Rolling the Iron Dice: From Analytical Wargaming to the Cycle of Research


Is U.S. wargaming in dramatic need of reform? Jon Compton of the Office of the Secretary of Defense insisted the answer is yes in a recent article that caused some consternation and debate in the community of defense wargamers. Compton said much of value, but more needs to be said. He poured a heavy dose of criticism over the wargaming community, not all of which is well targeted.

We certainly agree about the need to integrate wargames with analyses, exercises, and assessments as part of — dare we say it? — the cycle of research. Indeed, CNA and others have striven to do exactly that — when the sponsors of our work have been open to doing so. We disagree with Compton, however, about giving the wargaming community the central role and responsibility for integrating all aspects of the cycle of research.

The Cycle of Research proposed first in The Art of Wargaming by Peter P. Perla.

It is long past time for the leadership of the Department — perhaps acting through the groups Compton calls on the carpet (federally funded research and development centers, other contractors, and educational institutions) — to break apart the stovepipes of analysis, wargaming and, indeed, of “analytical wargaming” as Compton terms it. Pentagon leadership needs to focus on integrating those stovepipes into a new paradigm for providing comprehensive advice to senior leadership. These senior leaders should include not only those within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but also those of the services, the various operational and functional commands, and the research community writ large. That senior leadership will best be served not merely by better analytical wargaming but primarily by their own broad-based commitment to integrate wargaming with analysis, exercises, experiments, and real-world assessments. It is through such integration that senior leaders — indeed, leaders at all levels — can base their crucial strategic, programmatic, operational, and tactical decisions on the most comprehensive information and insight available.



Compton has illuminated the way forward through his description of the project he undertook at the office of Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation (CAPE) to create what he termed “analytical ownership.” It was a process involving repeated cycles of analysis in the traditional sense in order to, as he describes it, “run or create models and simulations to validate or falsify game assumptions.” In turn, the games themselves became “analytically credible by virtue of the fact that multistage efforts created end-to-end logical narratives for why the results were what they were, and why it mattered.” This process is precisely what one of us  proposed in coining the “cycle of research” nearly 30 years ago.

The underlying power behind the cycle of research has been demonstrated on several occasions. The integration of technical research and experimentation, fleet exercises, and Naval War College wargames played an essential part in preparing the leadership of the U.S. Navy for their roles during World War II. More recently, the detailed technical analyses and iterated wargaming carried out by the Naval War College’s Halsey Alfa group have influenced fleet experiments and exercises and informed Navy decisions about both future programs and operations.

The organizations that make up the “wargaming community” that Compton criticizes so harshly — federally funded research and development centers, other contractors, and educational institutions — are not all in the position of being their own master distinct from the government agencies who must sponsor and fund such work. Although Compton implied that federally funded research and development centers, as well as others, should “take analytical ownership” of this process, it is important to recognize that the CAPE effort was sponsored and executed with government leadership. The Naval War College’s Halsey Alfa group has been using a similar paradigm for more than a decade.

Indeed, we use that term, paradigm, with malice aforethought. Since the McNamara era’s introduction of the concepts of systems analysis into the Pentagon’s lexicon, analysis has become a mantra of truth. Even the term Compton uses — analytical wargaming — demonstrates obeisance to the concepts of analytical rigor and objectivity based on the principles of economics and the physical sciences. For too long that paradigm has seduced both the analysis and wargaming communities within the Defense Department into judging the value of all tools, regardless of their character and use, by standards of validity and utility too narrow to encompass the full range of truth and value.

The paradigm should change.

Instead of imposing the tenets of systems analysis and operations research on wargaming, or those of wargaming on analysis, it is time for the Department — not their supporting contractors and institutions — to recognize the essential need to integrate all the intellectual tools at its disposal across all levels of decisions. And it is at the locus of those decisions that the need should be recognized and the supporting expertise tasked and funded to meet new requirements. The supporting contractors and institutions are very much in a position to fill those requirements but are not — and should not be — in a position to determine what those requirements are. Defense leaders in government and the military ought to take responsibility to use all the tools at their disposal — including operational forces as well as the operations research, analysis, and wargaming communities — to gather the information they need to make the best possible decision.

But it is also imperative that each of these communities draw on the knowledge and experience of the others. Paper analyses and wargames should leverage and be leveraged by practical activities such as experiments, exercises, and real-world assessments. One simple way to think about the essential cycle is this. Analyses help us understand the effects and effectiveness of current and future weapons, systems, and concepts. Wargames help identify how that understanding — and how what we don’t know and how what we are mistaken about — may influence how we act, and in doing so can help us identify critical analyses that need to be done. Exercises, experiments and real-world assessments help us understand better how real people and systems perform in the real environment. Which of these pieces can we do without?

At every stage, the owners of the problem — the strategists, programmers, operational commanders, and others — are the ones who ultimately must specify what they want to learn and how to translate what the results of all those efforts mean for their own decisions. It is the Department of Defense — not the federally funded research and development centers, contractors, and educational institutions — who should take the “analytical ownership” Compton calls for. In his own recent article highlighting the value of the cycle of research, Phillip Pournelle proposes a way forward for the Department of Defense to address the challenges it faces. His prescription includes the traditional application of common scenarios across the department. There may be value to such scenarios, but they may also prove just another bureaucratic box to check while designers of games and analyses find creative ways to “drive a truck through” them to focus on their preferred issues and solutions.

Within that context, the wargaming community is not without sin. As Compton points out, there are bad wargames — and even worse events masquerading as wargames — being perpetrated on the department. The community of those who recognize and understand the strengths and weaknesses of wargaming should be unrelenting in their critiques of such events. Just as they ought to be unflagging in their efforts to help educate and energize the leaders of the department — those who fund and sponsor wargaming and other research. Both the leaders and their supporting communities need to look beyond individual philosophies and tools and to integrate wargames, exercises, analyses, experiments, and real-world assessments into the comprehensive information and advice needed by those who must make the critical decisions affecting national security.



Dr. Peter P. Perla earned a Ph.D. in probability and statistics from Carnegie-Mellon University. He is a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). He is the author of The Art of Wargaming and has designed or developed many games for the government and industry. Dr. Perla is one of the instructors for the Wargaming Certificate course sponsored by MORS, and in 2017 he received the first award for Lifetime Achievement in Wargaming by the Connections Wargaming conference.

Dr. Web Ewell earned his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Princeton. He directs CNA’s Integration and Gaming Team where he is responsible for design and execution of dozens of games annually. He served 10 years in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, ultimately as director of Force Structure and Risk Assessment, and responsible at various times for Defense Planning Scenarios, the Defense Program Projection, and for oversight of shipbuilding and expeditionary warfare programs.

Dr. Christopher Ma received his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Chris is a senior research scientist on the CNA Gaming Team. His recent work focuses on logistics and technology competition.

Dr. Justin Peachey received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Clemson University. He is a research scientist and wargame designer at CNA. While at CNA, Justin has conducted research, designed, and run games for both research and training.

Dr. Jeremy Sepinsky received his Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from Northwestern university. Jeremy is a senior research scientist and the Lead Wargame Designer on the CNA Gaming team.

Dr. Basil Tripsas received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois. He is a senior research scientist on CNA’s Gaming team. Basil has been a CNA field representative to several fleet commands and has worked on topics including anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship missile defense, and assessments of the operational utility of the Navy’s Future Naval Capabilities.

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of CNA.


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