While this recommendation may hold appeal with those who are explicitly focused on military history and operational art, Lacey’s proposal is both short-sighted and misses the importance of diversity in professional military education — both between service colleges and in the curriculum itself. There is little doubt that experiential learning can be a valuable part of any education, including professional military education. But it also comes in many forms, all of which have benefits and costs. If the mission of professional military education is to educate the next generation of senior leaders about the strategic level of war and expose them to the tools they will need to succeed at that level, then we must use a variety of methods across the service colleges, rather than defaulting to a series of one-size-fits-all solutions.

What Does Professional Military Education Try to Accomplish?

The purpose of senior professional military education is, ostensibly, to teach the next generation of senior officers how to think, operate, and lead at the strategic level. Rather than rote training, we are expected to provide students with the broad education and tools they need to adapt and operate in a rapidly changing strategic environment. The National Defense Strategy itself specifies that, “The global strategic environment demands increased strategic flexibility and freedom of action… to shape proactively the strategic environment” and that the Department of Defense should develop, “leaders who are competent in national-level decision-making [to include] assignments that increase understanding of interagency decision-making processes, as well as alliances and coalitions.”

While wargaming military campaigns can surely be of use once conflict has broken out, other forms of experiential learning may be more valuable when it comes to shaping the international environment “below the level of armed conflict.” (It is worth noting that at the strategic level, where war is the continuation of politics by other means, conflict is not merely a military struggle but a test of wills that utilizes all the elements of national power.) Further, while some aspects of strategic thinking remain constant across the force, oftentimes strategic leadership means different things for different services and specialties. Leaders in the past have recognized this: The Officer Professional Military Education Program guide tasks each service college with ensuring, “student expertise and competency on their respective Service’s roles, missions and principal operating domains … unfettered by Service parochialism across the range of military operations.” In other words, each service college is expected to provide a joint education with service-specific flavoring. For example, the reality of campaign planning in the Air Force is that it is only done by a small group of people operating under the concept of “centralized planning, decentralized execution.” As such, while some services need every senior leader to be an adept campaign planner, the Air Force has different needs for its strategic leaders, and our education reflects that. If we start mandating certain types of learning without regard to the context in which they are being offered, this could in fact compromise, rather than enhance, professional military education.

A Framework for Thinking about Experiential Learning

So what is the value of experiential learning in professional military education, and how might it be employed effectively to achieve the objectives outlined by stakeholders? While experiential learning is both an important and highly effective method of increasing student learning, there are a variety of ways to do it. We therefore offer a framework for thinking about different types of experiential learning, and evaluate the costs and benefits associated with each.

While in the military, many think that the words modeling, simulation, and wargaming are synonymous, they are not. We find Matthew Caffrey’s taxonomy and hierarchy of wargaming very helpful here: “models are proportional representations of the real world … when a model is examined over time, it becomes a simulation … when opposing sides compete against each other in a simulation, they are in a simulation game … when a simulation game involves armed factions in conflict, it is a wargame.”



When our students read theories of international politics, decision-making, and strategy, they are reflecting upon models for viewing the world. Models are static and meant to simplify complex phenomenon to get at the heart of a particular issue or dilemma. They both serve an important purpose (exposing students to different ways of viewing the strategic environment) and are relatively costless from an educator and institutional standpoint. However, while parsimonious models can therefore be extremely helpful in identifying the major relevant issues in a situation, they also by definition lack depth and at times fidelity to real life.

Simulations, on the other hand, require participants to evaluate scenarios and make decisions across a broad range of often contradictory, competitive, and interactive conditions. They ask students to apply the models they’ve learned in the classroom to appreciate the complexity of strategic dilemmas. Many times, simulations ask students to play the part of past decision-makers, placing them in critical strategic moments with declassified documents in order to better approximate reality. There are undeniable benefits to this: In a historical setting, students have access to all of the information and capabilities when working on their “wicked problems.” But while simulations provide a more contextualized understanding of the strategic environment, they require additional time, resources, and many times students will use ex ante knowledge of how a conflict played out to “game the game.”

Further along the spectrum of experiential learning is what we can call simulation games and/or wargames. There are many types of wargames, usually distinguished by how they represent reality, or how they analyze and adjudicate results. First, in professional military education, we represent reality by conducting analytical or constructive wargames, where military forces are not employed. Within this category, there exist a broad range of open, closed, single-turn, multi-turn, seminar, or matrix games that vary the interaction, adjudication and feedback in the wargame process.

Closed games present a single situation that participants are asked respond to. While this can be valuable in getting students to work through a problem in real time, it does not allow them to interact with potential adversaries. Open games, by contrast, allow for interaction between teams, but oftentimes also require a complex adjudication process that monopolizes time and resources that might be better spent on other activities. Single turn versus multi-turn games involve similar trade-offs between time and utility: At what point do students approach diminishing returns relative to what we needed them to get out of the exercise?

Board games, whether they are designed (or funded) by the government or commercially available, offer great promise and utility in the Defense Department and professional military education, but they are only a subset of the broader category of wargames available for experiential learning. In many cases, they offer less fidelity than other types of games, making simplifying assumptions about the nature of diplomacy, economics, cyber, and space even if the game is able to replicate to a large degree the realism of land warfare. They usually also require an adjudication process that is complex and time consuming, and therefore potentially more appropriate for small groups of students rather than a large class.

Finally, we offer that there are other, even more immersive layers of experiential learning that can be extremely effective in professional military education. Staff rides, “represent a unique and persuasive method of conveying the lesson of the past to the present-day leadership for current application. Properly conducted, these exercises bring to life on the very terrain where historic encounters took place … This historical study, particularly with personal reconnaissance, offers valuable opportunities to develop professional leadership and the capacity for effective use of combined arms on the air-land battlefield.” Staff rides allow future leaders to, “conduct critical analysis: determine the facts, establish cause and effect, and analyze the results.” Under the right tutelage, future leaders can extend the scenario and apply the art and science of warfighting by applying lessons of the past to illuminate their understanding of potential future scenarios.

Finally, regional security, country visits, and cultural immersion provide an effective method to saturate students and encourage application of study accomplished in the classroom. Augmenting reading and guided seminar discussions with travel and interaction with partners and potential adversaries alike, can provide significant insight and context and deepens the level of understanding in a way that would be difficult otherwise.

Applying Experiential Learning Across the Spectrum

What does this look like in a curriculum? The Air War College uses a variety of tools to try and expose our over 240 students to multiple forms of experiential learning throughout the academic year. Early in the year, students complete two exercises designed to introduce them to the strategic level of war and decision-making: one centered around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the other around the decision to escalate in Vietnam. In both scenarios, students are presented with background information and documents, and asked to develop a strategy in response to those “wicked problems.”

As they develop as strategic thinkers, we then introduce students to a variety of more military-specific simulations through our courses on Airpower and Theater Strategy and Campaigning courses. Students are asked to apply foundational knowledge and concepts to current, emerging or future scenarios to develop coherent and comprehensive plans, campaigns and strategies that integrate military effects in all domains with coordinated actions of all the instruments of national power.

Toward the end of their study here, students do a full immersion program through our Regional Security Studies program, where they spend two weeks abroad in a region of their choice learning about the full spectrum of political, military, economic, and cultural factors that affect security both within different countries and around the world. Students visit embassies, meet with foreign defense ministries, engage with economic leaders, and observe how a country’s culture impacts the way in which they approach regional and global security challenges.

Finally, the year culminates with a closed wargame called “Global Challenge,” where we present students with a future world to which they must respond by prioritizing threats, developing a comprehensive global strategy, and designing an operational approach that responds to a military threat. This week-long exercise tests the students on the full spectrum of educational outcomes they are expected to achieve during their ten months of study. This year, in addition to receiving guidance from the faculty, students were also observed and mentored by five retired flag officers with decades of strategic experience between them. Indeed, far from being “useless,” Global Challenge was acknowledged by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a “best practice” at the last joint education accreditation inspection and continues to be rated by students (along with our regional security studies program) as one of the most educational experiences at the war college.

Overall, our mission here at Maxwell is to educate the Air Force’s next generation of leaders, which means providing a joint education with an appreciation for the needs and capabilities of airpower. For those students who show a particular interest in campaign planning we offer electives that fill this desire — including but not limited to courses that do board wargames of the type that Lacey describes, simulations around the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a year-long elective with most other war colleges that culminates in a week-long Joint Land Air Sea Strategic open wargame.

The Way Forward

As we enter a new era of great power competition, our students must of course be ready to lead America’s warfighters against near-peer competitors. But even the breakout of a conflict between great powers in the modern era will necessarily require the seamless integration of all of the instruments of power. Indeed, much like Lacey’s students found that cyber operations worked particularly well when employed with other kinetic forces, the military’s “hard power” can both be supplemented by and a supplement to the use of political, economic, and informational instruments as well.

In order to best educate and prepare our students for this complex and challenging environment, a variety of tools are necessary, and “one size fits all” solutions may do more harm than good. There are many types of immersive programs that can be employed to achieve a broad range of learning objectives. We should strive to view our curriculum not as a checklist of required activities but instead as a wholistic educational experience.



Carrie Lee is an Assistant Professor in International Security Studies at the U.S. Air War College and Director of the National Security Decision-Making course.

Bill Lewis is a professor of Leadership and Joint Operations at the U.S. Air War College and Director of the Airpower course.

The views expressed here do not reflect the views of the Air War College, Air University, or the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Air Force, Nathan Allen