Monday, March 2, 2015

Let the Games Begin

Regular readers know that ComNavOps has been highly critical of Bob Work, now Deputy Defense Secretary, for a variety of reasons.  However, ComNavOps is fair.  Defense News website reports that Mr. Work is spearheading an effort to reinvigorate wargaming in the Department of Defense (1).  The report describes a memo from Work on the subject as an,

"... ambitious wargaming plan to rescue a skill set that has 'atrophied' in recent years ..."

ComNavOps has frequently stressed the need for wargaming to explore strategic and tactical scenarios and fully supports any efforts to increase usage of this valuable tool.  Hence, full credit to Mr. Work.

However, ComNavOps has an uneasy suspicion about this effort.  Wargames can be used for two purposes.  The first, the proper one, is to explore and validate friendly and enemy strategies and tactics using realistic capabilities and counters on the part of both sides.  The second, the faulty one, is to stage pre-determined set piece scenarios designed to “prove” a pet theory or technology.

Too often over the last couple decades, the wargames have been the later – contrived scenarios intended to prove the value of a favored piece of technology so as to justify procurement.  The LCS, for example, was the subject of a number of pre-determined scenarios intended to prove how wonderful it was.

This next quote hints at just such a focus on technology procurement and the use of wargaming to support that technology push.

"The memo stressed that as part of his desire to 'reinvigorate' wargaming in the department, 'effort must be made to incorporate commercial and defense industry expertise into the larger wargaming effort' in order to 'ensure its vitality and flexibility.' "

If incorporating commercial expertise means utilizing commercial simulation technology to improve the quality of wargaming then I’m all for it.  If, on the hand, it means to select certain favored technologies and incorporate them into a scenario with a pre-determined outcome to “prove” the benefits of that technology as a prelude to procurement then this is just further erosion of the trust and integrity of the DoD leadership.

A further, ominous note is this statement.

"The results of the summit and the swift rollout thereafter will directly affect the fiscal 2017 budget, Work wrote, 'to ensure that we have a strategy-driven budget.'"

This could be interpreted as trying to get useful results of wargaming onto a path to implementation and procurement or it could be interpreted as a mandate to get certain favored technologies onto a fast track procurement with the “proof” of wargames as cover for someone’s pet projects.

"Unlike his boss Bob Work, however, Welby [Stephen Welby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering] isn't so sure about his program having much impact on the fiscal 2017 budget. While he said it may find a place there, his teams are looking longer-term for game-changing technologies that can impact the battlefield of 2030 and beyond."

That makes it clear that the focus of Mr. Work’s wargames is going to be technology over strategy and tactics and that’s a bit disappointing.  Still, is this push a push for valid wargaming or just a cover exercise for procuring pet technologies?  I don’t know.  What’s crystal clear, though, is that this push is not for wargaming strategies and tactics.  It’s obviously geared at technologies and procurement.  There’s nothing wrong with a general exploration of technology if the outcome isn’t pre-determined in favor of pet projects.  However, what we really need are wargames that are focused on realistic strategies and tactics rather than new-toy technologies.

The DoD’s approach to every problem and challenge is technology.  We’ve lost our ability and even our desire to develop strategies and tactics to deal with problems.  Are IED’s on the road a problem?  We deal with them by attempting to develop massive and expensive detection and neutralization technologies rather than simply modifying our tactics by, for example, driving off-road on unpredictable routes, thereby completely avoiding the problem.

Though I have strong misgivings about this wargaming push, I’m going to give Mr. Work the benefit of the doubt and full credit for re-emphasizing wargames.  However, I’ll be watching closely to see what use is made of the games.

Let the games begin!

(1) Defense News, "DoD Wargaming Push To Study Tech Capabilities", Paul McLeary, 28-Feb-2015,


  1. With regard to the use of wargames to explore the future with new or imagine capabilities in a world or evolving threats: properly used, wargames excel in these types of endeavors. So two thumbs up for the new Deputy Defense Secretary!

    The capabilities of future technology do affect the ability to control the outcome of future conflict; it does shape the course of current and future actions. The choice in technological development affect a whole range of novel opportunities and threats offered by the introduction of those new technologies. A well and grounded understanding of their capabilities, impacts and requirements prevents strategic or tactical surprises and informs decision makers about desired technological courses of development.

    Looking at the LCS and F35, such an effort might indeed be necessary to avoid similar mistakes. Hmm, that might just be a cheap shot. More illustrative examples might be the use of wargames during the pre-war years of the 1930s, in particular by the US Navy and the German military.

    As I read it, Comnavops is concerned that the focus of these wargames will be too much on the promises of new technologies without recognizing that ultimately success is determined by the smart employment of these technologies. I.e. ultimately success is depended on well informed strategic and tactical decision makers. I agree with his argument for caution, history shows that his concern has been warranted all too often. Luckily, well applied, wargaming can allay such concerns very effectively.

    Then again this raises new concerns. The article mentions that wargaming skills have atrophied within the DoD and offers a solution by calling in wargames and wargames skills from commercial firms and the defense industry. The article suggest that when new technologies, new wargames, are brought into the DoD wargaming will be reinvigorated and the DoD fully prepared for whatever the future might be.

    {{ The memo stressed that as part of his desire to "reinvigorate" wargaming in the department, "effort must be made to incorporate commercial and defense industry expertise into the larger wargaming effort" in order to "ensure its vitality and flexibility.” }}


    The quality of wargaming is not depended on technology but rests on the quality of its design and execution. I.e. useful results depend on the skill set of its practitioners.

    At the moment, the best and most experienced wargamers reside within the DoD. Yet from this article it seems that their expertise is ignored, their skill set not supported nor embedded within institutional practice. More importantly, all the wargaming tools that are needed are already present within the DoD, at no added cost I might add. Just throwing novel tools at the DoD will not achieve the desired results. Technology cannot solve what seems to be an institutional problem (of ignoring the quality of the wargaming (skills) at hand).

    Furthermore, useful commercial wargames already find their way into effective military use. The military wargaming community within the DoD since the 1960s has already well-established professional relations with commercial wargame designers, producers and operators. In particular, since its early years this exchange has supported the qualitative improvement of wargame design and application (both in the department of defense and in the commercial world).

    So now we know that throwing new technology in wargaming is not the answer to the solutions sought, that the required skill sets and tools are already present, and desired professional relations with outside experts long since established, what then is the message the article wants to tell us?


  2. There is actually another big problem that I can see with this.

    One of the defense reformers once warned that the USAF was losing sight of "what makes a good combat aircraft", much less how to design one and that it would take years of experimentation to relearn how to make a good aircraft.

    I can see the same problem affecting the US Navy.


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