Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Christensen and Dobias: Wargaming the use of intermediate force capabilities in the gray zone

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation, Kyle Christensen and Peter Dobias of Defence Research and Development Canada discuss wargaming the use of intermediate (nonlethal) force capabilities in the “gray zone.”

Military operations in the gray zone (defined here as the space between peace and war where states are currently involved in a competition continuum) present a unique challenge for military planners. Often tactical actions can have significant operational, and even strategic implications. This makes traditional modeling approaches, such as wargames, of somewhat limited applicability. This limitation can be further exacerbated if the modeled systems are intended to address specific adversarial actions within the gray zone continuum across tactical and operational levels. A specific example of such a problem is modeling military capabilities at the force continuum between inaction and employment of lethal force. Whereas the tactical effectiveness of such systems may be lower than the effectiveness of lethal systems (e.g., if there is a requirement to stop an incoming threat, the use of lethal force is often more effi- cient than the use of acoustic or optical warning devices), the operational and strategic effectiveness of their use would likely be better.

In the summer of 2020, the NATO’s Science & Technology Organization, System Analysis and Studies- 151 (SAS-151) research group conducted a series of test wargames to evaluate whether intermediate force capabil- ities (IFCs) can make a difference to mission success in the gray zone. As described in the following, IFCs offer a class of response between doing nothing and using lethal force in a situation that would be politically unpalatable. This article reviews NATO SAS-151’s development and tests of an IFC concept development wargame aimed at examining a maritime task force’s ability to counter hybrid threats in the gray zone. It covers the strategic context and background of hybrid threats in the gray zone; the conceptual background and development of non-lethal weapons (NLW) through to IFCs; the design and development of the hybrid wargame methodology; and the implementation and execution of the test IFC wargame(s), with initial observations where applicable.

This wargame series was particularly important for two reasons. First, it explored an operational challenge facing many Western militaries in the current strategic environment where opponents and adversaries are using hybrid threats (i.e., tactics and techniques) to deny traditional Western military freedom of action. However, rather than challenge Western militaries in head-to-head confrontations, these tactics aim to remain below the threshold of open conflict, and create strategic, operational, and/or tactical dilemmas for decision-makers. They blur the line between strategic, operational, and tactical, and exploit situations where tactical decisions/actions have strategic impacts.

Second, it used traditional game mechanics in a unique and innovative way to evaluate and assess IFCs. While the concept of using kriegsspiel and/or matrix wargames by themselves to develop and test concepts, inform decision-making, and validate capability requirements are not new, combining both into a single hybrid wargame is new. The approach described in this article was to execute a modified strategic matrix wargame to assess the outcome of an initial tactical level free kriegsspiel engagement game. Although the key components of a kriegsspiel and matrix game are retained, how they are set up, and how they are used together to approach the problem of assessing IFCs in the gray zone is a unique adaptation of these traditional games.

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