PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Heath: Wargames can’t tell us how to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan—but different games might

Having posted a link earlier today to the launch of a major CSIS report on wargaming a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, now is a good time to also flag this thought-provoking piece by Timothy Heath (RAND) a few days ago at the Lawfare blog. In it, Heath argues that kinetic wargames focused on military operations are useful, but they aren’t optimized to tell us how we might stumble into war—or avoid it.

He states (emphasis added):

Wargames that simulate combat between the United States and China near Taiwan can provide useful insight about potential military challenges. However, analysts should be wary of repurposing the same games to explore political questions such as those related to deterrence, escalation control, alliance politics, and war prevention or termination. Asymmetries in the information requirements for political versus military topics make it exceedingly difficult to design games to explore both in a rigorous manner. Paradoxically, the deliberate falsification of facts in peacetime offers the best hope of painting a more vivid and convincing portrait of a situation that would actually confront policymakers in wartime.

Wargames featuring conflict between China, the U.S., and Taiwan have taken the Washington, D.C., area by storm in the past two years. The U.S. military has held classified wargames on the topic. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held 22 iterations of such a scenario, and other think tanks such as the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), CNA, and RAND have held their own wargames on the topic as well. The appeal of wargames is not hard to figure out: They provide a vivid and dynamic simulation of armed conflict. The China-Taiwan war scenario is especially appealing because the U.S. and China are locked in a rivalry and are also equipped with large, advanced, and powerful militaries. What would happen if the two fought is an inherently fascinating question. The U.S. military advantage is fading, and China’s military is growing stronger. But how the two might fare against each other in combat is unclear. Wargames offer the possibility of exploring such critically important topics, whether as part of a research design or as critical context for creative discussion.

The results of the games have generated several key findings. The most obvious and compelling lesson is that combat between U.S. and Chinese military forces would probably be immensely destructive. In the CSIS game, the U.S. lost 200 aircraft, 20 warships, and two aircraft carriers. Attacks on cyber and space infrastructure are not uncommon. U.S. missiles may strike China’s homeland. Both sides might escalate to the threat, or even use, of nuclear missiles, as happened in at least one CNAS game. Analysts have also noted the military implications for operational topics such as the importance of massing forces, adequate munition stores, and the vulnerability of surface ships on the modern battlefield.

But for many, these lessons are not enough. The frightening results of such simulations naturally raise deeper questions of a fundamentally political nature, such as: How can such a war be avoided? If it can’t be avoided, how can escalation in such a war be controlled? What can the U.S. do to deter China from attacking Taiwan? How long can Taiwan successfully hold out against such an attack? Which allies will support the U.S. in such a war? These political considerations permeate the news accounts of the wargames. In the CSIS event, for example, participants debated whether the pre-positioning of marines on Taiwan prior to war would be “too provocative” or not. Players also debated whether China should attack Japan or not. Military decisions regarding escalation also carried significant political considerations, which may or may not have been debated at the game. In one game, for example, players for the U.S. sideauthorized missile strikes on Chinese ports.

Political decisions on the initiation or escalation of war are immensely important. Yet they are also extremely difficult to answer owing in part to the dearth of reliable data. After all, a U.S.-China war remains, thankfully, completely hypothetical. That leaves virtually no firsthand information with which one can answer such questions. Wargames, and the scenarios that underpin them, have sometimes been used to explore such questions. Since they incorporate many facts about relevant combatants, wargames offer the possibility of exploring political as well as military dimensions of war through a structured, analytic method.

Yet analysts should be wary of trying to use wargames designed for military questions to analyze political questions. The analysis of political topics has fundamentally different information requirements than those for military ones. Wargames that support analysis of military decisions do not necessarily support analysis of political decisions in the same situation, and vice versa.

He further argues that efforts to game future crises by tweaking the status quo are inherently problematic:

One way to get around this problem is to incorporate as much of the current world situation as possible into the game scenario and make only those changes needed to introduce conflict. A game designer could create a scenario that depicts U.S.-China relations largely as they exist today and then inject some crisis near Taiwan to begin the war. This is, in fact, the most commonly used method to build “realistic” scenarios for wargames. But a scenario set in wartime that hews to facts as they exist in peacetime introduces a serious analytic error.

The problem is that, by definition, many factors in a peacetime situation favor peace—factors that can be numerous and diffuse. A scenario based on a contemporary, nonhostile relationship between two countries implies many incentives to avoid hostilities. A main reason why the U.S. and China have not gone to war over Taiwan, after all, is because they have many compelling reasons to favor peace. What exactly about the current situation favors peace remains in debate, but candidates include mutual economic interdependence, the presence of nuclear weapons, relatively modestthreat perceptions, and involvement in shared multilateral institutions. Injecting a “trigger event” such as a crisis related to Taiwan does not resolve the structural incentives for peace. Instead, it merely creates an artificial and unconvincing driver of war. Scenarios that aim to explore political topics in wartime but share considerable continuity with peacetime situations are thus inherently contradictory—they depict a situation with as many structural incentives for peace as one that favors war. This contradiction helps explain why so many wargame scenarios strike participants as implausible and unbelievable.

His answer is to build models of crisis escalation that build on historical examples:

A better approach to wargames would be to model the political assumptions for a hypothetical wargame on the experiences of countries that have actually gone to war. As mentioned earlier in this piece, the deliberate falsification of facts in peacetime offers a good model for what might actually happen in wartime and how policymakers would likely react. After all, the most realistic and relevant facts that confront decision-makers in a war are not those that typify situations in peacetime, but those that typify situations in wartime. The very act of envisioning a war situation that does not exist requires the imaginative visualization of a world radically different from a peacetime status quo.

For such historical data to be useful, it should be as rigorous and scientifically derived as possible. The best resource for scenario designers that aim to replicate realistic and relevant facts and incentives for political decisions lies in the historical experience of countries in analogous situations

This, of course, is what many international relations scholars do: attempt to create generalized and testable hypotheses from historical data. There are, I think, a number of challenges to this approach too. After all, generalizations are simply tendencies and not iron laws of causality, specific contexts matter, and historical analogies are often misleading because of very different circumstances.

However, good IR scholarship can offer insight into is what sort of factors (political, economic, and otherwise) might shape escalation decisions, and we can then try to model those much as we might model the factors that shape combat outcomes. Certainly the social science here is far from settled or definitive, but the mere process of constructing models forces us to make explicit our assumptions about the way the world (or an adversary) works for further discussion, research, and refinement.

In general we know that subject matter experts are not necessarily very good predictors of the future (in fact, they’re quite poor at it), in part because a tendency to be cognitively over-attached to favoured paradigms. We also know that intelligence communities often outperform other forecasters, not so much because of access to classified material (although that can be a factor) but also because recruitment tends to prioritize cognitive characteristics associated with better forecasting performance, and because a well-developed analytical process emphasizes training and methodologies to check cognitive biases while encouraging constructive challenges to assumptions and interpretations. As an academic who has worked as an intelligence analyst (and assessed the predictive accuracy of other analysts), these skills are NOT ones they teach in political science (or international relations or security studies) graduate school. My impression is that they are even less present in most PME programmes.

Heath ends his piece with an important warning about the dangers of hubris and the value of humility:

Even with such improvements, however, humility about what we can achieve is required. Re-creating hypothetical war situations based on the experiences of past wars will be imperfect at best and carry their own flawed assumptions. Carrying out different iterations with slightly different assumptions could help mitigate some of these limitations. Yet even in the most optimal case, we can at best aspire to craft a crude simulacra of the incentives and factors leaders might confront in a hypothetical situation that will carry all sorts of unimaginable complexities. Given the stakes involved, even an imperfect and partial approach offers a potentially significant improvement over current methodologies for defense planners, analysts, and decision-makers alike who seek to explore political questions in wartime.

On this I think we can all agree.

One response to “Heath: Wargames can’t tell us how to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan—but different games might

  1. Gary Milante 10/01/2023 at 12:46 pm

    Excellent work by Heath and insightful analysis, Rex. On historical crisis events and decision-trees that might be a good resource for game designers, this reminds me of the work at CPASS on Crisis Event Mapping:

    https://www.crisisevents.org/

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