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Atlantic Council: Competitive strategy insights from wargames

The Atlantic Council has just released a new report on “Competitive strategy insights from wargames,” which summarizes the results of a series of recent games.

How the US military prioritizes future force-modernization investments has the potential to shape long-term geopolitical and military competition. Beyond increasing lethality, new capabilities also affect how rival great powers like China and Russia conduct strategic planning and make decisions on the types of forces best suited to challenge the United States.

To assess this dynamic, the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its Forward Defense practice area hosted a series of competitive strategy games to evaluate: how US national security professionals allocated resource investments across Army Futures Command (AFC) moderniza- tion priorities (Long-Range Precision Fires, Future Vertical Lift, etc.) in order to advance US strategy; and the extent to which these investments altered military strategy and defense-modernization programs in China and Russia, both played by subject-matter experts (SMEs).

Two unexpected outcomes emerged. First, a new stability-instability paradox defined the competitive investment cycle. Within the games, the United States focused on bolstering its conventional deterrent and warfighting capabilities through technology, but both China and Russia players responded to new US technology by funding proxy clients, the Belt and Road Initiative, cyber operations, and propaganda…. The results produce counterintuitive findings for future force-modernization and force-design initiatives. Based on these insights, the United States should counter its competitors’ asymmetric advantages by exploring low-cost ways to bolster US and allied forces operating in the contact layer and supporting gray-zone activities….

Second, new capabilities create new escalation risks. Russia players voiced concerns about inadvertent escalation. They assumed that the extended ranges associated with modernized US long-range precision strike could be used against Moscow’s strategic (i.e., nuclear) forces. Accordingly, they sought to attack these long-range fires early in a crisis or conflict, which could produce dangerous escalation spirals….

The games were modified matrix games. By establishing several different US teams, variations in US strategy and technology investment could be explored.

You can download the full report at the link above.

Noise in the gray zone: more findings from an Atlantic Council crisis simulation

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Today I made a presentation to members of a US Department of Defense Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment group that is exploring so-called “gray zone” conflict, drawing upon some insights generated by the June 2016 Atlantic Council crisis simulation on US engagement in the Middle East. According the working definition used by the SMA team, the “gray zone” can be understood in the following terms:

The Gray Zone is a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve political- security objectives with activities that are ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict, and threaten US and allied interests by challenging, undermining, or violating international customs, norms, or laws

The Atlantic Council game was intended to examine US policy and regional stability, not “gray zone” conflict per se. Nonetheless, the participants certainly made use of myriad methods-other-than-(open) war: terrorism, support for armed non-state groups, cyber attacks, weapons-smuggling, information and influence campaigns, and so forth.

After a brief summary of the Atlantic Council game design and outcomes, I made several key points:

  • The parties were prone to interpret background conflict “noise”—accidents, actions by third parties—as deliberate “gray zone” warfare by a regional adversary. In the case of the Atlantic Council game, a car-bomb attack against the Iranian Embassy in Beirut was widely seen by the Iranian team as Saudi-backed revenge for Iranian actions in Syria (in fact, the Saudis were not involved in the attack, which was conducted by Syrian jihadists), while a clash between Iranian and KSA naval forces in the Gulf was viewed by both sides as a deliberate provocation by the other (whereas it was simply the accidental result of aggressive maritime maneuvering in disputed waters by local naval commanders).
  • Although the parties sometimes used “gray zone” activities to intimidate, deter, or otherwise signal their adversaries, those signals were often poorly understood—in part because signalling is often misunderstood in contexts of tension and conflict, but also because of the very ambiguity of such actions.
  • Routine actions were often reinterpreted in light of other developments. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, rising Saudi-Iranian tensions led the former to view the latter as upping the stakes in Yemen, while the latter was largely continuing on a business-as-usual basis in terms of moderate levels of support for the Houthi rebels.
  • Third parties often sought to further muddy the waters through actions in the “gray zone” intended to manipulate the perceptions of key actors. In the Atlantic Council game, for example, the ISIS team was happy to escalate Sunni-Shiite tensions so as to encourage greater Saudi-Iranian confrontation.
  • The very moral and legal ambiguity of the “gray zone” contributes to problems of threat perception and assessment. The US and Gulf teams regarded stepped-up support for Syrian opposition forces as a legitimate way of countering aggressive Iranian ambitions. By contrast, the Iranian team considered themselves as a status quo power, supporting a longstanding Syrian ally threatened by illegal, externally-backed subversion and insurgency.

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I’m not a big fan of the “gray zone” concept, partly because I think it is so ambiguous, and partly because I think it simply describes a quite common aspect of statecraft and conflict rather than anything strikingly new. Viewing the Atlantic Council game through the “gray zone” lens generated another insight, however: the very real danger that paradigms create their own reality, and may serve to frame events in ways that distort their actual causes, intentions, and implications. Rather like looking for monsters under your bed at night, it is all too easy to misperceive the shadows of the so-called “gray zone”—all the more so because some of them actually are monsters.

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You’ll find the full set of slides from my presentation here.

Exploring US engagement in the Middle East: A crisis simulation

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Some weeks ago I posted a report on the game methodology that Bilal Saab, John Watts and I developed for a crisis simulation held at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC. The report from that game has now been released.

With the current American election campaign and change in presidential administrations due in January 2017, the debate over appropriate levels of US engagement in an unstable Middle East assumes vital importance. Should a new administration be more proactive in seeking to address threats, resolve conflicts, support allies, and deter foes? Should the new US president be wary about excessive American involvement in complex overseas problems, and focus on other concerns and issues closer to home? What should be done directly by Washington, and what is best addressed by local actors, alliances, and coalitions of the willing? What is the appropriate balance between doing too little and trying to do too much?

Objectives and Design

We focused in our June 23, 2016 crisis simulation on how differing levels of US engagement might affect Washington’s ability to respond to a regional crisis and how differences in US posture and policy might affect the political-military calculations and behavior of key regional and international actors. Approximately fifty former and current officials, diplomats, academics, and journalists from several countries took part as players or observers.

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The game, I thought, went well. They key findings outlined in the report include the following:

  • The fundamental policy question that needs to be addressed is primarily one of how the United States engages in the Middle East, rather than simply how much.
  • US policy levers can only influence, not control, events in the region.
  • Adversaries may not be fully deterred by a greater American military presence, but rather focus on other arenas where American power is more limited.
  • Gulf partners are reluctant to act without US support—but may do so if they feel they have been abandoned.
  • Gulf partners will seek to use US power as a proxy for their own.
  • Russia and China cannot act as substitutes for the United States in its role as regional crisis manager.
  • Europe and other US coalition members cannot provide an alternative for US leadership.
  • Both US teams felt that their alternative policies gave them more freedom than the current administration’s approach, but in different ways.
  • Regional conflict and sectarian tensions provide fertile ground for crisis escalation.
  • Iranian behavior is deeply problematic and partly driven by a desire to be seen as having a legitimate role in the regional order.
  • While cyberattacks may be an increasing part of the landscape of conflict and hybrid warfare, they pose real challenges in terms of US and allied response.

Although it isn’t addressed much in the report, I thought the game also highlighted the profound policy challenges and dilemmas associated with the Syrian civil war. In the PURPLE game, the US team significantly increased US engagement in Syria, responding to Syrian barrel bomb attacks by shooting down regime helicopters and eventually declaring a safe zone along the Turkish border. However neither of these policies worked out entirely as intended. The Russians continued—and in some cases expanded—air operations, while the shoot-down of Syrian helicopters led Iran to double down on its support for Damascus by directly deploying several thousand combat troops to Syria. In northern Syria the declaration of a safe zone led the Syrian Kurdish YPG to declare sovereignty over Kurdish-controlled areas, an action which seemed likely to bring about a Turkish military intervention—thereby raising the spectre of a coalition member attacking the supposed coalition-protected safe zone.

Crisis gaming at the Atlantic Council: Some methodological reflections

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I am currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and this past week I was in Washington DC to run a crisis game, one designed in conjunction with my colleagues Bilal Saab and John Watts. The details and findings of the game will be outlined in an eventual Atlantic Council report, and may also be reported by journalists who participated, so I won’t detract from any of that by discussing the scenario or any of the findings here. Instead, I wanted to offer some thoughts on game methodology we used.

In particular, we had been asked by the Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force to develop a game approach that would explore the impact of two different future US policy postures in the region. From the outset we were committed to assuring that the game design was not pre-cooked to validate a preferred option, but rather represented a fair examination of both approaches. Doing this properly really required two runs of the game, so that each posture would be presented with a series of similar challenges. However, such a desire had to be balanced against real world constraints: the participants would comprise around sixty former (and current) senior policy-makers and subject matter experts, we could really only expect to have them for a day, and we were limited by available space, budget, and other practical considerations. Also, we wanted to maximize the time players had to consider both the scenario and the implications of American policy.

What we decided on was rather different than the usual seminar wargame.

For a start we ran two simultaneous games using the same group of participants. One game (PURPLE) involved one set of US policies, the other game (GOLD) involved an alternative approach. The scenario and initial injects in both games were the same. However, once started the games were free to diverge. You can think of the process as involving two alternative game universes, with the variation built around a different set of US policies.

In terms of role assignments, the PURPLE and GOLD games each had their own US teams. However, the other teams were playing in both games at the same time.

We had concerns about doing it this way. Could players remember the details of the two games, especially when they started to diverge? We addressed this by appointing PURPLE and GOLD team captains in each team. The team captains were responsible for approving immediate tactical responses to the crisis (which could be submitted to the White Cell at any time) and overseeing the development of broader strategic responses (which were submitted in writing at the end of each game turn). The remainder of each team were free to assist both team captains with input and advice. In doing so, they were effectively operating in both alternative universes and hence were in a position to assess what impact differences in US policy had across the two games.

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Each team had a White Cell liaison attached (drawn from a group of excellent Atlantic Council interns, plus one visiting Canadian).  These acted as note-takers for the group, helped participants stay on track in terms of the game agenda, and communicated with the central White Cell and each other via the Slack messaging system. Slack was also used for formal statements by teams, and by us to insert inject events as needed (which were then being read to team members by their assigned White Cell liaison).

In most of my game designs I am eager to include elements of fog, friction, and various coordination challenges. I am also a very strong believer in building narrative engagement by players and encouraging them to internalize their roles and associated perspectives. In this particular case, each team was assigned to a different meeting room, but participants were encouraged to physically travel to amd meet with the other teams to consult and coordinate actions. There was some concern at asking senior participants to run around two floors of the Atlantic Council offices as if they were participating in model UN, but I’ve generally found people quite willing to do so. Moreover, we were able to allocate the rooms in such a way as to make communications between some rooms easier by placing them in close proximity, while making others more distant and hence increasing their sense of (diplomatic) isolation.

The crisis scenario and briefings were designed with asymmetric information to contribute to intra-group tensions and suspicions, but in such a way that escalation and desclataion were both realistic and possible outcomes. Following plenary welcome speeches and a game briefing, the first turn of the game ran until lunch. As the players ate the White Cell hurriedly collected together and synthesized the actions of the various teams, and a second game turn (with new crisis elements) was then introduced for the afternoon. Finally everyone reassembled in plenary session to share insights and analysis.

How did it go? The participants and observers are really the ones in the best position to judge that, but I was very pleased. The teams were extremly active, meeting with each other, making statements, taking immediate tactical actions, and developing larger strategic responses to the crises we threw at them. The key parties very much internalized “their” view of events, and sometimes became genuinely frustrated and antagonized by the actions of opponents. No one really seemed to be bored, or tuned out—indeed, at the end of the game we had to repeatedly tell some teams to stop playing and report for the coffee break and final plenary session.

I was also pleased with the richness of data we were able to extract from the process. The fact that most of the day had seen participants divided into multiple teams meant that we had many times more discussion than would have been possible in standard plenary sessions. The scenario seemed a fair test of both US policy postures. By playing simultaneously in two parallel games participants were readily able to identify both similarities and divergences. In some cases, US policy drove the two games in different directions. In other cases, differences in US policy were largely drowned out by powerful local and regional dynamics. That, I think, was a useful reminder that many of the levers of American power are far from all-powerful, and that it is frankly very hard to direct the behavior of a complex, adaptive system with so many actors and interests involved.

Finally, I was very pleased with the commitment of the Atlantic Council to run a methodologically-rigorous game. Not all national security gaming manages to avoid sponsor-injected bias, and using games as a mechanism to promote pre-existing policy preferences (something I’ve called “gamewashing”) is far from unusual in the think-tank world either.

When the final report is released—it has to be written first, of course—I’ll certainly link to it here at PAXsims.

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Some of the White Cell at work (picture by John Watts).

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