Wargaming Lessons from Exercise Sea Dragon


“No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength. Only the layman sees in the course of a campaign a consistent execution of a preconceived and highly detailed original concept pursued constantly to the end.”

                                                                                                                    –Moltke the Elder, 1871

“A lesson seems clear. Wargaming, in terms of extensive tactical simulators, is no longer a luxury. It is an essential element of combat team training.”

                                                                                                 –Admiral Thomas Hayward, 1990


How do commanders hone warfighting skills in peacetime?  How can military staff learn to make quick decisions and plan ahead? Is the U.S. military really as good as it thinks it is?

Wargaming is one means — perhaps the most effective means — of preparing for conflict. To get the most from the experience, budding wargamers should learn to deal with the shock of the unexpected, rethink their own lessons from contemporary combat operations, fight when disconnected and outnumbered, and never forget the danger of a freethinking enemy. Wargaming is important because it is a theoretical exploration that aids the practical — and a key to future victory if embedded effectively within military institutions.



The Marine Corps University (MCU) conducts its annual wargaming tournament, Exercise Sea Dragon — which will shortly enter its fifth iteration — as but one way to test the mettle of warfighting practitioners. Surprisingly, participants learn much more about themselves, their fallible planning assumptions, biased tactical methods, and budding operational art. Recent personal experiences in joint professional military education wargaming, and exposure to dynamic warfighting problems inspired some internal exploration, personal reflection, and self-critique in the context of modern wargaming executed at Marine Corps University.

An Annual Evolution That Keeps Getting Better

Sea Dragon has varied its approach slightly each year to account for changes in software, deliberate changes to evolve the competition, and a holistic view to refine the wargaming experience. Combining seminar-style wargaming with a series of free-play scenarios to refine plans and execute, each with a mind toward better quality decisions and tighter orchestration, Marine Corps University sought a way to harness the enthusiasm of participants during a time when all efforts were directed toward personal development and learning as students of the respective schools. Using the educational wargame as a vehicle for competitive engagement, Marine Corps University ran the annual challenge featuring a number of teams in a knock-out competition. Certain scenarios allowed for non-strategic nuclear weapons release and contained the ever-present problem of suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) to enable ground maneuver. These scenarios comprised current U.S. Marine Corps and joint force capabilities as well as those anticipated in the 2025 timeframe.

What is Wargaming?

According to Peter Perla in his classic, The Art of Wargaming, wargames revolve around the interplay of human decisions and game events: “This active and central involvement of human beings is the characteristic that distinguishes wargames from other types of models and simulations.” At the most fundamental level with maps, screens, synch matrixes, and game pieces aside, educational wargames are tools for gaining insights into the dynamics of warfare — with real potential to examine decisions.

Even earlier than Moltke, Gerhard von Scharnhorst sought to develop the Bildung (“education”) of the Prussian junior officer which extended to cover a multitude of map exercises and games. Implicit in the practice of Bildung, Scharnhorst observed, “Practical achievement rests upon theory and from the simplest of combinations. All elements of the science of war are closely related.” Success, in Scharnhorst’s opinion, was initiating an operation with a premeditated plan that contained many contingencies, each corresponding to a hypothesis he had made about his enemy’s probable and possible intentions. Once the plan was activated, it became a problem of exploration. During the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy experimented with wargaming and, quite admirably, led the way for many military institutions. According to Capt. Wayne Hughes, U.S. Navy (ret.) in Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd Edition), war games should stress not merely training and experience, but the lessons learned from each game’s outcome. The use of hypotheses akin to Scharnhorst’s exploration, simple combinations, and a bent toward deriving realistic lessons in wargaming to develop operational judgement cannot be overstated.

One goal of joint professional military education is to develop the operational artist and his or her ability to make quick decisions based on a foundation of lifetime education. However, education, reading, and discussion of historical examples will only progress the mind so far. Perla suggests that an educational wargame must be interesting and playable enough to make its players want to suspend their inherent disbelief, and so open their minds to an active learning process. Multiple repetitions through hands-on wargaming provides the necessary skills to make weighty decisions under pressure and to develop the plans that may win the war and not just the battle.

Today, the U.S. Army War College employs creative solutions through off-the-shelf analogue games to develop creative problem solving and strategic decision-making skills in their students. Wargames are scalable, from tactical decision games to large scale national strategic games, and the best results are when the games are realistic, involve time stress, and contain clear outputs in the form of orders or a decision from authority. With a sense of the intrinsic value of educational wargaming, it’s time to explore four key lessons learned in two years of executing a variety of plans and scenarios against a free-thinking enemy in the crucible of Sea Dragon.

What Was Learned?

Don’t blame the simulation — question your own assumptions. Dealing with the unexpected during a wargame, it was quickly learned that being critical of the team’s decisions and operational approach was more important than blaming the simulation for a failure to execute an operation. Interestingly, a sort of cognitive dissonance emerged between that which was expected by the participants during the wargame and the events which actually occurred in every single match — inducing a level of shock in the mind of the gamer. The standard response was for a team to blame the simulation before examining the event’s probability, a problematic assumption in their own planning, or the friction in executing what was intended. In accounting for friction and the inevitable discomfort it brings, Clausewitz states: “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult … Countless minor incidents, the kind you never really foresee, combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.”

These “minor incidents” manifested as an intended move that was repeatedly jammed by enemy electronic attack, a poorly placed artillery/air/HIMARS strike, or a humble miscalculation of the time it might take to move a unit over different types of terrain. Simple plans became decidedly less so because of the aforementioned. How was cognitive dissonance dealt with? First, an acceptance that the results in front of us were reality — there is no room for blaming the simulation, just react and make the best of it. This is the essence of Perla’s notion of suspending disbelief to feed the active learning process. Overcoming this “cognitive dissonance” forced the team to huddle up and formulate a new solution to gain the best possible outcome. 

The enemy has a vote. The team established a much broader set of principles by which the enemy might operate and convert that thinking into multiple concrete models to be validated through execution. Sea Dragon pits the teams against each other. Attempting to understand the minds of those across the room from you was incredibly challenging for each participant. According to Colin Gray, “the presence of a self-willed foe is literally essential to the nature of war.” An effective starting point was to visualize the way in which the opposing forces would be arrayed beforehand, then create a series of models based on what they could or could not do relative to a range of possible objectives. This visualization went far beyond the standard “most likely” or “most dangerous” courses of action in today’s doctrine and instead represented a “range of acceptable futures” applied to the enemy decision-maker/commander. his gave the team a holistic view of the opposition and an appreciation for the available options.

In creating models, Clausewitz argues, “Even if we did know all the circumstances, their implications and complexities would not permit us to take the necessary steps to deal with them. Therefore, our measures must always be determined by a limited number of possibilities. …” The models for enemy actions were tied to enemy decision points, an examination of possible biases, and the team would confirm or deny each one as the game unfolded. The enemy models (components of a scheme of maneuver) could be combined so that the unfolding enemy course of action was usually a “Frankenstein” of our predetermined ideas, validated by analyzing possible enemy decisions. This was proven especially true in relation to the positioning of heavy weapons and fire support assets against a given enemy objective. Running multiple variations of different models (including a few well-considered “wild card” ideas) eventually built resiliency against unexpected enemy action. The team was usually able to suspend disbelief quicker than the other team. This forced the team to think of solutions and continue to fight, regardless of the scenario, based on an ever-developing enemy model of intended actions that became quicker over time.

Air support isn’t a panacea. It is tempting to rely on air power. Collective operational experience suggests the team would gain and maintain air supremacy with an associated sortie rate commensurate with our intended ground maneuver — this never really eventuated against a Russian adversary who possessed a modern Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). It was a case of learned experience made invalid by a number of scenarios despite every other experience. According to Fred Kagan, “it is a fundamental mistake to see the enemy as a set of targets.” A false assumption on the ability to support maneuver from the air or effectively target from the air at will was occasionally catastrophic. Rotary-wing attack aviation was reduced below 50 percent capability or destroyed completely in 100 percent of matches. Fixed-wing support was reduced below 50 percent capability in 100 percent of matches but was observed to have a disproportionate effect on 20 percent of occasions.

Those are interesting statistics, but what did this mean? The team was forced to rely on organic supporting arms and other expedients far more than expected. Such problems ensured the team developed a comprehensive knowledge of organic fires assets and was prepared to fight a “worst case scenario” fight, where the only viable fires assets left are ground-based and the ability to fire or move had to be prioritized in each turn. Subsequently, this engendered careful consideration for placing high-value assets in survivable positions, then moving them far more often than expected. Throughout each round of the Sea Dragon, over two years, the team was shocked by the disparity in results between well and poorly positioned friendly forces. The team ultimately learned that the experience you take into a fight is likely invalid if you cling to the perceived superiority of a previous lesson.

Learn to fight disconnected and outnumbered. At the start of the competition, the team assumed uninterrupted connection to maneuver units and allocaton of a larger number of assets than the enemy. The assumption was wrong, forcing a rethink of the team’s approach to wargaming. A startling observation from two years of experience was that the brigade or regimental headquarters was destroyed in the opening of 80 percent of matches undertaken by one team — company-level headquarters had an even greater rate of attrition. From this, it was learned that survivability of headquarters can be taken for granted. The headquarters attrition also required players to work through the process of implementing a simple plan with clearly defined engagement criteria and, most importantly, a clear “end state.” The team also learned that this had to be a mechanism for synchronizing effects that could survive in a slower decision-making environment.

Conducting distributed operations with inbuilt redundancy for issuing orders is an imperative for “mission type orders”.  J.F.C Fuller argued in 1925 that, “The three physical elements of war are moving, guarding, and hitting.” Adapting to execute these three key things irrespective of the availability of a headquarters to effectively coordinate the intended move was another lesson. Technological advances in precision-guided munitions have pushed headquarters elements to use deception and signal management to prevent detection and destruction. When it came to fighting outnumbered, qualitative advantages seemed largely effective. Doctrinal teachings quote a 3:1 ratio in the attack, but this might not be a modern luxury worth holding on to, at least as far as human combatants are concerned. With the evolution of unmanned and minimally manned systems, especially low-cost and disposable technologies, the requirement of ratio will be offset. This was demonstrated a number of times as blue forces employed Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) capabilities that could withstand artillery strikes or be used as deception. The concept of properly equipped, small, and distributed teams created a position of asymmetric advantage, regardless of the mathematical disadvantage. The keys to success were clear mission type orders, prioritized attack guidance matrices, and the mental agility to understand when the mechanism for execution was no longer effective and redundancy had to be employed.

Taking the Digital Fight Club Forward?

Wargames provide an opportunity for a commander to exercise a newly formed staff in a high-stress, low-stakes environment. Going into a simulator and refining staff processes while fighting a “thinking” enemy in a controlled environment will pay dividends. The team is more prepared to work together when the time comes to train or fight in less conducive environments. Even one iteration of an educational wargame will help any good team identify areas where they could have performed better and make changes before having to fight for real. Perla offers that wargaming helps planners and players with command and control experience and with greater insight into the complex military problems of tomorrow.

In addition to simulations and a dedicated creative space to wargame, Artificial Intelligence (AI) presents a unique opportunity to enhance human capacity. In a recent article Benjamin Jensen, Scott Cuomo, and Chris Whyte suggest AI can help identify blind spots in planning and operational design by identifying biases. AI can also analyze multiple iterations and provide statistically significant data to assist in more efficacious planning efforts. While there are still flaws with the design of AI and ingrained biases in the codes, ultimately, militaries that take advantage can steal a march on adversary institutions.

Moltke’s observation quoted at the start of this article suggests that tactical results in a wargame aren’t binary or should be easily foreseeable. In other words, generating specific effects assumes causality and continuity along the lines that if A occurs and then B occurs, that A caused B. Such determinism is rarely evident in warfare and awkwardly assumes that a mental model created before the operation will be valid at its end. The results should be expressed as variations of a sub-optimal effect to account for Clausewitz’s definitions of fog and friction. By employing easily available and realistic commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) simulations, individual biases are stripped away, and objective results give the players detailed planning factors to consider. Some commercial-off-the-shelf simulations are highly detailed with realistic probabilities and variables built in. The objective outputs force the staff to plan at a detailed level beyond the “big blue arrows” to truly understand what the cost would be in resources, time, and lives.

Good tactics in wartime derive from good study in peacetime. Wargaming is an extremely dynamic medium to aid this study and give strategists a battlefield edge into the future. The most recent U.S. Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance suggests a renewed emphasis on wargaming that may lead to greater participation across the joint force. MCU’s Sea Dragon is but one example of a contemporary way to hone warfighting skills today with a mind to preparation for the future. And one thing is for sure — the digital fight club is here to stay.



Von Lambert is a graduate of the Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting and a planner in Future Land Warfare Branch of Australian Army Headquarters. He led teams to consecutive victory during two years of the MCU wargaming tournament. Tyler Quinn is a serving Marine Corps Officer, a graduate of USMC command and staff college, and plank holder of Enders Galley.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Timothy Hernandez)