Whispers from Wargames About the Gray Zone

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The U.S. Department of Defense is not getting its money’s worth from its extensive investment in wargaming, and it will continue to fail to even as it tries to use it to greater advantage. In 2015, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work called for a revitalization of wargaming in the defense community to help contend with the scale and pace of disruptive change in the world. That call has subsequently been echoed in various ways in professional journals and online forums and has been embedded in recent U.S. Navy capstone documents. Wargaming can be a powerful tool for exploring complex problems and for education, but it is easy to miss some important messages that wargames send. If the Defense Department is to fully realize the value of games, it must become sensitive to their deeper, more subtle signals. As an example, we will examine how games provided advanced but mostly unheeded warning of what has become known as “gray zone” warfare.

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has gradually become aware of gray zone operations. These consist of actions that are hostile but do not cross potential redlines that would trigger armed conflict, especially among major powers. Widely known examples include Russia’s use of “little green men” to seize Crimea and to foment rebellion and separatism in Ukraine, and China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. The advent of such operations seems to have caught the U.S. security community by surprise, but in retrospect, wargames conducted throughout the U.S. armed forces were providing advanced warning at least as early as the 1980s. We simply failed to perceive or heed them.



Games are used by the military to explore potential warfare scenarios to gain insights on the viability of new concepts or plans, the potential efficacy of new kinds of weapons or systems, or perhaps simply to educate future warfighters. The utility of gaming that involves opposing human players, as opposed to computer-based simulations that can look a lot like gaming, is due to the “wicked” (i.e., complex and unstructured) nature of warfare. John Hanley calls wargaming a weakly structured research tool that is appropriate for application to problems that possess “structural indeterminacy” in which even all the elements and factors are unknown. Thus, the information that games produce is attended by a degree of ambiguity, so games cannot be used as experiments to verify hypotheses, nor can they predict the future or even forecast in any rigorous sense, even though they can be an integral component of a larger cycle of research. However, games can indicate what could happen and, in a deeper sense, reveal the underlying logic of a competitive situation. It is this latter ability that is of interest here.

Military wargames are undertaken for specific reasons, and their design is usually based on a set of well-defined objectives. The process of gaming is therefore disciplined, which is necessary given the expense in terms of time, effort, and resources needed to conduct them. Especially in the case of research games, as opposed to those conducted solely for educational purposes, one or more specific research questions are established that guide design, execution, and analysis. Normally a “hot wash” — a plenary discussion of what happened in the game in which all the participants compare notes — is conducted, and sometime later, perhaps weeks or months, analysts prepare a game report. Such discussions, analyses, and reports are usually focused on answering the research questions and addressing game objectives. Yuna Wong and Garret Heath recently called for the employment of more rigorous research tools to determine whether wargaming actually works. Such a project might be able to produce answers with respect to the formal objectives of games, but likely would not be able to shed any light on the more subtle ability of games to reveal things not connected to their objectives.

Wargames, being weakly structured research tools, can reveal so much more, but it takes a sensitive and discerning observer to detect the weak signals or “whispers” — indications that might be easily ignored and that might be counterintuitive or even threatening. Yet it is these whispers we are interested in here. They can reveal the underlying logic of human competition, which is especially relevant today.

I spent many years playing, designing, directing, adjudicating, and analyzing military wargames and teaching the art to military students. Not wanting to simply declare a game a success because it worked out procedurally, I took to thinking hard about what each game actually did or did not reveal, eventually developing the ability to detect game whispers. Whispers, like all indications produced by games, are equivocal, their instantiation or subsequent manifestation being dependent on human agency. However, to the extent that they reveal an underlying logic — a framework of incentives embedded in a situation — they offer sufficient insight upon which to inform plans and strategies. But to matter, they must be detected, articulated, communicated, and accepted by those for whom they offer potential guidance.

A key characteristic of the scenarios used in post-Cold War games run by the U.S. armed services is the asymmetry in conventional military strength between “blue” and “red” players. Blue was always the United States, with red normally being a “rogue” country like Iran or North Korea. In such games, the scenarios created a competitive dynamic of the weak against the strong. That dynamic resulted in difficulties for umpires who attempted to adjudicate game moves. While blue players couched their moves in terms of Army divisions, aircraft carrier battle groups and Air Force wings, red players focused on things like political operations and special operations forces, because that is what they had at their disposal that offered some glimmer of hope. In other words, blue was trying to resolve the dispute with conventional forces while red attempted to side-step such force and directly address the dispute at the political level. Normally, game objectives focused on the use of conventional military force at the operational level, so umpires had to somehow reconcile the asymmetric nature of red and blue player inputs. The result was usually that red stratagems were not allowed their intended effects so that game play could proceed, and umpire assessments were couched in operational terms blue players could interpret.

It is the nature of red moves and the way umpires dealt with the asymmetry with blue that produces the whisper. What it was saying is that red would avoid direct challenge to blue strategies and that blue, in terms of both players and umpires, would attempt to fit such asymmetry within its conventional force superiority paradigm. The reasons for this are important to understand because they have implications for the defense and security community. It is important to note that I observed this phenomenon across many games over a period of years and, to be honest, did not grasp its significance until recently, so the purpose here is not to assign fault but to alert the defense community to the nature of game whispers.

Blue players and umpires were responding directly to game objectives, which were generally oriented on issues connected to the application of conventional military power. This in itself constituted a set of blinders for game players, umpires, and analysts, but in a broader sense reflected the aggregate perceptual constraints of the defense community. Threats were and still are defined to a significant extent in terms of conventional military aggression, whether a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a North Korean invasion of South Korea, or a Russian invasion of the Baltic countries. In the post-Cold War environment, these scenarios — major contingency operations, as they are called — dominated U.S. military planning. Their purpose was not only to provide a basis for force structuring and development, logistics, and command and control arrangements, but also for assessing the potential utility and cost-effectiveness of proposed platforms, weapons, and systems. Even after the 9/11 attacks, when counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations emerged as the principal day-to-day focus of defense, conventional scenarios still guided force development and thus continued to maintain the perceptual constraints of the defense community. A combination of factors served to create such channeling of focus. First, conventional force development is where the money is, so there are powerful institutional incentives for the services to justify force structure, and that means conventional warfighting capabilities. Second, it is not only natural but prudent to base planning on worst-case scenarios, which throughout history have featured conventional military aggression. Third, the creation of strong conventional forces, in conjunction with nuclear forces, is thought to constitute a robust deterrent to aggression. All of these are compelling reasons to focus on conventional warfare in wargames.

Beyond institutional reasons for constrained perceptions, there is a deeper factor that a particular set of games revealed to me. The Naval War College conducted a series of games focused on deterrence and escalation. Their design followed what I previously described. The scenario featured a crisis between the United States and another major power, compared to which the United States enjoyed a significant conventional force superiority, even as red also possessed a significant nuclear capability. A key difference in this game series was in the nature of the players. They were mostly senior people from the intelligence and policy communities, colleagues who were familiar with each other, at least by reputation, from years of professional experience. These players were split into blue and red teams and instructed that signaling was an important aspect of the game. One would have thought that the combination of professional association as well as their common institutional environment would have facilitated the interpretation of signals in the form of force moves and even direct demarches and other communications — structured such that they simulated the dynamics two nations would experience in a crisis. But that was not the case. Blue consistently misinterpreted red signaling, leading to escalation of the scenario crisis that might have been otherwise avoided.

This was mystifying until I “heard the whisper.” Blue was defining the problem/dispute through the lens of conventional military superiority. It was very much a case of the old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The effect not only shaped blue’s moves — it distorted its perceptions of red signaling. Red kept trying to signal how important to it the issues in the crisis were, but blue kept ignoring or misinterpreting those signals.

A third species of the same whisper arose from a series of educational games conducted for selected students from all the nation’s senior war colleges. Called the Joint Land Aerospace Sea Simulation, the games were structured around a notional Korean War scenario, with various blue commands being played by students from the service colleges and red, representing both North Korea and China, being played by students from the National War College. It was not uncommon that over a week of moves, red was able to maneuver blue into a difficult political corner despite what appeared to blue players to be a series of successful operational outcomes. Blue players could not see the problem coming and were shocked and dismayed in the hot wash when the political aspects of the game’s outcome were revealed to them. The games were whispering that, as Carl von Clausewitz claimed, policy dominates warfare. The side with the biggest army does not always hold the strongest hand in a dispute in which a fight to the death is not an option.

Dozens of military wargames conducted over the past four decades have all produced a similar whisper despite differences in objectives, designs, and players. There is a profound difference between the weak and the strong that most definitions of asymmetry in warfare fail to capture. While the games might not have precisely indicated the possibility of China’s island-building or a Russian seizure of Crimea, they tried to alert us to our own perceptual limitations and thus to our vulnerability to surprise. This is not to ascribe negligence on anyone’s part, individually or corporately, but to sensitize the defense community to the deeper and more subtle aspect of wargames. Forewarned about the incentive of the weak but hostile to find ways around U.S. military superiority, we might have been able to forestall or counter gray zone operations more effectively. Two-sided games of the kind I describe here set up arenas of human competition that can reveal “unknown unknowns.”

It is one thing to be alerted to the matter of games whispering — producing weak signals — but quite another to convert those whispers into some kind of action. The problem is that such signals do not, in and of themselves, produce unambiguous justification for investment of resources, making tradeoffs, or incurring risk. In lieu of someone with the authority to do so being convinced and energized by the whisper, one or more intermediate steps would be necessary. Whispers, like most other outputs of games, lead one to ask more questions. In other words, they point to additional or new directions of research. This is sometimes referred to as the cycle of research. Those hearing the whispers must first articulate clearly what they are hearing and then convert it into some kind of research question. Perhaps one whisper from one game could be regarded as spurious, but if it recurs, or if the hearer thinks there is something to it, the first step is to report it and figure out what follow-on steps would be needed to assess its meaning. Once it is converted into a research question, perhaps in a report or even a journal article, it is no longer a whisper but an issue. Where it goes from there is a matter of too many variables to warrant further speculation, but Jeremy Sepinsky argues that the effective use of wargames requires a “positive ecosystem” within the Defense Department, and posits three sets of questions that game designers should ask sponsors to promote one, including what the sponsor wants the game to do for the organization. I would add a fourth question set for both the sponsor and game provider that includes: “Are you ready to acknowledge and accept game signals that are not directly linked to game objectives?” Such an alert would help sensitize all concerned and increase the chances that a whisper could be detected. Further, it perhaps would not be a waste of time for various offices concerned with innovation and strategy to assign someone to go looking for whispers but to see them we need to understand the way wargames can whisper to us, otherwise the games will produce only what we expect them to, which is less than what is possible and less than what we need.



Capt. (ret.) Robert C. (Barney) Rubel served on active duty from 1971-2001, the first twenty years as a light attack/strike fighter aviator and the last ten mostly involved with professional military education.  After retiring from active duty he joined the faculty of the Naval War College, eventually chairing the Wargaming Department and later serving as the Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a previous War on the Rocks author. It is Jeremy Sepinsky, not Sepinksy.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Mackenzie Mendez)