Wargaming is used by military leaders and planners to test and evaluate concepts and technologies in a controlled environment. Peter Perla defines wargames as warfare models and simulations whose operation does not involve the activities of actual military forces and whose sequence of events is impacted by the decisions made by other players on the other side of the table.i There are two teams to every wargame, with each side seeking to defeat the other with the capabilities at their disposal.
There are many military problems today that need better understanding and wargaming can help. The future of NATO’s eastern and southern flanks, confrontation in the Asia-Pacific, renewing tensions in the Persian Gulf or the risk of conflict in North-East Asia are all strategic challenges for which wargaming is well suited. By engaging in wargames, military leaders of all kinds—commanders, planners, capability developers, training developers—can better understand the character of contemporary challenges and make capability and planning decisions accordingly. Wargaming is a powerful tool for better understanding modern military challenges.
Developing & Delivering Wargames
Wargames are intended to prepare military leaders for the big challenges facing their nations and their allies. The first thing is defining objectives for the wargame. This is essential to having a high-value wargame that delivers value and avoids becoming a BOGSAT (bunch-of-guys-sitting-around-a-table).ii The objective focuses all the participants by providing clear objectives for each side. Decisions about the campaign plan, arraying forces, the courses of action and all else supporting the plan are all a function of the objective.
To develop and deliver wargames, good designers and facilitators are essential. They bring the weight of human experience into wargame development and delivery. Wargame developers should include military officers, civilian contractors (many of whom are former military officers) and civilian experts on specific subjects.iii Having different people with different backgrounds working together on wargaming brings varied experiences and knowledge into concept development.
Technology is also important to facilitate the delivery. Digital maps with unit symbols are baseline tools that show a common operating picture of the wargame. A turns-based approach allows both sides to talk through the response to adversary activity and formulate plans for retaking the initiative when faced with a challenge outside of their doctrinal assumptions. Technology is a key enabler that enhances the experience of a well-developed wargame, not the other way around.
Wargames for NATO—How Can We Develop Better Wargames?
Wargaming is an important way to understand the strengths and limitations of friendly and adversary capabilities. German Field Marshall Von Moltke the elder tells us that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Similarly, boxer Mike Tyson reminds us that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
Wargaming has been used recently in support of operational planning in Ukraine. Ukraine and the United States reportedly wargamed the September 2022 counter-offensive in preparation. The operations itself resulted in Ukraine retaking all of Kharkiv province and liberating cities and towns that were previously occupied.iv
Wargaming is intended to help us understand where plans, concepts or technologies have limits or even short-comings, and to re-examine assumptions where necessary. This means taking a very close look at what assessments are based on, and the impacts changing dynamics and variables could have on outcomes. This is vitally important for NATO today. As new members Finland and Sweden are integrated into NATO and as NATO members plans for alliance security after the conclusion of the current conflict in Ukraine, examining concepts and plans—and the assumptions upon which they are based—is important.
Future Wargames—Key Considerations
Wargaming in the near-term should integrate some key lessons learned from the war in Ukraine to ensure that NATO is examining its own assumptions and identifying areas for improvement.
Include more aspects of the military problem. The impacts of poor sustainment and logistics have been made clear during the war in Ukraine. Exercising logistics and the efficiency of the entire supply chain—from 4th line depots and the defence-industrial base—should be included in wargaming. This also means having a detailed understanding of the logistics network through things like railway capacity, seaport and airport capacity, and the ability to test and stress assumptions about the resilience and flexibility of those networks.
Assume agility and non-doctrinal approaches. Organizational and bureaucratic structures should be simulated in wargames. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley previously said the US Army was too centralized, too bureaucratic and too risk averse for the needs of future conflict.v This impacts risk perception and often leads to the least risky decision being made, in alignment with doctrine.vi These comments reflect not an inability to train and prepare but a rigidness in the assumptions about what to plan for. What we have seen in Ukraine is that riskier plans and decision are being implemented by the Ukrainian military, often completely separate from doctrinal assumptions, and based on the immediate tactical need. Anticipating how a force will adapt and improvise is not easy to define and will be a blend of what has happened before, the creativity of wargame participants, and the means they have available.
Smaller-unit action. Previous wargames showed the Baltic states could be conquered in less than three days. This assessment was based on battalion-sized units of measure for all force-on-force wargaming and used 10km hexagons to measure the terrain.vii This is doctrinally consistent and generally appropriate for wargames with a wide frontage. However, as we are seeing in Ukraine, many engagements are happening at much smaller unit levels and in much more contained geographic space. Videos of company and platoon level—even section level—activities within hundreds of meters are everywhere on social media platforms published by Ukrainian military members themselves. Airpower is being applied at the level of pairs of aircraft, not flights or squadrons. This is significant because these small unit actions have been effective and are enabled in part by battlefield innovations.
Battlefield innovations and unconventional applications. Small, commercially sourced UAVs have been widely used for ISR to collect targeting data and to adjust artillery and mortar fire. The use of these small, commercial UAVs is not something that is central to NATO operating concepts; however, this innovation is being used to significant effect in Ukraine. There is a long list of other innovations, including up-cycling of unexploded ordnance, grafting anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns to trucks and armoured personnel carriers, and using missiles in unconventional ways. These innovations are happening based on need and availability, creating new opportunities for application outside of the expectations of the doctrinal and tactical models. For wargaming, this means allowing participants to use creative approaches based on circumstance.
The future of conflict is always uncertain, and inherently unknowable. That does not mean that planning is not possible, however. Through wargaming scenarios can be tested and evaluated to create understanding about the strengths and limits of existing doctrine and operating models. Wargaming is more relevant now than in recent memory, with many lessons learned from ongoing conflict that should be examined in more detail.
Calian has been awarded two contracts by the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation Headquarters (SACT HQ) to provide an enhanced wargaming capability for a NATO wargame scheduled for February 2023 in Naples, Italy. The wargame will be delivered in partnership with Cordillera Applications Group UK Ltd, Cervus Defence, and Mak Technologies Inc.
i. Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming. US Naval Institute Press. 1990. 6
ii. James ‘Pigeon’ Fielder, ‘Reflections on Teaching Wargame Design,’ War on the Rocks. 1 January 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/reflections-on-teaching-wargame-design/
iii. Sebastien Bae, ‘Just Let Them Compete: Raising the Next Generation of Wargamers,’ War on the Rocks. 9 October 2018. https://warontherocks.com/2018/10/just-let-them-compete-raising-the-next-generation-of-wargamers/
iv. Luke Harding, Dan Sabbagh, ‘Ukraine Reclaim Control of Kharkiv and Town Seized at Onset of Russian Invasion,’ The Guardian. 13 September 2022.
v. Trent Lythgoe, ‘Our Risk-Averse Army: How We Got Here and How to Overcome It,’ Modern War Institute at West Point. 5 September 2019. https://mwi.usma.edu/risk-averse-army-got-overcome/
vii. David A. Shlapak, Michael Johnson, ‘Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,’ RAND Corporation. 2016. 12
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