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Opinion: The Navy Needs a Wider Look at Wargaming


Under the auspices of the Defense Innovation Initiative, announced by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel before he left office, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has sounded a call to revive the practice of wargaming in the Department of Defense. In a memo issued Feb. 9, Work announced plans to “reinvigorate, institutionalize, and systematize wargaming across the Department.”

This memo is a vital first step, and should instigate a Navy wide re-examination of when, why, and how we conduct these evolutions across the force. Lessons learned a century ago demonstrate that the Navy should take the memo’s intent on board, but must go even further than Mr. Work’s suggestions in order to maximize the warfighting ability and innovative spirit of the fleet.

Checking the Chart

“If my career were ahead instead of behind me, I should endeavor to the extent of my ability, and at the earliest opportunity, to acquire as thorough a knowledge of the principles of the art of war as possible, and should neglect no opportunity to train myself in their application by playing competitive war games.” – Adm. William Sims, 1919

The U.S. Navy, through the work at the Naval War College a century ago, introduced systematic wargaming to the American military. Our service has long led in this field, and helped develop how and why these important events were used and studied. However, in recent decades participation has crept further and further up the chain of command, leaving behind the historic roots and the reasons wargaming was started in the first place.

The practice today appears focused on deriving data for Operations Research analysts to run through their formulas and spreadsheets or testing strict adherence to doctrinal procedure. Because the “scientific” results are used to influence decisions at the highest levels of the Pentagon, participants in these events tend to be senior or retired officers, civilian policy experts, and government civilians. This leaves behind not only the vast majority of our innovative junior thinkers, but also has divorced the modern practice of wargaming from its historic roots.

At the end of World War I, Vice Adm. William Sims returned from his command of all naval forces in the war to take charge at the Naval War College. He accepted a demotion to Rear Admiral in order to take the position because he believed the best way to correct deficiencies in leadership and strategic thinking, which he observed during the war, was to ensure rigorous professional military education. He outlined a program of education spanning an officer’s entire career. A central component of that program was the practice of wargaming.

Sims gave three purposes for wargaming. First, it allowed officers to practice their art. After completing the education program at the war college, reading the work of the great strategists of the past and historical case studies of wartime decision making, he believed officers needed to put what they had learned to the test. He compared it to the Army/Navy football game, saying that a coach would instantly be fired if all he did was have his players study books on football but never put them on the practice field. “Obviously,” he said, “we cannot acquire the necessary knowledge and training by actually fighting our fleet against another,” so the answer was expansive gaming.

During the course of play in a war game, as the officers attempted to apply the theoretical lessons they had learned, there was a good chance that interesting new ideas would spring forth. This was the second reason Sims saw the practice as vital to the Navy. These innovative tactics or operational concepts could be played out during free play on the gaming tables and good ideas would rise to the top through victory in the games. The introduction of new technologies and weapons, like aviation and submarines, would result in new ways to apply the principles of classical naval strategy, and these could be captured through gaming and developed.

Finally, wargaming allowed for a wider interaction with, and testing of, innovations in the whole of the Fleet. Concepts first developed at the gaming tables were evaluated by the CNO’s staff, and the General Board which advised the Secretary, and then taken through practical tests in tactical exercises at sea. The results of the exercises were fed back to the games in a virtuous cycle which refined and perfected the ideas and methods. This was the system used in the inter-war years to develop naval aviation and undersea warfare: concepts central to American victory in World War II.

Setting a Course

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work speaks at the McAleese/Credit Suisse FY2016 Defense Programs Conference held at the Newseum in Washington D.C., March 17, 2015. DoD Photo

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work speaks at the McAleese/Credit Suisse FY2016 Defense Programs Conference held at the Newseum in Washington D.C., March 17, 2015. DoD Photo

Today’s model of wargaming mirrors this final concept, conducted at the highest levels of our military, but essentially leaves out the other two. The Navy should take Mr. Work’s suggestions and develop the near-term, mid-term, and long-term games he enumerates but must take it even further. In a lecture at the war college Admiral Sims reminded the senior officers who were graduating in 1921 that the most innovative ideas, the most important concepts for the future of war, usually come from junior leaders and thinkers and they should take care to listen.

As the Navy considers the elements in Mr. Work’s memo, it must look to integrate the benefits our predecessors realized from the practice. Today, wargaming is absent from the core curriculum at the Naval War College. The games which occur in Newport are conducted only by special small groups of select students. This isn’t enough. A reinvigorated program should look to expand this experience across more of the student body in Newport, as well as National Security Studies students at the Naval Postgraduate School, and even look at including the Fleet Seminar programs.

The Navy should also develop ways to introduce wargaming at fleet concentration areas at the Type Command level and below. Modern technology can be used to create gaming systems which offer more elaborate, and even sometimes exciting, versions of old school “table top” games or wardroom workshops. For example, crews from a Destroyer Squadron could use a computer based system to fight crews from an opposing Destroyer Squadron, testing some of the foundational ideas of the new “Distributed Lethality” concept. Rather than scripted training evolutions built on doctrinal and procedural compliance, the Navy should give its innovative junior leaders an opportunity for what gamers call “free play” to explore new ideas and tactical concepts.

Work’s call to reinvigorate wargaming is vital to addressing the numerous threats and developments of the 21st century. However, it does not go far enough. The Navy must look to its history to chart an even more effective course forward. By developing our wargaming at all levels, both for the senior leaders and analysts in the Pentagon but also for our creative junior leaders across the fleet and in our education system, we will continue to lead the world in understanding the future character of war and evolving our position as the world’s leading maritime power.

  • sragsd0416

    War gaming is an interesting art form. It is one of those things that depending on the rules you can tailor the results to get what you want. For example in most war games or simulations (be it simulated or using actual components and people) the sense is that everyone wants to feel better. It is like going to Fast Food Place and ordering a happy meal. The food is edible but the toy can be pretty cool. What the USN needs in my opinion when it comes to simulating a war or war time conditions is accuracy and not ridiculous ROE. For example in one war game that I was able to sit in on and advice it place team Blue Vs. Team Orange in what was essentially a Naval War against a large Asian adversary. Submarines were a complete wasted resource. No submarine attack could occur without confirmation from a second asset – normally a P-3. The ranges and conditions were also ludicrous and did not reflect anything even close to real life. Arguing with 2 of the PHD’s that came up with this was also pointless. As a joke and using their rules we brought in a WWII Balao class SS which had better success than the 688I. Why? It had a gun. Keep in mind it was a war game that in part gave birth to a disposable or expendable light combatant that grew up to become the debacle known as LCS. The same stupidity is also used in actual war games or exercises where participating submarines are routinely operating with their hands tied. Restricted in depth, speed and forced to run in a noisy line up most participating submarines run there required points and die in a professional grotesque military manner using the opportunity to clean and run drills. So before any war game can have ANY meaning – a higher degree of realism is a necessity. You can’t begin to plan until you operate nearer the capabilities of ALL your key players.

    • old guy

      Concur. Very astute.

  • Retired War Gamer

    I would strongly recommend that the Navy take a close look at the war gaming done at Tactical Training Group, Pacific in San Diego. Low level games are conducted in-house while advanced games are conducted with the simulation piped to ships, aviation trainers and joint entities through an electronic network. These games are designed based on specific fleet training objectives and are scripted in great detail. In my opinion, this is a tried and true system that has been perfected over many years. It could serve as a baseline model for operational level and below gaming.

  • old guy

    I wasn’t aware that wargaming had fallen into disrepute. The Navy has always been the leader in the field. Before WW2 we had gamed EVERY scenario that occurred in the war, except one, Kamikaze attack. As an R and D wonk, I participated in many games at Newport and the WAL at APL (Johns Hopkins). Valuable insights were always gained. It appears that with our new computer power the games could be tremendously more effective.
    I remember one two-sided game at the college, in 1991, or so, where I was Orange NCA and a future VCNO was Blue NCA. Orange won because we were allowed to use Russian Pomornik hovercraft to knock out Blue airbases in Saudi-Arabia, bottle up reinforcing ships in the Red Sea by taking Djibouti, and decimating Blue assets in the Persian Gulf with Swarm tactics using Komar and Osa boats (I believe the first time used in a game). I’m sure we learned a lot from that game.
    The Admiral never spoke to me again.

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  • BlackArrow

    Being a recreational wargame (and cardstock model ship) designer, I can only agree about the value of gaming, including boardgames. (See the seminal May 1981 Defense ISSN 0737-1217 articles by Dr. Francis Kapper – including the use of hobby wargames then available – whom I visited in his Pentagon office, soon after that issue came out.)

    And boardgames should not be underestimated: they are transparent, enabling their construction/variables/weightings to be critiqued and better understood by the participants.

    I have a number of free print and play military and naval games on my two webpages. A Miramar instructor expressed to me an interest in using my relatively simple little Leyte Gulf Naval Chess Game, I believe to demonstrate the necessity for inter-command communication. (It was commercially published in Japan in Japanese in Game Journal No. 11 in 2004, but it is still free in English on my wepage. The editor did want to up-gun Yamato and Musashi … even more … though. 🙂 )

    And such games can be educational pastimes on remote duty stations.

    Lou Coatney

  • SuzanneSmith

    This wargaming is largely unnecessary and dangerous to ocean and marine mammal health. In these times, with diminishing species and countless whales/dolphins with their eardrums out and bleeding to death due to irresponsible levels of sonar, the Navy doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It is time to spend more on repairing our environment and relations with other countries instead of spending obscene amounts on weapons and war. This obsession with war is killing us all

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  • Kilt

    I’d like to echo the sentiment about how wargaming seems relegated to the upper DOD echelons, the scientists, and the policy experts, as opposed to those who look at problems with fresh eyes and may be most disruptive/outside-the-box thinkers: Junior Officers.

    If this skill-set/tool is to survive, the Navy should take a crawl, walk, run, approach with scale-able, shovel-ready war-gaming programs/resources at all levels of war and planning.

    It also could benefit from thinking about the war-gaming “brand” and targeted audience.

    What do I mean?

    In order to reinvigorate the community, get even midshipmen and civilians exposed to the skill-set/concept of wargaming. Make it so they at least KNOW what it is and have seen it done before, so they can consider it as a tool for their back-pocket later on.

    Make it EASY to jump in and USE IT for those that are even marginally interested in applying the concept of wargaming to a problem, program, or operation. If a Division Officer, or Department Head, or XO/CO wants to experiment with new tactics/program ideas/strategies even at their tactical level, they should have a shovel-ready list of resources explaining HOW to build or execute their own small scale game. Make it simple. Don’t hide the “how to” information behind some wonky website or within some five-sided building. Make it accessible. Put it on a wiki on milSuite or something.

    Like the picture above, the “brand” of wargaming to me connotes a smokey, dark room with a bunch of Admirals moving pieces on a giant map. Or the ’80’s digital version of giant TV screens in a war room depicting red-patched regions of a globe.

    Let’s change the brand, and make it something that even millenial JOs could fit inside a smart phone, or on some post-it notes.

    Otherwise, this tool will become underutilized and less effective when those same JOs finally grow up to serve at higher echelons, and find themselves asking one another…”what exactly is a wargame, anyway?”

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