Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Rubel: Whispers from wargames about the “grey zone”

At War on the Rocks, Barney Rubel discuss how wargames can “whisper” things that are outside their intended focus or parameters. In particular, he suggests that US wargaming has long been focused on conventional military power rather than asymmetric conflict and hybrid warfare—but if one had been playing close enough attention, the importance of these latter issues was often evident in the way the games played out.

A key characteristic of the scenarios used in post-Cold War games run by the U.S. armed services is the asymmetry in conventional military strength between “blue” and “red” players. Blue was always the United States, with red normally being a “rogue” country like Iran or North Korea. In such games, the scenarios created a competitive dynamic of the weak against the strong. That dynamic resulted in difficulties for umpires who attempted to adjudicate game moves. While blue players couched their moves in terms of Army divisions, aircraft carrier battle groups and Air Force wings, red players focused on things like political operations and special operations forces, because that is what they had at their disposal that offered some glimmer of hope. In other words, blue was trying to resolve the dispute with conventional forces while red attempted to side-step such force and directly address the dispute at the political level. Normally, game objectives focused on the use of conventional military force at the operational level, so umpires had to somehow reconcile the asymmetric nature of red and blue player inputs. The result was usually that red stratagems were not allowed their intended effects so that game play could proceed, and umpire assessments were couched in operational terms blue players could interpret.

It is the nature of red moves and the way umpires dealt with the asymmetry with blue that produces the whisper. What it was saying is that red would avoid direct challenge to blue strategies and that blue, in terms of both players and umpires, would attempt to fit such asymmetry within its conventional force superiority paradigm. The reasons for this are important to understand because they have implications for the defense and security community. It is important to note that I observed this phenomenon across many games over a period of years and, to be honest, did not grasp its significance until recently, so the purpose here is not to assign fault but to alert the defense community to the nature of game whispers.

Blue players and umpires were responding directly to game objectives, which were generally oriented on issues connected to the application of conventional military power. This in itself constituted a set of blinders for game players, umpires, and analysts, but in a broader sense reflected the aggregate perceptual constraints of the defense community. Threats were and still are defined to a significant extent in terms of conventional military aggression, whether a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a North Korean invasion of South Korea, or a Russian invasion of the Baltic countries. In the post-Cold War environment, these scenarios — major contingency operations, as they are called — dominated U.S. military planning. Their purpose was not only to provide a basis for force structuring and development, logistics, and command and control arrangements, but also for assessing the potential utility and cost-effectiveness of proposed platforms, weapons, and systems. Even after the 9/11 attacks, when counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations emerged as the principal day-to-day focus of defense, conventional scenarios still guided force development and thus continued to maintain the perceptual constraints of the defense community. A combination of factors served to create such channeling of focus. First, conventional force development is where the money is, so there are powerful institutional incentives for the services to justify force structure, and that means conventional warfighting capabilities. Second, it is not only natural but prudent to base planning on worst-case scenarios, which throughout history have featured conventional military aggression. Third, the creation of strong conventional forces, in conjunction with nuclear forces, is thought to constitute a robust deterrent to aggression. All of these are compelling reasons to focus on conventional warfare in wargames.

He notes, however, that “Blue consistently misinterpreted red signalling, leading to escalation of the scenario crisis that might have been otherwise avoided.”

This was mystifying until I “heard the whisper.” Blue was defining the problem/dispute through the lens of conventional military superiority. It was very much a case of the old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The effect not only shaped blue’s moves — it distorted its perceptions of red signaling. Red kept trying to signal how important to it the issues in the crisis were, but blue kept ignoring or misinterpreting those signals.

In other words, “The games were whispering that, as Carl von Clausewitz claimed, policy dominates warfare. The side with the biggest army does not always hold the strongest hand in a dispute in which a fight to the death is not an option.”

Dozens of military wargames conducted over the past four decades have all produced a similar whisper despite differences in objectives, designs, and players. There is a profound difference between the weak and the strong that most definitions of asymmetry in warfare fail to capture. While the games might not have precisely indicated the possibility of China’s island-building or a Russian seizure of Crimea, they tried to alert us to our own perceptual limitations and thus to our vulnerability to surprise. This is not to ascribe negligence on anyone’s part, individually or corporately, but to sensitize the defense community to the deeper and more subtle aspect of wargames. Forewarned about the incentive of the weak but hostile to find ways around U.S. military superiority, we might have been able to forestall or counter gray zone operations more effectively. Two-sided games of the kind I describe here set up arenas of human competition that can reveal “unknown unknowns.”

It’s an important point: we need to be sensitive to insights generated by wargames, beyond those we hope or expect to find.

It also points to a weakness of wargaming, in that we too often find what we expect or want to find. As I have argued before, these framing effects may be so powerful that they essentially overpower the actual results of the game. In the Dire Straits experiment, for example, we showed that game analysts can come to very interpretations of exactly the same game. All of this underscores the recent call by Yuna Huh Wong and Garrett Heath for greater attention to assessing the actual effectiveness and utility of wargaming.

Interestingly, I have found in “grey zone” wargames that Blue sometimes over-interprets actions and events as hybrid warfare, when some of it is rather less nefarious or more routine. I’m also rather cynical about the terms gray zone and hybrid warfare altogether: it’s hard to think of any point in the history of human conflict when this sort of stuff wasn’t a key part of international relations (the British East India Company, for example, being a much more successful version of the Wagner Group in many respects).

This might also be a good time to revive that most important of all PAXsims game designs, Jargon Wars!

2 responses to “Rubel: Whispers from wargames about the “grey zone”

  1. Tim Smith 16/03/2021 at 4:05 pm

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — I’ve been giving Andrew Wilson’s 1968 The Bomb and the Computer a quick re-read and got to pg. 70 just after reading Barney’s last wise words on WotR. Ironically, there Wilson quotes Thomas Schelling ruminating that ‘games can teach how little of war and strategy is military, how little these are concerned with the application of force compared to the exploitation of potential force. Thus games can teach the importance of communicating with one’s opponent, through both words and deeds.’ Of course, Schelling might have seen into the games (‘emulations’, we might call them – most likely freie-BOGSATspielen) exactly the bargaining, deterrence and ‘compellence’ logic he had explored and touted his recent (1960-66) books on Cold-War ‘GPC’. In fact, he might have built these dynamics into the games – he was their director. In any event, it certainly shows how much we’ve learned and institutionalized and how much progress we’ve made over the past 60 years.

  2. brtrain 08/03/2021 at 2:19 pm

    Yes. Oh yes yes.

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