Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Simulating insurgency and counter-insurgency

In the latest issue of the Training & Simulation Journal, Michael Peck examines the simulation of insurgency, counter-insurgency, and irregular warfare within the military and broader national security establishment:

Counterinsurgency, vast and nebulous, has long been intellectual quicksand for the defense modeling and simulation community. But the sands may be firming up.

“Frankly, the best modelers in the Army were uncertain what could be accomplished and at what pace, in the face of many new and different challenges to the modeling of military operations in [irregular warfare],” said Garry Lambert, director of the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command Analysis Center (TRAC) at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Steve Goodwin, director of the strategy and operations division of National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning, echoes Lambert’s assessment. “The exercise community has not generally been successful in developing COIN models and simulations that can predict outcomes with a reasonable degree of confidence,” he said. “This is particularly true of games looking at complex contingencies, where psychological and social lines of operation, such as information operations and political negotiation, are hard to capture in mathematical models.”

But in just the past few years, the mood has changed. Don’t call it optimism. Call it realism, a sense of what is possible and what isn’t. Irregular warfare models and simulations are coming. But if you’re hoping for a computer program to tell you how to beat the Taliban, don’t hold your breath.

In the piece, Michael discusses a number of recent COIN simulations, including the Army’s Irregular Warfare Tactical Wargame, NDU’s Gemstone, and UrbanSim. He also highlights the evolution of simulation modelling in this area, such as changes to the military’s Joint Non-Kinetic Effects Model (JNEM).

One of the problems he identifies concerns both the absence of sustained engagement with social scientists working in these areas and uncertainty among scholars of insurgency themselves as to how best understand the dynamics of insurgency:

While there has been progress in modeling irregular warfare, the obstacles remain daunting. At the top of the list is a lack of social science theory. Put 10 political scientists in a room, and you’ll have 10 theories of what causes insurgencies or why people support certain political parties. If political scientists, economists and sociologists can’t agree, then the theoretical foundations of COIN models will always be shaky. But the defense modeling community is adapting.

“We haven’t in the past reached out to social scientists, and we need to do so,” said Jeff Appleget, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the former head of TRAC’s effort to improve irregular warfare analysis. “Think of us analysts as kinetic guys. We understand the physics behind shooting a tank round. We don’t need social scientists to understand that. If we’re talking about how a foot patrol in Baghdad affects how the populations view their government and the insurgents, I’ve got no idea how to model that.”

Part of the problem here is that social science is generally talking about causal relationships that seem to be common among large numbers of cases, but which only explain part of the variance across cases. Moreover, they tend to focus at upper levels of analysis (regions, countries) and longer time frames. Military simulation modelers are often interested much more specific, tactical relationships, at lower levels of analysis (province, village, clan, individuals), and over shorter as well as longer time periods. Plus, on top of that, yes—the academic field is very far from having an agreed theoretical model of either insurgency or counter-insurgency.

In this context, the T&SJ article also notes that part of the challenge of modelling COIN is communicating to senior leaders what simulation can, and cannot, provide:

In the end, modeling and simulation can only make a difference if users trust it. Much will depend on whether the military accepts the new wave of irregular warfare simulations.

“Most interesting to me is how this will play out with senior leaders,” Lambert said. “They are used to the kind of results we portrayed in the past, the combat simulations where you get X percent of goodness via metrics like the number of threats killed. It will be interesting to see how they respond to these softer assertions where we say, ‘If you put five more civil affairs teams in, it changes how company commanders conduct operations.’”

Appleget agrees. “Our senior leaders were spoiled by the way we did combat modeling. We came up with numbers that they could use to support acquisition decisions. Then we became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and DoD said, ‘OK, where are my models? You’ve been at this for six months. What’s taking you so long?’ Ignoring the fact that our physics-based combat models took years and years to develop, and if you look under the hood, they’re not perfect, either.”

Perfection is the last word Appleget would use to describe COIN simulations.

“In irregular warfare, we’re never going to get there,” he said.

“The best you’re going to do is get insights and give senior leaders a kind of probability space of different outcomes if they do this or that.”

Have any thoughts on the piece? If so, post them below and we’ll try to get Michael to respond to them.

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