PAXsims is pleased to offer some recent items on conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games that may be of interest to our readers. I’ve been a bit swamped as of late, so sorry for the delay!
Aaron Danis and Steve Sowards (and probably several others that I have forgotten to credit) suggested material for this latest edition.
On December 2, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canadian Armed Forces, in collaboration with Defence Research and Development Canada and McGill University, conducted a day-long tabletop exercise on Canada’s vaccine rollout plans involving more than 150 participants from eight federal government agencies, all ten provinces and three territories, and the Canadian Red Cross. This TTX was proceeded by a week of “red team” exercises to identify potential contingencies and undertake a preliminary risk assessment.
At some future point we may write something up about it for PAXsims. You will certainly be able to hear about it at the next Connections North conference, which will be held online on 19-21 February 2021. Save the date, and look out for the conference and registration details soon at PAXsims.
The Office of Emergency Management helps organize and protects elections in Philadelphia, preparing for everything from power outages to bomb scares. But for this election, it also had to prepare for a disinformation campaign from the White House. For the tabletop exercises it ran before the election, the office designed mock-ups of inflammatory social-media posts from the president and gamed out its responses. Seth Bluestein, who participated in the exercises, told me, “It was uncanny how accurate they were.”
To American intelligence experts, two things have become clear: Certain parts of the world might one day use the effects of climate change as rungs on a ladder toward greater influence and prosperity. And the United States, despite its not-unfavorable position geographically, is more likely to lose than win — not least because so many of its leaders have failed to imagine the magnitude of the transformations to come.
For John Podesta, the profound geopolitical challenges posed by climate change first became clear in July 2008, not long before he took charge of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team. That month, he took part in a war game hosted by the Center for New American Security, a Washington-based research group. The room was full of people who were, like him, awaiting their chance to re-enter influential positions in the American government. Around the table in a private conference room at the Newseum in Washington, were former U.S. military officials, a former E.P.A. administrator, advisers to Chinese intelligence officials, analysts from McKinsey and the Brookings Institution and at least one European diplomat. “Let me be very clear,” Podesta told the gathering, in his assigned role as the United Nations secretary general. “Our time is running out.”
The exercise was set in 2015, with the climate crisis becoming violently apparent. A Category 5 hurricane had struck Miami shortly after a cyclone killed 200,000 people in Bangladesh. The scenario was designed by a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security named Sharon Burke, who would later become an assistant U.S. secretary of defense; her game plan suggested that a wave of climate migrants would be driven from their homes, part of the climate-caused displacement of as many as a billion people by 2050. One significant question put to the group then was how the United States, Europe, China and India would respond to that enormous migration and whether they could agree on what obligations under international law nations should have to care for migrants.
It wasn’t easy. None of the countries involved wanted to open the door to being obliged to take climate migrants in, Burke told me. The participants clashed over whether climate migrants could be called “refugees” at all, given the U.N.’s insistence on reserving that term for those persecuted or forced to flee. They wound up deciding the word should be applied only to victims of climate-driven disasters, not those suffering from slow-onset change like drought. In the end, the players were reluctant to face the migration challenges in depth — a worrisome sign that, in the real world, wealthy nations like the United States would be likely to cling to the status quo even as large-scale humanitarian crises begin to unfold. “One of the insights we got was that migration was just an absolute no-go zone,” Burke said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
The game marked a turning point of sorts in how some U.S. officials viewed the security threats posed by climate change. In 2010, in what was a rare and early official assessment of climate risk, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review warned that climate change “could have significant geopolitical impacts,” contributing to poverty, starvation, drought and the spread of disease, all of which would “spur or exacerbate mass migration.” By 2014, the Defense Department had applied the term “threat multiplier” to climate change, describing how it would make many of the security establishment’s greatest nightmares even worse. By the time Podesta went to China in late 2014 to negotiate an emissions agreement — a diplomatic feat that laid the groundwork for the Paris climate accord — he had come to believe that it was climate-driven food scarcity that posed the dominant threat to global security and to American interests. He saw that scarcity, and the migration it would cause, as leading to a fundamental, perhaps dangerous shift in the geopolitical balance of the world. “We were just at the beginning of the imagining of how big the problem was,” Podesta told me.
From February 4-6, 2020, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA conducted its unclassified Tabletop Exercise (TTX) Pacific Trident III, bringing together policy experts from the United States, Japan, Korea and other countries to examine pressing security issues in East Asia through simulated real-world contingencies.
In this TTX, Beijing served as the primary challenger to both the U.S.-Japan and the U.S.-South Korean Alliances, with Pyongyang acting as a willing “co-conspirator.” Beijing’s objectives were to undermine confidence in the U.S. security guarantee among its allies in East Asia and to achieve further territorial gains in the South China Sea. The strategy was to make multiple challenges across the region without provoking conflict. The simulated date at the start of play was August 1, 2020 with the end date as October 2, 2020—just weeks away from the U.S. Presidential Election.
The Georgetown University Wargaming Society (GUWS) continues to host presentations from wargamin designers and scholars—including a recent presentation by Ivanka Barzashka on “Lessons Learnt from Building the King’s Wargaming Network” (below). Check out their website for past and future presentations.
Divergent Options and GUWS have partnered to issue a call for papers on wargaming in 2021. You’ll find more details at the Divergent Options website.
The U.S. Department of Defense has failed to educate generations of military officers on the skills of wargaming. Wargaming creates the environment in which uniformed leaders practice decision-making against an active, thinking adversary. Wargaming is also required by the Department of Defense’s planning process to create sound and executable plans, is inherent to designing new doctrine and operational concepts, and is a vital element in the cycle of research.
For these reasons, military leaders must have the ability to create and conduct wargames. However, the current military education process does not impart this critical knowledge.
It often happens that, when gaming a series of future events, a game within a game presents itself. The most recent example was in our game ‘The Dragon, The Bear, And The Steppe‘ (see here for more detail). This game contained a military engagement on the Caspian Sea and in south Turkmenistan between Russia, the US, and Kazakhstan on one side; and China and the Taliban on the other; with Iran intervening to act defensively. We dubbed this the ‘Battle Of Turkmenbashi 2045‘ (see here for more detail).
Without going into the detail of how we would play the Battle of Turkmenbashi as a stand alone game, the whole concept of the game within a game set me thinking about the question of nested gaming. To begin with, ought we to confine ourselves to a single game within a game? Could there be more than one? In many ways, the idea of a succession of nested games within a game is the core of campaign gaming. A situation where a single event does not necessarily shape the eventual outcome, and where subsequent events can have a more decisive impact the other way. For example, the campaign in France in 1940 didn’t settle the Second World War. From the Allied defeat came the basis for their eventual victory as fortunes eventually turned in favour of the Allies.
How would the United States respond if China or another adversary launched a missile against a vital communications satellite? Is that a clear red line that would result in an immediate military response? And what happens if the U.S. military does — or doesn’t — react?
In the past, military leaders have been better prepared to answer such tough questions than they are now. Consider that during the period between the world wars, the U.S. Navy alone conducted more than 300 wargames focused on future campaigns and tactics in addition to theater-level strategies. The Navy recognized that wargames could skewer erroneous assumptions and complacencies long before the heat of battle, and this effort very likely saved lives. Famously, Admiral Chester Nimitz claimed in the aftermath of World War II that Naval War College wargaming conducted to inform Allied planning ensured that “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise … except the kamikaze tactics.”
Now, both uniformed and civilian national security space leaders need to take advantage of space war games to prepare for deterring and defeating aggression in space. The benefits of expanding investment in space wargaming for these purposes far outweigh the relatively minor investments required to get more of them underway.
Wargaming gets a bad rep. Like reading doctrine, or wearing yesterday’s underpants, it is not something you necessarily want to admit to in public. We are coloured by our predjudices; wargaming is either the horror step of Course of Action development or something that involves buying tiny soldiers and spending weeks painting them.
That was certainly my view prior to undertaking a course on the design and use of wargames within training last summer. Having spent nearly a year designing a game for training Divisional level deception, I can say I am changed.
Wargaming presents an excellent vehicle for developing experience in thinking and decision making. What is more, is it does this with little cost, little risk and resource requirement. While I am lucky to have some future time in the Army left to incorporate wargaming into training, I cannot help thinking about the opportunities that I have missed where the use of games could have significantly helped develop those around me….