Yesterdays edition of War on the Rocks includes an important piece by (US Deputy Secretary of Defense) Bob Work and (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) Paul Selva on the need for the United States to revitalize wargaming:
Today, we are living in a time of rapid technological change and constrained defense spending, not unlike that of the inter-war years. Successfully navigating through this complex and dynamic competitive environment will once again require us to push the boundaries of technology while ensuring that innovation remains rooted in operationally realistic doctrine and capabilities. One way to do both is to re-prime and re-stoke the department’s wargaming engine.
We want to make clear that there is currently quite a bit of wargaming activity going on in the Department of Defense, and much of it is quite good. However, our review of service and joint wargaming revealed a lack of coordination within the wargaming community and the absence of any direct link between the insights gained from wargaming and the department’s programmatic action. Wargame results are neither shared laterally across the defense enterprise nor up the chain to influence senior level decision-making. In other words, even if wargames are generating innovative insights and suggesting needed operational and organizational changes, the people in position to act upon them are generally unaware of the insights or their import.
This must change. As the inter-war period suggests, wargaming is one of the most effective means available to offer senior leaders a glimpse of future conflict, however incomplete. Wargames provide opportunities to test new ideas and explore the art of the possible. They help us imagine alternative ways of operating and envision new capabilities that might make a difference on future battlefields. When creatively and rigorously applied, wargames help us to think through and begin to resolve complex military challenges, foster the testing of new strategic and operational concepts, stimulate debate, and inform investments in new capabilities.
Wargames help strip down a strategic, operational, or tactical problem and reduce its complexity in order to identify the few, important factors that constrain us or an opponent. They provide structured, measured, rigorous — but intellectually liberating — environments to help us explore what works (winning) and what doesn’t (losing) across all dimensions of warfighting. They permit hypotheses to be challenged and theories to be tested during either adjudicated moves or free play settings, thereby allowing current and future leaders to expand the boundaries of warfare theory. And they provide players with the opportunity to make critical mistakes and learn from them — and to perhaps reveal breakthrough strategies and tactics when doing so.
Wargames are all the more important in an era of multiple strategic challenges requiring joint, multi-dimensional approaches. Today, we face the challenges of Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, managing the rise of China, checking Iran’s malign influence, and remaining prepared to respond to North Korean provocations, all while waging a global counterterrorism campaign. Wargames can help us explore all of these challenges, in isolation and combination, and assess the best ways to confront them. By holistically reviewing the results of all games together, we will have the best chance of correctly identifying the most relevant technological trends, most likely future challenges, and most probable military competitions — and how best to exploit or prepare for them.
These comments, of course, follow on from Work’s memo earlier this year on the importance of strengthening wargaming within the US defence community. Similar comments have been made the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and by senior officials speaking to both the Connections interdisciplinary wargaming conference and the MORS special meeting on professional gaming.
One noteworthy aspect of this latest pronouncement is that it identifies the potential value of better integrating wargaming—and the development of wargaming skills—into professional military education.
As we look to reinvigorate wargaming across the defense enterprise, there is another lesson from the inter-war period that we would do well to heed. In the years leading up to the Second World War, we energized our war colleges and schools to think about how we would fight differently in future conflicts, and wargaming was central to this effort. All students and officers returning as instructors were taught how to run a wargame. The constant cycling of officers from the schoolhouse to the operating forces not only created great wargames, but great wargamers — many of whom turned out to be great wartime commanders.
Today, given the demand of Joint Professional Military Education (JPME), wargaming courses are generally electives. Should we instead think about using wargames that explore joint multidimensional combat operations to pursue our JPME objectives? Building school curriculums around wargaming might help spark innovation and inculcate the entire Joint Force with a better appreciation and understanding of trans-regional, cross-domain, multidimensional combat. Similarly, a new generation of young men and women are entering the force whose exposure to commercial multi-player gaming exceeds that of any previous generation. Should they be introduced to wargaming in their accession programs? We have not yet answered these questions. But we are considering them, as well as other initiatives to reinvigorate wargaming across the department.
The importance of doing so been strongly and repeatedly stressed within the professional wargaming community, so someone seems to have been listening.
On the other hand, Work and Selva’s comments indicate that while the issue has been noted there is not yet any agreement on how or even whether to address it. I suspect this is partly because PME curricula are already crowded, partly because not all those engaged in military education agree, and partly because the skill-set to teach wargaming has severely atrophied at some PME institutions (something that is certainly the case outside the US, in the UK and Canada too). Clearly there is more work to be done on advocating for the development of wargaming skills as an integral part from the outset of the military educational process.