January 16, 2021

Battle Lab: Another “Resurgence” of Military Wargaming

Brant Guillory, 16 December 2020

The military wants to ‘get back’ to wargaming.  Are they serious this time? ~

There’s been a recent trend in the media covering some developments in the military that I hope or at least slightly heartening. I’ve started to see multiple articles here and there on well-respected online sites about the reinvigoration of wargaming in the military.

Note that this is a reprint of an older column, originally written about 5 years ago.

I’ve written before about the way the professionals use wargaming and how it differs from hobby games and what is commercially realistic. That said, there is certainly some crossover between the two given that so many professionals are also hot scammers, or have been taught by them.
(As an editor note, voice recognition just picked up “hobby gamers” as “hot scammers”; maybe Google knows something we don’t?)

There have been articles from the Marines, the Navy, think tanks, and high ranking DoD officials about ways in which the military can start using wargaming again. Part of this is being driven by budget constraints.  My hope is that at least part of this trend is being driven by explorations of uncertainty in our future conflicts.  This type of exploratory wargaming drove US naval innovations in aviation in the inter-war years, and has also been credited with the development of German blitzkrieg tactics around the same time.  So the track record exists of using wargaming as a forward-looking tool for examining doctrine and concepts.  It’s already known as a tool for training, even if a misunderstood one on a regular basis.  Again, I’ve talked about the uses of wargaming in a previous column, so I won’t rehash too much here, just go read the earlier article.

Despite the good news, I am still concerned about a couple of trends that I see in the discussions. First, there seems to be a continuing love affair with power cords. I will get back up on my soapbox about this – certainly not for the last time – but a “wargame” does not inherently require a power cord. There are a great number of easy-to-use tabletop systems that can be employed to great affect for any number of training purposes. Quite frankly, many of those same table top systems can also be used to great affect for decision support.  After all, when was the last time you saw a battalion staff wargaming their courses of action for the MDMP huddled around a computer wargame?

Every single time I ever executed a course of action wargame in a staff exercise, it was over a table-sized paper map with a bunch of sticky notes representing the units.  Why not the same paper map with cardboard counters representing the units as you move them around?  And once you’re past the mental roadblock of those cardboard counters, why not take it a step further and start varying the combat results?  Why not use the same map / counters / results paradigm for a training session instead of just an MDMP planning session?

What’s going to be the most telling about whether or not this process actually ’sticks’ is the extent to which wargaming infiltrates the bastions of doctrine in the services.

What’s going to be the most telling about whether or not this process actually ’sticks’ is the extent to which wargaming infiltrates the bastions of doctrine in the services.  The schoolhouses are the common denominator for everyone in the military, whether it’s initial-entry training (aka, “boot camp”) or a mid-career school focused on E-6s and O-3s.  There are two signs that are going to be telling.

The first is that wargames are actually used in the curriculum – are the students using wargaming as a tool for learning new concepts, or practicing the ones they’ve recently acquired?  Wargaming in this context inculcates the participants to the ‘normalcy’ of wargaming – it’s no longer an anomaly, because it’s an expected part of the learning process in all of the schoolhouses.  This is the given, right?  If we’re going to bring wargaming back to the military, then putting it into as many places we can only makes sense.

The more telling marker, however, is going to be how (or if!) institutional wargaming takes hold by training the trainers.  It’s one thing to simply start incorporating wargames into basic instructional contexts.  It’s a whole new level of commitment when the military starts developing multiple road shows to train the instructors in the schoolhouses, and creates a block of instruction that teaches not just how to play the games, but how to properly incorporate them into the lessons being taught.  The true nature of the military’s commitment is going to be measured by the ways in which wargaming is not merely pasted on to existing activities, but in the ways in which the next generation(s) of leaders and instructors are “raised” with wargaming as an expectation in their careers, not merely an occasional sideshow or one-off distraction.

Now, I will save for a future column my personal thoughts on how ‘unwieldy’ some of the professional wargames can be, and why, and why their cumbersome nature creates such a negative feeling towards their use among the professionals.  I completely understand why there are negative reactions among certain folks in uniform whenever the word “wargame” is brought up.  But the failure of execution (to be addressed later) should not obscure the propriety of the intention.

 

Notes added 5 years later:

Nope.  It hasn’t happened.  And while it’s heartening to see things The Krulak Center, and GUWS, and multiple global Connections Conferences, and even the new CAC publication about improving MDMP wargaming, the 2 key telltale signs of whether or not the DoD is serious about implementing wargaming into the force have not come to pass, and show no signs of getting there.


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