May 18, 2024

A Rio-listic view of PRC Professional Wargaming

RockyMountainNavy, 29 October 2023

A few years back I wrote for the Armchair Dragoons about a report from Institute for the Study of War (ISW) titled Learning Warfare from the Laboratory: China’s Progression in Wargaming and Opposing Force Training (September 2021). Two years on there is still much to learn about how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) uses wargames, and in a bit of a surprise one of the latest journal articles addressing the topic comes to us not from the U.S. or Europe, but from Brazil.

In the journal v. 29 n. 2 (2023): Revista da Escola de Guerra Naval authors Sabrina Medeiros and Luis Campani write in “Tracing the Chinese Wargaming Knowledge and Application Within Strategic Thinking Frameworks” how wargaming is used by the PRC national security apparatus:

“…we highlight that the wargaming knowledge is part of building upon the national security agenda to uphold Chinese international participation from the constitution of the Chinese national identity. Furthermore, we identify ways wargaming could help with the challenges and opportunities in the literature on BRI. We note that alongside the wargaming national security perspective, the technical training apparatus marks an influential trend for Chinese defense development by the West” (Medeiros & Campani, Abstract)

cover issue 787 pt BR
Courtesy Rev. Esc. Guerra Nav 


While the article by Medeiros and Campani adds to our collective understanding of wargaming in the PRC, it actually left me with more questions than answers. Ultimately, what Medeiros and Campani write is a good analysis of how the PRC is likely using national efforts for wargaming to look at global economic initiatives, but the specific wargame (or war games) designs used remain largely unknown.


Hitch your Belt and Road

Medeiros and Campani note that wargaming has a role for understanding the Belt and Road Initiative (also called One Belt, One Road). As they write: “With a wide array of challenges and opportunities arising for implementing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, within China, called yídàiyílù, which translates into One Belt, One Road), wargaming may facilitate overcoming some challenges and seizing the opportunities identified in the literature” (Medeiros & Campani, 250). They go on to discuss some different ways wargaming can help build that understanding:

“The Belt and Road Initiative’s possible uses of wargaming methods include simulating different scenarios, identifying potential risks and challenges that could arise while implementing BRI projects, or testing different strategies for implementing BRI projects. Avoiding potential pitfalls may also be helpful in sewing ties in regions marked by complex antagonisms. The method can bring together stakeholders from different countries and sectors to build consensus and develop a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities associated with the BRI. Understanding each other’s perspectives and working together more effectively is a threshold to consider for effectively creating ties and trust within the Initiative’s maritime or land branch” (Medeiros & Campani, 250-251).

Many times wargame practitioners will discuss the many uses of wargaming. Here, Medeiros and Campani have added to that discussion through the use of a very relevant example; the impact of BRI across the globe. Bravo!


Wargame or war game

In analyzing the current state of wargaming in the PRC, Mederios and Campani draw a distinction between “wargames” and “war games.” Here is how they describe the two:

Wargame: “A predominant feature of wargames is naturally associated with measuring capabilities related to military power and its effectiveness in armed conflicts. As such, military power and deployment are central to any wargame and the nature of human behavior under those conditioning factors (Morgan, 1991; Perla & McGrady, 2011; Harvey, Fielder & Gibb, 2022). The factors to be considered include these forces’ deployment and operational capabilities in different environments and considering the effects of eventual confrontation with other troops. However, using games pragmatically and historically linked to war is not a unique way to do it” (Mederios & Campani, 251).

War Game: “War games, because they increase the visibility of options in decision-making processes and associated risks, are also considered methods of having the complexity of human actions together or in sequence for the best possible, more immediate, or distant future visibility (Perla & McGrady 2011). In addition to the evolution of war games, interaction methods are developed to benefit prediction happening at scale for other sectors, such as complex emergencies or the business environment. Perla coined the concept of the Cycle of Research, which describes how wargaming, exercises, and analysis, coupled with real-world operations and history, have worked together in concert to help the national security community understand the present political-military reality and its past and future evolutions (Perla, 2022). The Cycle of Research is closely related to wargaming as it is one of the tools used in the cycle to better understand political-military reality” (Mederios & Campani, 251-252).

Medeiros and Campani go on to discuss the role of game theory in war games and how the PRC is using it:

“A crucial element of war games is brought by game theory, in which the behavior of one is measured by the estimate he has about the behavior of the other, in this case, the opponent (Whittaker, 2000). This includes enemy forces’ deployment, actions, objectives, and possible countermeasures, where speculation about the enemy’s intentions and actions is required. On the other hand, war games have attracted the attention of experts in the Chinese academic scene, such as those dedicated to studying the political and economic environment, observing how much decision-making can generate other chain decisions that mark the cadence of results (Zhen-Jiang et al., 2017). Among the factors to be considered in the international political environment are economic development status, foreign policy, or public policies that are more relevant for observing variables that may intervene in the process. Factors like these can affect the support and logistics of the combat force (Zhen-Jiang et al., 2017)” (Medeiros & Campini, 252-253).

I’m glad Medeiros and Campani avoid using hexes or counters or a combat results table to describe a wargame/war game. Their distinctions are needed assurance that wargame practitioners both inside and outside the U.S. (and in the PRC?) remain for the better part above the fray the commercial hobby wargame niche is being drawn into with arguments over the Charles S. Roberts Awards and the like. In many ways, this article reaffirms for me my belief that the commercial hobby wargame industry could learn much from wargame practitioners, unlike those in the hobby wargame space who believe that if you are connected with professional wargaming you are ill-suited to be a wargame designer.


Made in the USA

In their survey of models of wargaming in the PRC, Medeiros and Camapni draw heavily on the prior ISW study noted above and an article by Zhanguang, C., Shuai, T., Xiaofeng, H., and Lulong, H. from the 2021 v. 33 n. 9 of the Journal of System Simulation. Interestingly, Medeiros and Campini call out the role of the U.S. Department of Defense SWIFT [Standard Wargame Integration Facilitation Toolkit]. Interestingly, the PRC seems to have adopted SWIFT into their own set of systems:

“This tool, which has been part of the Chinese observation of the good practices in place in the US, has the simulations component alongside the operations and the analysis components (Turnitsa et al., 2022). The wargaming platform called “Mozi·Future Commander,” launched by the Chinese in 2019 (Kania & McCaslin, 2021), seems to drive the project similarly” (Medeiros & Campani, 254-255).

I have heard of the Mozi system before, but it was in conjunction with force-on-force wargames that may have been derived from the likes of Harpoon (Admiralty Trilogy Group) or Command: Modern Operations (Matrix Games). What I don’t see are wargames like the Rand Corp. Hedgemony: A Game of Strategic Choices or Malign: Gaming Influence in the Information Age from the Georgetown University Wargaming Society.

Screenshot 2023 10 14 at 9.11.08 PM
ATG Harpoon Chinese-language products page


Adversarial Machine Learning

Medeiros and Campani go on to discuss the role artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning have in bringing about a focus in the PRC not simply on human-human communications but also human-machine. The authors draw two key conclusions related to wargaming here:

“First, wargaming “absorbs the latest theories and methods of military operations research and weapon and equipment simulation in the development process” (Zhanguang et al., 2021: 2068). Second, it “combines the latest development results of big data and artificial intelligence technology, and adopt technologies such as online simulation based on big data, intelligent AI pairers and cloud-edge=end by continuously integrating modern combat simulation technology and communication means or methods, promoting the deep integration of computerized military wargaming systems with real-world exercises and training, and providing strong support for combat decision making, real-world training, and military education” (Zhanguang et al., 2021: 2068)” (Medeiros & Campani, 255-256).

If there is one part of the study by Medeiros and Campani that is very worrisome to me this may actually be it. There is much discussion by wargame practitioners on the use of AI in modeling & simulation as well as wargaming. Often times the discussion comes down to the ethics of using AI and where does the human sit on the loop (or not). Recent discussions in the U.S. over the use of AI by Kickstarter or by Wizards of the Coast seem quaint against concerns that the PRC may have a national effort to harness AI for the battlefield, much less just wargaming.


BRI-ng it on

Returning to their orignal question, Medeiros and Campani look to how wargames can be used to better understand BRI. They do so by looking at strategic sectors and the benefits that wargaming brings.

Screenshot 2023 10 14 at 8.23.28 PM
Wargaming benefits for the PRC according to Medeiros & Campani (260)


In perhaps the best summation on the uses of wargaming for BRI, Medeiros and Campani write: “We argue that wargaming as a tool could increase the visibility of options in decision-making processes and associated risks in an environment of cultural friction or proximity, allowing for identifying possible externalities that could hamper BRI’s scope to deepen interconnectivity” (Medeiros & Campani, 257-258).

This is where I feel the study by Medeiros and Campani comes up short. While the authors make good arguments on where—often citing the PRC’s own literature—wargaming can find a use, Medeiros and Campani do not point to a particular game that does so beyond a reference to some sort of PRC-version of SWIFT and Mozi-Future Commander. If the PRC is adopting copying U.S. (and presumably European) war games, where are they?


Coming from behind

Medeiros and Campani cite the ISW report that stated the PRC has made significant progress in professional wargaming since the 2000’s, but also acknowledge that since COVID little news has been heard. They draw hope that in the past year the PRC Ministry of National Defense news site has talked more about wargaming. In particular, Medeiros and Campani point to the phrase “building consensus from the deduction” which they believe signals the use of wargaming related to BRI issues (Medeiros & Camapani, 259).

Ominously, Medeiros and Campani conclude by stating, “…the assets that relate the wargaming effort to the Chinese national project can be listed, but they seem to be part of a broader scope than the BRI” (Medeiros & Campani, 259). Wargaming in the PRC, Medeiros and Campani relate, comes in two layers. The first is an operational layer where the “wargaming model is traditionally treated in the military planning environment while using tools of a broad technological spectrum to promote the prediction of adversary behavior and possible scenarios of interest and impact on the Chinese strategy in conflict or suggesting potential for conflict” (Medeiros & Campani, 260). The second layer, almost certainly of more interest to wargame practitioners, is “built upon the Chinese national security identity” where “the exercises point to a framing strategy in a national project that aligned the civilian perspective, including that of the [People’s Liberation Army] Academy, centered on the Chinese Communits Party” (Medeiros & Campani, 260-261).

If a Government Accountability Office report earlier this year is any indication, wargaming in the Department of Defense—much less the broader U.S. government—urgently needs to be enhanced. Even if the call to action from the GAO is acknowledged and acted upon (a doubtful proposition) the U.S. is still very likely to fall behind the PRC in the state of the art of wargaming. Though the PRC is drawing upon the U.S for now, how long will it be before the PRC moves ahead and the U.S. finds the tables turned?


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