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Connections 2015: Day 2 AAR

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Major General Frederick Padilla welcomes Connections to NDU.

The second day of the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference—and the first day of the main programme—opened with a welcome by Major General Frederick Padilla, President of National Defense University.

That was followed by an important keynote address by Zachary Mears, Chief of Staff to US Deputy Secretary of Defence Robert Work. In February, a memo by the DEPSECDEF stressed the need to “reinvigorate, institutionalize, and systematize wargaming” across the Department of Defense. This has resulted in renewed interest in wargaming, and that interest has already been evident at Connections, which has set new attendance records this year.

Mears started by pointing to an earlier golden age of US wargaming in the period between WWI and WWII, when wargames were used to address changing technology, develop and evaluate doctrine, and advise senior leaders on responding to potential military challenges. He then went on to identify several problems with US wargaming in the more recent past. Central among them, wargaming has become untethered from US national security planning needs, and instead is too often used to justify existing programmes or support claims for a bigger allocation of scarce budgetary resources. In the future, US wargaming needs to think more thoroughly about the long term trends that shape the future, US military competitors, and how is the US positioned in this changing landscape. It should undertake more comparative analysis of projected military power, including the strengths and weaknesses of potential adversaries—and how will this be shaped by capital and technology given budgetary limits.

What are key decision points that can be offered up to Secretary and senior leadership? Games can provide a sort of hypothesis testing. How do we open up space for more innovative wargaming that moves away from a status quo bias and protection of current service programmes? The culture of DoD gaming needs to stress senior leaders and put them adversarial positions as a way of preparing them for decisions they might face. At the O4/5/6 gaming should help to prepare future operational leaders.

In doing all this, Mears—as in Work’s earlier memo—envisioned three major timeframes for wargames:

  1. Out to 5 years with current forces and structures, “road testing” current concepts and campaign plans and exploring alternatives.
  2. Out to 15 years: more-or-less same forces, but introduction of some technology change
  3. Out to 30 years: long-term trends that will shape the relative position of the US and its military power, and the implications of that for current policy, planning, and procurement.

To date the DoD has not been doing a good job linking the diagnoses that emerge from games to current decisions and trade-offs, Mears suggested. He expressed interest in what Connections participants had to say about how they assessed current wargaming challenges, whether they felt that DoD wargaming was indeed changing (or further impetus from above was needed), and what should be the priorities moving ahead.

Several important issues were raised during the Q&A. One concerned the difficult of defining “victory” or desired end states for US strategic policy in a complex and dynamic world. Another suggested that the current emphasis on wargaming was not necessarily fully penetrating across the military establishment. Mears that replied that current efforts by OSD CAPE to assemble a wargaming repository within DoD would enable the Department to better assess needs and shortcomings. One participant suggested that setting dates for objectives and deliverables would help to focus time and resources on gaming.

Yuna Wong warned that the current emphasis on wargaming was leading the military to relabel many things as “wargaming” in order to access resources or appear to be in step with DoD wishes, although they were not necessarily really wargames with a true iterative, adversarial component. Peter Perla followed up by asking whether campaign analysis (with attention to Red and Blue, but no true Red play) was being treated as a “wargame”.

One questioner asked whether game findings that generated negative findings would really be used, or be buried.

Should the war colleges be required to teach how to wargaming, and not simply use gaming for educational and training purposes? Mears suggested the Secretary hadn’t fully decided on how wargaming skills should be taught and developed. A related question asked about whether DoD would make available multiyear resources to support university research to address national security gaming. Here Mears suggested that greater receptivity in DoD would make it easier to demonstrate utility of gaming and develop partnerships, although there were no dedicated funds in place to support this.

What were expectations for the next DoD “wargaming summit”? Mears outlined some of these, such as OSD CAPE’s development of a wargaming repository. Similarly, ONA was expected to assess how games had (and had not) informed senior leader decisions, and how that connection might be strengthened.

Phil Pournelle expressed some concern—clearly shared by other—regarding the word “systematize” in the Work memo. There is, of course, a potential tension between promoting innovation and being too systematic, since the latter can potentially constrain creativity.   Another questioner expressed a fear that an approved DoD format might emerge, and that clients would all then demand that sort of gaming approach. Mears replied that “systematization” had more to do with greater clarity on what was a wargame, and how it could be used more routinely as an input into decision-making. He also argued that there would still be space for a variety of gaming approaches, although I’m not sure he entirely reassured everyone.

After a short break we returned for a panel discussion on wargaming and innovation across the defence community. This featured COL John Price (USAF), COL Burton Catledge (DoD), Elbridge Colby (CNAS), and Paul Works (US Army TRADOC). These highlighted the conditions for, and barriers to, innovation; debunked the notion that technical competence was the sole source of innovation; explored case studies of innovation within DoD.

Lunch was followed by several simultaneous game demonstrations—including several turns of AFTERSHOCK. Unfortunately I was too busy explaining the game to circulate and see what else was on offer. Among the games was Road to Damascus, Alex Langer’s prototype game of the Syrian civil war which was featured on PAXsims last year.

Playing AFTERSHOCK at NDU (with Volko Ruhnke, picture by Matt Kirschenbaum).

Playing AFTERSHOCK at NDU (with Volko Ruhnke,  Stacie Pettyjohn, and others—picture by Matt Kirschenbaum).

Next there was a large panel on wargaming organizations, highlighting the many groups and organizations engaged in national security gaming, featuring Walter Ward (USAF), Adam Frost (J8/SAGD), Ed McGrady (CNA), Major Tom Mouat (British Army), Ronald Sanders (Booz Allen Hamilton), and Stacie Pettyjohn (RAND). Unfortunately I much most of this discussion, distracted by a depressing post-game conversation with Volko Ruhnke and others about Da’ish/ISIS/ISIL, political reform, and the future of the Middle East.

Again this year Connections features a “game lab” in which participants examine how one might game a particular issue, puzzle, or challenge. This year the topic is A2D (ant-access/area denial). Paul Vebber (Naval Undersea Warfare Center) has developed a basic game—A2ADventure—exploring this. An initial orientation session today provided an overview of the game concepts and rules. Our challenge will be to break into smaller groups tomorrow and playtest the game, and suggest how it might be revised. It is easy, of course, to think of extra game rules or features—but at the risk of making a game too complicated. What would be an optimal set of game innovations that would offer the greatest added value while maintaining an appropriate degree of playability and parsimony? Issues of technology and command and control will figure prominently.


The final panel of the day addressed increasing the use of wargaming as a tool to address national security challenges. Three panelists—Shawn Burns (NWC), Jon Compton (OSD CAPE and One Small Step) offered thoughts on three questions:

  1. Why are wargames not producing innovative solutions to future strategic security problems?
  2. How educational techniques do you propose to address these obstacles?
  3. Why and how do you believe these solutions would generate better wargames that would help provide innovative solutions to national security problems?

Stephen Downes-Martin (NWC) and Peter Perla (CAN) then challenged these presentations and presenters.

Shawn suggested that many of the problems are not only difficult, “wicked” problems, or black swans, but also that we often define problems poorly. Conventional wisdoms and unquestioned assumptions can also be an obstacle. Losing in wargames can be considered as a negative professional experience, and there may be a negative perception of the utility of a “game.” Resource limitations (time/decision-making horizon, funding) present challenges too. Addressing these obstacles requires senior leader buy-in, developing an organizational culture more open to change, reflective practice, and experiential learning.

Jon pointed to the “self-licking ice-cream cone” problem—namely that clients want games to confirm what they already believe to be true. He argued that pressure to verify and validate wargames is often misplaced. Wargame approaches should be linked to the questions being answered. Wargames are fundamentally about abductive (imaginative) reasoning and hypothesis generation, rather than point solutions, and are enhanced by diverse participants. He finally argued that innovation depends on whether there is a receptive culture, a cycle of research that supports it, and a will to implement.

Ed McGrady argued that current DoD interest in innovation was really about dealing with problems we would rather not deal with (on the cheap), namely peer competitors with significant resources. Gaming, he suggested, needed to be cut loose from the traditional planning and acquisitions process. He suggested game design is a liberal art best learned by mentorship and practice. He placed heavy emphasis on the narrative experience of the game. Sponsors need to be encouraged to move away from comfortable, well-worn scenarios.

In his response, Stephen noted that game sponsors didn’t always have an opportunity to more fully understand game design. He asked how those suspicious of wargaming could be relied on to promote greater education about wargaming—to which Shawn responded that, in the military at least, they could be ordered to do so. Ed McGrady suggested the problem could sometimes be staff , rather than leaders. Stephen also asked how treating wargames as performance art, as Ed suggested, was helpful—to which Ed responded by reemphasizing the value of player engagement in the narratives. It was difficult, he noted, to find people who both understood the military and were also good story-tellers. Jon Compton suggested wargamers needed to be more ambitious in their organizations, and take on positions of authority where they can make a real difference. There was considerable agreement that games needed to be designed so that Red can, and sometimes does, win.

After the conference ended for the day, many of us retired back to the hotel for more gaming. I ran a full game of AFTERSHOCK, and am happy to report that multilateral relief efforts were a resounding success (despite HADR-Tasf Force commander “General” Tim Wilkie’s tendency to offend the local population and cluster coordination members alike with his bombastic rhetoric).

One response to “Connections 2015: Day 2 AAR

  1. marcgacy 04/08/2015 at 3:10 pm

    Ah, but General Wilkie knew the value of a good tent!

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