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Fully remote and virtual SIMULEX keeps 47-year streak alive at Fletcher

The following report was prepared for PAXsims by Brandon Daigle, Paul Pawluk, and David Kaczmarek (full biographies below), with the support of PAXsims research associate Maggie Snyder.


With only 2 months of deliberate planning amidst a global pandemic and navigating the seas of uncertainty, the first ever Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX wargaming experience is complete. This year’s group of Military Fellows and over 80 Fletcher School graduate students, in close partnership with the Army War College, Air War College and local area institutions, ensured the 47-year continuous chain of SIMULEX experiences remained unbroken under the leadership and guidance of Professor Robert Pfaltzgraff, who garnered resounding participant and cadre feedback as “hands down, the most immersive, fully remote, virtual learning experience I’ve participated in.”

What is SIMULEX?

Each year, The Fletcher School at Tufts University conducts SIMULEX, a major crisis management exercise where participants assume the roles of national policy makers in an international scenario. Over three days, SIMULEX exposes participants to the constraints and opportunities facing policy makers in a highly realistic, near-future quest to make the best possible decisions and associated actions. As representatives of various national and international teams, participants are charged with developing strategy and tactics necessary to achieve their country-specific goals, while driving efforts to bring the global crisis to a preferred end state ranging from world peace to all-out nuclear war. In an atmosphere of conflict escalation, graduate students from a variety of departments within The Fletcher School work alongside resident military fellows representing each service component, Boston area universities, Department of Defense, The Naval Postgraduate School and other partner agencies to learn leadership in uncertainty, crisis management, team building, adaptability, and policy negotiation skills, walking away more equipped to appreciate each component.

SIMULEX2020 Structure

While the past 46 offerings of SIMULEX were held on campus and in-person, this year, the first Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) SIMULEX2020 was conducted on Zoom, SLACK, and a closed loop communication system that fed real world injects into the simulation from real media outlets. No E-mail used throughout the exercise.  The “no-email” option was chosen deliberately, serving as a forcing function to drive players to “newer” tech solutions more representative of how peers communicate, and to streamline an innovative information flow. Additionally, in a crisis environment, communication breakdown through email overload is a real threat. A critical message can be lost in a sea of emails and there is no way to display an inbox worth of information for multiple users coherently in a single interface. Innovations such as SLACK and Zoom overcome that challenge.  In the case of SIMULEX2020, SLACK provided a real-time data picture (at the speed of a text) organizing information by topic in a searchable format. Zoom allowed the face-to-face communication required to mitigate misperceptions and confusion. Combined, both tools become invaluable in managing a fast-paced crisis.

Brandon, Paul and Dave established in a makeshift SIMULEX2020 Operations Center, (utilizing a basement on Hanscom AFB MA., Military Family Housing)

This initial communications framework was a key piece to establish at D-60 (where “D” represents the start date of the exercise and “-60” represents 60 days prior to startex). The participants were aligned to one of six country teams (~10 pax per team) representing India, Japan, United States, Taiwan, South Korea, and China. The control team, media team, closed-loop communication system, non-attribution environment, and three orchestrated moves would stimulate dynamic interaction between individuals, respective participant teams and the overall plenary session participants. One Fletcher School military fellow was directly aligned to each country team serving as advisor to help formulate strategies and provide recommendations on the role of force and the potential use of military capabilities throughout the event.

Near view is a representation of what a single participant/controller sees.   Far view is a much larger monitor designed to project key events, meetings, media releases, additional Common Intelligence/Operating Picture elements across the participants to level information flow.

A Complex and Compounding Scenario in 2023

This year, the setup of SIMULEX2020 was centered around a crisis in the Indo-Pacific region in 2023. The COVID-19 global pandemic has grown even deadlier, appearing to shape the geopolitical environment and introducing a new concept of “Vaccine Diplomacy” to actors on the global stage. The following paragraphs describe the actions that players encountered and drove their necessary strategies throughout the scenario.

Russia and China have aligned more closely, though there is collective recognition that China remains dominant. Throughout the game play and across a series of three critical moves, flashpoints occur in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea and along the India-China border. Each inflection point occurs within the 2023 timeline and as the United States has continued to strengthen its existing political and military relationships with her Indo-Pacific allies and, in 2023, leads an aggressive formation of a global counter pandemic organization. 

Paul representing a key Russian figurehead in both persona and in language involved in a negotiation meeting with 2ndyear Fletcher graduate student Cameron Fels, who represented China.

Simultaneously, the implementation of the Hong Kong security law has ended its special “one country, two systems” status while Pro-independence forces gain power and boost widespread support in and throughout Taiwan. As these developments unfold at speed, there is an accelerated buildup of China’s military forces on the mainland, opposite Taiwan.  

Enter North Korea.  North Korea and reveals they continue to accelerate the growth of their nuclear weapons capability as a client-state of China and Russia. The situation becomes more complex when India faces a two-pronged threat from China, on its Himalayan frontier and in the Indian Ocean. The escalations and tensions rise across all fronts and support for nuclear weapons increase in Japan even as Tokyo and the United States strengthen their own security links.

SIMULEX Objectives

SIMULEX2020 was designed to intentionally extrapolate current events into plausible near-future scenarios within given time constraints throughout the exercise. The realistic stress associated with making decisions under pressure forces the participants to think on their feet creatively and with a sense of urgency. Learning is the fundamental goal, not necessarily winning. Participant decisions made throughout the game are assessed based on their articulated strategy, alignment of Ends-Ways-Means, methods of communication, and diplomatic feasibility.

SIMULEX2020 participans:

  1. Gained practical experience in developing written national strategies and policies
  2. Experienced a wide range of obstacles and opportunities confronting real-world international decision-makers
  3. Applied classroom foundational knowledge in translating national goals into specific policies with proven workable courses of action across the international system through “living” written strategy papers and practical negotiations in dedicated “virtual” rooms
  4. Encountered internal & external pressures, relationships, & proved ability to adapt to the operational and strategic environment during crisis decision-making
  5. Developed and implemented best practices for crisis communication for real-world application without the use of E-mail.
  6. Understood the benefits and limitations of simulations, virtual exercises, and wargames
  7. Focused more on “how” to think versus “what” to think

SIMULEX2020 participants met or exceeded all objectives in this Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) environment that allowed the opportunity to make mistakes, encouraged opportunities for ideas to compete and fostered an academic space that delivered a high stress yet enjoyable experience for everyone involved, regardless of role.

Six Key Takeaways From the 1st Fully Remote & Virtual (FRV) Event

1) Slash cost and maximize efficiencies through available/familiar technologies

Utilizing technology (Zoom, Google Docs, Slack) allows participants to be more creative and much faster improving overall team efficiencies. By using the video teleconference capability through Zoom, each participant was able to adopt a persona (on screen personality, background screen, name, etc.) aligned with their country and position which increased aggregate participation. Additionally, this help game officials ensure the right participants were in the right rooms and conversely, there was no “spying” in on others breakout meetings although in the future, there could be a built in mechanism by which other countries can exercise the influence of their intelligence networks. By having the ability to rapidly schedule multiple events and move from one to another eased increased involvement and provided new opportunities for bi- and multi-lateral diplomatic engagement across multiple levels.  

A simulated social media feed via Slack proved extremely realistic. Incorporating participants’ personal electronic devices into the simulation provided the realism one would face in a real crisis like with the use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. 

Zoom allowed more oversight and evaluation of the exercise with members of the Fletcher School Faculty, fellows, or advisors to easily bounce from event to event with little to no disruption to the exercise, and without having to record and save “feedback” for a final close-out session.

Developing a 1 min SIMULEX2020 video trailer early on and releasing it at D-45 across all available platforms was pivotal to generating the buzz and fostered the bulk of registrations, despite revealing few details. ****SHOW TRAILER #2**** The key is a rapid investment here early on with the dates, times, general theme, and a lot of graphics. Do not wait to have it all figured out as this is a quick litmus test in gauging the level of interest or becoming aware of other scheduling conflicts competing for the same populous.

Given more planning time, there would be value in exploring software that produces a Common Operating Picture (COP) at the conclusion of each move to display the results of their actions and tasks, associated decision and how it shapes the overall outcome of the game. If software is not possible, a recommendation would be to have the Intel/Control Team brief a situation update at the starting phase of each move.

2) Build the virtual network/framework and set up a weekly battle rhythm event

Consistent over-communication was key across the exercise design and development team. Structuring an early cross-functional Zoom planning session at D-60 set the stage for the knowns, unknowns and revealed the unknown-unknowns. A warm start rehearsal at D-02 with all involved parties served as a first meet and greet and set the stage for the following day’s full technology rehearsal at D-01. These synchronized efforts ensured players and controllers alike were equipped to begin immediately at STARTEX and kept the game on track through its entirety.  Taking lessons learned from experts in the field across many Boston based and Silicon Valley companies, the integration of SLACK rapidly helped to dismantle silos while flattening and improving every command and control (C2) aspect of the simulation.

3) Equip and establish teams to organize for purpose – get better before getting bigger

To allow participants to better understand and experience the emerging environment of great-power competition AND to maximize, optimize, and adopt US, Allied, and Partnered options (ways & means) and their limits in dealing with very plausible crises, it is critical to establish the Team to do so. Establishing a general framework to posture the teams for success should include the minimum:

  • President/Prime Minister/Dictator (can be team lead).
    • Defense Lead – responsible for Requests for Forces (RFF) generation and submission to controller.
    • Diplomatic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Diplomatic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Economic Lead – responsible for generating any request for action related to the Economic Instrument of Power and submission to controller.
    • Public Affairs Lead – responsible for developing and issuing unofficial statements.
    • Request for Information Lead – responsible for questions/answers needed to promote a given country’s strategy.
    • Communications Lead – responsible for operating Player Team Slack Channel messaging for Player Team communications. All things comms related conduit to control.

4) Design the game flexibly to absorb dynamic changes at speed and scale

 By incorporating the impact of the global pandemic, the participants were exposed to an added dilemma to consider as they developed their strategy for engagement. This variable was easily understood since each student has first-hand experience of the COVID-19 impacts and as such have seen it play out globally from a personal perspective, especially in cases where it was handled well (New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany). With other pandemic-style variables participants may only rely on historical knowledge and readings which could downplay the scale of its complexity. With respect to a three-move game, consider altering the Move 2 / Move 3 pre-determined outcomes to a free-flowing real time “develop the move on the fly” construct to allow a more dynamic experience that will simultaneously meet goals and satisfy the efforts of individual country teams. Information will flow much faster than the participants, controllers and adjudicators will be able to keep up with. This is okay, it provides another element of realism, an opportunity for exercising patience and making decisions with minimal or unclear information available.

5) Manage the crisis as it unfolds

As SIMULEX2020 played out, other global stakeholders were brought into the scenario. In cases such as these, members of control and staff teams quickly took on the role and entered negotiations with the participant countries. The learning point here is that members of the staff or control team should not play direct roles of actors that are not explicitly written into the exercise UNLESS that is their sole responsibility. For example, in SIMULEX2020, if Russia were played by 3-4 experts that negotiated with each team during the moves, it would offer a new level of realism and uncertainty to resemble real-word diplomacy dynamics. A recommendation would be to have a handful of reserve Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in reserve for potential and expected wildcards that could occur during the game.

6) Prioritize feedback throughout – Incorporate a During Action Report (DAR)

The virtual environment enhances the frequency for real time feedback and interaction across the range of participants and staff. In this role, senior leaders, mentors, fellows, and cadre had the ability to directly inject at the time and place of their choosing to deliver advice on strategy papers critiquing End-Ways-Means approaches in conjunction with how well a team was aligned with the Risk Strategy Framework. The criticality of feedback both in the written and real time negotiation aspects of the simulation ensured participants remained sharp in their strategic thinking and prioritized clearly throughout the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.

The establishment of a During Action Report (DAR) channel within Slack, allowed for all participants to drop quick points of feedback along the way that could be expounded on later if needed. Writing the DAR comment during game play in as little or many words as desired, ensures the proper context is articulated, actions may be resolved before the game transitions to the next phase and most importantly, the comment is not forgotten at the formal call for feedback and critique.

Closing Remarks

SIMULEX2020 has proven to be a trailblazing event and has established the new standard of Fully Remote and Virtual (FRV) simulations and wargaming experience. This exercise evolution has taught that this model is rapidly scalable, fosters integration and teamwork, streamlines communication, inspires decisive action, minimizes overhead cost, and affords the environment necessary to thrive while valuing real time feedback, both positively and negatively.  

Additionally, the exercise would not be possible without the involvement of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and National Defense University wargaming communities. These communities include the Center for Strategic Leadership, Army War College; Air Force Wargaming Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; Wargaming Department, Naval War College; Wargaming and Combat Simulation Center, Marine Corps Combat Development Command; Wargaming and Simulation Center, National Defense University.  The speed and dynamic nature of the simulation is a direct testament to the involvement of the parties listed. 


For more information or further SIMULEX2020 details please contact the author directly at  brandon.daigle@tufts.edu.  


Lt Col Brandon Daigle is an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force and has held a variety of in-garrison and deployed leadership positions.  He most recently served as the Commander of a Joint Unit at Ft Bragg, North Carolina. He holds a M.S. in Defense Analysis/Special Operations and Irregular Warfare, Naval Postgraduate School, where he led multiple wargames associated with the Arctic Environment and published his thesis on the Strategic Utility of the High North in December, 2016 using Senturion modeling and spatial bargaining theory.  He holds an M.S. in Organizational Leadership and Design from Amridge University and a B.S. in Religion from Southern Christian University.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Lt Col Paul Pawluk is a National Defense Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Previously, he commanded the 22d Airlift Squadron flying the C-5M Super Galaxy. He is a command pilot and EUCOM Foreign Area Officer with fluency in Ukrainian and Russian. He has a MA – NPS,  Security Studies in Europe and Eurasia (with distinction), MA – Norwich, Diplomacy with a Concentration in International Conflict, and a BA-Wisc, Political Science, International Relations, and Russian 

Lieutenant Colonel David Kaczmarek is a Civil Affairs officer in the U.S. Army with several overseas deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa.  He has held various command and staff assignments within NATO, 18th Airborne Corps, 101st Airborne Division, and the U.S. Special Operations Command (Airborne).  He has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Virginia Military Institute, and a Master’s Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.  He is currently a Military Fellow at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

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