Can the Cycle of Research Save American Military Strategy?


There’s a debate in the Pentagon about wargaming, and it’s heating up. With a recent War on the Rocks article, John Compton, senior analyst and wargame subject-matter expert in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, has put his hat in the ring. Titled “The Obstacles on the Road to Better Analytical Wargaming,” the essay lays out a powerful case that the Defense Department’s wargaming enterprise is broken.

Compton argues that wargamers have ignored Peter Perla’s call to reform of the art of wargaming. Many practitioners continue to execute wargames which aren’t wargames (e.g. Bunch of Guys and Gals Sitting Around a Table), and have failed to adapt their types and styles of games to what the customers ask for. He then describes, accurately in my view, how many wargaming practitioners lack “analytic ownership,” and fail to properly construct their games using multiple methods.



While I largely agree with Compton’s criticism, I think he paints with too large a brush. Many in the wargaming community are working for the very reforms he calls for. Others work in fields which don’t directly apply, such as training or education. In some areas, however, he doesn’t go far enough. His article fails to highlight the danger of the status quo, and the real risk that poorly-constructed analysis (not just wargaming) can lead to battlefield losses. The future force is in danger of being designed based on the impetus of services’ prerogatives and history rather than on a proper inquiry, exploration, and evaluation worthy of a joint force. The detachment of wargaming and the other elements of analysis from an integrated approach cuts the military adrift from its analytic moorings just when the nation and its allies need it the most.

The United States has the analytic talent to implement a proper cycle of research. But this will not be sufficient unless the Department of Defense can organize its functions and incentivize integration of the disparate analytic activities. Fortunately, the Department of Defense has an analytic community with the tools necessary to accomplish the task and a historically successful formula to follow if it chooses to reenergize its efforts. By recreating the cycle of research — which was a success during the Cold War — the Department of Defense can build a truly innovative joint force to take on our new challenges. To do so requires coordinated effort, common scenarios the services can work from, and the synchronized use of multiple diagnostic techniques.

The Challenge of the Century

Choosing and building the right innovative force is hard. It’s difficult because it involves an enormous organization for which change is painstaking, a need to think long-term when focusing on the current crises is so much easier, and cunning competitors who are attempting to outwit them.

Developing the right force is also vital to American national interests. The National Defense Strategy Commission of 2018 reported that the military doesn’t have the operational concepts it needs, and struggles to “link objectives to operational concepts to capabilities to programs and resources.” None of these issues can be fixed unless the Defense Department repairs its analytical capability. A report by the Government Accountability Office identifies a good place to start. Its report specifically notes the lack of a common set of scenarios to be used in strategic analysis. This set of scenarios was once known as the ‘analytic agenda,’ and later became ‘support to strategic analysis.’ Support to strategic analysis has been hindered by three interrelated challenges. The scenarios were said to be cumbersome and inflexible. It was claimed that the analysis did not significantly deviate from services’ programmed force structures or test key assumptions. Finally, it was claimed that the Defense Department lacked the joint analytic capabilities to assess force structures. As frustration increased, key stakeholder and leaders disengaged from the support to strategic analysis process by 2014. Just as importantly, the service’s preferred force structures and their assumptions were not tested until the budgetary process had already been completed, leaving little time and no incentive to examine true alternatives.

Congress required one service to develop truly alternative force structures. Specifically, it made the Navy deliver three alternatives from three different sources, but these alternatives do not appear to have had any significant impact on the 30-year shipbuilding plan. However, the Navy is conducting a new force structure assessment, which may incorporate some of those concepts.

There are those within the defense analysis community who believe that these critical assessments are inaccurate and overstated. Indeed, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic. The Defense Department is blessed with an energetic analytic community capable of tackling these problems with multiple complementary techniques, and who can look back on a historically effective approach for guidance in the future. Meanwhile, an organic grassroots solution has sprung up from within the analytic community. Those who wish to join in the effort can contribute to the solution.

The combined talents of the analytic community — wargamers and operations analysts alike — could help the Pentagon meet the challenges posed in the National Defense Strategy. While there has been a historic distrust between the two communities, an alliance was forged at a special workshop under the aegis of Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work as he campaigned to reinvigorate wargaming. While wargaming, when done correctly, is very valuable for a rapid exploration of the decisions and alternatives competing sides may take, computer-based campaign analysis is extremely valuable in rigorously examining the details and assumptions behind those decisions.

When wargaming and analysis are combined with data collected from experimentation, fleet or field exercises, and weapons tests, it completes a cycle of research that was a key ingredient to winning the Cold War. For example, during the 1980s the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group conducted a series of games and analyses on how to conduct anti-submarine warfare operations against the Soviet navy using team tactics coordinating maritime patrol aircraft, ships, and submarines. The captains who were part of the Strategic Studies Group then went out into the fleet in leadership positions where they implemented those tactics, making it clear to the Russians that they would be no match if the Cold War went hot.

The Cycle of Research

Wargames are crucial in the examination of what competitors can do. They provide insight on the range of options available to rivals who do not have the same perspective as Americans and their allies. The choices of a competitor are strongly shaped by national history, philosophy, and organizational psychology. Furthermore, wargames provide the means to generate a variety of outcomes that assist in the exploration and understanding of potential future scenarios, and the preparation of those who participate in them to respond to the range of potential settings. However, wargames can often lack the precision and rigor needed for the development of an order of battle, budgets, and data necessary for the services and the Defense Department to complete their task of manning, training, and equipping the future forces.

Computer-based campaign models are crucial to the use of science and quantitative analysis to gain insight into the necessary forces, the trained personnel needed to operate those forces, the logistics crucial to operating them, the command and control network to enable them, and myriad other issues. However, all such “analysis must simplify and often discard much that is not reproducible or readily predictable — including at times, human behavior.” The danger is as the analyst searches for a measurement of performance, this can often be based on the American perspective; thus either discounting a competitor’s perspective or, worse, projecting an American perspective onto competitors. This can lead the analysis into an intellectual cul-de-sac where the actions of competitors can neutralize American capabilities.

Wargaming and campaign analysis are dependent on real world events for their validity. The conduct and data collection in experimentation, fleet or field exercises, and weapons tests is critical to ensuring that wargames and analysis are rooted in reality. While the games ask what we can do, and analysis answer how best to do it, real-world events tell us if it can really be done and the factors influencing it.

During the Cold War, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the armed services employed a very successful multi-disciplinary approach that contributed to the American victory over the Soviet Union. The Department developed a series of recommendations to implement peacetime (and if necessary, wartime) approaches to win a long-term competition, including what people now call grey zone competition. While a large set of wargames was used as a diagnostic tool, the Pentagon leveraged these wargames by using them to inform the analysis conducted by other sections of the Defense Department. This enabled the department to use the games to contribute to the development of truly alternative force structures from which current forces arose.

After the end of the Cold War, the pursuit of efficiencies in the face of budget cuts, the disruptions caused by sequestration, and uncertainty about the nature of the dominant threat combined to erode leadership support for the cycle of research. While individuals and offices tried to continue to play their part, without central direction the various disciplines reverted to intellectual silos.

The Way Forward

If the Department of Defense is to successfully take on the challenges described in the National Defense Strategy and compete with other major powers, it will need to support the analytic community to employ all diagnostic approaches — wargaming, analysis (including modeling), and exercises — towards the problem.

It will also have to take a very hard look at its analytic organizations and ask how they do or do not contribute to the cycle of research. How is my wargame contributing to the identification of hypothesis for follow-on analysis or issues to be examined in an exercise? How do the assumptions in my models and simulations stand up to decisions made by experienced players in my games or in fleet/field exercises? Have I fully explored the range of decisions competitors (particularly from the Red perspective) may make before I build my model? How am I capturing data in fleet and field exercises to validate or negate assumptions in my games and modeling? How are my efforts contributing to an overall cycle of research? If these questions cannot be answered, then the public good has not been fully supported.

In the current budget process, the Joint and Service Staff assessment capabilities (including campaign analysis) are brought to bear on the force structures after the budgetary processes have chosen a force.  This means there is no real consideration or analysis of truly alternative joint forces in the process nor trade-off analysis within the joint force. This results in the services continuing to build what they have done in the past. If the Department of Defense is to be effective, then the Secretary of Defense and his staff must have the means to rapidly conduct wargames and assessments of alternative forces (including alternative concepts of operations) early and often in the process.

The value of a common and consistent set of scenarios for the joint analytic process is widely recognized. As a result, an organic grassroots effort has arisen from the services. The services have voluntarily combined their efforts to rebuild the common set of scenarios in the form of the Joint Forces Operational Scenario initiative. Rather than a slow top-down approach, the services have been working together to develop scenarios and a common set of tools to enable sharing of scenarios, assumptions, and results. The Joint Forces Operational Scenario effort recently produced the first joint baseline scenario concept of operations document in only six months.

The Department of Defense should support the communities of practice within the analytic community while they share and refine best practices and explore new techniques. It should use wargaming to examine the wide range of potential scenarios and employ the more precise analytic approaches to tackle common critical issues within them or detailed near term campaigns.  All of this should be validated by fleet and field exercises and experiments to make sure all analysis and gaming is rooted in reality.

Those who wish to contribute to the solutions of these dilemmas can join in the deliberations of the analytic community at two upcoming workshops — one on wargaming and analysis of cyber operations, and another on improving campaign analysis (including its interrelations with other techniques).

The secretary of defense can build on these combined endeavors to enable truly alternative forces to be examined and assessed. Continued success requires all the elements of the national security analytic community to work together, each contributing their own perspective, led by the secretary of defense, to build the innovative joint force that the United States needs.



Commander Phillip Pournelle retired from the US Navy after 26 year of service as a Surface Warfare Officer. He served on cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships, and an experimental high speed vessel. He served on the Navy Staff doing campaign analysis, at the Office of Secretary of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, and at the Office of Net Assessment. He is now the Senior Director for Wargaming and Analysis at the Long Term Strategy Group. The opinions expressed here are strictly his own.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Maj. Joseph Payton)