PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Monthly Archives: April 2018

Sea Dragon wargaming competition at Marine Corps University

The following article has been contributed to PAXsims by Major Cole Petersen. Major Petersen is an infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.  He is currently a student at the United States Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting.


Training for conflict and developing professional expertise does not have to be exquisite, costly affairs.  Using a commercial, off-the-shelf wargame, Marine Corps University was able to create an engaging challenge that was both entertaining and instructive to the participants.

The Marine Corps University runs an annual planning/wargaming competition called Sea Dragon between teams fielded by its Schools – the Expeditionary Warfare School, Command and Staff College, School of Advanced Warfighting, and Marine Corps War College.  This year, for the third iteration, the University tried a different approach. The exercise director, Dr. Ben Jensen, used an off-the-shelf computer wargame, Flashpoint Campaigns, which was modified for modern day scenarios.  Using the wargame, the University ran a “bracket challenge” featuring eight teams from the schools.  Four of the teams were Blue (US Marines) while the other four were Red (Russians).

The scenario examined a flashpoint in the Baltics, with Latvia devolving into another Ukraine-like problem, and both NATO and Russia coming to conflict as the situation escalated.  These scenarios were developed by Colonel Tim Barrick and Dr. Jensen and looked at current capabilities as well as anticipated in the 2025 timeframe.  What follows is a synopsis of one of the bracket rounds to provide readers with an understanding of how using the computer wargame was useful as a training tool.

The scenario featured the Marines putting a Regimental Landing Team ashore and air assaulting an augmented battalion in ahead of time to hold a river crossing that leads to their beachhead.  Our team played the lead elements of the Russian Brigade Group.  We had a Motorized Infantry Battalion that was making its way to the battle area and was set to arrive two hours after the scenario started.  Our principle force until this time was a “Spetsnaz Battalion” – 10 platoons of volunteers operating in the area.  This represented a capability Russia has used in many of its recent conflicts.  Also present on our side were a dozen T-80 tanks manned by volunteers that had infiltrated the area, along with a few short range anti-aircraft systems.

A key asset for our side was the rocket forces attached to the Brigade.  Our forces had access to a battalion of BM-27 Uragan (220mm rockets) and a battery of 2S7 203mm howitzers.  These range 40+ kilometers, and were outside of the range of any of Blue’s systems.

Attached below is a screenshot of the area of operations.  The red boxes represented our starting “deployment areas,” with the box at the top centre of the map being the assembly area for the Motorized Battalion when it arrived.  The little hexes are 500m each, so the AO is about 25km x 25km.  Our task was to hold the bridges for the main body of the Brigade coming down from the north so it can attack into the Marine beachhead.

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Prior to the simulation, student teams were responsible to provide a concept of operations.  This was the primary method of inputting actions that the computer would play.  The challenging part was framing the opponent’s possible/probable courses of action, as all we were told was “he can land in this area and bring about a battalion’s worth of stuff.”  We assessed his three possible courses of action were to (1) land in the middle and try to “box out” the area between the forest in the north and the bridges in the south (this we saw as his most likely) (2) land in the north and own the defiles between us and the bridges (this we saw as his most dangerous), or (3) land in the south and try to concentrate on a single crossing site.

We planned for the first possibility but had backup plans to deal with the other two.  Our operational approach was to have the Spetsnaz teams hold key terrain, identify enemy units, and call in fires.  The tanks would mass in the west and lead a deception effort to draw the enemy there so the Motorized Battalion could push south through the defile and smash whatever was left and take the crossing sites.  Our bid for success, as described, was the Motorized Battalion as the hammer to the Spetsnaz anvil.

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Of note, we were given 2 “Decision Points”.  The first one was identified on the map.  If that point was triggered, we were allowed to tell the umpires to change our plan if we so choose.  The second Decision Point was the “Commander’s Moment” and we could use at any time to redirect our forces.  This was a creative way of forcing teams to plan and anticipate when their course of action would need adjustment within the game play.

Our first round “bracket” was played out over a couple of hours.  Our team did quite well, beating our opponent in Victory Points by a score of 6500 to 2500.  The tipping point was our “Spetsnaz Battalion”, which we positioned well off the start.  They were not expecting these teams to be so deep, and as a result, we shot up much of the Blue team’s depth elements in the first part of the battle.  The Blue team put almost its entire battalion along the wooded ridgeline in the north, focused on the outer defiles.  They covered the highway to the north with a UAV and aviation.  As a result, our Tank Company died a quick death, and the motorized battalion got hit hard coming out of its assembly area and was only able to get about a third of its forces into the eastern defiles, and no farther.  But, in the end, the mission for both sides was the bridges – the other team ignored the bridges and focused on fighting in the defiles, so our Spetsnaz teams never really had to fight to retain them and we got maximum victory points for achieving our assigned task of holding the crossing sites.

Some observations from the simulation became apparent:

  1. A force moving on a road or in the open is likely going to get hit. AH-1 and F/A-18 strikes wrecked us.  The one time Blue sallied out on the road, we smashed a company with a BM-27 MLRS strike.  The better we can get forces hunkered down to observe, the better off we are.  The tank company is better hunkered down, hitting from a city zone.  The game demonstrated how vulnerable modern combatants are to a capable sensor-shooter system.
  2. Our deception effort worked somewhat by the fact that the smoke and the wrecked tank company meant his AH-1s were floating around the west too long. While not cost effective, our team figured out how to take advantage of this circumstance on the battlefield to aid with success.  The adversarial nature of the wargame gave teams battlefield circumstances to anticipate and manage.
  3. Our killer was our fires, which is kind of a no brainer. When we picked up the adversary’s HQ and 120mm mortars in a forest, we smashed them with rockets.  When we ran into ambushes trying to clear the defiles, we smashed them with rockets.  When he made a last grab for the bridge, we fired a dispersed minefield to slow him up, and then followed up with rockets, destroying a company in the open.  There is a reason the Russians are going from a ratio of 3 gun units:1 rocket unit to 1 gun unit:3 rocket units – they appear to be highly effective and the wargame was a poignant reminder.

This approach to understanding modern conflict was both instructional and entertaining.  The use of a commercial, off-the-shelf platform, when combined with a well-structured competition, provided a useful model for participants to develop their professional abilities and understanding of modern conflict.  The adversarial nature of the game, along with the free-play aspect of each scenario, provided an engaging environment at low-cost in time, money, and manpower.

Cole Petersen

Connections Netherlands – save the dates

The Connections Netherlands professional wargaming conference will be held on 1-2 October 2018.

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Simulation & Gaming (April 2018)

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The latest issue of Simulation & Gaming 49, 2 (April 2018) is now available.

Editorial
Articles

 

A WATU wargaming vignette

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HMS Wanderer (D74).

As you know, we at PAXsims have been greatly appreciative of the terrific historical research that Paul Strong (Dstl) has been conducting on the Western Approaches Tactical Unit—one of the most important wargaming initiatives of World War Two. It is a story of innovation and tremendous operational impact, in which young women wargamers played a key role. It is also a story that had been largely forgotten, until Paul began his efforts to research and publicize it.

Today he passed on a brief account of the work WATU did, which he came across in his research:

While the dockyard completed the final touches – more often bashes – I was sent off to the Tactical School in Liverpool. Like the school at Londonderry, it was run by Captain Gilbert Roberts with a small staff and some very bright Wren ratings. Lectures apart, we, all Commanding Officers, would be placed in small cubicles able to see only a small portion of the ocean ‘battlefield’ laid out on the floor; and each would have to tell an attendant Wren what we would do in a set of different circumstances as the battle progressed. I remember once handing my written answer to a particularly clued-up girl.

“No, sir, I do not think that you should do that,” she said firmly and politely.

“Good God,” I thought, “what on earth does this girl know about it?”

Such was her confident, tactful tone, however, that, meekly, I said: “Oh why not?” She explained convincingly. This young lady later married Peter Gretton, who covered himself in glory in the Western Approaches.

It was an astonishingly effective set-up… Roberts must have contributed very greatly towards the operational success of HM ships in the Western Approaches.

The account comes from Reginald “Bob” Whinney, The U-Boat Peril: A Fight for Survival (Cassell, 1986). Whinney was one of the Royal Navy’s most successful wartime anti-submarine commanders, with three U-boat kills as captain of HMS Wanderer.


It occurs to us there must be a lot of other wargaming vignettes out there, and that it might be useful to share some of these. If you have been involved in a professional game that had substantial effects (for good or ill) on operations, analysis, perceptions, or investments, and you are able to share it—please send it on. We will publish a selection from time to time. It should only be a few paragraphs in length, but enough to give a sense of how gaming can be a useful tool, when used right—or, for that matter, a terrible tool when used poorly.

 

McGill gaming update

Previous McGill gaming updates for the Winter 2018 term can be found here (March 22) and here (February 3).


The regular school term at McGill University ended on Monday, and final exams are just starting. At the moment I am in the process of grading ninety or so student debriefs from our recent week-long (April 4-11) peacebuilding simulation in POLI 450/650. They are always interesting to read, encourage students to reflect on the simulation experience, and often contain insights from the game that had not otherwise occurred to me.

This year’s conflict in Equatorial Cyberspace saw months of tortuous negotiations between the government of Brynania and the Popular Front of the Liberation of Zaharia, finally resulting in a ceasefire and agreement on principles for a future peace deal. A small United Nations peacekeeping/observer mission, composed of Ethiopian, Indian, Canadian, and German personnel, was deployed to monitor and support the ceasefire at the most critical flash-point, the contested southern port city of Mcgilldishu. In the north, a ceasefire was also agreed with the diamond-smuggling warlords of the self-styled “Free People’s Army.” Elsewhere in the country, however, conflict continued: in the south, the radical Zaharian People’s Front conducted a series of successful hit-and-run guerilla attacks against government forces near Diku, while the western city of Aiku was seized by Icasian paramilitaries. A bloody, urban-type fight to recapture it followed, looking very much like the recent  Iraqi campaign to liberate Mosul.

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The government of Brynania and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Zaharia sign a peace agreement. Left to right: brutal defence minister, genocidal dictator, nice lady from the UN, scheming insurgent, ruthless guerilla.

The result—a ceasefire and preliminary peace agreement, supported by a UN force—has been the most common outcome we have seen over the 17 years I have been running the peacebuilding simulation at McGill, although certainly not the only one. Military casualties were the highest yet, however, due to the intense fighting around Aiku and with the ZPF. Civilian casualties were also very high, with the aid community slow to respond to the complex humanitarian crisis in the south.

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More than two hundred thousand refugees fled the area during the seven months the simulation covered, although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees did well in addressing their immediate needs—inspired, perhaps, by a real message of support sent by the actual High Commissioner of UNHCR at the start of the simulation (thanks again, Filippo!).

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Students and CONTROL alike were active on Twitter throughout—sometimes seriously, sometimes less so. One of the nice things about running this game in a university setting is that the participants can be very witting in their public statements (and Titter trash-talk), without in anyway distorting the fundamental dynamics of game or undermining the learning experience.

 

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The Brynania simulation is something of a labour of love: it took up around 18 hours a day of my time for a full week, during which I read or sent 6,438 simulation emails and simultaneously monitored 118 Facebook or other online messaging forums/chats—plus Twitter. You will find a couple of video documentaries on Brynania SIMs here and here.

My POLI 490 seminar in conflict simulation has also wrapped up, although the game projects are not due until the end of the month. The seminar this year was a practice run for a full class I’ll be teaching on the topic next year, and one thing I have learned is to add some graded milestone reports to the evaluation schema to make sure that each of the design teams gets a prompt start on developing a physical game prototype and playtesting it.

This year, there are three teams, one working on a game of the Darfur conflict, another developing a semi-cooperative game focusing on China’s One Belt One Road economic initiative, and a third exploring Iraqi military operations against ISIS in west Mosul in 2017.

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The game board for One Belt One Road.

Yesterday I was involved in a playtest of the Mosul project (“We Are Coming, Nineveh”). It is simple and elegant to play, but there is a lot built into the game design:

  • pre-game planning and capability investments (especially for ISIS, which needs to decide how to defend the city before the Iraqi assault)
  • fog-of-war via blocks and dummy counters
  • area movement that coincides with actual neighbourhoods and street grids
  • terrain types (open, urban, Old City) with effects on combat, and major thoroughfares (which allow for more rapid movement if cleared of enemy forces)
  • IEDs and VBIEDS
  • coalition UAVs (and ISIS modified quadricopters)
  • snipers
  • artillery and air support
  • bunkers and fortifications
  • tunnels
  • command and control issues, including coordination difficulties between different Iraqi units and organizations
  • combined arms
  • hastily-trained ISIS recruits and child soldiers
  • information operations, propaganda, and public opinion
  • civilian casualties/collateral damage

We will see how they all pull it together when it is finished—as they are finding out, there is a lot of detail to be ironed out before a game concept becomes a polished, final reality.

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Playtesting We Are Coming, Nineveh. At McGill University, our conflict simulation course teaches the pointing skills so essential to serious wargaming.

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Advancing forces of the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services towards the IED-strewn alleys of the Old City.

At our final POLI 490 seminar meeting last week, we explored the issue of “in-stride adjudication”—an issue that will be examined in detail at this summer’s Connections US professional wargaming conference in Washington, DC. Since the students have acquired considerable experience this term participating in games with some degree of in-stride adjudication (Brynania is primarily adjudicated that way; February’s DIRE STRAITS megagame involved large doses of it, and they’ve all played in matrix games that often involve a subtle sort of in-stride adjudication by the game facilitator) I thought it would be useful to get player perspectives on the issue. It turned out to be an excellent discussion, and one of the students has offered to write it all up as a white paper for the Connections conference.

Now, back to grading papers!

 

High North matrix game

High North cover.jpgTim Price has produced a matrix game exploring economic and military competition and cooperation in the Arctic: HIGH NORTH (pdf).

Climate change is the principal driver of change in the Arctic, with increasing temperatures and precipitation. As Arctic and Antarctic sea ice retreats, many areas that are currently inaccessible could become open to commercial exploitation, particularly of oil and gas. It is possible that some countries – depending on their internal politics – may seek to project power in the Arctic if they consider their interests in the region to be under threat.

You’ll find a description of the issues and situation, simple instructions on how to run a matrix game, and briefings for six players: Russia (political), Russia (military), Norway, the United States, China, the UK. There is also a map depicting the North, Norwegian, Greenland, and Barents Sea, plus the high Arctic.

High North.jpgThe game contains print-and-play counters for assets or effects, although you could also utilize materials in the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK). For more detailed matrix game rules and tips on designing or running one, the MaGCK User Guide is also available from The Game Crafter as a pdf download.

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Looking at social media

Some thoughts on simulating social media from Tim Price, international man of mystery.


I recently wrote a review of Hostage Negotiator by A.J. Porfirio from Ran Ryder Games and speculated that it might be a useful point to start a discussion on a possible model for social media influence.

There is an understandable amount of interest in government and the military about the effect of social media, and a number of large multi-national defence companies that offer expensive products that propose to use “AI and machine learning” to generate synthetic social medial feeds to allow training to take place.

The only demo that I have seen involved chat-bots degenerating into the inevitable repetitious trolling from a bank of comments scraped from Russian fake social media accounts. It was utterly unconvincing and, when I put the question to Paul Rimmer, the Deputy Director of the UK’s Defence Intelligence organisation at a recent talk he gave in Oxford, he chuckled and said that if “I had £1 for every company that said AI and machine learning was going to solve my problems, I’d be very rich and wouldn’t be talking to you now…”.

My personal view is that if we can’t get Alexa, Siri or Cortana to lose their temper, then attempting to mimic social media through AI is a waste of time – after all, it is the manipulation of emotion and deeply held beliefs that create the effects people are trying to achieve.

Current training consists of scripted “social media” injects into events that are either trivial “box-ticking” exercises or at best short-term interventions that are deliberately limited in their effects so as to avoid upsetting things too much. It is necessary to have a proper discussion about the subject and avoid the rush to buy “shiny toys” simply because they have the words “social media, AI and machine learning” in the advertising brochure. There is a real danger that “social media” is the new “cyber” in the short attention span of some senior officers…

The quote from F.W. Lanchester is appropriate here ” “Simple models that provide useful insights are often to be preferred to models that get so close to the real world that the mysteries they intend to unravel are repeated in the model and remain mysteries.” (The Lanchester Legacy, Volume III, Chapter 9). Even if AI and machine learning were able to replicate social media feeds, their inability to explain why actions succeed or fail mean that they are still unlikely to be useful for training.

We should construct a simple manual model for social media, that can provide a relevant degree of help or harm to a “normal” military training game.  Preferably something stand-alone and scenario agnostic, that can be adapted to the circumstances.

There are some fundamental questions that we need to answer:

  • What measurable effects does social media have? (Brexit? Trump? ALS Research?)
  • What actions cause effects in social media? (Russian Bots? Policy speeches? Cat Memes?)
  • What actions can the Players take to affect social media? (Hire Cambridge Analytica? Bribe the Russians? Both?)

Hostage Negotiator, at it’s core, is a game about your interactions with a hostage taker. If things go badly, he gets more angry until he starts killing hostages, and if things go well he becomes more relaxed until he starts releasing hostages unharmed. As a player you have different gambits you can try, each with their own risk/reward outcomes and probabilities. You seek to calm the hostage taker down and build trust, enabling you to get access to more advanced gambits giving you a wider choice of actions. Each turn there are cards representing the passage of time and the effect this has on the hostage taker (usually making him more frustrated and angrier).

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Assuming we take the track from Hostage Negotiator to represent the aggregated sentiment analysis directed to the players organisation and actions, we can look at a “sentiment tracker” below.

The assumptions are (for the moment) that sentiment in the green areas represent general support for the player (providing some advantage such as intelligence, warning of attack, donations to the cause, etc); while sentiment in the red areas represent the opposite (providing disadvantages for the player such as false reports, no warnings, and support for opposition groups). When the marker in in the “S” zone this represents significant Support for the player and in the “T” zone represents support for protests, violent clashes and Terrorism against the player, both of which would translate into concrete independent actions in the real world.

In addition, it is assumed that as the situation reaches the extremes of the tracker, it become correspondingly easier or harder to influence sentiment (represented by additional dice in the green zone and fewer dice in the red zone).

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The “Political Freedom Tracker” represents the degree of political support within the player’s organisation, so higher levels will provide access to more extreme (and possibly riskier) options expressed in the Social Media Action Cards.

The game starts with some negative event that the player is seeking to respond to. If they do nothing, the situation is likely to get worse (the equivalent of the “Terror” cards in the Hostage Negotiator game). The simplest way of doing this is by a “Sentiment Roll”, where they roll 1D6 and if the score is equal to or higher than the current sentiment, it gets worse by a point.

The player response can consist of one of several options, from the usual platitudes (“thoughts and prayers”) through stronger alternatives, such as “heartfelt denouncement by the Head of State”, to concrete action such as “legislative changes” or “direct action” by the police and military. Each option has a risk/reward matrix with high scores being beneficial and low scores representing failure, public anger, and a cost in “political freedom” to carry out.

The dice mechanism from Hostage Negotiator is to have a score of 5 or 6 on each dice as a success, a 3 or less being nothing, and a score of 4 requiring an investment of additional resources (reducing the players options in later turns). So, a roll of a 5 and 6 on 2D6 represent two successes; a roll of a 3 and a 6, one success and a roll or a 1 and a 3 represents failure.

An example card is: “Thoughts and Prayers”, where two successes gains the player +2 Political Freedom points (perhaps the speech was heartfelt and actual tears were caught on camera), a single success +1, and a failure triggers an additional Sentiment Roll because of the backlash. The card itself costs 0 Political Freedom Points.

Other example of 0 cost cards would be “internal enquiry”, “policy speech” or “divert attention elsewhere”. A “public enquiry” or “appoint a Task Force”, might have a cost of 1 or 2 Political Freedom points, but something such as a “Constitutional Amendment” would need at least 8 points.

Of course, the actions have to be appropriate to the level in which the game is set, be it nation state, military operation or local village council elections.

The player would start with a hand of 0 Political Freedom cost Social Media Action Cards and would attempt to defuse the situation with the usual political actions and, at the same time, build up support for riskier actions with a much greater direct effect if they succeed.

So – what next? This topic needs a wider discussion in a much broader audience than I currently have access to. Even a short examination of the subject reveals that this is difficult to model (which comes as no surprise whatsoever), so it will require a determined effort and imagination. Any suggestions would be very gratefully received.

Tim Price

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