Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 09/07/2010

reflections on FIELDEX 2010

We’ve posted before on the 2nd Annual Field Exercise in Stability Operations (FIELDEX) organized in April by the Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES) at Tufts University. Today, we’re happy to feature a summary report by one of the organizers, Eileen Guo—together with some of her thoughts on what organizers of such an exercise need to keep in mind.

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Eileen Guo

FIELDEX 2010 was designed to:

1. Allow the application of classroom theories to simulated real world crises.

2. Foster a greater understanding for and appreciation of the complexities of conflict.

3. Develop leadership and crisis management skills in fast-paced and challenging scenarios based on practitioners’ experiences in the field.

4. Introduce students to the operational and tactical realities that they may face as future leaders in military, civilian, government, and non-governmental organizations.

This year’s exercise centered around provincial elections in the fictional Roshan, Mazalastan – loosely based on Nawzad, Afghanistan.

Key Players

  • Coalition Forces (CF)
  • Mazal National Police (MNP)
  • Civilian Actors
  • United Nations Assistance Mission-Mazalstan (UNAMM) – both foreign and local nationals
  • International journalists
    • Villagers (Mazalis)
      • Village leaders
      • Political candidates
      • Villagers
    • Insurgents: Mazalastan Liberation Front (MLF)

    Simulation Summary

    FIELDEX took place over the course of April 16-17, 2010 at P&L Paintball in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.  Participants included undergraduates from Tufts University, MALD candidates from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, as well as cadets and midshipmen from all three service academies.

    Prior to the actual simulation, participants received a participant packet detailing the exercise background, their role description, and a suggested reading list.  Organizers chose participants’ roles with the goal of exposing them to new perspectives; thus, whenever possible, we placed students with military backgrounds (ROTC and cadets/midshipmen from the service academies) into either civilian roles, and civilian students into the role of the security forces. We also sought to put participants that would not work together outside of FIELDEX in the same role group, so that UNAMM, for example, was an even mix of Fletcher, Tufts, and military students.

    Participants playing combatants arrived on the evening of the 16th to receive introductory training.  The learning objectives of the military portion of the training were to introduce a sense of camaraderie and unit cohesion among the students, but also to show the difficulties of life as a member of security forces. It also prepared them for the roles they would assume during the scenarios the next day. All players received a brief on civil-military relations.  Then, the groups split up into Coalition and Mazali Forces.  CF training included basic military tactics such as prisoner apprehension and detention, basic military formations, urban warfare tactics, etc.  For the MNP and the MLF (whose identities were kept secret), the training was more cultural in nature, and focused on acquainting them with the local area and establishing team dynamics.

    In the morning, CF trained MNP in the same tactics they had learned the night before.  The civilian actors then arrived, and after safety and introductory briefs, the scenarios began.

    Scenario 1: Village Politics

    The first scenario was split into three story lines.  There was a meeting between the key leaders of the village, the security forces, and UNAMM.  Villagers got to know one another and their surroundings, and CF and MNP established a checkpoint at the trading post.  There were two simultaneous attacks on the shura and the village, in which seven villagers were killed by an improvised explosive devise (IED).

    Scenario 2: Voter Registration

    A joint CF and MNP patrol into the village was met by an immediate fire fight, including a friendly fire incident.  This early violence made election preparation, the scenario’s main objective, impossible.  Exercise staff “reset” the scenario in order to achieve its objectives.  Once the scenario was restarted, CF and MNP successfully patrolled and secured the area, and UNAMM registered the majority of the village to vote in the upcoming elections.

    Scenario 3: The Elections

    In the final scenario, elections progressed according to plan.  The opposition candidate was given a security detail to prevent her assassination.  The incumbent candidate won, and the elections were deemed fair by UNAMM.  However, a small amount of post-election violence occurred, with an IED attack that killed several villagers, and CF and MNP jointly confiscating several weapons caches.

    Areas for Improvement

    Provincial elections provided an excellent backdrop for the scenario to unfold.  Future scenarios should adopt the model of having a central theme.

    The exercise was organized so that participants learned from their own mistakes and failures, which allowed them to learn crucial lessons.  Scenario pre-briefs and post-briefs facilitated this process.  However, participants should be given more time in the pre-brief periods to plan for the upcoming scenario.

    Additionally, villagers should be given more concrete objectives to fulfill.  This year’s exercise had villagers trading goods in a basic market economy; improving the market and making the villager experience more realistic should be a priority.  The village culture should also be more defined, guiding villagers’ behavior and imposing consequences on CF and UNAMM when they cross cultural boundaries.

    Elements such as the key leader meeting were useful for participants to develop relationships.   However, to allow extra time for relatinoship as well as individual character development, all participants – not just those playing insurgents and security forces – should be given more role-specific training and preparation before the beginning of the scenarios.  Thus, all participants will take part in the overnight portion.

    Additionally, participants would benefit from a “classroom” portion of the exercise to give them a general introduction to the theory behind stability operations.  This would improve both the exercise experience itself as well as post-exercise takeaways.

    Participants’ Lessons Learned

    • Planning is key to mission success. When CF and MNP spent time devising a plan for security during the elections, they were better able to stay on task and deal with insurgent activity.
    • Missions are best accomplished with interagency and popular support.  Different institutions can benefit from each other’s areas of competency and produce a better outcome if they work together.  When CF and MNP provided security, UNAMM was able to carry out the elections.
    • A positive intra-agency dynamic, with strong leadership and a clearly shared strategic vision, can be just as important as interagency cooperation. Strong leadership was imperative to avoiding confusion and accomplishing tasks, as demonstrated by a lack of leadership in UNAMM that frustrated many.
    • Local buy-in is key to long-term stability. It is important to empower local leaders and work for those most affected by the local conflict.  Villagers felt very out of control when foreign forces entered their village and thus reacted negatively to them.
    • Despite the best planning, mission success or failure often boiled down to split-second decisions. Intuitive reactions in the heat of the moment often had great implications, like the failure to heed suspicions at a checkpoint, later leading to an IED explosion.
    • Despite best intentions, players appeared to ultimately be motivated by self-interest. In the provincial elections, for example, the corrupt incumbent candidate easily defeated the challenger even though the latter worked harder to better the village’s situation while he was merely buying and bullying votes.


    FIELDEX was designed to give students an additional frame of reference from which to understand current conflicts.  It was not meant to give its participants a “war experience” but rather to provide a glimpse into how difficult it is to accomplish one’s mission in a conflict/post-conflict environment.  Role-playing, even for a day, forces participants to step out of their comfort zone.  Indeed, according to feedback received, participants are already thinking differently.  Thus, FIELDEX achieved its objective of showing students how hard it was to prevent election fraud or obey rules of engagement – even when the only thing at stake was some splattered paintballs.

    …and some additional thoughts…

    A field exercise is unlike other simulation exercises in its complexity. Not only must organizers plan elaborate, realistic scenarios, they must also take into account such factors as increment weather, safety and liability issues, and general logistics. Where is the exercise going to take place? Is transportation necessary? Will participants be provided with food and water? Who’s on hand for medical emergencies? What medical issues might arise?

    In considering running a field simulation exercise , the organizers would do well to consider the following:

    1) Is a field exercise right for you? Field exercises are meant to simulate at least some of the real-life conditions faced in the field. They are often used to teach participants how to think on their feet, react quickly to varied stimuli, and to otherwise give participants a dose of reality. For the purposes of FIELDEX, it was never a question of whether our should be a field exercise, but what type of field exercise we should hold. Namely, did holding the FIELDEX at a paintball range significantly add to or take away from our purpose? We (and our sponsors) were concerned that the use of paintball guns would turn the exercise into a “war game” in the most trivial sense of the term and that our participants would be attracted to the exercise because of the potential of shooting some paintballs and letting off steam. But on the other hand, we believed that even if there was such an incentive in participation, this trigger-happiness would reflect the eagerness of many real soldiers to use force upon arrival in theatre. In the end, we decided that the benefits of using P&L Paintball (the realism) outweighed the negatives (implications of violence). And in the end, we made it sufficiently clear through promotional materials and pre-scenario participant packets that the exercise was not a paintball free-for-all.

    2) Always plan for the worst case scenario. If your exercise is going to take place outdoors, this means assuming the worst in terms of weather. In both this year’s FIELDEX and last year’s COINEX, we had bad weather. We tried to mitigate the cold weather (and in places unmelted snow) of last year’s exercise by holding FIELDEX 2010 in mid-April, but we didn’t account for April showers. We had told participants to prepare for bad weather, but for most university students with little outdoor experience, it’s hard to imagine just how cold it can get in the rain and at night. Having both participants and organizers plan for the worst – the latter by bringing back-up gear – is essential. While we could have done better to prepare for the unexpected foul weather, we were prepared logistically in terms of providing transportation (we rented a bus), hot-ish meals (through MREs), plenty of water, extra tents and sleeping bags (which proved essential as at least one of the tents flooded.)

    3) Have enough well-trained staff members on hand the day of the exercise. Because of the scope of the exercise – during some scenarios, we had three simultaneous story-lines, and the potential for safety and other mishaps, we had 10 main staff members as well as several observers to make sure that the exercise ran smoothly. We had one executive director that oversaw the whole exercise, and then the rest of the main staffers were split up among identity groups so that two staff members were the “advisor” to the participants playing Coalition Forces (CF), two more to the Mazali National Police (MNP), two to the United Nations Assistance Mission-Mazalastan (UNAMM), two to the Mazali civilians, and one to the insurgents. The advisors led debriefs between scenarios and answered their group’s questions during scenarios – and as the scenario continued, the staff got into their roles as well, becoming as or more engrossed in their identity groups’ success as/than the participants.

    In the planning phase of the exercise, there were five main undergraduate organizers and a graduate student who advised us. The day of the exercise, we had 10 staff members as well as several safety observers. We held a staff meeting and a quick run-through of the exercise the day before, but not everyone could make it. Thus, it is absolutely essential that all staff members are in contact and on the same page as to both the strategy and vision of the field exercise, as well as the exact details of the exercise itself.”

    These are of course only a small sampling of the lessons learned, but they’re a good starting point for anyone who wants to run a field exercise. Bottom line: have a clear strategic vision of objectives to accomplish, plan early and plan well, and recruit others because you’re not going to be able to do it alone.

    Eileen Guo
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