PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Simulation and gaming miscellany, 27 August 2020

PAXsims is pleased to present some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) gaming that may be of interest to our readers.

Aaron Danis, Adam Elkus, Brant Guillory, Steven Sowards, James Sterrett, and Paul Strong suggested material for this latest edition.

According to the Financial Times, “UK defence chiefs are seeking to fast-track new virtual reality technology developed by a British gaming company to create a digital replica of the country, arguing this would help test resilience to future pandemics, natural disasters and attacks by hostile states.”

The Ministry of Defence has already spent more than £25m on contracts with software developer Improbable — which has pioneered the technology — to investigate its potential. Insiders say the government’s difficulties in co-ordinating national data and responses during the coronavirus crisis have persuaded ministers of the benefits of the system, known as a “single synthetic environment”, which is now likely to be accelerated in autumn’s integrated defence and security review.

The technology works by generating a virtual “twin” of any location by layering maps of geographical terrain and critical infrastructure with details of fuel, power and water supplies as well as telecoms networks, supermarket distribution systems and weather patterns. This can be combined with locations of where people are, based on phone signals, and what they’re thinking about, gleaned from social media.

The final product uses artificial intelligence to simulate future scenarios and allows operators to “war game” their responses. Herman Narula, chief executive of Improbable, has in the past jokingly compared this to “building the Matrix”, in reference to the science fiction film in which humans exist inside a simulated reality. Real-world uses could range from forecasting the damage from natural disasters such as floods to calculating the effect of a cyber attack against a power station or presenting simulated hostage rescue scenarios to the government’s Cobra emergency committee.

Despite the substantial advantages of data visualization and big data, and the potential contributions of AI, I’m a little dubious that all of this will necessarily deliver quicker or greater insight into issues like pandemic response than analogue wargame techniques (although it is certain to be more expensive).

You’ll find the Improbable website here.

Wired reports that an AI beat a fighter pilot in a recent simulated F-16 dogfight.

IN JULY 2015, two founders of  DeepMind, a division of Alphabet with a reputation for pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence, were among the first to sign an open letterurging the world’s governments to ban work on lethal AI weapons. Notable signatories included Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Jack Dorsey.

Last week, a technique popularized by DeepMind was adapted to control an autonomous F-16 fighter plane in a Pentagon-funded contest to show off the capabilities of AI systems. In the final stage of the event, a similar algorithm went head-to-head with a real F-16 pilot using a VR headset and simulator controls. The AI pilot won, 5-0.

The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (IDC Herzliya) recent ran a conflict simulation on the current political and economic crisis in Lebanon.

On the backdrop of the spread of Covid-19 and the worsening economic crisis in Lebanon, the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) conducted a unique four months unique simulation (see methodology herein below) which examined the possible ramifications of various deterioration scenarios in Lebanon. The simulation started in April 2020 and ended just days prior to the explosion at the Port of Beirut.

The simulation took place via an online a synchronic platform and had multiple participants, all experts in their fields,  that represented the Lebanese and international actors relevant to the scenarios discussed (see Appendix A for a list of the simulation’s participants). These experts chose the preferred strategies of the actors they had represented and by doing so affected the development of the scenarios played. In our opinion, this simulative process is the most appropriate predictor of future trends in Lebanon.

At the backdrop of the simulation were the following opening data items: Lebanon has been suffering from a large number of Covid-19 patients which made it difficult for the Lebanese healthcare system to treat all of them and in fact brought it to the brink of collapse. Further, Lebanon has been suffering from an acute economic crisis that has been rapidly deteriorating, accompanied by high unemployment, internal instability, mass and violent demonstrations. On this backdrop, there is an increasing internal criticism as well as protests against Hezbollah and Iran which are being accused inter alia of importing the virus into Lebanon and neglecting the state in its time of need.

In light of the above opening data items which led to the collapse of the Lebanese government at the outset of the simulation, three alternative opening scenarios have been examined, each of which posed a different challenge to internal Lebanese system, the regional arena and of course, Israel, as follows:

An emergency government is formed which imposes an austerity regime and devalues Hezbollah’s stature.

Hezbollah conducts a military coup and installs martial law attempting to recover Lebanon.

Lebanon deteriorates into a complete chaos on the verge of a civil war, when every faction tries to fend for itself and survive on its own.

Needless to say, in light of the explosion at the Port of Beirut and the resignation of the Lebanese government on August 10th, 2020 it seems that reality has reached a point where each of the above opening scenarios may happen in the upcoming weeks or months which renders the findings of the simulation even more relevant and valuable.

As a scholar who occasionally writes on Lebanon, I’m a little puzzled by the lack of attention given to the “Hezbollah conducts a military coup” action. Was this a coup by the Lebanese Army (not all of which supports Hezbollah)? Did it have the support of (Christian) President Aoun, a Hezbollah ally? How did military units respond, especially those that are not predominantly Shi’ite? Did Hezbollah use its own cadres as well? Under what authority would martial law be declared? There also doesn’t seem to be deep attention to the economic and fiscal issues involved—an “austerity regime” in and of itself won’t really solve the current economic crisis. Finally, I just don’t see what possible configuration of emergency government would take action against Hezbollah, given the distribution of parliamentary and political power in the country. However, there is always a trade-off in crisis games between breadth, playability, and fidelity.

Speaking of countries beset by economic crisis, public protests, and the widespread availability of small arms, the Shutdown DC activist project is running an online simulation of potential challenges to democracy during the upcoming US election in November.

This fall we are going to experience one of the most contentious – and most chaotic – elections in recent history. We have a sitting president who is consistently refusing to accept the outcome of the election, record numbers of voters relying on absentee balloting, and a federal government bent on attacking our democratic institutions. 

We don’t know exactly how things are going to play out this fall, but we do know that we need to be ready to take bold direct action to confront attacks on our democratic process and our communities. Join #ShutDownDC for Timeline to a Meltdown: 2020 Election Simulation. We’ll divide into teams, each representing different players in our social movement landscape. Then we’ll be introduced to a set of hypothetical (but entirely likely) scenarios that we may face during this election cycle. Each team will work to develop action plans to respond to the scenario, anticipate how other movement actors will respond, and build capacity for collective action to build the world we want to live in. 

The game starts at 6pm eastern on Friday, August 28th. All are welcome but please register before noon on August 28.

You will find details and registration here.

Feel the need to drive a robot around a maze remotely and punch cardboard Nazis? You can do that via Smartistein3D.

At Breaking Defense, Sydney Freeberg reports “US ‘Gets Its Ass Handed To It’ In Wargames: Here’s A $24 Billion Fix.”

The US keeps losing, hard, in simulated wars with Russia and China. Bases burn. Warships sink. But we could fix the problem for about $24 billion a year, one well-connected expert said, less than four percent of the Pentagon budget.

“In our games, when we fight Russia and China,” RAND analyst David Ochmanek said this afternoon, “blue gets its ass handed to it.” In other words, in RAND’s wargames, which are often sponsored by the Pentagon, the US forces — colored blue on wargame maps — suffer heavy losses in one scenario after another and still can’t stop Russia or China — red — from achieving their objectives, like overrunning US allies.

No, it’s not a Red Dawn nightmare scenario where the Commies conquer Colorado. But losing the Baltics or Taiwan would shatter American alliances, shock the global economy, and topple the world order the US has led since World War II.

The latest issue of the Journal of Defence Modeling and Simulation (17, 3 (July 2020) is a special issue devoted to forecasting in the social sciences for national security.

Also back in July, the BBC featured a lengthy article on “The people who imagine disasters.”

Entire teams of people spend their days imagining what might happen in a crisis to ensure we can be better prepared for when the worst really does happen.I

It was a gigantic explosion. The blast tore through buildings and machinery, lighting up a huge refinery complex in Denver, Colorado. Gasoline production at the facility shut down for weeks as a result, leading to fuel reserves in Colorado quickly being used up.

Pipelines from Wyoming, Texas and Kansas brought additional fuel to Colorado to make up for the fall in supply, but it meant fuel destined for other nearby states was curtailed. As it all unfolded, fuel prices across the region swelled.

The aftermath of the explosion was a troubling example of how a single event can ricochet through systems, supply chains and a country.

Except, none of this ever happened. It’s just a scenario played out in a series of calculations – a simulation – published in 2015 by Sandia National Laboratories in the US. The team that modelled the fuel pipeline flows in this make-believe disaster considered a number of other “disruptions” in their report, including an oil spill in Boston harbour, earthquakes in California and a Category 5 hurricane slamming into the Gulf Coast.

“Before something bad happens, we provide a better understanding of how to prevent those things or how to mitigate them when they do occur,” explains Kevin Stamber, who heads the critical infrastructure analysis team at Sandia. He’s spent 20 years working on a stark problem: what can we expect if the worst should happen?


PAXsims rece

In addition to our PAXsims report on the recent Connections Global professional wargaming conference, you can also read all about it at Armchair Dragoons.

Gamasutra discusses “How to usher more women into leadership roles within the game industry.” Many of the ideas are applicable to wargaming too.

On YouTube, Sarah Federman (University of Baltimore) offers some ideas on taking simulations online.

The Napoleon.org website offers a thoughtful interview with Antoine Bourguilleau.

Gaming has come of age in recent years. In France and across the rest of Europe, there has been an increase in symposia and seminars on the subject of role-playing games and the “gamification” of society. Games themselves are objects of curiosity and have become the topic of university research in the areas of history, sociology and literature.

Antoine Bourguilleau’s book, Jouer la Guerre [Playing at War], contributes to this research and focusses on a type of game at the frontier between the civil and military worlds. Bourguilleau studied under military historian Hervé Drevillon, and he retraces the history of war simulation games from their Germanic origin in the 18th century to the modern era. He provides us with an in-depth and scholarly study of these Kriegsspiele, German word for “wargames”, a sort of “serious playing” used in the 19th century for training Prussian officers, and the war games later used for projecting the potentially fatal outcome of the Cold War.

Antoine Bourguilleau explores these games in all their manifestations, from staff war games to commercial board games, as well as the scenario created by science fiction author H.G. Wells in his book War of the Worlds. He explores the (sometimes complex) rules of these games, which strive to reflect the reality of a warlike confrontation. This book is rich with insight and allows the reader to approach military history from an underappreciated and still relatively little-studied angle. The author has kindly answered a few questions for napoleon.org.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative has produced Hair Trigger, a mobile game on nuclear crisis and escalation.

At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union put their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to retaliate against a surprise attack. Even now, decades later, the United States and Russia combined have about 1,700 missiles armed, aimed, and ready to fire in minutes.

What if a warning of an incoming attack turns out to be false—but a U.S. or Russian president doesn’t learn that until after ordering a retaliatory strike? What if a command-and-control system is hacked to spoof an incoming attack?

As President of the United States, you’ll navigate competing pressures to build domestic support and manage international relations, in a race against time to cooperate with Russia to remove all nuclear weapons from hair-trigger status. The game offers a fun and engaging challenge designed to generate curiosity, conversation, and action—but the risks couldn’t be more real.

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