PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: December 2016

Happy holidays from PAXsims

On behalf of everyone here at PAXsims—Gary, Ellie, Devin, Tom and myself—we would like to wish our readers the very best for the holidays. May all your conflicts be merely simulated, and not every game serious!

 

 

Reflections on the wargame spectrum

Colin Marston (Dstl) passed on to me some slides (public domain identifier PUB098428) presented at the recent MORS wargaming special meeting which address the range of wargaming approaches and methodology. Given the growing interest in wargaming—what it is, what it can do, and how it might do it—I thought they would be of interest to PAXsim readers. I’ve also inserted a few thoughts of my own.

You’ll find the full set of slides here here (ppt) and here (pdf).

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The first set of slide suggests that wargames can be differentiated by the level of analysis (strategic vs operational, vs tactical), by the nature of the problem (bounded and clear, or wicked and messy), and by the type of adjudication used (open/free versus rigid and rules-based). I would have probably listed the adjudication issue last, because the choice of appropriate methodology can really only be made once you are clear on what sorts of question(s) you are trying to answer.

The slides don’t say much about purpose. Elsewhere, Graham Longley-Brown does so, noting the divide between analytical and training/education games:

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While that differentiation is useful because it points to important differences in purpose and hence design, I’ll admit that I’ve been increasingly interested in the extent to which we might be able to develop hybrid games—that is, wargames that serve an education/training function, but in which participants are also generating data that is of analytical value too. My own Brynania civil war/peacebuilding game at McGill, for example, is designed for educational purposes but has now been used to generate data for two PhD theses (one on terrorist violence, the other on educational gaming). While there’s a risk of compromising analytical rigour or educational effectiveness in doing this, it could also provide a useful way of stretching limited resources.

The Dstl presentation goes on to discuss which game approaches are often of value in which contexts:

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Here they comment:

On this slide the top blue line represents the different levels within the problem space.  The red, middle line represents types of adjudication.  The bottom green line indicates the different levels of complexity.  On top of these axes we have the types of wargames that we employ in Dstl and across the MOD.  Please note that these techniques are not limited to their positions on the axes.  We find that the techniques on the left of the spectrum generally provide more opportunity for original thought and creativity (imagination). In addition, methods at this end of the spectrum generally provide an opportunity for doing lots of Courses of Action with little depth – so essentially short games that might last a couple of hours to a day.  The methods on the right can provide increasing depth, but are often slower to set up and run. These methods generally employ more rigorous and precise techniques – although that does not necessarily mean that they give more accurate outputs.  All of these approaches have their merits, some being better at trying to answer certain questions than others. So, when appropriate, we try to use a combination of different approaches.

They also identify some “essential elements” of a wargame:

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Now, the type of game that we use is just one part of the process. This slide highlights the other factors that we need to consider. There’s no fixed order in the way we tackle these – it’s an iterative process and depends on the question.

The wargame is not the simulation. The simulation is but a subset of a wargame.

Effective communication and transparency are crucial throughout the whole of the wargaming process and it is crucial that everyone – from the players to the customers – are involved at the relevant stages.

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The optimal approach to providing decision-support is often to fuse the information pertaining from both human-in-the-loop and non-human-in-the-loop techniques.

There are many different types of wargames and careful consideration should be given as to which type, or types, of game are most appropriate for a particular problem.  Also wargaming should often NOT be used in isolation but as part of a broader analytical tool and / or iterative process that incorporates a range of different techniques.

Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section.

Battle for Humanity — beta testers required

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Battle for Humanity is a digital game initiative by Search for Common Ground intended to promote cooperation and conflict resolution among youth and young adults. They’re looking for both playtesters and partners:

The Presidential election woke the U.S. up to our desperate need to listen to and understand each other. With our self-sorting on social media, at church, and in schools, we don’t build the relationships across differences that are vital for a functioning society.

We need to work together even when we vehemently disagree.

We can redefine “hero” to include politicians who bravely work across party lines to fix what needs fixing. To include the young Latina who asks a policeman for help, even though she’s afraid to. To include the Christian who intervenes to stop bigotry against a Muslim neighbor.

Over the past two years, we’ve brought together experts from engineering, marketing, and academia with young peacebuilders from around the world. We’ve envisioned a new way to reach young people with a vision of global leadership: Battle for Humanity – a global, online platform where social media meets real-life video game.

Battle for Humanity attracts young people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a peace camp. It starts building their empathy and leadership through our proven methods. It makes it normal to listen to your “enemy” with respect. It makes solving problems for everyone’s benefit the goal. All the while, you’re making friends around the world, gaining points, and moving up the ranks of this online community.

We urgently need your help to get Battle for Humanity up and running.

Here are three ways you can help:

1) Join now. Are you 13-30 years old? Do you have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, cousin, or friend in this age range? We’re testing the real-life activities for this game right now on Facebook. Go to battle4humanity.org to enroll as a beta tester. Or help us recruit the young people who will design this platform from the ground up.

2) Connect us. Do you know a major foundation, police department, or university who might partner with us to bring some of our best solutions home to the U.S.? Tell us!

3) Give now. You can start building relationships of trust across Americans’ deepest fears. You can create the next generation of social technology that bridges divides instead of erecting echo chambers. Help us continue developing and testing new solutions to today’s most difficult conflicts – and bring our tested and proven solutions home to the U.S. where they’re desperately needed.

Battle for Humanity is a key piece of our dream for the U.S. We need a serious commitment from our friends and partners to make the whole dream a reality.

Will you partner with us?

Having dealt with them in the past I know that SFCG does some excellent work. You’ll find full details at the links above.

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“Our Sea”—An Eastern Mediterranean matrix game

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The ever-prolific Tom Mouat has completed the design of another matrix game, this time devoted to strategic jockeying by Russia, NATO, and others in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean:

President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has sought to reverse the post-Cold War era transformations during which Russia lost its satellites, withdrew militarily from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), forfeited its regional predominance, and curtailed its international power projection. Moscow’s primary strategic objective under the Putin presidency is to create a Eurasian bloc of states under predominant Russian influence that will necessitate containing, undermining and reversing NATO influence throughout eastern Europe. Even where it cannot pressure or entice its neighbours to integrate in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Kremlin attempts to neutralize nearby capitals by preventing them from moving into Western institutions, particularly NATO and the European Union (EU).

In this strategic context, Russia’s supremacy in the Black Sea becomes critical for restoring its east European and Eurasian dominion, as well as projecting power toward the Mediterranean and Middle East. Its offensives in and around the Black Sea are part of a larger anti-NATO strategy in which naval forces play a significant and growing role. Russia is using the Black Sea as a more advantageous method of revisionism than extensive land conquests. Control of ports and sea lanes delivers several benefits: it prevents NATO from projecting sufficient security for its Black Sea members; deters the intervention of littoral states on behalf of vulnerable neighbours; threatens to choke the trade and energy routes of states not in compliance with Russia’s national ambitions; and gives Moscow an enhanced ability to exploit fossil fuels in maritime locations.

All of this assumes particular significance, of course, against the backdrop of Russian deployment of its (rather dilapitated) aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to support combat operations in Syria, reports that NATO is again playing hide-and-seek with Russian attack submarines in the Med (and vice-versa), continued conflict in the Ukraine, political uncertainty in Turkey, the regional migrant crisis, and the growing value of eastern Mediterranean oil and gas deposits.

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The actors represented in the game include the US, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Cyprus, and the UK, and turns represent around 2-4 weeks. Rules, counters, and maps are included, and can be downloaded from here (pdf).

Review: The Sandhurst Kriegsspiel

John Curry and Tim Price, The Sandhurst Kriegsspiel: Wargaming for the Modern Infantry Officer. Training for War: Volume I. History of Wargaming Project, 2016. 123pp. £14.95

 

sandhurstkriegcover.gifRecent years have seen an effort to (re)introduce a greater quantity and quality of wargaming into professional military education, notably in the United States and United Kingdom. This volume contains a number of British examples. It is written by two well-known experts in the field, John Curry (of the History of Wargaming Project) and the prolific but ever-elusive “Tim Price” (a currently-serving British military officer). Another British officer, Ed Farren, has also contributed to the collection. The book is amply illustrated with maps and pictures, and additional materials are available for download at the History of Wargaming Project website.

The book contains four wargames. The first, the Sandhurst Kriegsspiel, is a platoon- or company-level action meant to be played following a TEWT (tactical exercise without troops) earlier in the day. During the TEWT, officer cadets physically visit the nearby “battlefield” and ascertain how they might defend or assault a designated position. During the kriegsspiel, they then play this out against each other on a map using simple wargaming rules. The authors note one absolutely key point that underscores the value of wargames as an educational, training, and planning tool, namely what a fundamental difference it can make when one introduces an intelligent and adaptive adversary into the process:

Experience running these kriegsspiels shloes that BLUE often change their plan for the wargame from the one they have spent the majority of the day considering in the TEWT. When faced by an enemy played by their peers, who have spent the day considering the same situation, the players often realise that they have assumed that the enemy is stupid [and] incapable of thinking from the BLUE point of view. The RED team will know what the likely BLUE attack plan will be and have prepared for it.

The second game included in the collection is the Battlegroup Kriegsspiel, which introduces a simple map-based wargame involving multiple platoons and companies. The Modern Infantry Battle (or “Future UK Army Concepts”) wargame was developed to explore the implications of possible reorganization and reductions in the size of British infantry companies. This is somewhat more dependent on formal rules, and less dependent on umpire adjudication. Finally, Ed Farren’s Counter-IED Kriegsspiel has students play the role of a Blue force attempting to complete an assigned task—and a Red force placing IEDs and ambushes to try to prevent this and inflict casualties. All of these games are quite simple, but in many ways that is the point: even relatively quick and simple wargames can provide insight into military operations in a way that explores their inherently adversarial nature.

The many appendices to the volume include a summary of the UK military decision-making (or combat estimative) process; a (rather critical) British military assessment of the SPI commercial wargame Firefight (1977), notes on British Army weapons, and sample unit counters for the games.

The primary targets of this book are those engaged in tactical and operational military training. However those interested in teaching military operations in other contexts (including in university courses on modern warfare, which are often peculiarly devoid of any exploration of the tactical, operational, and strategic arts) will also find it useful. Hobby gamers may also derive from enjoyment in trying out the rules and scenarios with their opponents, in a “can you beat a Sandhurst officer cadet” sort of way.

Thomas Schelling, 1921-2016

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Thomas Schelling—Nobel laureate in economics, a key figure in the development of modern game theory and strategy, and a pioneer of political-military wargaming—died on Tuesday at the age of 95. You’ll find his New York Times obituary here.

Wargamers will be especially interested in his contribution “Red vs. Blue?” to Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum, eds. Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (2016). The chapter is based on an earlier talk he gave to the 2014 Connections wargaming conference.

It is also well worth reading Crisis Games 27 Years Later: Plus c’est déjà vua RAND reproduction of a lengthy 1964 exchange of internal communications between Robert Levine, Thomas Schelling, and William Jones on the strengths and weaknesses of crisis games as an experiential and analytical tool. Levine is skeptical and cautious, while Schelling (as in his chapter referenced above) argues they have considerable value when used properly.

Review: Priestly & Lambshead, Tabletop Wargames

Rick Priestly and John Lambshead, Tabletop Wargames: A Designers’ & Writers’ Handbook. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016. 153pp. £14.99/$24.95 pb.

TabletopWargames.jpegThis slim but lively volume offers guidance to the hobbyist on designing and presenting rules for tabletop (miniature) wargames. The authors are certainly well-qualified to write on the subject. Rick Priestly is author or coauthor of such influential game rules as Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer Ancients, Warhammer 40K, WarmasterLord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (Games Workshop), as well as Black Powder, Hail Caesar, and Bolt Action (Warlord Games), while John Lambshead has designed a variety of computer games, was editor of Wargames News, and has authored books for both Osprey and Games Workshop.

The authors’ emphasis is on designing a playable game which also represents a reasonable depiction of the era or conflict being represented. This approach contrasts subtly, but significantly, with the approach taken by Philip Sabin in  Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games (2012), where the focus is in accurately modelling conflict in a manner that is also playable. The difference is hardly surprising—Priestly and Lambshead are aiming at hobbyists who want to enjoy themselves, while Sabin is interested in wargaming as pedagogical and research tool.

This difference is especially evidence in Chapter 2, on “A Question of Scale.” Priestly and Lambshead make it clear that tabletop wargaming rules need to be written in a way that accommodates the average size of a gaming table, the number of units a player can reasonably manage, and the number of turns that can be taken in the time that is likely to be available for play. If necessary, unit capabilities need to be adjusted to meet the needs of the hobby game.

Most of rest of the book is devoted to how to actually write rules in a way that makes them clear and useable to players. There is a great deal of useful insight on offer here into organization, logical flow, and language. This includes a useful list of “troublemakers”—words and phrases that tend to create confusion. A brief chapter discusses probability and chance. The final chapters explore army lists, scenarios, campaign rules, and other game expansions.

Hobby gamers who wish to design their own tabletop game rules will find this book very useful, especially if they are more interested in play experience than deep historical accuracy. The book’s value extends beyond this, however, to other (serious) gamers looking for advice on how to write rules for brevity and clarity, and in a manner that respects the centrality of the player (or umpire) as the reader, and user, of what is being written.

 

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 11 December 2016

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PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to out readers. Aram Schvey and Corinne Goldberger suggested material for this latest edition.

PAXsims

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Two Billion Miles is an online interactive video account of the the journeys made by refugees and other migrants, developed by Channel 4 News (UK):

They fled their homes and made journeys through Europe to escape civil war, poverty and the misery of refugee camps.

Migrants who applied for asylum in Europe in 2015 have collectively travelled more than two billion miles; a conservative estimate based on the shortest over-land routes to European countries from their countries of origin. These 727,085 people travelled an average of 2,750 miles each.

Follow in the footsteps of migrants and refugees as they face the hardships of months on the road. Choose your route and make tough decisions in this interactive video story, featuring real footage from extraordinary journeys made this year.

PAXsims

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Several recent and forthcoming pieces in the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation might be of interest:

Understanding climate-induced migration through computational modeling: A critical overview with guidance for future efforts
Charlotte Till, Jamie Haverkamp, Devin White, and Budhendra Bhaduri

If you haven’t been reading Jim Wallman’s thoughts on megagame design and facilitation at his blog, perhaps you should—it’s very interesting!

PAXsims

The Numbers, Wargames and Arsing About blog discusses the challenges of wargaming the current Iraqi/coalition campaign against ISIS, including the current Battle of Mosul.

PAXsims

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Civil Defence is a proposed boardgame about disaster reduction:

The simulation table top board game introduces the basics of disaster risk reduction and humanitarian action to players with or without any background in disaster risk reduction or humanitarian work. Francis shares that the design of the game was inspired by years of experience in social development work, humanitarian action, and disaster risk reduction. Some game scenarios were even based on the Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda experience and other real life events.

You’ll find more on the project here.

PAXsims

Feedback from the recent Connections Australia wargaming conference can be found at their website. Powerpoint presentations and other material will be be made available shortly.

PAXsims

Time Commanders is back on the BBC!

Hosted by Gregg Wallace, Time Commanders is the show that lets ordinary members of the public go toe to toe with the world’s greatest generals. Using cutting-edge simulations, they refight some of the most significant battles from history, offering an innovative mix of genuine history and game show competition.

You can read about the series and forthcoming episodes here.

Matrix game construction kit update #2

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I was in the UK this past week for a conference and several meetings, and while I was there Tom Mouat and I took the opportunity to run a playtest of A Reckoning of Vultures. This, as I’ve noted before, will be one of the sample game scenarios included in the forthcoming matrix game construction kit that Tom Mouat, Tom Fisher, and I are putting together.

I thought it went very well, both in terms of the physical game components (map, counters) and the scenario and associated special rules. We also received some very useful feedback from the participants. In particular, John Mizon has put together an excellent playtest report at his South West Megagames website:

On Sunday I was invited to “A Reckoning of Vultures”: a Matrix game designed by Tom Mouat and Rex Brynen [1]. The game is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia, where the President-for-Life is on his death bed, and various power-hungry factions are jostling to control important parts of the city so they can seize power upon his imminent demise.

His report includes a full account of the game, including pictures. His detailed assessment will certainly prove very useful as we tweak the scenario further—so, on both of both ourselves and the oppressed workers of Matrixia, thank you John!

I should start by saying that this isn’t the first matrix game I have played – I have previously run a matrix game called ‘Kazhdyy Gorod’ [7]. Kazhdyy Gorod is similar to Reckoning, in that it is set in a fictional city undergoing political turmoil and unpredictability of who will end up in charge. Players complete to win popularity and power, trying to improve their situation (and often try to win more potential votes if it is decided the game ends with an election). The players have a map and unit/resource counters, but other than that there is very little structure (aside from the standard matrix game turn order/arguments process).

 I think that A Reckoning of Vultures benefited greatly from additional rules. The separation into two distinct phases of the game improved the pacing and helped flesh out the narrative; the use of specific counters for money, units and influence allowed for more satisfying tactical thinking; effective rules for combat meant you could clearly anticipate the benefits of which units you have; and having key locations to control meant that players had clear objectives to plan around – whilst still allowing enough freedom in the space in between to encourage both player creativity and development of a flexible narrative.

I believe that the key locations also solved an issue that I had found in Kazhdyy Gorod. Namely that the rigid turn order structure and range of actions available caused problems as to how long each player’s turn lasted in the game’s time. For example, one player’s ambush would happen in the same round as another player’s political campaign, and things became messy and it was hard to gauge what was happening within the narrative. The key locations meant that most turns were players moving to and/or doing something important in one location – thus ensuring that the turn times felt uniform.

As someone pointed out in the post-game discussion, there’s a significant amount of random chance, especially in the final phase – but I think that’s fine considering that it’s a relatively short game. The random dice rolling at the end also means that the key locations are not the final decider – if that were the case then players would be incentivised to be doing constant mental arithmetic over key location control (and potential future control) in order to win at the end, which I believe would be stressful and tedious. Adding random chance at the end means you can just do your best when obtaining key locations, taking actions based on instinct and informed guessing.

As Rex pointed out afterwards, the final phase of the game is also meant to show how a matrix game, benefiting from its value as a simulation, can be used to provide starting points for other types of game, such as the dice rolling mechanics of the final phase.

I have three negative observations, though the first two apply to matrix games in general, so they’re more systemic weaknesses than fixable problems or mistakes.

Firstly, it’s clear that matrix games are not for everyone. This is true of any kind of game of course, but matrix games look like board games and sound slightly like RPGs, whilst actually lacking a large amount of structure compared to these. If you are intending to play a matrix game with board game or RPG players, be careful to manage expectations. Matrix games’ strengths are in their ability to simulate and to create freeform narratives, so they’re best suited to players who will be willing to engage with games in order to experience those. If your players are likely to enjoy games less when they lack a lot of structure, be careful with matrix games; relative to other games, there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty about actions’ mechanical effects, and players will need to be able to move their focus away from winning sometimes in order to allow the simulation and communal narrative to work.

Secondly, as I know from experience with Kazhdyy Gorod, matrix games need a Facilitator who is both good at managing their players and comfortable with their knowledge of the setting. The freedom allowed by matrix games can end up leading to long debates about what will work and what won’t, or about what certain aspects of the setting are or aren’t. A good Facilitator needs to be able to be both flexible and firm – allowing player creativity and taking in arguments, but also knowing when to finish things and move on to avoid further debate that slows and muddies the game. Thankfully, Rex was a great Facilitator for our game.

The third criticism is more about the game as an event than as a game. The two main phases are of unpredictable length – which I thought was very interesting in terms of decision making during the game, but if you were planning to run this game, it might cause problems, as you wouldn’t know whether it would take under an hour to play or possibly up to about 4 hours. Depending on what context you are trying to organise this game in, this may be an issue. In a way, this can be seen in our playthrough – where the first phase was only two rounds long (about as short as it can reasonably be without someone deliberately assassinating the president), so we didn’t get to experience much of it, and this meant that there was less feedback on how well the first phase worked.

The wargaming Wrens of the Western Approaches Tactical Unit

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In the latest issue of the Women in War newsletter (Autumn/Winter 2016), Paul Strong outlines the crucial role that members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS, better known as Wrens) played as anti-submarine warfare operations analysts and wargamers in the Western Approaches Tactical Unit during Battle of the Atlantic. I’ve excerpted some sections below, but you really should read the whole thing.

Sir Charles summoned Captain Gilbert Roberts, an experienced officer who has been invalidated out of the service due to tuberculosis, to the Admiralty to discuss options for resolving Churchill’s concerns with Admiral Sir Cecil Usborne, the First Sea Lord’s adviser on Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW).

Usborne believed that there was a chronic lack of escorts but that the tactics they used were probably sub-optimal. Roberts was to form a new operational analysis team, to be called the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) to explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass them on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW course.

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The WATU facility was primitive, with tactical tables, a tactical floor divided into squares, basic ship models and a lecture theatre, but Roberts quickly got to work. A basic set of wargame rules was developed with processes to represent real-time decision cycles, tactical doctrine, and communications issues. Then the room was re-designed so that players representing escort commanders could only see the gameplay through a restrictive screen to represent the limited information that they would have in a real battle. The U-Boat track was invisible to players and shown as a brown chalk line so the umpires could follow its progress.

Roberts was assigned a small staff, Chief Petty Officer Raynor was the first then the Wrens appeared. Four Wren officers, Elizabeth Drake, Jane Howes, Jean Laidlaw and Nan Wailes, described as ‘real gems’ by Roberts, all brimming with enthusiasm and delighted to be doing serious work. In addition, four Wren ratings appeared, two were only seventeen.

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A sceptical Sir Percy Noble arrived with his staff the next day and watched as the team worked through a series of attacks on convoy HG.76. As Roberts described the logic behind their assumptions about the tactics being used by the U-Boats and demonstrated the counter move, one that Wren Officer Laidlaw had mischievously named Raspberry, Sir Percy changed his view of the unit. From now on the WATU would be regular visitors to the Operations Room and all escort officers were expected to attend the course.

Interestingly, out of the 5,000 officers who attended the school, none had the slightest problem with being instructed by young Wrens – particularly as they proved extremely skilled at guiding their students through the more complex manoeuvres without hurting their feelings (there is an amusing but highly technical example in Mark William’s excellent biography Captain Gilbert Roberts RN and the Anti-U-Boat School).

Each of the courses looked at ASW and surface attacks on a convoy and the students were encouraged to take part in the wargames that evaluated potential new tactics. Raspbery was soon followed by Strawberry, Goosebery and Pineapple and as the RN went over to the offensive, the tactical priority shifted to hunting and killing U Boats. Roberts continued as Director of WATU but was also appointed as Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence at Western Approaches Command.

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When Roberts accepted his award as Commander of the British Empire at the end of 1943, he took a Wren Officer and Rating with him to Buckingham Palace, intentionally sharing the honour with the team of remarkable young women that helped the Western Approaches Tactical Unit win the Battle of the Atlantic.

 h/t Colin Marston

 

UPDATE: A longer version of Paul Strong’s research is can now be found here.

Collision of Tropes: DC Edition

It’s not everyday the liberal establishment and the wargaming community of interest meet in one event (other than when Rex and I have drinks and talk about US foreign policy…), but here is the forthcoming  New Yorker article entitled “War Games” which covers the story of a bunch of IC professionals playing Axis and Allies and lamenting the political situation today…

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Wargaming, bomber escorts, and the P-51 Mustang

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War is Boring has just published an excellent piece by James Perry Stevenson and Pierre Sprey on the P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft, highlighting the many doctrinal and bureaucratic battles that shaped its development during WWII. Among the points that are made: many early US army aviation wargames and exercises were designed to validate the flawed concept that fast bombers required no fighter escort, while later wargames and exercises that pointed to the vulnerabilities of unescorted bombers were ignored or reinterpreted.

Between World War I and World War II, bombers began flying higher and faster than existing obsolete biplane fighters. Still, the U.S. Army Air Corps’ bomber generals refused to foresee that enemy fighters might prevent the lumbering aircraft from always getting through to the target.

These officers even ran field exercises designed to support their premises of bomber invincibility. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a leading bomber advocate who would eventually become chief of the service’s Air Corps, was particularly determined to prove this point.

“Exercises held in 1931 seem to reinforce the idea that fast bombers could fare well on their own,” military historian Dr. Tami Davis Biddle wrote in Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare. “Arnold reached this conclusion, as did the umpires, one of whom proclaimed: ‘[I]t is impossible for fighters to intercept bombers and therefore it is inconsistent with the employment of air force to develop fighters.’”

This rigid mindset became embedded in the Army’s air power strategy, its budget battles and its endless barrages of air power propaganda.
Within just a few years, however, fighter war games and actual air combat abroad provided ample evidence the Army Air Corps brass was committed to the wrong conclusion.

“[I]n 1933, … squadrons intercepted 55 percent of enemy day-formations as they flew toward the target, … another 26 percent as they left it; [and] 67 percent of individual night raiders were intercepted,” Biddle noted. “But what might have seemed clear defensive victories were not perceived as such: proponents of strategic bombing refused to grasp the devastating bomber attrition forecast by these exercise outcomes.”

“When assessing results, the bomber advocates created both formal rules and cognitive filters [to insure] they would see what they expected to see: the primacy of the aerial offensive waged by determined bombers,” she added. “The rules under which the exercise were run gave advantages to bombers, and umpire rulings explained away unexpected, [inconvenient] results.”

The piece highlights that wargames themselves take place in a broader institutional and doctrinal context, in which sponsors and participants may be anxious to have them serve other agendas. Of course, good wargame design can reduce some of these problems of bias and cognitive filtering. However, the design alone is not enough: serious gamers also need to think to about the broader processes within which their games are embedded.

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