Battle Lab: Wargaming the Soft Factors

What aren’t we training, and why not? ~

Brant, 23 May 2019

The US military has a wargaming problem.  Well, honestly, they’ve got a bunch, but we’re only going to focus on one specific problem in this column.  And I have no idea if other militaries suffer from a similar problem, so I’ll let our international readers (both of you!) chime in with your thoughts if you’ve got some inside information.TR-sim-map

The core of the issue is this:  US military games don’t account for soft factors, like morale, training, esprit de corps, technical competence of the commander, or simple soldier skills, among literally dozens of others.

Look, we know that not all units are created equal and that not all leaders are equally competent.  But there’s never a platoon of morons in a JANUS exercise, and at BCBST, you’re never allowed to stick C CO in the rear of the march column because if they were out front they’d be the most likely to get lost en route.  Well, you’re allowed to stick them in the rear, but if the evaluators ask you why, you’d better not give that answer, because how dare you accurately assess a weakness of a subordinate unit and then develop a plan to minimize the exposure to that weakness (and isn’t that a real piece of risk management?).

The US military goes to great lengths, and occasionally even absurd lengths, to “validate” and/or “verify” the performance of every technical tool in one of their wargames (which they call “simulations” so the large contractors can charge about 687% markup).  Tank ranges are exact, fuel consumption rates are averaged across a thousand data points, and someone probably coded in a wear-out date for the soles of the infantry’s boots, ostensibly to force the loggies to plan for a resupply, but also because that “feature” tacked on another $68k to the contract.

But wargamers have modeled morale for decades.  The original Squad Leader was the first to popularize morale in small unit tactics, and I’m pretty sure I just sent up a flare that’ll have 11 different wargame historians in here chewing my ass about the ones that did it before Squad Leader.  Either way, wargamers accept the reality that some leaders are better than others.  Some units have better morale and stand and fight when the bullets start going two ways, while others turn and run.  Hang out with the US military, though, and no one ever gets the shakes.

Similarly, all of the pixel-powered subordinates in games run by the US military never deviate from the specific orders they’re given.  They never see a better target of opportunity and decide to chase it instead.  They never mis-time their LD or overshoot their limit of advance, so long as the sim operator has properly loaded the planned behaviors.

In fact, about the only limitation on the competence of the subordinate units in a US military wargame is the skill of the actual sim operator, which can vary wildly from “the National Guard E3 who needed an extra paycheck and volunteered for another weekend” to “brigade HQ TOC rat who keeps getting tasked out as a sim operation” to “retired senior NCO who got hired back on to do nothing but run sims all year long”.  Clearly some of those guys are going to be better than others as sim operators, but the units they’re pushing around inside the box are all equally competent until the sim operators get their hands on them.

Why not have those events in the game?  …  Because to admit that a unit underperformed in the game would force us to admit the uncomfortable reality that sometime our units just aren’t as good as we want to believe they are?

What doesn’t happen in ‘official’ wargames, though, are those things we see happen all the time in actual combat.  No one running a JCATS exercise covering the US Army advance up the Italian peninsula in WWII ever had to worry about GEN Clark gallivanting off to Rome and sacrificing the 36th Infantry Division to a disastrous river crossing.  And yet, that’s exactly what happened.  Equally-competent junior leaders in a JANUS exercise never screw up the graphics on their map, leading to the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah.  Bombs never accidentally hit the Chinese embassy, and A-10s don’t accidentally strafe allied vehicles.  If any of those scenarios ever presented themselves in a wargame-based training event in the US military, it’s done so as an ’inject’ – a scripted narrative component of the exercise that’s designed to force the participants to think ‘outside the game’ and consider other events.  Why not have those events in the game?  Because we’d have to interpret more than technical BDA from the game?  Because we would assume incompetent sim operators before we assumed incompetent subordinates in the game?  Because to admit that a unit underperformed in the game would force us to admit the uncomfortable reality that sometime our units just aren’t as good as we want to believe they are?

Are we really doing our leaders justice if we’re not training them under realistic circumstances?  Or would the existence of a subordinate idiot just give them a built-in excuse to brain-dump the lessons they should be learning from getting their asses kicked by the OPFOR?  Are we too egalitarian to single out a battalion commander and tell him his unit’s PK values in the game are going to be degraded based on training standards, even if we have the low gunnery scores to justify it?

It’s one thing to assume equal competence across units when modeling a new piece of equipment and wanting to compare its performance to its predecessors.  It’s something completely different if we’re trying to train the leaders of a unit on the exercise of command under fire, in which chaos is the norm.

Note that this is a reprint of an older column by Brant from several years ago


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Battle Lab: Wargaming the Soft Factors

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