War Gaming Must Get Red Right

By Captain Dale C. Rielage, U.S. Navy

U.S. Naval War College (Dan Kuester)

Despite the U.S. Navy’s unique reservoir of operational and combat experience, no sailor on active duty has personal memory of a major fleet action at sea. History can provide profound lessons, but how these lessons combine with new technologies and current strategic tasks requires more dynamic insights. Rigorous, carefully constructed, intellectually honest war gaming can help inform operational design, resource choices, and training for future leaders. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has made war gaming a priority within the department, calling for the services to “re-prime and re-stoke the department’s war gaming engine.” 1

To reinvigorate its war-gaming enterprise, the U.S. Navy needs to recognize that the value of war gaming hinges in large part on the quality of the opposition force—the “Red.” Captain William McCarty-Little, who introduced modern war gaming to the Naval War College in the 1880s, asserted that the key to success was “a live, vigorous enemy in the next room waiting feverishly to take advantage of any of our mistakes, ever ready to puncture any visionary scheme, to haul us down to earth.” 2 If war gaming is to realize its potential, we must get Red right.

A Professional Approach

Following World War II, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz famously remarked that rigorous and repeated Naval War College war gaming had ensured “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise . . . except the kamikaze tactics.” 3 It is important to recall, however, that Nimitz was referring to surprises at the high operational and strategic levels. At the tactical to operational levels, the U.S. Navy failed to appreciate key challenges, such as the Japanese focus on night surface action or the impact of Japanese torpedoes in a surface fight. These surprises were a result of flawed play of the Japanese side in Naval War College games. Under the assumption that navies in similar circumstances make similar operational choices, U.S. Navy line officers made what they saw as best use of the Japanese Navy’s “tool box.” 4 Their perception of limitations and strengths, and ultimately how the adversary’s tool box was best employed, differed from that of their Japanese counterparts.

Similarly, in the initial series of Global War Games held at the Naval War College between 1979 and 1983, students playing Red “tended to ‘worst-case’ by concentrating on known Blue weaknesses and ignoring the limitations of Red.” This approach gave Red a “rigid, deterministic style” at the tactical level, while at the strategic level, Red attempted “questionable operations” that were assessed as being highly unlikely in reality. 5

Potential adversaries are making resource and operational choices different from what we would under similar circumstances. For example, both the Russian and Chinese navies have used tunnels to conceal and protect their submarines. The U.S. Navy considers submarines safest at sea and has never built a submarine tunnel or bunker. This choice, like many others, betrays a difference in mindset that may express itself across operations. Respect for our potential adversaries requires that we consider that they may have reached a different conclusion in analyzing a warfighting problem—or that they may be framing a problem entirely differently.

This issue highlights the value of cultivating multiple approaches. Unconstrained play by operational experts not focused on adversary training and doctrine helps us understand the maximum possible impact of adversary weapon systems. For planning purposes, this approach often tracks with the “most dangerous” course of action. Play by a team that seeks to replicate our best understanding of an adversary’s mindset and employment, however, creates a picture of what we probably will encounter in the field—the “most likely” course of action. The need for the latter is best filled by a specialized Red team.

The Problem at Hand

Playing Red with fidelity and rigor is a challenging task. In his book Uncovering Ways of War, Tom Mahnken observes that militaries often have difficulty understanding and assessing the impact of weapon systems that they do not employ themselves. Drawing from U.S. efforts to understand German and Japanese weapons and doctrine before World War II, he concludes that militaries struggle to understand the weapons that have not yet been used in combat, and that they tend to neglect approaches that their own services “have not examined, are not interested in, or have rejected.” 6

Some of the most profound threats to naval forces today come from unfamiliar systems and approaches. Because U.S. players are less familiar with them, they are precisely the threats whose effects are likely to be over- or underappreciated. For example, in my experience, U.S. naval officers tend to underrepresent the threat posed by coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs), particularly those that are integrated effectively with other strike and naval forces. When played, the U.S. default is to employ them as long-range coastal artillery. This approach arises from the fact that essentially no U.S. Navy officer has employed a modern CDCM. Similarly, ballistic missiles, long-range naval aviation, mines, and conventional submarines all represent unfamiliar potential adversary threats in a war game.

As games cross domains and levels of war, these challenges compound. Electromagnetic and cyber weapons must be represented insofar as possible as an adversary likely would employ them, informed by what the adversary believes about their utility and employment rather than what the United States assesses. Further, the second order effects many of these weapons create must be understood and realistically represented in concert with traditional kinetic fires.

Aggravating these cultural difficulties in playing Red is the speed with which potential adversaries are evolving their weapons and, more critically, their training, tactics, and strategies for fighting at sea. Few U.S. Navy commands, even at the operational level of war, have deliberately cultivated the depth of expertise required to allow this rigorous threat presentation. The result is that the level and sophistication of threat presentation in U.S. Navy war games and exercises is inconsistent and often not adequate to fully represent the reality that our forces face.

How to Build Red

To fully exploit the value that war gaming can bring to the Navy, a deliberate effort to build our Red is required. Fortunately, a number of existing centers of excellence and ongoing efforts can be shaped to answer this need.

• (Re)Enlist Naval Intelligence

At its core, creating and supplying a dynamic and interactive adversary, whether for fleet planning or war gaming, is an intelligence function. Nimitz told the first Pacific Fleet intelligence officer:

I want you to be the Admiral Nagumo [the Japanese commander of the Pearl Harbor attack] of my staff. I want your every thought, every instinct, as you believe Admiral Nagumo might have them. You are to see the war, their operations, their aims, from the Japanese viewpoint and keep me advised what you are thinking about, what you are doing, and what purpose, what strategy, motivates your operations. 7

Then–Lieutenant Commander Edwin (Eddy) Layton and his team filled this role through the entire Pacific War, providing key contributions to Midway and every U.S. Navy victory in the theater. U.S. Navy doctrine continues to recognize this unique naval intelligence role, noting that when supporting naval planning efforts, “the Red Cell functions as an extension of the N-2.” 8

Basic war gaming and adversary presentation should be part of every mid-grade naval intelligence officer’s skill set. Fortunately, the joint world offers a number of training efforts that could be adapted for naval officers. The U.S. Army maintains the premier Department of Defense Red Team training effort at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. UFMCS offers a range of courses, including a six-week course training Red Team members and an 18-week course for Red Team leaders. Completion of either class is recognized by an Army additional skill identifier, akin to a U.S. Navy additional qualification designator. Army Red teaming is deeply influenced by recent experience in unconventional warfare and focuses on land-based conflicts; however, the body of experience and insight it has developed could be adapted to naval applications.

In addition, the growing interest in Red teaming in the business community has given rise to some quality commercial training materials, which, while not focused on military issues, introduce the rigor of various Red Team approaches. 9

Naval personnel with extended experience conducting or leading Red Cells should be recognized with a service record subspecialty code. This tag would be a first step toward recognizing and institutionalizing a deliberate approach toward Red.

Beyond naval intelligence, the wider intelligence community generally is an enthusiastic participant in U.S. Navy gaming. These subject-matter experts offer unique depth in specific adversary capabilities or organizations. As a second-order benefit, they usually depart the game with broadened insights on the real-world implications of their specialized area of study and often a new experience working closely with their military counterparts.

• Build the Navy Community of Practice

There already are efforts across the fleet and key shore commands to increase the fidelity of Red play in specific events. Pacific Fleet has established an in-house Red Team. Dubbed the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team, it takes the role of adversary decision makers in fleet-sponsored war games. The team is drawn from N2/N39 personnel, who are assigned specific country and warfare areas that fit their backgrounds and experiences. They keep this focus area throughout their tours, building experience and insight. Depending on the requirements of the game being supported, the team is augmented by subject-matter experts from across the intelligence and operational communities.

For the information warfare community officers supporting the team, having to fight as an adversary multiple times against diverse Blue opponents is a unique and valuable experience. An adversary’s limitations are most understandable when they are constraints on you. The challenges of integrating multiple capabilities, managing risk, providing logistics, and supporting communications are all discussed in intelligence analysis but have a different nuance when placed into practice. These insights find their way into both intelligence analysis and information warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures being developed in the Pacific Fleet Maritime Operations Center.

The team found an additional and unexpected niche providing adversary insight to other commands needing to represent Red. Team members have supported live fleet training events on both coasts, as well as system command modeling and concept-development war games. Senior team members have served as opposing force commanders for live exercises, maneuvering units at sea in a dynamic training environment.

In its role supporting tactical-level gaming and doctrine development, Navy Warfare Development Command also operates a Red Cell. Composed largely of contracted former naval officers, the cell most notably supports the Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 360o series of war games. CSG 360o is a “tactical level war game meant to address and explore the challenges of the high-end warfight,” where Blue is played by active-duty CSG staffs. The need for a high-quality presentation of Red in such a game is clear. 10

The next logical step is to knit together these efforts into a recognized community of practice. This “Red consortium” would be in a position to share best practices and training, as well as advocate for specific improvements to enable effective adversary presentation. The nascent Information Warfighting Development Center would be a logical home for this cross-cutting effort.

The point is not that the Navy needs a single Red voice. On the contrary, accurately presenting all the various potential adversaries the U.S. Navy faces is too broad a task for any single command. Further, even if one command could do so, we would risk Red developing its own group-think. There is value in a Red capability resident in operational level commands where it can be responsive to immediate operational needs.

• Up-Engine the Naval War College

Since 1976, the Office of Naval Intelligence has maintained a detachment in Newport. The detachment was created to provide a dedicated opposition force for Naval War College war games. At the beginning, there was interest only in presenting Soviet forces, allowing the team to specialize, but as the scope of threats grew more diverse, the detachment moved to a more general role providing intelligence insights to students and faculty. Rather than serve as a consistent Red, the detachment generally brokers outside intelligence community expertise to support a game. While these intelligence professionals usually are well qualified, only rarely have they worked together before. The result is an inconsistent and unpredictable presentation of Red. In some cases, a senior but less experienced Red Cell member has driven games to questionable outcomes by force of grade and personality.

For Pacific Fleet–supported games, this effect is managed by using the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team as the core of the Red presentation. However, for most War College games, Red is essentially a pickup team, and an additional variable is inserted into the game results. A relatively modest investment in both the capacity and experience of the naval intelligence presence at the Naval War College would allow the detachment to again drive the Red presentation in Newport. 11

Take Red to Sea

The quality of at-sea training ultimately hinges on the same issues that affect the quality of war gaming. In schedule-of-event-driven fleet training, Red is largely a scripted affair, based primarily on technical capabilities that may challenge required evolutions. The goal in these exercises is the completion of specific training objectives, and Red is constrained, shaped, and modified accordingly.

As the fleet moves toward more “free play” events in either live or synthetic training, an investment in Red is critical to ensure an accurate and challenging presentation of adversary forces. Ensuring this rigor likely will require folding a dedicated Red Cell into an operational element, able to perform the functions of a destroyer squadron and act as sea combat commander for major exercises.

Allowing Red this kind of latitude in fleet training would be an uncomfortable and unfamiliar act. In his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson makes it clear that “our competitors are focused on taking the lead.” As we work to keep a decisive edge in combat, the adversary gets a vote. Having an adversary “in house” is a powerful tool for the fleet, whether in war games, training, or exercises. High-velocity learning demands that every U.S. Navy commander needs access to what Navy doctrine calls “the command’s independent adversary.” 12

What’s in a Name?

The multiple meanings associated with the phrases “Red Team” or “Red Cell” have become a source of confusion, which has grown as the concept of red teaming has moved into the mainstream.

Some parts of the U.S. military use “Red Team” for a permanent adversary organization and “Red Cell” for an ad hoc team, but the usage is not standardized.

Both names sometimes are associated with groups assessing cyber or physical security by conducting vulnerability analysis and penetration testing.

The intelligence community and some businesses use “Red Teams” or “Red Cells” to institutionalize alternative analysis. These latter groups generally focus on real-world analytical problems rather than interactive representation of an adversary.

A “Red Team” can play the part of the adversary in a dynamic and interactive way, either in gaming or in exercises.

Navy doctrine refers to a “Red Cell” that “models the reaction(s) of a thinking adversary” informed by “threat doctrine and operational experience.” This definition corresponds most closely to what is needed to support U.S. Navy war gaming and decision making, but it is framed more narrowly as a naval planning tool intended to “react to friendly disposition in order to test friendly COA(s) during war gaming.”



1. Robert Work and Paul Selva, “Revitalizing Wargaming Is Necessary to Be Prepared for Future Wars,” War on the Rocks, http://warontherocks.com/2015/12/revitalizing-wargaming-is-necessary-to-... .

2. Captain W. McCarty-Little, “The Strategic Naval War Game or Chart Maneuver,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 38 no. 4 (December 1912), 1230.

3. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz speech to U.S. Naval War College, 10 October 1960, Folder 26, Box 31, RG15 Guest Lectures, 1894–1992, Naval Historical Collection, Naval War College, Newport RI; quoted in John M. Lillard, Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for WWII, PhD dissertation, George Mason University, 2013, 1.

4. David Alan Rosenberg, “Being Red: The Challenge of Taking the Soviet Side in War Games at the Naval War College,” Naval War College Review (winter 1988), 84.

5. Bud Hay and Bob Gil, GLOBAL War Game: The First Five Years, Newport Paper #4 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1993), 14–15.

6. Thomas G. Mahnken, Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918–1941 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 6.

7. Edward Layton, “And I Was There”: Pearl Harbor and Midway—Breaking the Secrets (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985), 357.

8. “Navy Planning,” Navy Warfare Publication 5-01, December 2013, Q-5-5.

9. Micah Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

10. David K. Brown and Captain Jim Bock, “NWDC’s CSG360 War Game: Ready for the Fleet,” NEXT: Navy Warfare Development Command magazine (spring 2013), 18–19; NWDC Red Cell command brochure, n.d.

11. Rosenberg, “Being Red,” 85.

12. Maritime Operations Center, Navy Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures 3-32.1, April 2013.

Captain Rielage serves as Director for Intelligence and Information Operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet and occasionally dons a red hat with the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team.

 

 

 

 
 

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