At the Modern War Institute (West Point), Susan Bryant and Tom Nagle have written an excellent article on “wargaming for the new great game.” In it, they explore the challenges of wargaming irregular warfare, highlighting common shortcomings and suggesting some very useful best practices.
Specifically they identify “four keys to better wargames”:
Focus on the Narratives
In irregular warfare, narratives carry the day. Narratives describe how individuals experience the world around them and then communicate that information to others. The Department of Defense has enormous blind spots in understanding how adversaries interpret our actions and spin new counternarratives.
Each party to a conflict comes with its own narratives. Robert Rubel, who chaired the Naval War College’s Wargaming Department, notes that participants routinely fail to connect the political and military aspects of the game. Unfortunately, this often results in unnecessary and costly escalations.
Plentiful Parties and Overlapping Objectives
Irregular warfare wargaming requires more robust, skeptical third-party teams with knowledge of political warfare and narratives. In traditional wargames of conventional conflicts, enemy and friendly forces fight over discrete objectives with minimal third-party engagement. However, in irregular warfare scenarios, third parties’ interpretations of friendly and enemy actions may decide the conflicts. Further, many parties simply defy these categories.
The Syrian Civil War provides an example of the complex array of actors involved in IW. To secure its interests, Russia must support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, defuse friction with Turkey, partner with Iran, defeat ISIS, and isolate the United States. No wargame could responsibly model the Syrian conflict without these and other players competing and seeking to advance their own objectives.
Unfortunately, US wargames understate the complexity of these types of situations. Once third-party players begin to outnumber friendly and enemy players, the games will begin to represent IW’s complexity. Attempts to accomplish this type of wargaming are nascent, but they do exist. The work done by Lieutenant Colonel Arnel David and Dr. John De Rosa on gaming narratives in the Baltics provides an example of what this type of approach would entail.
Whole-of-Government cannot be Controlled by the Military
Wargames are too military-centric. While the military aspires to a whole-of-government solution to population-centric conflicts, wargames rarely reflect this aspiration. Too often, the military assumes a degree of latitude not representative of real-world constraints. Expanding interagency and coalition teams in wargaming is one way to ensure more instruments of national power are realistically incorporated, rather than simply assumed.
Games Should Seek a Position of Continuing Advantage
Successful strategies in an actual irregular warfare conflict create conditions favoring long-term success, rather than the achievement of discrete military objectives. Irregular warfare–oriented games should employ an approach tailored to the scenario and avoid an emphasis on specific, traditional military outcomes. Though military objectives will still play a role, the use of the military instrument must be fully integrated with other activities intended to create favorable conditions for successful military actions.
They conclude by noting that addressing the challenge of irregular warfare is difficult, in part because of institutional inertia and the difficulty of promoting truly innovative thought.
Replicating IW is hard. As compared to conventional conflicts, IW campaigns will often play out over months and years. Fortunately, new wargaming tools offer promise to unlock new IW concepts and shift perceptions of IW. These tools can take many forms: for example, planning wargames as asynchronous, multiday events would leverage the time between turns to stimulate creativity and new IW concepts. Similarly, transitioning to a virtual format for some types of wargames not only can add more nuance to the scenario, but can make participation more accessible to tactical and operational decision makers across the force who may not normally have the opportunity to engage in these exercises. Increasing distributed, scalable, and easily manipulated irregular warfare wargames both for the operational force and at all levels of military education will not only promulgate new concepts and shift mindsets about irregular warfare, but will better prepare the entire defense apparatus to approach the contemporary security environment in dynamic and innovative ways.
h/t Scott Cooper