Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Anxiety in the archipelago of gaming excellence: NDU faces “alignment”

Last week, Michael Peck had a piece at Foreign Policy Magazine highlighting both the impending cuts and the (re)alignment of priorities at National Defense University:

The budget axe is descending on National Defense University, the Pentagon’s flagship institution for professional military education. The cuts come amid controversy over whether NDU should focus solely on Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), which addresses military strategy and cooperation between the services, or whether it should also serve as a think-tank for strategic analysis. According to an internal Pentagon document, the Joint Chiefs of Staff want NDU to stick to JPME, and have recommended a long list of budget cuts that would slash other functions. But critics worry that narrowing NDU’s mandate will deprive the United States of big-picture thinking at a time when American planners are struggling to adapt to changing geopolitical and budgetary circumstances.

The budget cuts, including dozens of layoffs from NDU’s 800-strong workforce, are part of a long list of recommendations compiled by the Joint Staff, which works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JCS spokesman Richard Osial refused to comment on the grounds that the cuts are part of an internal staff document under review, but a copy obtained by Foreign Policy says the changes are intended to “align NDU organization and funding with [the] new fiscal reality.”

Some cuts were bound to come, of course, especially under the current US budget sequestration process that will see some $50 billion or so lopped from the DoD envelope in FY2013 (and additional cuts of a similar amount each year thereafter). Personally, I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing given budget realities, but that really isn’t an issue for PAXsims—at least, not until we expand our mandate from fragile and conflict-affected countries to include the even scarier world of American fiscal and budgetary politics.

Somewhat more of an issue for PAXsims (since both of us work professionally in and on conflict-affected countries) is the apparent view from the Pentagon, quite separate from DoD budget constraints but undoubtedly reinforced by them, that the US military needs to have its professional military education reduced to a much narrower vision. If anything, the last decade has highlighted the need for a highly interdisciplinary and interagency understanding of national security issues, and NDU has done a great deal to support precisely such an understanding internally, in its research activities, and through its outreach and networking. Now much of that seems to be at risk.

However, my main point in raising all of this is what the both the cuts and new direction at NDU could mean for the professional (war)gaming community. In recent years the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at NDU has played an enormously valuable role in bringing together the many people across the military, other agencies, the gaming industry, and various academic communities together to share and develop professional best practices. It has also provide an opportunity for those relatively new to the field to increase their knowledge of the art, craft, and science of crisis simulation and wargaming. CASL’s quarterly roundtables on innovation in strategic gaming have provided a forum that, quite simply, exists nowhere else in the world, let alone elsewhere in the US. CASL did an extraordinary job of hosting the last two Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conferences. It has also featured special lectures on wargaming, and pushed these out to a broader audience through online streaming. If professional wargaming does indeed comprise often isolated “archipelagos of excellence” as has sometimes been suggested, NDU has been an unparalleled bridge-builder between and among these.

Unfortunately, the recommendations compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff propose major cuts for CASL, as well as a narrow focus on supporting joint PME—with the attendant implication that outreach and networking activities across the broader gaming community is not part of what CASL should do:

Organization: Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL)
Way ahead: Re-orient and rescale to support JPME.
Rationale: Elimination of non-JPME efforts allows for a smaller organization. Resource savings: Reduced annual costs of approximately $1.02M direct and $0.5M reimbursable funding and a workforce reduction of 7 direct funded FTEs and 1 other. Four military officers become available for reassignment or return to the Services.

By my uninformed count, that would appear to be almost one-half of CASL’s current staff.

Michael’s piece in Foreign Policy ends with some pithy criticism of the proposed cuts and realignment from (understandably) anonymous NDU staff and associates. I am not now, nor have I ever been, associated with NDU. However, I—like many others in the professional/policy gaming community—have certainly been an eager beneficiary of their intellectual and professional outreach. A major diminution of CASL’s contribution in that regard would hardly serve anyone very well as we prepare to face the complex security challenges of an uncertain future world.

3 responses to “Anxiety in the archipelago of gaming excellence: NDU faces “alignment”

  1. brtrain 23/08/2012 at 6:44 pm

    A long time ago, someone remarked to me that the Army was like a guy who, once every few years, would punch himself in the nuts for no reason. I have since observed this behaviour in many large organizations.
    This time they seem bent on punching themselves in the nuts and head until they have driven out the knowledge acquired of the last ten years, treating the last two wars as an anomaly so they can concentrate on the big-battalion, big-squadron war with China that will never happen.
    Skip, as usual, is correct – it is the relatively low-cost items, largely invisible in their effect, that go first and will over time be missed most, to the point where the American military may end up like the Prussians at Jena (though there appears to be no Napoleon on the horizon just yet).
    Perhaps they think they can outsource some of this thinky-planny stuff to various corners of an ever-more-militarized academia.

  2. Ronald Skip Cole 22/08/2012 at 6:45 am

    I completely agree with your analysis Rex. NDU, and in particular the CASL group, play a vital role in ensuring that we have the ability to collectively reason through complex problems in a world that gets more complex daily. Large cuts here make no sense at all. If anything, a smaller military needs to be utilized more intelligently and strategically than a larger one, so their budget should actually be increased.

  3. Brant 22/08/2012 at 6:32 am

    “However, I—like many others in the professional/policy gaming community—have certainly been an eager beneficiary of their intellectual and professional outreach.”


    Moreover, when the NDU overseers claim that “Elimination of non-JPME efforts allows for a smaller organization” they seem to have missed that most of the revamped JPME plans call for dramatically *increased* wargames/simulations/exercises within the JPME curriculum, which would place a greater burden on CASL’s staff, especially if you cut them in half.

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