Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 14/07/2016

Wong on “Wargaming in Professional Military Education”


Today at the Strategy Bridge, Jeff Wong offers some thoughts on the value of wargaming in professional military education—from a student’s perspective:

Students beginning the new academic year at U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College will examine the works of military theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Mao Tse-Tung to uncover their approaches to strategy and war; study the writings of Graham Allison and Daniel Kahneman to appreciate their perspectives on organizational behavior and cognition; and familiarize themselves with the volumes of joint doctrine to better understand joint-force employment. Books and articles on other topics—encompassing international affairs, ethics, morality, law of war, and critical thinking—will also crowd their shelves. But whither the art of decision-making?

Students will devote a fair amount of time reading, writing, and talking about decisions, but not much time actually practicing how to make them. To address this education gap, American professional military education institutions should re-emphasize the relevance of wargaming to prepare officers for addressing tomorrow’s complex problems. Wargames provide leaders with decision-making practice, support innovation as part of a greater “cycle of research,” and foster greater cultural acceptance of subordinate initiative, flexibility, and adaptability.[1] Gaming has flaws like any other analytic method, but it is a powerful learning tool that warrants wider consideration in the schoolhouse and beyond.

He identifies several key reasons for doing so (emphasis added):

  • “Wargames offer students in professional military education greater opportunities to make tough choices, study their decision-making calculus, and appreciate the consequences.”
  • “Wargaming can also encourage subordinate initiative and adaptability, which aligns with contemporary American approaches to command…”
  • “Wargaming helps solve many problems when used with other tools, but it should not be applied to every analytic effort. Gaming is a people-driven tool that is effective at examining decision-making, exploring issues, explaining implications, and identifying questions for future study.[18] However, it is not an effective tool for calculating outcomes, proving theories, predicting “winners,” producing numbers, and generating conclusions.”

He also correctly notes that “winning isn’t the only thing. Rather, the most important output is the shared understanding that represents potential outcomes, guides a commander’s actions, and fosters an environment for learning.”

There are, Wong suggests, several ways in which wargaming could be more effectively integrated into professional military education:

First, service schoolhouses can integrate games into curricula starting at career-level courses to provide young leaders with tactical decision-making experiences applicable for their next jobs as company commanders, flight commanders, or department heads.

Second, at intermediate-level schools, a wargaming curriculum could teach students how to develop, plan, and execute wargames on their own. This additional knowledge may assist in fostering decision-making skills at the field-grade level, help officers become effective participants in service-level games, and encourage them to continue using games to train operating forces. Several such informal efforts occurred at Marine Corps University in February 2016, when faculty developed a wargame called “Sea Dragon” pitting students from Marine Corps Command and Staff College against students from the Marine Corps War College.

Third, top-level schools could instruct students how to apply wargames at the institutional level for developing future strategies, concepts, capabilities, and resourcing decisions inside the labyrinthine American defense establishment. The Naval War College has taken major steps in this direction, truncating old coursework to make room for more wargames and operational-level planning into its joint military operations curriculum.[20] The newly designed course features three “active-learning” wargames in which students receive immediate feedback based on their plans and actions against adversaries.

His comments here align with similar arguments that were recently made, from an instructor’s perspective, by James Lacey. I was particularly pleased to see Wong highlight the value of teaching wargaming in order to make officers more effective wargame participants, clients, and designers—a point that was strongly made at last year’s Connections (US) interdisciplinary wargaming conference.

There are several sources of resistance to a greater use of wargaming in PME schoolhouses. Part of that resistance, of course, might be a failure by some to recognize its value. As evidenced by the very existence of this blog as well as my own university courses, I certainly think gaming methods can be extremely useful pedagogical tools, representing a sort of “intellectual cross-training” that encourages students to think about problems in different ways and address the challenge of agile adversaries and complex-adaptive social and political systems. However, it is also important that games be done well. If poorly designed, poorly executed, or poorly linked to other learning material the impact of (war)games can be muted—or in some cases, even negative. One issue that so far has not received adequate attention in the current “post-Work memo era” discussion of wargaming is how wide and deep current design and facilitation skills are within the national security community. More than one professional has expressed a concern that a faddish rush-to -wargame could produce some very bad games.

It should also be recognized that there is a lot of material that needs to be covered in PME, and only so much schoolhouse time in which to do it. Given that, it is an entirely fair question to ask how the cost-benefit of wargaming therefore compares with other, more traditional teaching methodologies.

Because of this, I’m often a fan of relatively simple wargame designs that take limited time and effort to run. The Sandhurst Kriegsspiel is an example: it can be conducted in a single short session, and acts as a compliment to an earlier TEWT (tactical exercise without troops) in the field. Matrix games can also be designed and conducted quickly, and lend themselves well to exploring multi-stakeholder issues across the diplomatic/military/information/economic spectrum. Indeed, it is for such reasons that both the US Army War College and National Defense University have started using them in a significant way in the last year or so.

I am sure that this is an issue that will be more fully discussed at next month’s Connections (US) wargaming conference at Maxwell Air Force Base, as well as at Connections (UK) at King’s College London in September, Connections Netherlands, and Connections Oz. In the meantime, if you have your own thoughts on the topic that you would like to develop into a possible PAXsims contribution, feel free to contact us.

%d bloggers like this: