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A Brief History of Naval Wargames


navalwargamesFor more than 100 years, the U.S. Navy has simulated naval warfare with simulations, or games. As far back as the 19th century the Navy recognized that gaming and simulations are an inexpensive and bloodless way to learn lessons that typically are imparted only during wartime.

The use of games traditionally has had multiple purposes. The foremost is to train for war. Simulating warfare gives those involved the closest possible experience they can have to actual warfare, thus giving them a modicum of experience under fire. It is an inexpensive way to train without the expense of taking ships and aircraft to sea, particularly in periods of austerity.

The second reason to use games is to test personnel, tactics, procedures, organizations and equipment. Wargames have the tendency to expose strengths or weaknesses, in everything from individual leadership to tactics and doctrine. Gaming can be seen as a “stress test” that allows strategy, tactics, and concepts to be tested against an actual adversary attempting to defeat them.

As a bonus, new ideas and concepts can emerge from playing wargames. The hands-on environment of gaming, without the pressure and tension of real war, can be fertile ground for generating new ideas. Such ideas can be quickly demonstrated and even validated within the game itself, allowing refined and successful ideas to become institutionalized prior to actual conflict.

The Beginning 

Naval wargaming goes back at least to 1886, when Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan became president of the Naval War College (NWC). Mahan encouraged the use of war games, recently imported from Germany where they were known as Kriegsspiel. Adapted for use by the Navy, Naval Kriegsspiel involved moving cardboard ships around on drawing paper simulating hypothetical battles with powers such as Great Britain and Japan.

In addition to ship-to-ship tactical combat, NWC taught operational and strategic scenarios. Students a the college were encouraged to come up with solutions to “problems”—imaginary war scenarios that changed annually. In 1895 the annual problem was war with Great Britain. The scenario entailed the British assembling a large fleet in Halifax, Nova Scotia with an invasion force of 30,000 men in 100 transports. The U.S. Fleet, greatly outnumbered, was deployed to Long Island, New York, while the invaders landed at Narragansett, Rhode Island. The students’ task: devise a plan to counter the invasion.

Two years later, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt gave NWC a new problem: “Japan makes demands on Hawaiian Islands. This country intervenes. What force will be required to uphold intervention? Keep in mind possible complications with another power in the Atlantic.” The latter was an allusion to Japan’s growing strategic ties to Great Britain. By 1911, students were working on Pacific-wide war scenarios against “Orange,” a reference to Imperial Japan. By 1941, 136 strategic wargames had been played at NWC, 127 of them aimed at Japan.

At the time of Pearl Harbor, all but one wartime admiral and the entire leadership of the U.S. Navy had played war games. After the war, Admiral Nimitz was to remark, “The war with Japan had been reenacted in the game rooms at the Naval War College by so many people and in so many different ways, that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise . . . absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics toward the end of the war; we had not visualized these.”

The Postwar Era

After the war, the Navy started work on Navy Electronic Warfare Simulator (NEWS), the first attempt at computerizing naval wargames. Located at the NWC, it occupied an entire three-story building. First operational in 1958, NEWS had 20 command centers, complete with sensors and communications equipment, and a large 15-foot screen that displayed the tactical situation. NEWS tracked air and sea forces for both sides, resolved combat and awarded damage. Unfortunately, NEWS had been in development for 13 years, and by 1958 advances in weapons technology (it could not model speeds faster than 500 knots) made the game’s architecture obsolete.

In the late 1970s the Navy developed Sea Control Tactical Analysis Game (SEATAG), a manual pen-and-paper wargame available in classified and unclassified versions. This led to NAVTAG, a computer version that could be taken to sea. The system used three networked computers, one each for Red, Blue, and Game Control. Under NAVTAG, up to 300 surface ships, submarines, and aircraft could be controlled by players in a variety of scenarios.

Commercial naval wargames first surfaced in the 1930s, with Fletcher Pratt’s Naval Wargaming with Model Ships, a detailed game system that attracted the attention of both civilians and military alike and proved popular for decades. The second generation of high fidelity commercial wargaming began in 1979 when author, game designer, and Navy veteran Larry Bond published Harpoon. A former surface warfare officer who went on to work at the Center for Naval Analyses, Bond had participated in NAVTAG games. Harpoon even served as a reference for author Tom Clancy while he wrote his debut novel, The Hunt for Red October.

Harpoon was a manual wargame that modeled NATO and Warsaw Pact navies. It included a database handbook of ships, aircraft, weapons systems, munitions, and sensors drawn from open sources, including the U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World. Ships, aircraft, and missiles were represented by miniatures or cardboard counters. The game was played in turns, with movement and combat played out on paper maps. Hits were determined with rolls of dice.

Harpoon received a major upgrade in the late 1980s, with the release of a computer version. Computerized Harpoon did away with counters, maps, dice, and pens and paper, and even the database handbook. The game instituted a real fog of war—previously players could see all units on the entire map, not just those observable by sensors and line of sight. Although modestly improved over the years, Harpoon was never really overhauled for the 21st century.


The rise of the Internet and increased computing power in personal computers pushed the boundaries of simulation complexity and the ability for multiple players distributed across vast distances to participate in the same simulation. In the mid-2000s, the Navy started work on Kill Chain, a three-dimensional naval tactical warfare simulator. Kill Chain originally began life as technology demonstrator for the DD(X) program, with the database provided by the U.S. military. The program was funded to $11.4 million in 2007, with an initial emphasis on ant-submarine warfare.

The Department of Defense has also taken to using simulations to crowdsource new ideas. The Naval Postgraduate School now runs Massive Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet (MMOWGLI). MMOWGLI is an online simulation that allows large numbers of participants to crowdsource ideas and options for a variety of national security issues, from 3D printing to energy security, to piracy. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) freely distributes Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), a computer simulation based upon the civilian wargame Dangerous Waters. Anyone can download the game, in which players control an unmanned undersea vehicle searching for hostile submarines. The game was designed to generate ideas for DARPA on how to best use unmanned submersibles in anti-submarine warfare.

The Navy has benefitted from its consistent devotion to wargames. It seems likely that a future of relatively lean budgets will push the military to embrace games even more and they will become even more popular as means of training, testing and generating ideas. It also seems likely that increased computing in PCs will ensure overlap between wargames developed for military and civilian markets.

  • KenPrescott

    There is a sort-of Harpoon replacement:

    Command: Modern Air-Naval Operations. The user interface is similar to Google Earth, it’s apparently very detailed (unsure as to how realistic it actually is–answers are probably in finger-breaking territory), and scenario creation can be very, very quick.