When is a war game not a war game? When it is a “competitive influence” game.
For three days earlier this month (May 15-17), more than 100 people met in Annapolis, Md. to brainstorm about devising such an exercise. The actual game is to be played this summer at an air base in Florida.
If current trends hold, the focus will be on the crisis unfolding around the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Experts will represent the players, who will include Syria’s neighbors, the United States, NATO and other interested parties such as Russia and Iran that might impact Syrian events and be affected by them in return.
Surprised all too often by nominally less well-equipped adversaries in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military wants to know more about what it is getting into before it has to fight another war. It especially wants to know if there are non-military ways of dealing with crises.
In 2006, the US Army established an Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) to deal with such contingencies. The AWG then developed the Asymmetric Operations Working Group (AOWG) with support from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.[i] The latter group has published six studies on so-called “complex threats” ranging from al-Qaeda to piracy and terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
The groups include civilian analysts as well as on-the-ground “practitioners” — judging from the number of barrel-chested men at this month’s “immersion seminar” who had biceps the circumference of normal people’s thighs.
Those invited also included less imposing academics, historians, retired diplomats and analysts from organizations ranging from think tanks to the New York City Police Department.
At least 10,000 people have died in Syria in the past 15 months but the death toll has come in increments of a few dozen a day. No one at the conference said how many Syrians would have to die at one time — or be threatened with death — to qualify as a “mass atrocity” prompting US action.
One focus at the AOWG event was the “seams” between various US commands, departments and agencies that need to be stitched more closely together for maximum effectiveness.
For example, US European Command (EUCOM) would likely be drawn into a NEO or a MARO even though Syria and Lebanon are in the area of responsibility of US Central Command, whose bases are located around the Persian Gulf and in Afghanistan. (EUCOM’s area includes Turkey and Israel as well as the Mediterranean Sea.)
A number of US combatant commands and agencies would also be engaged if the Barack Obama administration decides to create a no-fly zone or humanitarian corridor in Syria for refugees. And there is the possibility of wider US military involvement in support of the Syrian opposition.
Throughout the seminar, the organizers stressed that while one aim is to be ready for military challenges, an equally if not more important goal is to identify other elements of US and allied influence.
AWG — which is based at Fort Meade, Md. and includes about 200 active-duty military and about 100 civilian Defense Department employees and contractors — uses the AOWG to understand the vulnerabilities of adversaries. It also wants a better grasp of US vulnerabilities and of the consequences of US actions — or as Pentagon types put it, the “second and third-order effects” — resulting from various steps.
“The purpose of the game is less about finding solutions and more about gaining a deeper understanding of the problem set and the second and third-order effects that occur when certain actions are taken,” said Mastin Robeson, a retired US Marine Corps Major General who is advising the AOWG study of the Levant.
Or as the group’s literature says, AWG seeks to “increase situational knowledge, foster a collaborative approach and challenge assumptions” regarding “complex challenges.”
Asked how the region encompassing Syria and its neighbors was chosen for this year’s exercise, Lt. Col. Scott Crino of the AWG outlined the methodology used for choosing focus areas but said this decision was easy. “You can tie every threat group around the world to the Levant,” he said.
What is surprising about this is not so much the wargaming—which seems quite routine given current developments and possible future contingencies in the Middle East—but the willingness of the US military to have it reported. Some signalling, perhaps?