Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Thoughts on the DoD wargaming workshop at the Army War College


The following report has been written for PAXsims by Peter Perla. 


On March 16 and 17 I attended a special Wargaming Workshop sponsored by DoD (specifically, OSD CAPE) and held at the Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership. After a series of senior-level wargaming “summits” and working-level meetings of the Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG), this was the first “official” meeting of those who might be considered a core group of Wargaming practitioners. A primary goal of the meeting was to establish more direct communication between the practitioners and the Pentagon staff supporting the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s (DSD) efforts to “reinvigorate” wargaming within the department.

To that end, the meeting kicked off with a keynote by Mr. Greg Grant of the DSD’s office. Greg had a major role in helping to develop the key article by DSD Work and VCJCS Gen. Paul Selva. He spoke at some length about the DSD’s priorities and how he sees wargaming fitting into his effort to develop what he is calling the “third offset strategy.” Comparing today’s evolving security environment to the period between the world wars, Mr. Grant articulated once more the DSD’s belief that the countries most successful during World War II were those who best used wargaming as part of an integrated cycle of research, learning, and innovation to navigate that period of technological and geopolitical instability and to prepare for wartime realities.

When DSD kicked off his renewed emphasis on wargaming about this time last year, he initially characterized the department’s use of wargaming as “atrophied.” His call for a thorough review of wargaming activities surprised him by revealing pockets of robust and quality wargaming he was unaware of at the time. In the midst of this ongoing review and collection of wargaming information into “the repository” of on-line information, the deputy has reoriented efforts to address two problems in his thrust to use wargames to restore Joint combined arms warfare expertise in the Department and invigorate and encourage bottom-up innovation within the Department.

Grant characterized DSD’s definition of these problems as follows:

  • “As currently structured, wargaming has no meaningful effect on the programming and budgeting process – there isn’t a direct link between insights derived from wargames and Department actions”
  • Wargaming is “not doing enough to stimulate innovation and new thinking about the future security environment and new ways of warfighting.”

Hence the importance of the third offset. Much ink and many electrons have been spent arguing about just what that term means. According to Grant, at its heart it is aimed at “bolstering conventional deterrence against nuclear armed great powers”who are narrowing the lead the United States has had in precision weaponry and the tactical and operational use of that lead to achieve strategic ends. The goal is to find the “right combination of technologies and operational and organizational constructs to achieve decisive operational advantage and thus bolster conventional deterrence.

In approaching this problem, the DSD “sees wargaming as an intellectual thought experiment to free ourselves of current operational concepts and think about new concepts, new ways of warfighting.” He “wants to use wargaming to explore new military ways that may create operational dilemmas for potential adversaries – that’s what the 3rd Offset Strategy is all about – how do you put an adversary on the horns of multiple dilemmas?

The keynote concluded by challenging the wargaming community to help the leadership explore evolving operational challenges and break out of a “Phase 0 mindset” to address the real warfigthing problems of Phase 3. We need to help bring senior leaders to the game table so that they can see beyond today’s bureaucratic imperatives to understand better the context and needs of future warfare and “increase their engagement in product development and approval.” To that end, DSD and VCJCS have instituted regular senior-level wargames, as well as provided funding to support innovative game ideas. It is up to the community to meet those challenges.

After this call to arms, the meeting settled down to a series of information briefings. The main group, where I sat, met in the primary auditorium and was treated to the full range of briefings. A second group composed of modeling and simulation experts met one floor below. They watched many of the presentations, particularly the keynote and morning discussions, via a video hookup. Their afternoon session focused on modeling and simulation demonstrations and presentations.

One of the key components of the DSD strategy to engage the wargaming community more effectively is the repository of wargaming activities. Several presenters described the nature of the repository and how the raw data submitted by the sponsors of games is organized, managed, and “curated.” The importance of the repository to the Pentagon bureaucratic processes is hard to overstate. For example, it is the source of regular monthly reports to senior leaders about upcoming wargames, as well as identifying key high-level insights from past wargames. These presentations triggered a great deal of discussion from the participants, who expressed their skepticism about the real value of a rigid format for data and what many perceived as a mechanistic approach to selecting what information the senior leaders received.

The morning concluded with two presentations. First was a short review by OSD Policy of the DSD’s guidance to the wargaming community and his top priorities, this time at the classified level. This was followed by an outline of the Senior Wargame Series from the perspective of the J-8 office conducting them. During lunch, there were several displays of computer and tabletop games to inform the participants about the range of gaming applications. The afternoon was devoted to a long string of more or less short presentations from various participants about what their organizations were up to. The day concluded with a social at a tavern on base, followed by a “real” game session at a nearby game café, neither of which your intrepid reporter attended.

The second day of the conference began with an intriguing presentation by Professor David Lai of the Army War College. He discussed the differing cultural perspectives of the West and Asia, particularly China, through the lens of comparing chess and Go. We are all familiar with how many wargames use a hexagon overlay on a geographic map; Lai showed how a different perspective is revealed by overlaying maps of East Asia and the Western Pacific, or the entire Eastern Hemisphere, with a Go grid. This perspective for interpreting military, political, and economic actions through the mentality of a Go player is a fascinating alternative to our usual wargamer’s outlook of chess-like moves.

We spent the bulk of day two in several working groups focused on a range of issues

  • Modeling and simulation
  • Decision support in exploring innovation, gaps, and challenges
  • Education (the one in which I participated)
  • Design and methods.

The M&S group met in a different room for the entire conference and addressed two major issues: “tools,” writ large, to support wargaming and wargaming as a teaching method in joint professional military education (JPME). M&S sub groups reviewed data, visualization and adjudication tools. Those discussions raised several issues, many of which centered on expanding the scope of the wargame repository beyond its current focus of supporting the DSD to a tool that would also support wargame practitioners. Useful additions to the repository would fully describe available tools for education, data collection and analysis, visualization, and adjudication. Many organizations have tools that may be of use to others but not all have been entered into the existing repository. The repository could also be expanded to contain more wargame support services such as data sets, wargame training resources, definitions, support to JPME, and other items. Moreover, an unclassified, access controlled version of the repository containing tools and services could potentially be of use to those DoD wargame practitioners without access to the more restricted classified networks.

The discussion in the education sub-group in which I participated ranged across applications of wargaming throughout the life-cycle of a member of the military, especially the career of officers. We discussed not only the use of wargaming to help educate learners in their professional skills, but also how to help teach them more about the creation and use of gaming in their own work. We ended up laying out a progression of the use and teaching of wargaming in two “tracks” aligned with a career. The central thrust was that all needed to be exposed to wargaming at the tactical level in the earliest stages of their careers, partly to allow those with deeper interest to self identify. Those who wanted to learn more could pursue specific billets and training opportunities to develop a specified skill rating in wargaming. They could transition back into the mainstream as teachers or expert practitioners of wargaming, particularly at the operational level of war, helping to educate the mid-level officers. A cadre of such wargaming experts would then progress into even higher skill levels to become the true subject matter experts in applying wargames in support of senior leaders. Similar discussions occurred in the education sub group of the M&S group, with even more detailed discussion of specific military functional areas and civilian professional skill areas that personnel could pursue to qualify as professional wargamers. Although at a very early stage of development, our notions were well received and overlapped with the thoughts of other groups. As a result, the CAPE sponsor of the meeting stated that this was one of the two ideas from the conference he planned to to present to DSD for possible action.

The second such idea flowed from the work of the design and methods group, presented by well known Connections and MORS Wargaming COP participant Jon Compton. Despite initial strong reservations, the group recommended that DoD establish some sort of Senior Wargaming Advisor for the DSD, backed by a small staff and with the remit to speak truth to power about the good, bad, and ugly of the DoD Wargaming enterprise. There was much discussion of how such an office might be created, and some good ideas were put into play. Hopefully the DSD will see both the value of such an effort and the political and bureaucratic means for implementing it.

Several other good points were raised by both the decision support group and the M&S group. I am less comfortable discussing these ideas in this forum, but I expect variants of them will be appearing in future Connections Conferences and subsequent wargaming workshops of this type. There is already discussion of a follow-up meeting this coming Fall (hopefully preceding the election).

Peter Perla

One response to “Thoughts on the DoD wargaming workshop at the Army War College

  1. brtrain 05/04/2016 at 12:14 am

    I wonder if Professor Lai made reference to Scott Boorman’s 1969 book “The protracted game: a wei-chʻi interpretation of Maoist revolutionary strategy”. Fine example of just how far you can stretch a metaphor before it snaps.

    Good idea coming from the Education group; someone who is taught to create and use games (as models seeking efficiency, as test beds for ideas, as ways to explore alternatives or Red moves) in their career will also be well placed after they leave the service.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: