Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 07/09/2021

Kania and McCaslin: China’s progress in wargaming and opposing force training

The Institute for the Study of war has just published a study by Elsa Kania and Ian Burns McCaslin entitled Learning Warfare from the Laboratory: China’s progress in wargaming and opposing force training (September 2021).

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is faced with the challenge of preparing for future warfare during peacetime as a force that lacks contemporary operational experience. Among the methods through which the PLA seeks to enhance its combat readiness are sophisticated wargaming and realistic, force-on-force exercises. Chinese military leaders regard wargaming (bingqi tuiyan, 兵棋推演) as an important technique by which to “learn warfare from the laboratory” for training purposes and to promote insights on the dynamics of future combat.1 This style of learning is complemented by the PLA’s study of military history and emulation of the experiences and innovations of foreign militaries, including through creating “blue forces” that simulate potential adversaries against which to train.2 Beyond improving its current capabilities and readiness, the PLA also aspires to achieve an edge in military competition, seeking to “design” the dynamics of and develop capabilities for future warfare.3

Wargaming is part of a cycle of military learning and experimentation that involves and informs exercises against opposing forces (OPFOR), as well as a range of other styles of training. While this report does not provide a comprehensive assessment of the PLA’s current training methods, our analysis examines select aspects of the PLA’s computerized wargaming and employment of blue (i.e., simulated adversary) forces in the context of the continuing transformation of PLA training. Over time, the PLA has improved the realism of its “actual combat training” (shizhan hua xunlian, 实战化训练) and undertaken exercises in increasingly challenging battlefield environments.4 The lessons learned from wargaming can be tested in exercises, and the outcomes of exercises can shape the design for wargames.

PLA wargaming and development of their blue forces continue to be significantly influenced by emulation of the approaches of foreign militaries, particularly those of the US military. The combination of domestic and foreign influences has resulted in features unique to the PLA, reflecting distinct priorities, interests, and constraints. In wargaming, for example, the PLA appears to prefer and prioritize computerized approaches over other forms, and it has attempted to leverage this cost-effective technique in training to address certain long-standing weaknesses, such as in command decision-making.5 To that end, the PLA has scaled up wargaming in professional military education (PME), especially through programming at the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU). The history and political character of the PLA as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also appear to be a notable influence, demonstrated by the experimentation with political warfare in PLA wargaming.

Meanwhile, wargaming has become prominent and popularized across China, and the PLA has leveraged the commercialization of wargaming to improve its quality and realism. Ongoing advances in video games and innovations from the video game industry continue to provide China’s armed forces with new options for realistic, engaging wargames. Under the auspices of China’s national strategy for military-civil fusion (MCF), several technology companies have partnered with the PLA to develop new systems for wargaming and military simulations. Beyond PME efforts, wargaming competitions have become an important element of

national defense education, as thousands of military and civilian students across universities nationwide participate in annual wargaming competitions. This national initiative encourages patriotism and interest in military affairs among the public while fostering greater unity and understanding between military and civilian stakeholders.6

Increasingly, the PLA is pursuing innovation in the platforms and techniques used in wargaming, including the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI). The PLA has introduced “intelligentization” (zhinenghua, 智能化) as a priority for its military modernization. This strategic initiative includes the development of AI for military applications and leveraging wargaming platforms to advance technological experimentation. The progress to date includes PLA contests and competitions that have concentrated on developing AI systems for wargaming in complex scenarios. Starting in 2017, these efforts have seen the development of more powerful AI systems across years of competitions. The human-machine confrontation (renji duikang, 人机 对抗) that can occur through such a virtual platform also could allow for improvements in planning and decision support systems for future joint operations. The increasing capabilities of AI systems in wargaming also allow for improvements in simulated adversaries.7 Beyond the objective to improve the quality of their wargames for training purposes, there are scientists and strategists in the PLA who hope AI will become powerful enough to facilitate human planning and command decision-making in future warfare.8

The PLA’s OPFOR program has centered upon the creation of blue forces that are intended to imitate potential adversaries. These units are directed to serve as whetstones to increase the challenge of training, thereby contributing to the PLA’s effort to overcome its “peace disease.” While the PLA’s OPFOR efforts have been unique in their variety and potential creativity, the relatively fragmented development highlights the issues of coordination and standardization that have often impeded progress within the PLA. However, the increasing professionalism of these initiatives, including the focus on simulating the United States and its allies as anticipated adversaries, is an important dimension of PLA preparations to watch going forward.

This report starts by tracing the trajectory of wargaming within the PLA in modern Chinese history and then continues to examine the progression of PLA blue forces in its OPFOR program. The analysis initially reviews a series of recent wargaming competitions, examining the introduction of AI systems into wargaming and considering com- mercial contributions to wargaming. Our research also considers the progression of OPFOR exercises (exercises that involve a force tasked with representing an enemy) that have expanded and increased in sophistication with the use of improved blue forces. We examine what wargaming and OPFOR exercises can reveal about the PLA’s capacity to learn and adapt to the challenges of future warfare. In closing, we raise considerations and potential recommendations for US policy.

Emery: 1950s Political-Military Wargaming at the RAND Corporation

The Texas National Security Review has just published an article by John Emery on “Moral Choices Without Moral Language: 1950s Political-Military Wargaming at the RAND Corporation.”

The RAND Corporation was the site of early-Cold War knowledge production. Its scientists laid the foundations of nuclear deterrence, game theoretic approaches to international politics, defense acquisition, and theories on the future of war. The popularized understanding of RAND as filled with cold, detached rationalists who casually discussed killing millions with no moral abhorrence misses the immense contestation in the early 1950s between the mathematics and the social sciences divisions, which sought to understand the impact of nuclear weapons on war and international politics. To do so, they created the first political-military simulations, called the “Cold War Games.” The games had divergent outcomes, with the mathematicians quick to launch nuclear weapons and the social scientists acting with nuclear restraint. The key difference in the game models was a high degree of realism in the social science game that engaged the players’ emotions. This immersive experience had lasting effects beyond the game itself as defense intellectuals bore the weight of decision-making and confronted the catastrophic consequences of using nuclear weapons. The role of emotion is central to both ethics and decision-making, and is essential for wargaming today, yet often remains excluded in rational theories of nuclear deterrence.

He concludes:

The high degree of realism present in the SSD’s Cold War Game triggered nuclear restraint by engaging the emotions of the players and therefore their ethical intuitions, in contrast to the MAD game, which privileged high levels of abstraction for the sake of mathematical certainty. What was lost in the process was a more cohesive vision of decision-making under uncertainty, all while ignoring the role of emotion in the realm of international politics. Not only are the outcomes of the game boxed in by initial assumptions in operationalizing variables that can fall out instantaneously in the real world, but a high level of abstraction produces a detached theorizing in which a kind of ethical practical judgment can also be lost. Reason cannot be separated from emotion and imagined futures are as powerful as the study of the past.

These political-military games at RAND have important lessons for thinking through the implications of emotion, ethics, and the role of judgment in wargaming today. Given the current renaissance in wargaming — in the social sciences as well as in efforts to think through the dilemmas of AI and the future of war — it is important to reflect on the issues raised by RAND in the 1950s and the lessons that can be drawn from them. First, reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined. They exist in a symbiotic relationship in terms of how we experience and interpret the world. Second, wargames with a high degree of realism can better represent decision-making in the real world by engaging the emotions of the players. Third, even when ethics is excluded from the conversation, facing the potential consequences of political-military action can lead to restraint. Finally, a conversation of realistic consequences and the uncertainties of the world is essential for an ethical assessment of possible consequences of nuclear threat and use. Wargames can be more than the division between art and science or quantitative and qualitative approaches, but a quest for understanding the why of decision-making, beyond the discursive reasons that players may give. The technostrategic language that Cohn wrote about in the 1980s remains pervasive in nuclear deterrence circles, but the revival of simulations and gaming in the social sciences offers an opportunity to reflect upon the importance of emotion and ethical practical judgment in international relations. Being made to feel the weight of decision-making is a necessary antidote to abstractions that allow policymakers to ignore the real consequences and human suffering that could come from pressing the button.

You will find the full article at the link above.

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