Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Ducharme on COA analysis wargaming

Earlier this week, Devin and Ellie both listened to a great talk by Naval War College’s Dr. Doug Ducharme for the MORS Wargaming Community of Practice on best practices for wargaming in support of Course of Action (COA) analysis. This is the first of three posts: the first summarizes Doug’s talk, and the second and third provide some thoughts from Ellie and Devin.

Wargaming is the recommended technique in military doctrine for analyzing COAs during the joint operations planning process’s 4th step. In actual practice, restrictions on staff time, skills, and commander involvement can all critically compromise the ability of the military to actually follow through on this. Doug states that he has seen an increase in the attention paid to these games in the last few years. However, he stated that there is not enough work done to document what gaming methods do and do not lead to successful COA analysis.

To set up his discussion of COA analysis gaming best practices, Doug started by defining gaming (using Peter Perla’s often-cited definition), and discussing how games differ from one another. He established that games can be defined along two axes: 1) whether the game has an educational or analytical purpose, and 2) whether the game examines concepts or capabilities. In this model, COA analysis is defined as being educational and conceptual.

Doug noted that with increased interest in COA analysis games, there has also been interest in incorporating other analytical techniques to support COA analysis. In particular, leveraging campaign analysis techniques has become more popular. Doug used his two-by-two to show why this can be an uncomfortable melding. In Doug’s model, campaign planning is an analytical technique, focused on capabilities. This places it in the opposing quadrant to the educational, concept-focused purposes of COA analysis gaming.

He then moved on to lay out five best practices for COA analysis gaming:

  1. While doctrine suggests several methods for COA analysis, it does not offer strong guidance about how to select techniques. Given that games, by definition, are focused on decision making, Doug recommends defaulting to the critical events method which focus analysis on decisions and their potential impact.
  2. Doug argued that the use of an active red cell is critical to COA wargaming. He specified that the cell’s objective should be to improve the COA, not to “win” the game, and that there should be a facilitator in the cell who can remind participants of this goal if they go off track. He also has found it helpful to keep the red cell to a roughly equal size with blue, and staff it with both intelligence officers and planners. These strategies create an active, but not overly competitive, red that can provide a strong critique of the COA.
  3. Doug argued that rather than defaulting to a format of sequential moves with alternating action by red and blue, COA wargaming moves should ideally be made simultaneously to better mirror reality. If turns must be sequenced, game designers should determine who ought to have initiative based on the scenario in play, rather than defaulting to a blue first move.
  4. Doug described adjudication options as a plane, with one axis running from move-step to running time, and the other axis from a free to a rigid method of adjudication. He argued that even when using relatively free methods of adjudication, having a structured process to evaluate player decisions is important. He also argued that most COA Analysis games have “open adjudication” with fairly move-step time, and fairly free adjudication methods. He also tied this point back to his earlier discussion of the difference between COA Analysis and campaign analyses, which have much more rigid adjudication rules.
  5. Finally, Doug stressed the importance of providing clear criteria for evaluating COAs in advance. Doing so is critical to determining how to assess the COA’s strengths and weaknesses. This then naturally leads into the next step of JOPP, COA comparison, where pros and cons are discussed.

Doug ended his talk by arguing that if we are looking to add rigor to the COA analysis process, it would be better to focus on approaching games with an analytic mindset rather than trying to incorporate campaign planning tools that may not be the right fit. He provided a few examples the use of Analysis of Competing Hypothesis, and Analytic Hierarchy Process as tools to strengthen COA analysis games to show how post game analysis can also strengthen findings.

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