At War on the Rocks today, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI8) of the House Armed Services Committee argues that the US Navy and Department of Defense need to to a better job of of selling their proposed naval force structure (Battle Force 2045) to members of Congress. The way this could be done, he suggests, is through a wargame:
Naval advocates in the executive branch need to sell a simple vision of integrated American seapower to the legislative branch in order to get budgetary buy-in. This will require the Pentagon to step out of its comfort zone.
This should start with a three-day trip, a short congressional delegation. Regardless of who is president and secretary of defense in 2021, this delegation should occur as soon as possible next year, as it may well be the most important government trip that will occur in the next decade. Pentagon leadership should gather congressional defense leaders, interested members, authorizers, and appropriators in the Mecca of seapower and wargaming at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Over the course of 72 hours the department should walk Congress through a wargame that demonstrates the forces it needs, and how Battle Force 2045 will deny Chinese objectives in the Indo-Pacific generally and the first island chain specifically. The Pentagon needs to put it all out there: assumptions, vulnerabilities, unknowns, and risks being assumed in the absence of change, for legislators to understand and debate.
This idea of wargaming with Congress should have bipartisan support, if for no other reason than I stole it from Democrats. In an op-ed earlier this year with Gabrielle Chefitz, Flournoy argued that the Pentagon should invite members of Congress to observe its wargames in order to provide them with the context behind its budgetary proposals. This makes a lot of sense to me as a defense authorizer. The standard congressional hearings with the department are important, but are suboptimal forums for candid conversations, as neither members of Congress nor defense officials want to embarrass themselves on television and even classified discussions are frequently limited by time. A three-day wargame at Newport, on the other hand, would give members of Congress a rare glimpse behind the curtain of defense planning, allow members to ask stupid questions without generating negative press, and allow defense leaders to admit their intellectual or doctrinal blind spots without getting fired.
This does not need to be fancy. Congress just needs a map of the Indo-Pacific and a secure room filled with the Pentagon’s smartest people who can explain to members in simple terms the Chinese military threat, the blue force structure and capabilities needed to deter the People’s Liberation Army or defeat it in war should deterrence fail, and a clear understanding of what American allies bring to the fight. Defense officials should walk congressional leaders through how the current force structure in the Indo-Pacific is inadequate and how Battle Force 2045, in concert with the rest of the joint force, will turn an unfavorable military balance around and lead to victory. Armed with the analytical and tactical context behind the Future Naval Force Structure and the 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan, congressional leaders would then be in a position, despite budgetary headwinds, to make tough choices and convince their colleagues and the public to go along with them.
The idea has already received some pushback from those who fear that wargames can overemphasize military solutions to diplomatic problems.
This is a legitimate concern, although it is possible to run policy games on South and East Asia issues that don’t presume military solutions—as we did for Global Affairs canada in our South China Sea game.
A bigger concern, I think, is that of “gamewashing”—that is, designing and running a game designed to reach a preconceived conclusion. This is the issue that Jacquelyn Schneider raises:
Moreover, methodologically, it is simply impossible for a single wargame to “prove” the superiority of a particular force structure or set of defence investments, both because game outcomes depend (or should depend) on decisions made in the game and because you also need to test out alternatives. Did the US Navy emerge victorious in the wargame because of Battle Force 2045, or because of brilliant US game play (regardless of the asset mix), or because the Chinese side played poorly? Did eight nuclear aircraft carriers and six light carriers prove to be the key to victory, or would the US have done even better with fewer aircraft carriers and more investment in submarines, UAVs, or something else? How much advantage is gained from investing in Navy versus Air Force capabilities? Would the asset mix that proves most effective in defending Taiwan also be the most effective in other scenarios? And so on.
What you risk ending up with is wargame theatre—slickly-produced to engage and convince the audience, but telling only one possible story.
All that being said, I do think there is value in engaging legislators (and legislative staff) in games—largely to educate, to build the foundations for cooperation in times of crisis, and to seek their input into the political dimensions of policy analysis.