Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Why wargame the Ukraine?

stratforThe private sector intelligence and analysis firm Strafor recently posted a video discussion extolling its forthcoming wargame series on Russian intervention in the Ukraine. In it, founder and company chairman George Friedman describes the value of wargaming in the following terms (emphasis added):

George Friedman: Well wargaming goes the gamut from extremely computerized automated models down to desktop gaming. But the purpose of it is something as fundamental to any military analysis. It goes back to Napoleon, to anticipate the issues that you might face as a general or as a politician by taking a look at the what ifs, examining the military capabilities of each side, looking at terrain at which they’re going to fight, understanding the political reasons that they might decide to fight. And then try and understand how likely various strategies are and how likely they are to succeed in them.

David: I mean in this case we took apart of the maybe six options that Russia might have and the way that western NATO forces might respond. It’s interesting to me as a tool of empathetic analysis. Is that a fair characterization that it is a way to get into the mind of Russian military planners?

George: It is partly to try to understand what’s in their mind. But actually Wargaming is less interested in the intentions of the generals or politicians as to their capabilities. So what you’re really trying to do when you try to model a conflict is to identify those things that are impossible. Casual conversation you may imagine that the Russians have the military to charge all the way to Romania or Poland and so on. In fact, they probably don’t have that capability or anything close to it. Similarly you may assume that the United States has the ability to rapidly deploy multiple divisions to block them in Ukraine. The United States probably doesn’t have that. So the most important thing that comes out of military modeling is eliminating the impossible. Because until you get down into the details, until you consider how much fuel is required to move so many tanks so far, until you’ve really examined that, you seem to have these infinite numbers of options and all sorts of capabilities. And when you look at it carefully you find out well there are really very few options on all sides.

David: Right. So we do a lot of this constraint analysis at Stratfor. In some sense it’s a check on political rhetoric. In another sense it’s a way to perhaps pre-empt even the bluffing that either side participates in. Is that?

George: Well, politicians, generals, businessmen, constantly make statements. The question is not what these people say in that they may be very honest in what they want. But to go to a very simple and unpleasant place: What’s possible? And one of the things that Stratfor does is it does not focus on the intentions simply. But it really focuses on what can be done and what can’t be done. And in the case of military modeling, where this goes back well before Clausewitz, this is essential. You’ve got to really understand what can’t happen.

David: While not being a forecast in the sense that we publish forecasts, it’s nonetheless predictive, in that it takes off the table those scenarios that are not possible and allowing us to examine a more limited number of scenarios that are realistic indeed.

George: Our name is strategic forecasting.

David: Right.

George: And in strategic forecasting what we do is forecast. This is a step in the forecasting process. It doesn’t say that any of these things will happen. It examines, however, which of them would happen, what the consequences would be from a military standpoint and so on. So what it does is eliminates a whole bunch of options and allows you to really focus down on what might happen. This doesn’t even assume that the Russians are going to take any military action. It doesn’t assume that the Americans would respond. It makes no assumption on what political decisions may be made. What it does ask is what political solutions can be made.

This emphasis on wargaming as primarily an exercise in constraint analysis seems a bit strange. Certainly, analytical games can highlight constraints. However, as a method it potentially offers a lot more than simply narrowing down options on the grounds of (physical/resource/capability) viability. A wargame generates some sense of possible adversarial dynamics and interaction. It encourages participants to think about challenges in new ways—a sort of intellectual cross-training of sorts. It may, far from narrowing options, actually enlarge them by generating new ideas. Finally, it can help assess information gaps, critical junctures, and other things that are important.

In any case, it will be interesting to see what Stratfor does—and does not do—with this game series.

h/t Rory Alward 

3 responses to “Why wargame the Ukraine?

  1. Rex Brynen 07/03/2015 at 7:39 pm

    I also wonder whether an “eliminate the impossible” approach would have identified the actual techniques used to take control of and annex the Crimea.

  2. jamessterrett 07/03/2015 at 7:37 pm

    It is an interesting approach, but it forgets that, per George Box, all models are wrong.

    In 1759, Wolfe’s simulation (a map) told him there was only one way to get to Quebec. He ignored the simulation’s “impossible!” and had his army climb the cliffs to victory (and, for Wolfe, death; though that wasn’t covered by his simulation!)

    That said, I agree with them that simulations can identify *assumed constraints*. We just have to remember that the assumptions may not be true.

  3. Brant 07/03/2015 at 6:50 pm

    If only someone could have seen this conflict coming 8 years ago and started designing a wargame on it back then…

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