At War on the Rocks this week there is an excellent piece by Benjamin Jensen entitled “Welcome to Fight Club: Wargaming the Future” in which he explores the use of competitive wargaming to explore the impact of new technologies and capabilities on the battlefield.
…since 2015 the Marine Corps University and Marine Corps Warfighting Lab have used a special series of wargames to reimagine amphibious operations for the 21st century. In this initiative, dubbed “Fight Club,” students from the Command and Staff College work with groups ranging from DARPA to the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Potomac Institute to stress-test capstone Marine Corps concepts associated with amphibious operations. The results of these games have produced four major lessons-learned studies on topics like manned-unmanned teaming and narrow artificial intelligence applications.
Fight Club splits the students into competing sides and asks the groups to develop a plan and fight against each other in multiple iterations, including redoing the exercise as a controlled experiment by adding a new capability or concept. For example, one team might try an amphibious assault with current force structure and equipment and then retry it with future capabilities, such as the use of swarms to reduce risk and compound shock and dislocation. Having military professionals fight each other in secure environments and allowing for controlled excursions allows them to imagine future war and think through the concepts, capabilities, and organizations required to maintain a competitive edge.
There are four aspects of Fight Club that make it unique. First, all games are competitive and involve teams fighting other teams. There is a big difference between fighting an algorithm or scenario and fighting another human being. Fighting other people highlights fog, friction, uncertainty, and how new technologies risk compounding their effects.
Second, the games are designed using social science methods to analyze the difference between control and treatment groups. That is, participants start with a baseline game that involves current capabilities, and then another group fights with new capabilities. This allows the designers to assess the utility of new concepts and capabilities like manned-unmanned, teaming, deception, and various technologies associated with swarming.
Third, unlike many large Department of Defense wargames, the participants in Fight Club are top officers with recent operational experience. Instead of combing the Pentagon to find random bodies or relying solely on retired officers-turned-contractors, the effort targets field-grade officers in professional military education programs or military fellowships.
Fourth, the games involve creative combinations of seminar-style and computer-based adjudication methods. Through seminar-style components, wargame designers capture participants’ novel ideas and insights. Through low-cost but high-fidelity computer-based adjudication, including the Joint Warfare Adjudication Model developed by the Center for Army Analysis and commercial games, the game designers generate the data they need to better analyze the results, test assumptions, and rerun portions of the game.
It’s a very useful account of how competitive and repetitive gaming can be used to generate potential insight. Of course, one cannot draw any firm conclusions with an experiment where n=1 or n=2 (that is, a small number of games for any one set of experimental conditions), but one can generate questions and issues that deserve further thinking about and investigation. Good wargaming, after all, is about the cycle of research, and can be a useful part of triangulation in mixed-methods analysis.