PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Hanson on “Improving Operational Wargaming: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a War”

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Lt Col Matthew E. Hanson (USAF) recently submitted a monograph entitled “Improving Operational Wargaming: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a War” for the School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College. I am grateful for his permission to post a copy here (pdf).

In the monograph he explores how the theory and practice of wargaming often diverge, with negative consequences. He further argues that current US military wargaming doctrine does not sufficiently address this problem.

In 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work committed the Department of Defense (DOD) to overhaul its approach to wargaming in order to reinvigorate innovation across the DOD, including a five-year target to use wargames to improve operational planning. This monograph explores the causes of wargaming failures and proposes recommendations for successful wargames. Does doctrine provide sufficient guidance, striking the appropriate balance between prescriptive and descriptive guidance? This monograph postulates that wargaming theory—including game element analysis and wargame pathologies—provides an excellent rubric for creating and evaluating wargames and wargaming doctrine, that doctrine and practice diverge from wargame theory, and that current doctrine does not provide sufficient guidance. The theory—history—doctrine approach of this monograph is intended for military planners, doctrine authors, and wargaming professionals.

Wargames are a useful tool to assess plans as directed in operational planning processes; however, commanders and staffs should neither equate wargame victory with wargame success, nor consider either as “validation” of a given plan. There are ten elements of wargame design: objectives, scenario, database, models, rules and procedures, infrastructure, participants, analysis, culture and environment, and audiences. These elements provide a framework for creating wargames, and analyzing wargames and their failure modes (known as pathologies).

By evaluating Japan’s Midway campaign plan through the theories of game element analysis and wargame pathologies, this monograph creates greater understanding of those theories and provides recommendations for doctrine. Pathologies exhibited by Japanese planners include those related to wargame objectives, scenario, database, model, participants, and culture; genuine testing of the Operation MI plan appears to have been impossible. Wargame officials twice rejected inconvenient outcomes, undermining the credibility of the game, creating lasting controversy, and preventing meaningful analysis.

Current operational planning doctrine lacks sufficient detail on how to design and conduct wargames, neglecting the diverse needs of planning staffs. At present, doctrine diverges from wargame theory in its contents and by its omissions. Improving doctrine would capitalize on these insights and potentially avert an otherwise foreseeable military catastrophe.

In the absence of updated joint and service doctrine, operational planners will lack the descriptive—yet detailed—instruction necessary to ensure useful and valid operational planning wargames. Doctrine authors should include the lessons of game element analysis, wargame pathologies, and other sources into joint and service doctrine to assist operational planners in creating wargames that are theoretically sound and operationally insightful.

Lt Col Hanson is interested in constructive feedback from PAXsims readers, and especially comments that address the following points:

  • New sources (particularly primary sources) on Midway that would enable stronger correlation to the battle outcome and/or the pathologies framework
  • Similar sources for a secondary case study such as Tannenberg or Barbarossa.
  • Additional evidence/proof for the efficacy of wargames in testing and strengthening operational plans.  How does a commander and his planning staff know that wargaming will improve their planning outcomes?  Can I improve from my general recommendations to improve wargame doctrine to more specific practices and techniques relevant to the operational planner?

Comments can be left in the comments section.

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