Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Reflections on gaming not-Ukraine

I’ll start this post with a three caveats.

First, there are stark limits as to what any wargame “not about Ukraine” can teach you about the current war in Ukraine, especially a commercial hobby or entertainment game.

Second, as Nicholas Moran noted in a recent video, it is tempting to draw conclusions based on the images and videos available on social media and elsewhere. However, this is problematic in many respects: not only do they represent only a very small part of what is going on, but most have been recorded, edited, and disseminated in support of various narratives.

Third, there are some wargames focused on the current war in Ukraine out there that may offer valuable findings. Here, I am thinking of the recent wargame conducted by James Lacey, Tim Barrick, and Nathan Barrick and their colleagues at the Marine Corps University (with participation from the wargaming cell at the Canadian Joint Warfare Centre). PAXsims also featured an earlier piece on wargaming the Ukrainian crisis back in 2014, when the Donbas war started.

Having said all that however, I want to reflect on two sets of “not Ukraine” wargames I was involved in that did generate some interesting insights, viewed in the context of recent events.

The first was a series of tactical miniatures games in 2020 in which I served as umpire. These used 1:285 microarmor, a hybrid, updated set of the old Wargame Research Group “modern” rules, and Zoom to allow distributed play and ground level cameras for “fog of war.” All of them looked at a potential Russian invasion of Estonia, pitting most or all of a Russian battalion tactical group (represented on a 1:1 scale) against Estonian and other NATO defenders. Most of the participants were Canadian or British defence analysts, who look at modern warfare for a living. A central part of the process of what we were doing was trying to understand what was and was not changing in modern high-intensity conflict.

Some things we got right. Even mechanized forces still struggle with woods and mud. The ISR capabilities provided by modern UAVs can be a powerful force multiplier.

Other aspects were prescient: light or dismounted infantry could do real damage with ATGMs, despite explosive reactive armour (ERA) and active protections systems (APS).

Still other things we got wrong. Russian artillery can be devastating, but in our games the Russian military was far more adroit using it in a fluid battlespace than seems to be the case in Ukraine. Much the same could be said about Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Fundamentally, therefore, we assumed that Russian C4I was far more agile and capable than it seems to be in Ukraine. We assumed that thermal sights, APS, and other systems were more widely installed in Russian armoured vehicles than appears to be the case. We overestimated the availability of other capabilities, such as sensor fuzed submunitions. We also overestimated morale and subunit performance. Finally, like most tactical games, we didn’t model the effects of supply and maintenance.

I also took part, generally as a RED or BLUE team leader, in a series of day- or days-long games last year that looked at influence operations in a “not-Ukraine-but-rather-like-Ukraine” setting. These were undertaken for a serious purpose, namely to explore how one could model messaging and influence, and the effect of non-kinetic operations more broadly, rather than trying to understand any particular country or conflict. The game did this by creating an independent social media community, with participants assigned social, ethnic, and political backgrounds but otherwise free to interact as they wished. The teams then sought to influence this “jury” to advance their favoured discourse and narratives in support of their broader their strategic goals.

Not everything went right here either, but that was expected: the whole point of the exercise was to develop the methodology. Overall I think the designers and sponsors should be proud of what they achieved, which really did generate a dynamic and responsive social media environment.

In these games, a team was most successful when:

  • they were quick off the loop, getting inside the other side’s informational OODA (decision) loop;
  • they crafted stirring or witty messages that addressed real grievances, fears, and events;
  • they targeted different communities with different messages;
  • messaging was multi-faceted and pushed along multiple channels, but linked to a convincing set of narratives.
  • influencers responded to, built upon, worked with, and even adopted memes, themes, and narratives that emerged organically within key communities.
Above, Bobr the Beaver from the not-Ukraine influence game. Below, the Ukrainian National Guard tweeting cartoon cats.

In short, what worked looked very much like what has worked for the Ukrainians in the current war, right down to heroic leaders and cute memes. While the dynamics of influence have been changed by the internet and social media, I have been struck that good messaging hasn’t changed that much at all: it would be recognized by the propagandists of WW II, a most every advertising writer or political campaign advisor of the past century. No technology in the world is going to make your influence operation work if the basic messaging is weak.

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