Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections 2014 – a first report

Gray Research Center, Quantico Marine Corps Base.

Gray Research Center, Marine Corps Base Quantico.

The Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference began yesterday, with a number of introductory educational sessions on wargame history and techniques. Today the main event started—and with a fascinating keynotes address by Thomas Schelling, no less. Quite apart from his work on deterrence, game theory, and strategic behaviour Schelling was also a pioneer of political-military wargaming at RAND.


Thomas Schelling delivering the opening keynote address at Connections 2014.

Schelling’s talk started with a discussion of what he didn’t like about the wargaming he first found at RAND in the late 1950s and 1960s. Specifically, games often had imposed, a priori limits on escalation (notably with regard to nuclear use) which hampered their ability to explore nuclear signaling and escalation. He was also dissatisfied with role-playing in political games, which he felt was too theatrical, with participants playing expectations of a role, rather than fully engaged in policy-making. He discussed a seminar games he conducted during the Cold War on topics ranging from the Berlin Crisis to Iran to Cuba, and the extent to which they revealed the difficulty of signaling and understanding an opponent’s behaviour during a crisis. This was true despite the fact that both teams were being played by Americans with similar backgrounds, thereby largely negating any additional problems that might otherwise arise from cross-cultural communication.

Part of the reason for this difficult, he suggested, was that the signals sent by teams were actually compromises within teams since participants often had very different views on optimal responses. This consensus tended to less threatening, less conditional actions, with firmer actions delayed—which had the effect of poorly signaling resolve. There was much less attention to nuclear force posture in games than he would have expected. Parties also directly communicated less than they might have, relying instead on signaling through actions. In these games, he noted, the Control team often needed to inject events in order to keep the level of antagonism high.

The lessons learned about the difficulty involved in signalling was one of the reasons for establishing a hotline between Washington and Moscow for crisis management. (Interestingly, he argued that this worked best as a teletype that enabled each side to thoughtfully respond to a written communication from the other, rather than a telephone that would require an immediate response.)

He suggested that the games and the actual Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated how important it is how you compose a crisis team.

He also noted that participants found the games useful as an experiential form of education, not as a method of prediction. Some alsos saw value in their broader applicability. In particular, Robert Kennedy remarked that the technique would be useful for exploring how to pursue the desegregation of schools in the southern US.

Finally, he brought the whole keynote together by suggesting that the principal oversight regarding Pearl Harbor was the lack of inductive reasoning, working backwards from the military aspirations of the Japanese in the Pacific, the US knew that Japan could never fulfill those aspirations, so long as the US had the battle fleet in Pearl Harbor, so should have worked backwards from what would be necessary to eliminate that fleet.


German kriegsspiel.

The second keynote talk of the day was a presentation by Milan Vego (Naval War College) on the impact of German wargaming on other countries’ militaries. As is well known, the wargames of first Georg Leopold von Reiswitz (1812) and then even more importantly his son Georg Heinrich Rudolf von Reiswitz, (1824) introduced such elements as accurate depiction of spatial and terrain elements (first using a sandtable, then using a map), double-blind/hidden movement, and umpire adjudication. Versions of kriegsspiel were adopted within the Prussian military, which increasingly emphasized education and training.

Debate emerged over whether games should be government by complex rules that reflected doctrinal and research (rigid kriegsspiel) or whether experienced umpires should be given more scope to determine effects and results (free kriegsspiel).

The presentation went on to discuss the adoption of wargaming by Austria-Hungary, the UK, France, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Japan, and the United States, notably in the period between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI.

German wargaming underwent further development between WWI and WWII. It was often linked to the development and refinement of operational plans. German games had a very high ratio of planning, study and discussion to actual moves undertaken, and post-game critiques were detailed and extensive. Promising young officers (many of whom went on to hold senior positions) were often assigned to games.

After this a lunch break followed, during which a number of game demonstrations were on display. These included PAXsims’ own Humanitarian Crisis Game.

In the afternoon the first panel on international wargaming cultures featured presentations by Tom Mouat (UK), Devin Ellis (UMD, on wargaming in China), Anders Frank (Sweden) and Paul Massel (Defence Research and Development Canada). Tom discussed the use of wargaming—and its limits—in the Ministry of Defence, services, and military colleges. He identified a problem of limited in-house expertise. However, he also identified areas of hope, including a post-Afghanistan recognition that not all preparation went well.

Devin made a fascinating presentation on wargaming in China, highlighting the lack of complex political-military wargaming, the extent to which Chinese participants treat their perceptions of a situation as a fundamental reality, and their lack of understanding of the dynamics of US alliance relationships. There is a high degree of silo-ing, resulting in low levels of inter-service and broader knowledge. A much greater degree of emphasis is placed on the debating philosophical and legal foundations of policy. He also noted some change over time, for example less criticism of scenarios that don’t fully accord with Chinese views, and more willingness to have their actions adjudicated in joint crisis games. There is also less reference to maxims, and increasing frankness in discussing concerns over US policy. Generally, he suggested, the PRC national security establishment does generally not do high-quality wargaming. However some institutions are interested in improving.

Anders examined Swedish wargaming culture. Sweden was an early adopter of wargaming, largely due to strong linkages to the Prussian officer corps. WWII then the Cold war later shaped the development of Swedish defence doctrine. Wargames are used extensively in officer training and elsewhere., with officers playing up to forty games a year. The end of the Cold War brought a major reorientation. Eventually a greater focus on international missions emerged. The deployment to Afghanistan created new pressures to develop appropriate training and capabilities. Much tactical and strategic wargaming was eclipsed by cultural training—until the Afghan mission wound down and Russia reemerged as a major regional threat. The pendulum is swinging back to kinetic wargaming against major external military threats.

Paul addressed the culture of wargaming in Canada. In Canada, he argued, “wargaming has a pulse” but isn’t exactly “alive and kicking.” It is used for concept development, defence analysis, procurement, and for training—but Canada does very little campaign planning wargaming. More generally, the country is not consumed by its (military) history. General (video) gaming is popular, although recreational wargaming is a small and niche activity. Perhaps only 5% of the operational research community in Canada are recreational wargamers.

The next panel addressed the same broad themes in the context of German and NATO wargaming, presented by Uwe Heilmann (German Air Force) and two NATO colleagues. They discussed the many different definitions of wargaming within NATO and more broadly. In West Germany, they suggested, wargaming atrophied to some degree during the Cold War period, certainly compared with the pre-WW II experience. Computer-assisted exercise and virtual/synthetic simulation have grown. However field exercises are more constrained due to a lack of geographic space, although a new training facility has been established.

The presentation also looked at wargaming in East Germany during the Cold War. In order to make a scenario plausible whereby NATO attacked the Warsaw Pact first, one wargame simply invented two West Germany army corps. Operational analysis was based heavily on Russian operations during WWII, and was highly optimistic about the rate of progress Warsaw Pact forces would make. Analysis was heavily formulaic too.

There was also an overview of NATO wargaming and exercises. It noted that in exercises in games, NATO always wins. If Red gets too successful or innovative, the exercise is sometimes reset.

The final presentations of the day featured Brian Train on the GlobalECCO Project, and Anders Frank on Swedish cooperation within the Partnership for Peace.

GlobalECCOThe Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program brings foreign officials and officers to the US to study counterterrorism. GlobalECCO is an online platform intended to encourage networking and continued contact among CTFP fellows. Part of this includes an online game section, featuring both simple asymmetric strategy games and themed games. The games are intended to be simple and easy to play.

viking14klarAnders discussed the Viking multinational staff exercises, focusing on crisis response and peace operations in unstable environments. Some 24 military organizations from multiple countries participate, as do 64 civilian organizations., and up to 2,500 participants over two weeks. The exercise is largely scripted. Swedish wargamers have worked to foster a more dynamic game, for example through injects that create common problems that generate work and require coordinated responses. They have learned there is a need for people with a good understanding of gaming (a particular problem, he suggested, with civilian organizations). Injects that are good for one part of the training can cause problems for other parts. Scenario complexity can overwhelm the game. High-level decision makers need to be “semi-trained” so they know what to take away, and not take away, from the exercise. Finally, there is limited ability to address high intensity operations in this sort of exercise, in part because of the secrecy surrounding military capabilities.

Following the last formal session, we reconvened for an evening of game demos and gaming. Among these was Tom Mouat’s “ISIS Crisis” matrix game of the current conflict in northern Iraq, for which I had helped to prepare the scenario briefing sheets.

I was also able to run a full two hour session of the Humanitarian Crisis Game, in which the participants responded to the needs of earthquake-ravaged Carana. They were ultimately successful in doing so, with all players earning a win—although the United Nations (Devin Ellis) barely managed to scrape over the line, having suffered from a spate of bad media coverage, worse luck, and an ill-timed visit by Sean Penn that forced cancellation of an important press conference.

Tom Mouat and I pose with the overall winner of the Humanitarian Crisis Game, Yuna Wong (NGOs). Sadly, I forgot to snap a picture during the game itself.

Tom Mouat and I pose with the overall winner of the Humanitarian Crisis Game, Yuna Wong (NGOs). Sadly, I forgot to snap a picture during the game itself.

Tomorrow the Connections conference will feature more panels on international wargaming cultures, a discussion of how social science can enhance the value of wargaming, a hands-on workshop, and a series of working groups.

3 responses to “Connections 2014 – a first report

  1. devinhayesellis 11/08/2014 at 5:52 pm

    Hey – in my defense, I (The UN) steadily plugged away at a systematic HADR program in certain key sectors, and achieved those goals. I just had trouble playing the media game – and a wicked doe of bad luck when timing my entrance and exit to different sectors… Thanks to my NGO colleagues for saving me in the end!

  2. cpangracs 08/08/2014 at 8:34 am

    I would have been very interested to hear the presentation by Anders Frank (Sweden). I recently worked on MMAS background material with a Swedish officer at CGSC. Using numerous autonomous simulation runs in Steel Beasts (eSim Games) using current and proposed doctrine, I was able to provide support for making a significant change to current Swedish defense plans against a threat from Russia. It was an excellent example of a simulation providing general operational information (NOT predictive, of course) on specific courses of action. Essentially, we sought to show that the current defensive plan was unsustainable and would result in abject failure and unsustainable losses, while the proposed plan allowed for a single brigade to defend in depth and attrit attacking forces with minimal losses. Not sure yet how this paper was received, but I do know his MMAS was successful, and I had a blast working on it! We are hoping to see Anders Frank here at the college in October.

  3. Lou Coatney 07/08/2014 at 3:51 pm

    In one of my metric education junkets down from Alaska (Dept. of Education) to Wash. DC – 1979-83 – I learned of a lecture series about wargaming being put on by the Smithsonian Institution. I was thus able to attend one session, and that was by our military professionals. I had about 3 questions … to everyone’s amusement … but the one I remember was asking the members of that panel how they reminded themselves that they were dealing with the fates of hundreds of millions of men, women, and children. One young officer said he agreed with my concern, and he reminded himself of that every evening, when he returned home to his wife and children.

    After the presentation was over, I was startled by the number of attendees in ill-fitting suits who abruptly got up and raced each other out the door. And the session was personally gratifying to me – we were required to identify ourselves before asking questions – because a number of the professional-looking people came up to me afterwards to tell me how much they liked my newly published game Sturm nach Osten (I Shturmy na 3apad!). (I swear, one of those fellows looked A LOT like Bob Gates.)

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