PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Connections 2016 conference report

The following report on the recent Connections (US) interdisciplinary wargaming conference was provided by Major Tom Mouat (UK Army). All views expressed herein are personal ones.


 

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In a moment of madness, I agreed with Rex Brynen that I would attempt to put together a report on Connections 2016 for PAXsims – and this is my attempt at such a report. It is important to warn you that Rex normally types on this laptop during the proceedings at a conference and is thus able to provide a contemporaneous report of what occurred. This was simply not possible for me; firstly, because I lack the expertise (I need to think about stuff for a lot longer than he does and I type really slowly) and secondly, because the conference took place in the excellent facilities of the Lemay Centre Wargaming Institute at Maxwell Airforce Base (which is a secure location – so no laptops, phones, etc).

This was unfortunate, as getting clearance to get on base was a significant hurdle to overcome and that, along with the added travel burden of not being on a non-stop flight location, made attendance much more difficult. If it wasn’t for the significant support from the on-site organiser, I wouldn’t have made it (but I believe I was the only “foreigner”). American Airlines didn’t help (missing my flight connections on the way in and making my return journey a 26hr marathon on the way back), but the Delta Airlines computer glitch messed up a lot of other people’s plans as well.

The conference programme is here  and the presentations should also be posted on the Connections website shortly.

Day 1

The initial session was a SECRET NOFORN (No Foreigners) brief, so I headed off with Matt Caffrey for an Introduction to Wargaming brief instead. Since the audience consisted of vastly experienced civilian wargamers and me, it turned into a feedback and support session on Matt’s briefing slides and a very pleasant chat about the best way to get the message about the importance of wargaming to an unfamiliar audience.

A number of useful things came out of this for me, one of which was the concept of tailoring Red force play in a wargame depending on the objectives of the event (What do you want Red to do? What should Red do for best value?)

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Next up was Cdr Phil Pournelle with a presentation on Improving Wargaming in the DOD. I have heard several elements of his presentation before, but his arguments (and slides) are developing in a way that is very useful in helping to explain the subject and issues to an often sceptical audience. I would definitely recommend taking a look at his slide pack when it is posted on-line.

The vexed question of the actual definition of a wargame came up again and Phil had bullied Peter Perla into providing another definition (a variant on his previous one) with phrases like “a dynamic representation of conflict”, “people”, “decisions” and “consequences”. The issue of having an agreed definition of wargaming (or even general agreement on whether it should be spelled “war gaming” or “wargaming”) was mentioned several times. The concern was that the field is so broad that an all-encompassing definition is so bland as to be useless, and a more precise definition always excludes some segment of the discipline. This, in turn, leads the practitioners (who are all protective of their particular sub-discipline) to meddle and nit-pick with the definition to no useful purpose.

My personal view is that this a complete waste of time and effort. It doesn’t matter what the definition is – what matters is what wargaming does and why you would want to do it. We should therefore agree on a bland all-encompassing definition (to satisfy those who say we need one), but add “with the aim of” and then individual departments are free to mess with their personal aims to their heart’s content – and we can then all get on with some productive work.

I really don’t care what the definition is – but it isn’t a Wargame unless Blue can fail. J

This was followed by Dr Shawn Burns presenting on the Game Project Management Process. This was given from the perspective of the US DOD, whose scale and reach is orders of magnitude larger than most other countries wargaming efforts, but nevertheless the basics are applicable to all projects. The project management flow of: Task – Design – Development – Testing – Rehearsal – Execution – Analysis – Archive was clear and sensible, but his insight into the concept of Jidoka (taken from the Toyota production system) and the “5 Whys” was of particular interest.

The overall concept is summarised here, but the “5 Whys” process is simply the iterative process of asking “why” until the root cause of a problem is discovered. Shawn’s view (and I wholeheartedly support it) was that you should do the same with your Wargame Sponsor to work out what the sponsor really wants to achieve (which may be completely different to what you thought it was—or even from what he thought it was!).

The presentation on the OSD Wargaming Initiative was fascinating insight into how the Wargaming Repository project (a result of the DEPSECDEF memo) and US DOD process management was progressing. What was clear is that significant funding has been made available for wargaming initiatives (significant at least for the rest of us – they might seem small as DOD projects go), and the risk that things that weren’t really wargames would be classed as such in order to get money. There was a responsibility for those involved in wargaming to use the repository and to ensure that they get their messaging right to compensate for this.

There then followed Service briefs for the different environments which, while I was able to recognise more words after attending several Connections conferences, the majority of it went straight over my head. I can only presume that it served the vital function of maintaining “situational awareness” among the other Service branches – but from my outsider’s view it appeared to me that many of the challenges faced were very similar and that the USMC had the most coherent plan (and funding) for dealing with them. Time will tell if this is the case.

There seemed to me to be quite a lot on explaining procedural issues within the US DOD, fostering connections (!) and explaining structures and rather less on sharing best practice – but it takes a brave person to say something is “best practice” in front of this audience.

Cdr Chris Baker’s presentation on Stakeholder Management was good and matched my experiences in the UK Defence Procurement organisation. Far too many people in management positions seem to expect stakeholders merely to be asked their opinion (irrespective of whether they have any qualifications or formal training in the subject) (as opposed to just being appointed to their position) as if by aggregating these views together wisdom or innovation will magically appear. Leadership is required, as typified by the quote from Dr James Brown “Stakeholders expect you to lead… manage expectations… even if they are more powerful than you are”; if time is not to be wasted repeating work already done, or money wasted on “shiny toys” that don’t contribute to the outcomes we need.

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As always Dr Stephen Downes-Martin’s talk on Wargaming Pathologies was really excellent – brutal and uncompromising in shining a light on why things go bad, but offering clear advice on what can be done. None of the advice was easy or trivial: You need deep knowledge and competence in your subject, Suitably Qualified and Experienced Personnel (SQEP), objective analysis of what we are trying to achieve and the results we gained, and above all, morale courage to ensure that we do the right thing. Too many wargames are compromised by a lack of professional ethics, competence and courage in the face of your Boss, the Sponsor and Senior Players.

We also had Lt Gen Steven L Kwast, Commander Air University, provide a particularly rousing keynote address. There might have been some criticism that his words might be somewhat lacking in practical results, but the very fact that a 3-Star Officer was taking the time to address the conference and say the right things, shows he is aware of the issues and understands the desired direction of travel. I especially liked his comments on “smart risk” and his use of the language of insurgency in order to get the message through to younger personnel. He mentioned the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie as an example of overcoming the tangled mess of corporate rules, systems, procedures and red tape, which has had very good reviews (including by Sally Jewell the US Secretary of the Interior): .

We then had explanations about various working groups and game labs. I elected to get involved in Matt Caffery’s group on “Growing Tomorrows’ Innovators” and did a demonstration session of a Cyber Matrix Game (a simplified version is available here: https://1drv.ms/f/s!ArdcexVTLJ4Pgdle6885ZelqslZHiw).

This was followed by some extremely useful discussions in the evening at the icebreaker no-host event.

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Day 2

This started with Dr Burns’ presentation on Cyber Wargaming which we missed the preceding day. This was very useful – particularly for me as at the Defence Academy of the UK, the Simulation, Modelling and Wargaming department works to the Cyber and Information Management department and we run a cyber wargame as part of the Cyber Operational Awareness Course.

A number of helpful points were raised, based on Prof Stephanie Helm’s work looking into Cyber Considerations for Wargaming:

  • What is “Cyber”? How do you define “Cyber”? (How do you define Wargaming?)
  • The relationship between Cyber and Electronic Warfare (EW) or Information Operations (IO).
  • Operational factors such as Time, Space and levels of Force.
  • What does a Cyber Common Operational Picture (COP) look like?
  • What is Offensive Cyber?
  • What is Defensive Cyber?

From this fall out important questions that need to be addressed when designing a wargame that incorporates Cyber elements. Where does Cyber fit at the strategic level? How does it fit into the game objectives? Are the issues relevant to the decisions being made? Who is the bad guy?

We then covered the vexed problem of classification. Many aspects of operational Cyber capabilities are very highly classified; not just the ways and means, but the organisations and their relationships. This severely restricts the ability to wargame (or even discuss) the issues to gain the insights so badly needed. Is it possible to separate out the classified “actors, ways and means” from the unclassified and generalised “effects”?

This was a very helpful, and I shall be briefing this presentation specifically back to my department when the slides become available.

We were then privileged to have Brig Gen Brian M. Killough, Director of Strategy, Concepts and Assessments, Dep Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements, HQ USAF give us a presentation on the Wargaming Enterprise.

General Killough, like General Kwast, inevitably demonstrated the General officer’s ability to start things off with a politically correct joke, but struck me as having a more grounded and realistic view of wargaming (warts and all) than the relentlessly upbeat talk from General Kwast. He also provided the first easy to understand view of what the 3rd Offset Strategy actually was.

I especially liked his points about including some of the weird stuff (avoiding predictable incrementalism) and the dangers of making wargames too big (because you simply don’t learn anything new). He was challenged on some points (after all he is “only a One-Star”), but I felt he gave frank and honest responses about the difficulties to be faced in the current fiscal environment. “Show me your cheque-book and I’ll show you what is important to you.”

Wargaming is not a science but I believe that several of our senior leadership understand the value of it – but equally they realise that it is an art form, so it can’t be mandated. It also is really hard to quantify, consequently they will have extreme challenges in funding and priorities, so I suspect that the best we can really hope for is encouragement and support. As Cdr Phil Pournelle said “we really ought to be able to game the system to get what we want – if we really call ourselves wargamers…”.

This was followed by an absolutely fascinating presentation by Robert Mosher entitled “Observations from a Role Player”, giving really grounded and sensible advice on the role of role-players, their functions, how to manage and prepare them properly and some top tips, such as:

  • Don’t fight the White (the exercise scenario). (Nit picking the scenario won’t help at this stage).
  • Understand the role/training objectives. (Not all roles are created equal and you have a function to do).
  • Ask questions early. (Don’t make too many assumptions)
  • Draw on your real world experience (in context).
  • Remember you are in Atropia now! (read your brief and don’t assume it’s just like Kansas…).
  • Be there for real-world mentoring. (Experience in these roles is transferable).

He was able to draw on his great depth of experience to illustrate his points with practical examples. His brief exactly matched my experience in that having role-play and experience role-players is incredibly valuable – especially in the situations the military find themselves in today’s operations (and his experience is pretty much second to none!).

During the preparations for the NATO deployment to Bosnia in 1994 some of the most valuable lessons (such as the need for a Political Advisor to the Commander and the need for a “Joint Military Commission” to handle all communication and dealing with the factions) came directly out of role-play sessions in the work-up training exercises and had not been foreseen beforehand.

Following the Working Groups initial discussions and lunch (I have to point out here that the fresh fruit and endless coffee / iced water were are real boon and very much appreciated) we went into speaker panels.

Panel One was Chaired by Dr Downes-Martin and looked at ideas and techniques explicitly intended to test to destruction proposed “innovative wargaming concepts”, which featured Dr. Hank Brightman (Naval War College) “Employing Qualitative Methods in the Destructive Testing of War Game Designs”; Dr. Jonathan Lockwood (Lockwood Research Associates, LLC) “Strategic Free Play Wargaming as the Optimum Approach for Testing New Concepts” and Dr. Yuna Wong (RAND) “Did Your Concept or Your Wargame Fail?”.

C2016-4There were a lot of good ideas and concept in these presentations. I was struck by the idea (that matched several speaker’s comments) that before you embark on a quantitative model, you really need to explain and demonstrate a qualitative model to start with – because if you can’t then it is highly likely that your quantitative model has shaky foundations. Dr Wong, as usual was compelling in her presentation – if we pretend to be scientists or engineers, we should try to employ the scientific method, Discover, Demonstrate, Support, Refute, Replicate and examine our validity criteria: Construct validity, internal validity and external validity. Do wargames generate innovation? Or is it that innovative organisations use wargames? Is wargaming an indicator of an innovative organisation rather than a generator of innovation itself?

The second panel, to Explore the effectiveness and feasibility of options to facilitate the development of innovators, was Chaired by Matt Caffrey with Major Eric Frahm, LCWI, Back to the Future: Revisiting Small-Scale Wargames and the Integration of M&S into Wargame Design; Dr. Mel Deaile, Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, The Risk of Wargaming and Joseph M. Saur, MS/CS, CMSP, Principal Lecturer in Cybersecurity, Regent University, “Teaching Wargaming at Marine Corps University: Lessons Learned”.

This panel was right on the money for me with discussions on the scale of wargames (we don’t need big games to be effective), the dangers of “Gamer Mode” (See Anders Frank’s doctoral thesis on the subject) and the often dreadfully biased assumptions made by many involved.

In the evening I was able to demonstrate the Sandhurst Kriegsspiel, used in teaching cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (available here).

Day 3

On Day 3 we were privileged to have a presentation by Colonel John Warden (ret.) (the man responsible for starting the whole Connections conference off in the first place). He spoke without notes and laid out his vision of low cost, small footprint, short war interventions.

This was followed by the third speaker panel, Wargaming and Organizational Change, with the objective to explore ways to implement the appropriate application of wargaming. The Chair was Paul Vebber with Dr. John Tiller, John Tiller Software, Strategies for Organizational Change, A Practical Approach; Michael K. Robel, Principle Senior System Engineer, General Dynamics Information Technology, Innovations in Outcome Based Training for Seminar Wargames; and Dr. Thomas Choinski, Deputy Director for Undersea Warfare, Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Macro Perspectives on Wargame Culture and Innovation.

There were some interesting ideas, particularly on Action Theory with regards to wargaming and innovation, taking an artefact, the system of manufacture, the technique and then the system of use; translating to Science and Engineering, Acquisition, and Doctrine, to the Warfighter. When considering computer simulation, Cdr Pournelle made the observation that if we are after innovation in ends, ways, means and methods, then using a simulation, by definition, handicaps your chances as it can only do what has been programmed into it – it is simply impossible to do something new (except in the most trivial of ways). It was interesting, however, to see direct parallels when considering the success factors in computer wargame design with manual wargame designs, in that it is important it looks good, it has a serious purpose, it is easy to get started with, it is engaging to play, it is easy to modify and it needs an advocate to provide “top cover”.

I then outlined the recent advances in Wargaming in the UK which were guardedly promising but still hampered by a lack of doctrine and the Connections UK Conference taking place on 06 to 08 September 2016 (see here for details).

Further sessions of the game labs were then continued. I volunteered to run a session in which we designed and ran a Matrix Game from scratch. I am extremely grateful to my willing bunch of volunteers for jumping in so whole-heartedly and putting up with my adjudication. We managed to do a run through of a scenario set in a Mega-City in Africa to a suitable finishing point within about 2 hours and then spent some time discussing Matrix Games. I have typed up a copy of the game (with a few changes) here.

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This was most useful and, in keeping with Prof Downes-Martin’s exhortation to be intellectually honest, led to the production of a short SWOT analysis of Matrix Games.

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Day 4

Day 4 was really briefing back the results of the Game Labs and the Working Groups. The brief from Matt Caffery’s Working Group on “Growing Tomorrow’s Wargame Innovators” almost exactly matched the conclusion that we had come to in the UK. There is a need for a graduated set of training courses following the Awareness – Practitioner – Expert model of training, with some form of short “Master Class” for senior officers. Our proposal is to have the Awareness Training available on-line (and this is in-hand), with the rest a mix of classroom sessions and distance learning. A Training Needs Analysis is currently underway and a business case will follow early next year.

The brief from Paul Vebber about designing an educational game, for non-military, non-wargamers to do with Naval Warfare in a complex environment, was very interesting. Called “Waves of Destiny” (and winning from the title alone!) it was intended as a very simple game to educate people about capabilities. I hope to be following this up later and look forward to playtesting the results.

Essentially there was a realisation that we need simple, accessible tools in order to train and educate people about understanding capability, learning to think against real opposition and also becoming “intimately or at least casually acquainted with a number of people that they might have occasion to work with or rely on in the future” (as Tom Shelling once noted).

The hot wash-up followed. This year’s attendance was lower than previously, mainly due to the location, but hopefully this will be fixed by returning to Quanitco and the Marine Corps next year. There were suggestions that we should put out a “Call for Papers”, deliberately invite or have a working group specifically for “under 35s”, and also invite the contributing authors to Zones of Control to participate.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few quotes that I wrote in my notebook:

  • “Wargaming is a motivator to action not a quantifier of effect”.
  • “Wargaming should fix stupid”.
  • “We should play “The Game of Games” and work out how to get wargaming used more”.
  • “Games having analytically quantifiable results is necessary, but not sufficient”.
  • “The danger is that Wargaming can be taken too seriously, or not seriously enough”.
  • “Show me your chequebook and I’ll show you what is important to you”.

I was asked by a friend whether it was worth it for him to attend Connections after I returned to the UK. I was a little surprised at how difficult it was to answer the question. The problem is the sense of scale and range of professional wargaming in the USA – it is so large an enterprise and so full of specialisation that it can be difficult to find comparative value with the much smaller scale work carried out in Europe. Some of the presentations are only of interest (or be the least bit understandable) for the US DOD participants (but this is entirely fair). It also has somewhat of a “folksy charm” that might infuriate some people when everyone disperses at the end of the day to participate in game sessions in various rooms without some formal notice. The experienced attendee knows when to interrupt to announce a session and how to ferret out those individuals they want to speak with after the formal work is over. This might leave the first timer adrift and feeling left out. I found it to be full of ideas and moments of inspiration that make such an event essential to my professional development, but I think that much of the value is only gained by regular attendance – so I intend to be back next year!

4 responses to “Connections 2016 conference report

  1. Robert (Bob) Cordery 19/08/2016 at 4:54 pm

    I particularly enjoyed reading the SWOT analysis of Matrix Games as they slot very nicely into my experience of writing, running, and playing them.

    I am interested in the fact that there is a drive to be able to apply quantitive analysis to wargaming … or is it war gaming? I understand the motivation for it, but as I regard wargaming as more of an art than a science, I remain to be convinced that it can be done in a meaningful way … as yet.

  2. brtrain 19/08/2016 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks for the detailed report Tom!
    Because of the NOFORN and security business, I would not have been able to participate meaningfully in this one… and with my luck with respect to air travel, I might never have made it to Alabama after all!

    Bob, I think what you observe in the quantitative/ qualitative analysis is not so much the US/ UK divide but the different approaches within the field of Operational Research. Usually when there is a Military Operations Research Society get-together on wargaming, the room divides into the two main tribes of “number-crunchers” and “mystical hand-wavers”, as each refers to the other.

    See you in Quantico next year (and perhaps London too, if I can swing it – I would really like to come back and spend some more time in the UK!).

  3. Robert (Bob) CorderyBob Cordery 20/08/2016 at 3:06 am

    Brian,

    For a long time I have been of the belief that until we can develop something for wargaming that is akin to ‘psychohistory’ (as propounded in Asimov’s FOUNDATION series of science fiction books) this arguments between the number-crunchers and the hand-wavers will continue.

    If you haven’t come across ‘psychohistory’ before, Asimov’s character Hari Seldon – a fictional mathematics professor – develops it as an ‘algorithmic science that allows him to predict the future in probabilistic terms’. It is based upon making a statistical study of the past in order to predict the future.

    Now I know that Trevor Dupuy tried something like this with his Quantified Judgment Method or QJM, but I always felt that he had to use a major fudge factor (what we amateur toy soldier wargamers used to call ‘national characteristics’!) to ‘fit’ his method to some of the historical examples he used.

    If I were a younger, brighter man, perhaps I might be able to make a name for myself pursuing this line of enquiry!

  4. Lorenzo Nannetti (@LorenzoNannetti) 20/08/2016 at 9:26 am

    Thanks for the excellent report. On psychohistory, best we can do now could be to use crowdsourcing to map hundreds of possible pathways. Usually all those pathways can be condensed in few main “lines” or “paths” (most will be variations of), which make understanding the base core points. We may not know which one will happen, but we may know it will be inside one of those. That can allow not just predictions (through analysis of how drivers are unfolding and recognizing that certain developments guide towards certain results/paths/lines) but also a deeper understanding of the underlying factors and drivers (which is ultimately what may matter most). Some companies do this. But we have to warn against trying to get “precise” short-term forecasting, which is usually more akin to getting the correct answer by chance. Again, the example of psychohistory is a good one: in his work, Asimov reminds that you can understand how a civilization will evolve over years, but you can’t understand how it works short-term, or how a single character will reason/decide/act. Sort of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle for geopolitics…

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