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War(games) are hell: Unified Quest 2012

The Unified Quest 2012 wargame(s) wrapped up recently at the Army War College, and according to the report by AOL Defense reporter Sydney Freedberg Jr.the results were rather messy—which is a good thing, from the point of view of the exercise:

In the end, it was a near-run thing. The US-led coalition broke through to the refugee camps and began delivering aid. But their supply lines were stretched thin across land and sea, with an entire Army brigade embarked on rented cruise ships at one point. Ashore, the troops took heavy losses from local Islamic militants whom they never entirely defeated. In the end, indeed, it didn’t really end: US troops were left in the middle of a conflict that threatened to escalate to a wider regional war. It’s just that the wargamers ran out of time.

This year’s wargame at the Army War College was one of the toughest in years, participants told AOL Defense, and that’s a good thing. Since they began in 1997, the annual games had gradually gotten less rigorous over time, say critics, which meant that Army leaders were pleasantly unsurprised by the results. With wars in both Afghanistan andIraq, there were enough ugly surprises in real life to force hard thinking. Now, as the Army looks beyond withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, it could postulate more comfortable scenarios. But the Army can hardly afford to go easy on itself in the face of shrinking budgets, increasing inter-service rivalry, and an administration strategy that rejects the kinds of counterinsurgency missions it spent the last decade doing. Fortunately, the wargame is getting usefully nasty again.

“I was initially skeptical,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who started the annual wargame when he was commandant of the Army War College and had been displeased by its direction. “I’ve been very much a stern critic of this game over the years,” he told AOL Defense, but this time, the players portraying the enemy — the “Red Team” — were once again given freedom to wreak havoc on the good guys in innovative ways, forcing the US and its allies — “Blue” — to innovate in turn. Said Scales, “that led to a lot of legitimacy and credibility in the game, which I found frankly very refreshing.”

You can read the full report at the link above. For more on Unified Quest 2012, the earlier PAXsims post here.

Unified Quest 2012

AOL defence columnist Sidney Freedberg reports on this week’s US Army “Unified Quest” wargame at the Army War College:

All this week, at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the Army is conducting the latest iteration of its annual wargame. In the fictional future of the game, set in 2020, 120 players will wage a two-front war in the two regions that have come to dominate US strategy, with one scenario set in the Middle East — which I’ll get to sit in on — and another in the Pacific — which is classified. In the real world of here and now, however, what’s at stake is how the largest but least glamorous of the four military services plays catch-up to the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines in reinventing itself for the post-Afghanistan era.The Army War College has hosted similar wargames every year since the 1990s, but this year is different, because the world has changed. US troops left Iraq last December and are drawing down, albeit slowly, in Afghanistan. At home, budgets are shrinking and the Army’s shrinking with them, slated to shed eight combat brigades and at least 87,000 troops between now and 2017 (or far more, much faster if sequestration happens). To thrash out the Army’s response, the service’s intellectual hub, the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), has convened a whole series of conferences and seminars on the future of the service, collectively entitled “Unified Quest 2012,” which began in October and led up to this week’s wargame as the climactic event. Out of that months-long process emerged the key themes that the assembled players are wrestling with this week.

Above all other issues rises the Army’s role in projecting US power abroad. The administration’s strategic guidance, released in January, formally swore off “large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” the very kind of counterinsurgency that’s been the Army’s all-consuming mission since 2003. Now the chief strategic challenge is how to shape events abroad without having large forces already on the ground, whether through the subtle influence of a small cadre of advisors or a sudden surge of reinforcements in a crisis.

Advisor teams and other aspects of “building partnership capacity” are something the Army is on top of after years of working with the Afghans and Iraqis; the conventional forces of the “Big Army” are now adept in foreign partnerships that were once a marginalized mission reserved for the Special Forces. Rapidly deploying forces to a distant warzone where they must fight their way in against sophisticated opposition, however, is something the Army has hardly practiced since 2003.

The other services, meanwhile, have all already returned to that kind of power projection as their primary focus. The Marine Corps has been emphasizing its return to its sea-borne, swift-striking roots in amphibious expeditions. The Air Force and Navy have joined intellectual and political forces to advance the concept of “AirSea Battle,” aimed at cracking open the “anti-access / area denial” defenses of regional powers like Iran or even China. The strategic problem in many ways resembles that of the 1990s, when the Army War College’s annual wargames began and the Army’s leaders were increasingly fixated on rapid deployment overseas, but today’s problem is even tougher. Potential adversaries have access to an ever-proliferating arsenal of techniques to hinder US deployment into their regions and hamstring US operations on arrival, a so-called “hybrid threat” that blends low-tech weapons like roadside bombs, naval mines, and suicide bombs with high-tech ones like long-range guided missiles and cyber-warfare.

The Army’s own briefing for wargame participants highlights the linked problems of the “hybrid threat” and enemy “anti-access/area denial” strategies on the first page and returns to it repeatedly thereafter. It also explicitly raises the question of the Army’s role in the AirSea Battle construct, so far dominated by the Air Force and Navy. This isn’t only an Army wargame. Besides Army officers and civilians, the players include officers from the other US services, liaisons from foreign militaries, and representatives from a range of civilian agencies. Most of the participants will play as members of the simulated American command, but about one in nine will represent the neutrals that the US must sway or the adversaries it must defeat. Later in the week, another 60 or so senior officers and outside experts will convene to address the high-level strategic issues raised by the two theater-level games. Friday will see the final briefing to Army senior leaders. The final formal product will be a revision of the Army’s “Capstone Concept” later this year, but the larger issue is the Army’s struggle to assert its strategic relevance in the post-Afghanistan era.

You’ll find further information on the process and the game on the US Army’s official blog:

The Army Chief of Staff’s future study plan, Unified Quest, is about ideas – generating, exploring, growing ideas, and transitioning them to concepts that will drive the Army of 2020.  Unified Quest events examine critical issues for the future of the Army and develop solutions through workshops, seminars symposiums and wargames.

For the past year, Unified Quest events have explored issues critical to the Army of 2020 – what the Army must do as a part of the joint force, how the Army should fight in the future, and how the Army should build partners and capacity, among other issues.

Unified Quest’s capstone event is the Army Future Game-where the ideas and solutions generated from previous UQ events and emerging concepts are tested in a rigorous seminar wargame.  This year, two operational working groups will examine the Army’s ability in 2020, as part of a Joint Force, to gain and maintain access and counter anti-access and area denial operations within a hybrid strategy as part of a complex environment.

Two scenarios will set the stage for these examinations – one in set in the Middle East and one in the Pacific area, regions selected to align with the new National Security Strategy.  Through these scenarios, the working group participants will explore issues including special operations and conventional force interdependence, and cyber operations, and the Army’s role in the Air-Sea Battle concept and how to leverage it, among other issues.

A third working group of experts in the areas of governance, U.S. national strategy, security policy, economics, science and technology, and military art and science will be presented with several Army-level issues.  During facilitated discussions, the strategic working group members will apply their experiences and expertise to illuminate the potential outcomes and effects associated with issues of strategic importance to the Army.

On the final day of the Future Game, senior leaders from throughout the Army will discuss with the working groups their insights and recommendations. The results from the working groups will help analyze and evaluate the Army Capstone Concept and Army Operating Concept revisions, as well as inform revisions of the Army functional concepts in the context of new strategic guidance, and a future operational environment.  The results will also inform Army issues for Quadrennial Defense Review 2014.

The Unified Quest website is here, and—in a sign of the times—their official Facebook page is here. the video below also provides a good overview of the sorts of scenarios under discussion.


At AOL Defense, Sidney Freedberg provides an update on the wargme(s) in progress:

US ARMY WAR COLLEGE: It’s a week into the war, and things are getting ugly. Fifty American and allied troops are dead, four hundred are wounded — some in city fighting against Islamic militants, some when the surprisingly sophisticated foe shot down their aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles and anti-helicopter mines.

Now the US-led task force has seized the two seaports that were its objectives, only to find the enemy has sabotaged the dock facilities. No supplies are getting through to the refugees that the intervention was meant to protect in the first place. Meanwhile, cruise missiles and cyber-attacks have hit the coalition’s staging bases in Italy. Reports have come in of radiological “dirty bombs” and a toxic chemical spill at an industrial site too ill-timed to be an accident. The enemy irregulars fight, while across the border the hostile nation-state that armed them in the first place is threatening to unleash its own regular military in the guerrillas’ support.

Fortunately, of course, all this is fiction, a status update yesterday morning at the Army’s annual wargame held here at the War College. Even the warring countries are fictional, with the imaginary Muslim-majority nations of “Greenland” and “Redland” superimposed on the real-world geography of the Balkans and Ukraine respectively. (Wargame planners use this trick so they can assess their moves against real-world terrain and transportation infrastructure without seeming to rehearse a war against any real nation).

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