A Tale of Two Wargames: An Entirely Fictitious Tale of Wargaming Woe and Tragedy


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The following tale, while fictionalized to protect the guilty, happened largely as described. Which of the two main characters in the tale should you listen to?

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there was a secretary of defense who had a difficult problem. He believed that this problem required deep analytical wargaming to unravel, so he posed his problem to a famous wargame provider who gladly accepted the challenge. Meanwhile, he also posed the question to his own staff, who went unto their own staffs. Ultimately the challenge was also taken up by a lowly minion armed with a small budget and the freedom to develop his own approach to understanding the problem the secretary had posed.

The famous wargame provider had been conducting wargames for many years and he was confident of his ability to accomplish the mission. So, he sat down and created a plan. He would design a wargame in which he would invite all the best military thinkers to play. He marked on his calendar the date upon which the wargame would be conducted and set about planning. First, he made all the relevant agencies aware of the event so that they would have enough time to ensure that their best people would attend. He then set about designing his game. 



Having designed such wargames for many years, he knew exactly how he would approach the problem. The players would be divided into teams who would then be responsible for creating plans of action. A blue team would develop plans for our side, and a red team, composed of all the best subject matter expert intelligence personnel, would develop opposing plans that would accurately reflect the best understanding of the real-world red approach to such conflicts. These clashing plans of action would then be adjudicated by a team composed of experts drawn from several agencies and stakeholders with expertise in such matters. 

The famous wargame designer then went about the process of executing a successful wargame. He made certain that the best possible venue was reserved to conduct the event at all the required levels of classification. He trained his staff to ensure that they would capture relevant game events and conversations through note-taking. He designed a process for the teams to interact and specified proper constraints. He developed the forces and dispositions for both sides using the most current defense planning scenarios and operational plans.

Finally, the day of the event arrived. It was conducted in flawless fashion. All the players applied their best knowledge and experience to developing their respective plans, and the adjudicators adjudicated in as unbiased a fashion as they could. At the end of the event, all the participants reported back to their respective agencies how well the wargame was done and how much they learned by attending. Those who had never attended a wargame before were converted to the amazing effectiveness of the technique, which so immersed players in the problem set and allowed them to think deeply along with their peers about the problem. 

In the days following the event, the famous wargame designer worked with his team to develop a report for the secretary of defense. This report explained how the game was done, who attended, and how effective it was. It then related what happened during the event and concluded that the U.S. player did not have enough forces available to effectively fight the enemy at this time and that in order to do so in the future and in the real world, the U.S. military would need a much larger force. These results, for a time, became the dominant narrative for the theater. It eventually became so well known that the famous wargame designer was even invited before Congress to brief them on the wargame and its findings. Of course, the discovery of the U.S. military’s inadequacy in the face of a potential enemy took many by surprise and set off a debate on just how it should go about developing such a force. Budgets were affected, programs were altered, and thinking in the defense community shifted to the dire state of the armed forces.

Meanwhile, the lowly minion worked quietly. He eschewed anything that resembled a schedule. At first, he would not even commit to doing a wargame. When asked for a study plan, he assembled a document that outlined in the broadest possible terms how he would approach the problem. Lacking any specificity, the document was largely ignored and the minion was left alone to conduct his work.

In the initial stages of his investigation, our lowly minion wasted no time thinking about wargames. Instead, he used the budget he had to assemble a team of researchers consisting of some retired operational combat veterans and planners, a commercial wargame designer, a research methodologist, and several analysts from a variety of backgrounds. 

He then tasked this team with conducting foundational research that surrounded the problem set. First, they evaluated some new tactical notions that posited enabling local populations to fight delaying actions against red until blue forces could arrive. So the team designed a tactical, rigidly adjudicated wargame that was adopted from an existing commercial design. They then invited some tactical combat experts from the relevant geographic combatant command to evaluate the design for an afternoon. These experts provided some guidance and suggested changes. With this updated wargame design in hand, the team played out several possible variants using different weapons systems in varying terrain. This allowed the team to develop a detailed narrative of why the idea would not work. This was the first report that emerged from our lowly minion; it took approximately a month to produce from the beginning of the project. 

Next, our lowly minion tasked his team with developing an analysis of the region. During the initial literature review, it was realized that current operational plans and planning scenarios were created using regional maps that had been made several decades earlier. So a terrain study was initiated to understand the implications for maneuvering forces and the capacity of the infrastructure to flow forces in. This study discovered that human activity in the region had significantly altered the landscape, and it appeared that these alterations might have a significant impact on current planning ideas. 

So a new series of efforts were started to examine this discovery and its implications. One concern within the planning community that had been getting a lot of attention was a mismatch in the range capability of certain weapons systems. So a study was rapidly conducted to examine the implications of this difference. The subsequent effort involved developing a clear understanding of how these systems were employed and deployed. It was quickly determined that the range differential was not relevant due to employment characteristics and quantities of the systems themselves. 

The team then shifted its attention to a more macro-tactical investigation of the terrain implications on existing deployment plans. Our lowly minion again turned to the existing library of commercial wargames to rapidly develop a custom, rigidly adjudicated wargame design. This custom design was once again vetted by external subject matter experts and played internally. Perhaps a dozen iterations of the game demonstrated that the changes in terrain that had occurred over the decades since the original source maps were created made current regional defense plans completely untenable. Thus, our lowly minion made the rather controversial decision to completely abandon existing operational plans and planning scenarios as a guide. This occurred about three months into the project. But because the lowly minion had two experienced operational combat veterans and planners on the team, he was able to task them with developing an entirely new approach to the defense of the region. 

After weeks of discussion, arguments, and gnashing of teeth the team developed a completely new concept for force employment in the event of an enemy attack. The concept was a significant departure from existing ideas. The team was tasked with moving forward with the project using the new concept exclusively. Several more ancillary studies were conducted to ensure that the dependencies of the new plan were understood and accounted for. The decision to move forward exclusively with the new idea was not immediately well received, as it is risky indeed to depart from existing scenario constructs. However, the lowly minion was quite convinced of the unworkability of those constructs and pressed on.

At this stage of the project, the team was developing a significant level of expertise concerning the subject, and ancillary studies could be conducted much more quickly as a result. But in order to examine the new force employment plan, the team once again turned to rigidly adjudicated wargames. Again, another commercial board game was adapted by the team’s game designer to examine the higher-level operational implications of the new idea. Several weeks of design time were required to vet the systems with subject matter experts and generate buy-in for how the game was modeling combat. Once again, the game was played internally, this time with a few invited observers, over the course of several weeks. The game was played perhaps fifteen times to allow for learning and exploration of various alternatives. 

At the end of the operational evaluation, it was determined that the new force employment idea was viable, but it had a short shelf life due to the existence of capable red air defense systems. Thus, there was a dependency on taking down those defense systems within a certain time frame. The problem was that existing work on that time frame showed those systems surviving well beyond the shelf life of the deployed blue forces under the new construct. Thus, our lowly minion shifted the focus of the study to thoroughly understanding those defense systems. As it happened, the relevant combatant command was also interested in this problem. Thus, a partnership was formed. The team would help the combatant command examine the problem of the air defense systems provided that they allow the team to do so within the context of the new force employment approach. The partnership proved fruitful, as the partnered team was able to demonstrate that, through a completely different joint approach, the enemy defense systems could be dealt with in a way that made the new employment idea function in its entirety. 

The final item that the team had to examine was the logistical feasibility and sustainability of the new approach. Mobilization and logistical experts were brought in to help develop an understanding of the limitations and capabilities of existing infrastructure. These findings were incorporated to temper the new approach. 

In the aftermath of this study effort by our lowly minion, an operational plan was altered to incorporate the team’s new employment approach, something those familiar with this process will understand is a truly significant accomplishment. The resulting report showed the secretary how the problem he was concerned with could be dealt with by existing forces and within a shortened time frame. It also discussed how the approach limited escalation potential and provided off-ramps. The entire study was conducted within the same period of time and for the same amount of money as the other wargame. He was then tasked with telling other wargame providers about his approach to wargames in order to get them to adopt it. In so doing, existing wargame providers exclaimed that while his approach was possibly good, a balance between his approach and the more traditional, event planning style of wargame was desired, even though with the disbanding of the original team, the sum total of others using his approach was zero. Other wargame providers exclaimed that conducting the entirety of the cycle of research was not something they were willing to do. 

I offer this tale to you, dear reader, for your consideration. And I ask, if you were the decision-maker, which approach would you prefer? This is a serious question because while the above tale is entirely fictitious, it also all happened almost exactly as described. Wargame providers continue to plan events rather than conduct analytical studies, and resistance to dedicated teams in the Defense Department remains high. And yet, the effectiveness of the results of the two approaches is clear, and the story told above is not an isolated example. Wargames as event planning are fun to attend, and most who attend them come away convinced they learned a great deal. Yet, these event-style wargames produce little in terms of ways forward, innovation, or useable answers. Further, they frequently create negative learning and reinforce existing biases due to the lack of any foundational research or ancillary support studies. Regardless, wargame providers continue to conduct them to the exclusion of more analytically robust designs of research that incorporate smaller, more focused games into broader discovery efforts, and resistance to change appears to be high. It is unclear whether that is due to resistance to new ideas, or whether providers lack the required expertise or desire to develop it to conduct such efforts. Regardless of which it is, a paradigm shift within the wargame community is needed, and with it should come a significant rethinking of what it means to be able to design and conduct a wargame in the analytical sense. It further requires a shift in the competence of those who claim to be wargame providers. Finally, there are significant implications for what it means to train wargame designers, and folks who are allergic to formal approaches or the library of commercial wargame designs simply need not apply. 

But the changes are not limited to the wargame community. The development of expertise within dedicated teams capable of conducting multi-method approaches to complex questions is not just desirable, it is necessary. The current infatuation with the idea that machine learning algorithms or simplified campaign models can get after the sorts of wicked problems we are actually faced with is unlikely to meet with success. 

There is some reason to be hopeful, however. The ideas presented above in the alternative approach to the application of wargames to analytical studies are gaining support within the Defense Department and in the wargaming community. The impact that the combined approach has had on plans and broader thinking about the theaters we are currently engaged in has not gone unnoticed. What the future holds is unknown, but the advocacy is gaining some ground. But there are significant obstacles and resistance to overcome. 



Jon Compton, Ph.D., is a senior analyst and wargame subject-matter expert in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He holds a doctorate in formal research methods and world politics. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government. The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the U.S. Department of Defense of the linked websites, or the information, products, or services contained therein. The Defense Department does not exercise any editorial, security, or other control over the information you may access at these locations.


Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Eric Ramirez