Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections 2015: Day 4 AAR

lyWwqCGy_400x400-1The final (half) day of Connections 2015 started off with a keynote address by Peter Perla (CNA). He welcomed the renewed interest in wargaming generated by the recent memos by the SECDEF, DEPSECDEF, and Secretary of the Navy. He warned that wargaming had often been much abused in the past, and that we stood at a critical juncture in terms of the development and application of the discipline.

Peter argued for a more inclusive definition, one that broadened the much-cited definition he had advanced in his seminal book The Art of Wargaming. The expanded definition would read:

A model or simulation of conflict set in an abstract representation of the real world, in which players make decisions and respond to the changes caused by their decisions.

Wargaming is a discipline embodying the creation, use, synthesis, and analysis of wargames, whether to entertain, educate, or analyze. Operations research is scientific and quantitative; wargaming is about decisions and players. The natural alliance between the two is separated by “players,” a messy category that OR would often prefer not to deal with.

He looked back at wargaming at the NWC from the 19th century and into the interwar period, with their heavy emphasis on learning about decision-making in the face of an active adversary. In his PhD thesis, John Lillard described the learning process as one of “cyclical osmosis” whereby officers would learn through wargaming at the NWC, deploy to the fleet, and later return to the NWC as instructors. Wargames thus became the navy’s research laboratory, in conjunction with the “fleet problems” (exercises) {book link} that the Navy undertook in the 1920s and 1930s.

Why does wargaming work? Experience makes risk tangible, it links perception and understanding to acting, it forces players to act, and players take ownership of the “between worlds.” Wargaming stirs imaginations, challenges, and creates synthetic experience. He noted that von Reiswitz himself stressed that kriegsspiel was intended to be enjoyable and “fascinating”—otherwise it would simply be a chore.

In the military, wargaming saves lives too. In the context of DoD’s recent emphasis on reinvigorating wargaming as a spur to innovation, Peter stressed, the professional wargaming community needs to step up to the challenge.

Next, Marc Gacy (Alion Science and Technology) offered a review of this year’s game lab. Many players liked the way A2ADventure modeled the planning process. There were concerns that Blue’s strategic choices were too limited; the game was unbalanced (although I thought it was fairly even); confusion as to scale and unit representation (not a concern I had); too much depended on dice (also not a concern I had); the board/map was confusing and/or ugly (I agree, and would have preferred a straight grid or hex); and some specific concerns about game components (again, not a major concern for me). I also found that the ISR/ rules needed further work. In the game I played, there was far too much reconnaissance by fire and not enough scouting. (In fairness to Paul Vebber, though, I had been among those who had urged him to simplify the ISR rules before the conference!)

Brief-backs from the three working groups followed. (The briefing that Tim Smith and I pulled together on using educational wargaming to develop innovators can be viewed by clicking the image below.)

Click image to download pdf of slides.

Click image to download pdf of slides.

Our key points were:

  • Wargaming should be used to promote critical analysis and experimentation among students.
  • Wargaming should be used to promote “systems thinking.”
  • Wargaming can be used to strengthen personal attributes associated with effective innovators.
  • Use wargaming to build the capacity of students to recognize, promote, and nurture innovation.
  • Game design matters.
  • Instructors and instruction matter.
  • Catch them early!

Shawn Burns presented the findings of Working Group 2 on reinvigorating wargaming through education, identifying key skills, topics, audiences, and delivery. Phillip Pournelle and Tim Moenich summarized discussions in Working Group 3 on increasing effectiveness and breadth of wargaming. They advocated that OSD promulgate elements of a wargame definition and sponsor a wargame series to explore the future security environment. They also expressed concern about the development of a central wargaming repository. They recommended that DoD increase their focus on the future; build wargame advocacy within the chain of command; leaders should highlight success and reward ideas (even if they lead to failure); use wargames to link to other disparate organizations; and that games engage diverse participants (including those from outside the traditional wargaming/national security community). Their recommendations to organizations included greater use of a small team approach; inform players that their performance is important and noticed; outsource games to stifle hidden agendas. They also had some suggestions for designers, and for ourselves as the professional wargaming community.

The conference ended with some concluding comments by Matt Caffrey and a hotwash of what had worked well, and not so well, at this year’s Connections conference. Matt presented an excellent “pre mortem” with suggestions/warnings from Yuna Wong and Ed McGrady on how the current DoD effort to reinvigorate wargaming might die a premature death. He also highlighted a cautionary tale: A previous effort in the late 1990s in the US Marine Corps to increase wargaming failed to sustain itself more than a few years due to change in leadership and personnel. By contrast, Germany managed to sustain wargaming from the 1870s through to WWI and the interwar period, despite the dramatic shrinkage of the Germany army under the Treaty of Versailles. They did this by training wargaming widely and retaining those with wargame experience. Indeed, wargaming endured despite Hitler’s rise to power and his hostility to POL-MIL gaming. These were absolutely key points, and perhaps among my major take-aways from this conference: the need to wargame widely, early in career trajectories; and the need to teaching how to wargaming as a methodology of analysis and learning.

Overall, this was an excellent Connections conference, the largest and very possibly the very best ever. Once again, National Defence University proved to be an outstanding host.

Connections 2016 will be held at the Air Force Wargaming Institute at Maxwell AFB. MaxwellAFB

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