Conflicts in Wargames: Leveraging Disagreements to Build Value

May 11, 2021
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Millennium Challenge 2002 is likely the most infamous wargame of the last several decades. During an event billed as the key to U.S. military transformation, Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, while commanding an inferior opposing force in the scenario, quickly sunk 19 U.S. ships and rendered the carrier battle group ineffective. Despite the controversy that followed, Lt. Gen. B. B. Bell, the commander of U.S. forces in the game, identified a number of valuable tactical lessons for dealing with asymmetric warfare. He also recognized the importance of red teaming in the planning process, and went on to establish more than 20 red teams in the organizations he led. Not all lessons gleaned from wargaming are highlighted so dramatically. In fact, valuable information can be easily missed.

While the idea that wargames play a key role in helping organizations identify useful insights is widely accepted, there is less agreement on the mechanisms that best accomplish this task. The wargaming literature underscores the importance of networks, the role of weak signals, and internalization of the experience. While all of these (and others) play a role, this article will explore three key parallels between wargaming practices and sound executive decision-making that can help convert contentious debate into insights: including diverse perspectives, debating their merits publicly, and revisiting key recommendations multiple times. These practices are particularly useful when decision-makers are struggling to discern the signals of valuable information from the pervasive background noise.

An Executive Decision Model

A simple model of an executive decision process is helpful for understanding the dynamics that will shape a decision-maker’s (or wargame sponsor’s) understanding of an issue. The basic model consists of an executive (or key decision-maker) being advised by a panel of advisers, each bringing a unique perspective based on their area of expertise and their sub-organization’s functions. For example, a U.S. president is advised by Cabinet members and others. This model is quite common and can be found with CEOs (advised in the areas of marketing, engineering, operations, etc.), general officers in the military (advised in the areas of intelligence, operations, logistics, etc.), nonprofit directors (advised in the areas of fundraising, budgeting, outreach, etc.), and others.



In places where this model is found, organizations are dealing with enormous amounts of information that must be interpreted and weighed to guide consequential decisions. The advisers have different sources of information, as well as differing biases based on their personal experiences and bureaucratic roles (where you stand depends upon where you sit). Of interest for this analysis is how the interactions of the advisers impact the executive’s ability to develop a complete understanding of the situation. This model is based on an influential paper in economics as well as research on presidential decision-making during war termination.

Consider an example in which a leader makes a decision after consulting with one (biased) adviser. The decision of the leader is highly likely to reflect that bias because of framing effects, since the adviser can unilaterally frame the issue. To overcome the bias of a single expert adviser, the leader must make an enormous investment of time and effort in self-education on the subject to become proficient enough in the topic to identify problems in the adviser’s reasoning. When consulting multiple biased advisers, it is reasonable to expect this task to become more difficult. In fact, understanding of the situation and final decisions can improve, provided three conditions are met. First, advisers should have unlike biases (diverse perspectives on the key issues at hand). Simply put, disagreements are good. Second, points of disagreement should be debated publicly in front of the key decision-maker to reveal new, important information. Finally, the group should continue to revisit points of contention to allow time for ideas and understanding to develop.

I will explore these points in a bit more detail, and draw out the connections to wargaming practices that can help identify useful insights. Each of the suggestions made in the three main points below is categorized for implementation at the institution, the organization, or the game level. In this categorization, the institution is the larger bureaucracy that determines the challenges that will be addressed by a series of wargames. The organization is the level that is primarily focused on the conduct of the next wargame in a series. Finally, the game level is the point at which the wargame interactions play out. Implementing the suggestions made in each category is intended to help move the practice of wargaming closer to fully leveraging the process of debate. Any organization that uses wargaming can benefit from these changes.

Preserve Disagreements

In hierarchical organizations like the Defense Department, members tend to work to achieve a consensus before providing the final decision-maker with a recommendation. But there is a great deal of value in preserving disagreements and hearing from multiple voices “in the room.” In foreign policy making, this practice is known as “multiple advocacy,” and it has been shown to be effective in improving decisions by preserving high quality information for the final stages of decision.

In contrast, gatekeeping is a practice in which information flow is tightly controlled and alternative views are suppressed. A single perspective is unlikely to improve the quality of decisions, since arriving at that single perspective requires that information be stripped away from the process. Members of the decision group, when isolated from competing perspectives, can badly misinterpret the effectiveness of their preferred decision. When multiple perspectives survive late into the process, more information is brought into consideration and the entire group is exposed to new information more quickly.

Wargames provide an ideal setting for developing competing perspectives on a concept, as well as developing understanding of an unfamiliar system or setting (such as a gray zone conflict). As a decision simulation that is designed to be inherently conflictual, the game ensures alternative views are brought to the table. One of the benefits of a wargame is providing a forum for exchanging ideas and perspectives on the issue at hand. This is a critical first step on the road to improving a collective understanding of the unfamiliar system.

Research has shown that managed conflict within a team is a precondition for creativity and innovation. An effective wargame design will help identify those issues where disagreements arise and preserve them for follow-on research and analysis. Drilling down into these creative tension points from a few different angles is a good place to look for new insights.

To help preserve disagreements in the wargaming process, institutions should work to broaden the participation base in their wargames, such as including participants from different services (for military games) and other agencies. Professional schools are likely the best starting point for encouraging the practice of integrating different perspectives from other agencies at lower levels of the organizations.

In addition, organizations should work to expand the range of team types when setting game agendas. The typical approach (blue for friendly allies, red for adversaries, and green for neutrals or others — often played by white, which is the game control team) does not reflect the full range of interests at play in a real scenario. More robust representation of non-blue teams will encourage honest debate and critique of blue’s concepts and strategies, since the opposing players have an interest in their team’s success. In each game, the white cell should be documenting those disagreements that were not resolved through debate. Assuming the initial game setup discourages groupthink, the sticking points in the debate will help point out those things that require further inquiry.

Debate Publicly

In an executive decision, information does not come into the process in isolation. It is typically packaged with a recommendation from an adviser. The most valuable information in this situation is that which deals with why an action might succeed or fail (strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons). But advocates of an action will tend to overestimate its benefits while underestimating its costs — this is known as optimism bias. They also magnify or downplay information according to their preferences (confirmation bias). With multiple options under consideration with their accompanying biases, the most effective resolution strategy for consequential decisions is open debate over the merits in front of the key decision-maker.

Such debate shifts the incentives in how a recommendation is presented. When each course of action will be subject to critique, participants will moderate claims and anticipate weaknesses of their own preference, as well as come prepared to thoughtfully critique a competing recommendation. This approach makes best use of the expertise that is available to the executive — leveraging insights and perspectives to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the possibilities.

Wargames provide an ideal forum to begin the process of debate on big challenges, since disagreement is expected on the set of issues at hand. The competition among participants is a key feature of the process that encourages learning at the individual and group levels.

There are often too many assumptions associated with the effectiveness of a newly developed concept that has not yet been exposed to a tough test. Wargaming is one way to provide such a test through developing a better understanding of adversary actions and identifying weaknesses in a given move. As each of these perspectives is tested by the scrutiny of well-informed peers with differing viewpoints, distortions created by individual and organizational biases begin to be stripped away. This is related to the earlier point of finding contentious issues, but goes a step further in advocating that some time is spent arguing those issues — provided they are related to the original purposes of the exercise and conducted professionally.

To encourage public debate during wargames, institutions should establish a wargame agenda that leverages more open-ended questions, rather than focusing on binary outcomes (i.e., “does concept X work, yes or no?”). Questions that invite a wider variety of perspectives are more likely to spur creative thinking. In addition, organizations should work hard at seeking out and utilizing wargame directors able to manage the competing perspectives within the game as well as the objectives of the sponsor. With properly targeted questions and game objectives, the director will be better empowered to deal directly with points of contention.

Finally, within a game, the white cell (i.e., the game controllers) should insist upon team participation in an objection phase — such as that which is used in matrix wargames — even if it is not itself a matrix game. By making objection and debate an expected aspect of the game dynamics, the game controller can lower the entry barrier to routine questioning of assertions.

Revisit, Reconsider, and Rework

Options should be considered iteratively, over time, and from multiple angles. This allows for new information to be brought in, ideas to develop, and innovation to occur. Such a multistage decision process, in which key issues are revisited in light of new information, improves decision-making. A single-stage process, by contrast, magnifies the power of earlier framing effects over the final decision, and allows distorted information to survive. In the simplified decision model described earlier, this process of revisiting helps advisers reconsider their earlier recommendations, make adjustments based on the critiques and new information brought up during the debates, and provide the executive with the best possible version of their option.

Applying this principle to wargaming, these simulations can provide a cost-effective approach to examine the dynamics at play in a given crisis multiple times. This not only allows individuals new to the scenario to become familiar with the issues and provide their perspectives into the process, but it also allows the game’s sponsors to explore how changes to initial conditions, the framing of the central issues, and different early decisions might affect the course of the competition. The ability to evaluate opportunity costs associated with various decisions is especially important for games designed to explore new concepts or systems. Such an evaluation is impossible without being able to easily rerun the game.

Scale is an important consideration. It is difficult to reset and rerun large, highly choreographed events given senior leader time constraints as well as the challenges associated with conducting the games. Smaller wargames have the advantage of being able to be easily reset, as well as providing an environment more conducive to risky moves. The Air Force Futures group uses such an approach called agile wargaming, where an iterative approach allows a focused group to examine a challenge from multiple angles. Innovation often begins with multiple, small-scale bets and more frequent risk-taking. Such iterative wargaming is a healthy part of a policy process, especially when the blue side stands a good chance of losing.

To encourage revisiting and reworking important concepts and approaches, institutions should establish topic-specific funding for series of wargames rather than funding by event. In a single event, a high degree of choreography, a high-cost structure for support, and high-ranking main participants all work to discourage iterative approaches (as well as out-of-the-box experimenting). With funding attached to a topic, institutions can be more flexible in aiming for desired outcomes over time and be freer in reworking scenarios.

Organizations should also work to vary the starting conditions of games examining the same scenario, while also closely managing these changes to avoid contradictory results. A systematic approach to this variation will help keep the intellectual efforts aligned. In each game, the white cell should be active in identifying conceptual forks — potential decision points in the game where different decisions may drive radically different outcomes. Such points will help identify the topics to explore in future iterations.

A Call for More Time

In a typical policy process, advisers develop options which are debated for periods of time that can range up to months. This time allows both individual contemplation as well as group discussion to fully flesh out concepts and develop new ideas. This type of approach integrates the advantages both team and individual work can bring into the process.

Wargames, on the other hand, are frequently conducted over a very short time frame. Although there are obviously constraints on everyone’s time, there are serious issues game sponsors should be aware of regarding shorter events. For example, framing effects are much more pronounced under a compressed time frame, where risks and downsides will not be correctly assessed. Further, availability biases can drive game decisions when teams are called upon to react to an unanticipated event. This is especially problematic for games intended as an information search vehicle for unfamiliar problem sets.

One way to mitigate some of these problems is either moving to a part-time model where groups meet periodically as the game progresses, or an asynchronous model where teams develop moves to bring into the game after they are fully developed within time constraints. Both approaches can provide additional time for logic quality to improve, ideas to develop, and new information to be successfully integrated into each turn.

The U.K. Fight Club is a wargaming organization that took the latter approach and used wargaming software to conduct a virtual matrix wargame for 60 participants in a six-week game across six time zones. The game sponsor argues the approach helped successfully develop insights about the relationships between information, military actions, and diplomatic maneuvers in gray zone competitions that were shared with senior defense leaders. The asynchronous play allowed teams to fully develop their arguments, research articles that informed each move, and internally discuss objections to other teams’ moves. The platform and approach helped maximize the advantages of all the principles discussed here.

Wargames are useful specifically because they model human conflict on the battlefield. But conflict within the wargame itself can be an important indicator of ideas that deserve further scrutiny in the cycle of research. Disagreement is common in executive decision situations and actually provides the raw material for clarifying complex problems, focusing on the right information, and identifying useful actions — provided the disagreements are properly leveraged in the process. Three key steps help ensure value can be derived from that process: preserving disagreements until late in the decision cycle, debating publicly, and revisiting the topic multiple times to allow new information to update participant beliefs. Properly managed, such disagreements can help identify and develop the concepts and approaches all organizations in the national security enterprise require for today’s conflicts and challenges.



Thomas Nagle, Ph.D., is a retired Army strategist and armor officer. He has had deployments to Iraq and Bosnia, and strategy assignments at the Pentagon and U.S. Special Operations Command. He is also the creator of WarPaths, an online platform for conducting virtual matrix wargames for national security students and professionals. WarPaths is built on the principles discussed in this article.

Image: U.S. Army