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NWC Wargaming: Go Big or Go Home

The following piece was written for PAXsims by Thomas Barnett and Lea Culver.

Thomas P.M. Barnett, Director of Research at Creek Technologies, is a NYT/WAPO bestselling author of multiple books on global affairs and US global leadership (e.g., Pentagon’s New Map). He has served in the Office of Secretary of Defense following 9/11, at the U.S. Naval War College as a Senior Strategic Researcher/Professor, and at Oak Ridge National Lab as a Visiting Strategist.

Lea Culver is the Founder/President/CEO of Creek Technologies, a former Army Intelligence Officer, and a doctoral candidate with Franklin University. Creek Technologies specializes in Information Technology and Education Support Services across the government.

Comments are welcome below.


On May 1st, the nation’s war colleges received a brutal – if pre-emptive – failing grade from the Joint Chiefs, who declared that Joint Professional Military Education schools are not producing military commanders “who can achieve intellectual overmatch against adversaries.” Because China increasingly matches our “mass” and “best technology,” the Joint Chiefs argue that America will prevail in future conflicts primarily by having more capable officers. As for those “emerging requirements” that “have not been the focus of our current leadership development enterprise” (e.g., integrating national instruments, critical thinking, creative approaches to joint warfighting, understanding disruptive technologies), please raise your hand when you hear something new. 

Brutal and timely.  

China’s rising naval power compelled the Joint Chiefs to identify the leadership margin between defeating, or yielding to, the People’s Liberation Army, and they judged the Defense Department’s educational institutions as presently not providing it

So where does Joint Professional Military Education go from here? The Joint Chiefs of Staff were very clear: comprehensively integrate wargaming into a “talent management system” that produces officers who can “apply our capabilities better and more creatively” than our peer competitors. How comprehensively?  Enough for future commanders to hone these skills for “thousands of hours of deliberate practice, pushing cognitive limits and intellectual performance.” 

The Chief of Naval Operations’ response? Slot the Naval War College under a new Warfighting Development Directorate established within his office – specifically in Warfighting Development (N7), moving it from its traditional spot in Manpower, Personnel, Training, and Education (N1). The institutional signal here is clear:  Forge a far more direct link between education and warfighting – a bridge best captured by wargaming. 

True, we have witnessed some bureaucratic waffling since then, most notably in the announced “Education for Seapower” program review by the new Secretary of Navy, but that sort of institutional pushback is to be expected during a tectonic shift. Serious money remains slated for future naval education efforts ($350M annually), and, while that probably will not be enough to stand up the proposed U.S. Naval Community College,  it is more than enough for the College to upgrade its wargaming program in response to the Joint Chiefs’ urgent mandate.

The Naval War College annually conducts 50-plus wargames, which is impressive, but these simulations are decidedly platform/network-centric, resulting in “quick-look” reports of high immediate interest only to Office of the Chief of Naval Operations’ sponsors. That is not Newport’s fault: it was simply responding to enduring market demand and the Chiefs just radically redefined that. The good news? The tools, technologies, and techniques that the College now needs to recast wargaming as a learner-centric enterprise are readily available – and at reasonably modest cost. 

Since the birth of Network-Centric Warfare in the mid-1990s, defense firms have amassed an impressive array of capabilities under the human performance engineering rubric (oftentimes called human-centric engineering), which addresses the third dimension of modern warfare (see  below) – namely, the interface between commanders and that “best technology” (systems) controlling our military “mass” (platforms). While traditional wargaming has amply explored strategy (officer-platform interface) and modern simulations plumb the depths of networked warfare (system-platform interface), human performance engineering truly completes that operational triad by rebalancing attention on the officer/system interface, in turn enhancing individual/team cognitive skills while optimizing command architectures. This is exactly what the Joint Chiefs want: systemic overmatch in cognitive skills and decision-making structures.

This vision mirrors the predominant logic coming out of Silicon Valley on the future of machine learning and artificial intelligence: both are best employed in combination with human decision-making in the so-called centaur model. So, again, China eventually matches us on platforms and systems, but we stay ahead thanks to our officers’ superior command skills augmented by cognitive computing. This is how the Joint Chiefs see Joint Professional Military Education becoming a true “strategic asset” – i.e., our winning edge in future warfare.

Such ambition compels the Naval War College to rebalance its wargaming – long skewed toward problem-centric designs – with a learner-centric emphasis on decision-making competencies. This begins by introducing advanced human performance engineering capabilities to assess officer development. 

Yes, the War College has longed structured its wargames to test out competing command-and-control structures. But it has done so to ensure that students know how to use those systems as designed within a single domain context (e.g., surface, sub-surface, air), when what the Joint Chiefs now desire are commanders capable of routinely achieving combined effects across domains (air, land, sea, subsea, cyber, space) – suggesting a “multiverse” of possible command-and-control structures appliedly fluidly across the conflict spectrum. In effect, the Joint Chiefs seek the equivalent of “multilingual” officers capable of creatively commanding across domains. Ambitious yet achievable, this goal requires a sophisticated, orchestrated application of assets and technologies from multiple domains to effect an outcome that would otherwise be impossible within a single domain.

In sum, it is not enough to train officers on how to effectively communicate and coordinate actions in a joint command-and-control environment where the primary decisions involve choosing which tasks (and where and when) to hand off to other services. They need to be able to adeptly select combinations of resource from across all services to achieve those desired effects across all domains

Instilling this sort of cross-domain ingenuity starts with more effectively data-mining joint exercises. These complex wargames generate troves of human-learning data available for capture and systematic analysis. However, the live and post-game analytic tools currently employed at Newport do not come close to comprehensively processing all available data, resulting in final reports that arrive too late to allow for a rapid and robust game-sequencing that builds upon – and integrates – previous learning and outcomes.

By promising systematic feedback on systemic performance across all three wargaming dimensions (officers, platforms, systems), human performance engineering incentivizes schools to pervasively instrument simulation environments with innovative measurement technologies (right down to player-worn sensors) of sufficient sophistication to decode cognitive processes (i.e., decision making) – applying artificial intelligence not so much to the play as to the players, because that is where “talent management” naturally applies.

In capturing and exploiting wargaming’s big data “exhaust,” Joint Professional Military Education faculty, wargamers, and research staff can “incorporate active and experiential learning to develop the practical and critical thinking skills our warfighters require.” Since human performance engineering expertise is not presently resident at military schools, there must be an infusion of private-sector talent to continuously refresh staff skills, knowledge, and innovation. 

For the “Navy’s Home of Thought,” it is time to go big or go home

The Joint Chiefs’ guidance mirrors what Naval War College researchers have argued for years: namely, the utility of teaching integrated with gaming. The most cogent expression of this was put forth by the 2015 cohort of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group, whose work on talent management accurately presaged the Joint Chief’s May mandate to finally move ahead. Now, the addition of subject-matter experts steeped in human performance engineering starts that ball rolling by asking: Which new data can be captured in a wargame? Wargaming professionals can then answer the question: What do we learn from that data? Finally, and in a reach-out to research and teaching faculty, the Naval War College as a whole asks: What should we now teach based on this new understanding?

And yes, this is yet again one of those instances where innovation within the defense community can and should spill over into similar advances across the commercial sector, where the globalization of technologies and capital have largely eliminated the West’s historical advantages over the “Rising Rest.” We either field more creative executives who can tilt that now-level playing field back to our advantage or we learn to consistently lose market shares across an emerging global middle class hungry for consumption. Gamifying our educational systems to instill cross-domain creativity is the way ahead, particularly in processing generational cohorts (e.g., Millennials, GenZs) who have grown up with gaming as a way of life.

By systematically introducing human performance engineering to wargaming, the Naval War College establishes itself as a central repository to shape and ultimately drive future joint exercises across the Defense Department’s Joint Professional Military Education enterprise. America employed similar institutional dynamics to leave the Soviets behind in the Information Age, and this is how we do the same to China in the Age of Artificial Intelligence: moving the goal posts on command performance.

The Naval War College knows how to go big on wargaming, having done so in the past to global effect. It is time to do so again.

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