Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 08/04/2015

RAND: Using a tabletop exercise to help bridge the military-academic divide

At Defense One, Paula Stanton of RAND describes a recent tabletop exercise intended to help bridge the divide between military officers and academics:

If senior officers and academics find themselves divided, is there a way to build respect and trust earlier in their careers, when less is at stake and time a bit more abundant? With support from the Stanton Foundation, RANDrecently explored one modest possibility: a tabletop exercise that brought future leaders together.

The exercise presented a contemporary geopolitical problem that might require a military solution. It brought together an accomplished group of field grade military officers (lieutenant colonels, colonels and Navy captains) and emerging academic and policy experts at the assistant professor or postdoctoral levels. The scenario, designed to require both civilian and military expertise, ensured that neither group had all the answers.

As the scenario unfolded over two days, it revealed something very human: before the civilian-military divide can be bridged, personal doubts need to be quieted.

Civilian academics confessed to being unsettled at times by those in uniform. To them, military members might have remarkable life experiences; they wear medals and colored ribbons; and they appear aloof, even intimidating, in their uniforms.

But their military counterparts were no less unsettled by the academics, who  possessed prestigious advanced degrees, had been awarded impressive fellowships, and had notable connections in the national defense policy circles. Indeed, some had had worked closely with icons of the national security world whom the military members knew only by reputation.

When the group was assembled and asked to address a geopolitical problem, the academic and military players quickly realized they needed each other. The military brought the ability to disaggregate a big problem into manageable pieces; look at different options to address them; and dive into the details of implementing one of the options. This greatly impressed the academics. Moreover, the civilians learned about the personnel and logistics limitations of pursuing various military options.

Similarly, civilian insights proved equally invaluable. The military participants realized the limitations of their understanding of the best way to think about critical concepts such as deterrence, escalation and crisis management and how best to use military resources to prevent a conflict….

The exercise highlighted the use of games, simulations, and exercises as methods for promoting networking and interaction across institutional and (professional) subcultural divides:

In fact, this tabletop exercise suggested that the best way to bridge the civilian-military divide, especially at the senior levels of government, is not via large conferences or formal papers. Instead, it can be done by building trust, one person at a time, over time.

This exercise suggests, first, the importance of building personal relationships earlier in a career. If this is left until they are full professors, general officers or assistant secretaries of defense, it is too late; they will have less time to learn and will tend to be more certain in their views. Second, it highlighted the importance of a safe learning environment where ignorance can be disclosed, questions asked and mistakes made. This can be done intensely through an immersion process over the course of a few days, but it requires personal, professional and intellectual commitment. And third, it revealed the importance of informal conversations based on mutual respect during the inevitable down times of a tabletop exercise. Trust and reliance seemed to follow in short order.

The limitations to this approach are important to note. It is built around small groups; it is labor intensive; and it requires civilian and military participants to devote some of their valuable professional time to it. But even with these limitations the effort is worthwhile. National defense is a team endeavor; it requires the trust, devotion, and expertise of military and civilian leaders at many levels to make it work.

Stanton is not the first analyst at RAND to note this. In 1964 RAND consultant (and later Nobel Prize winner) Thomas Schelling circulated an internal memo entitled “An Uninhibited Pitch for Crisis Games” in which he noted precisely this effect:

Schelling memo excerpt

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