Over the past year, the Department of Defense has experienced a high-level reawakening of interest in wargaming. The Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense triggered this rebirth in a series of memos and meetings starting in November 2014. They called for the DOD “to reinvigorate, institutionalize, and systematize wargaming across the Department.” Although this sudden interest may be new for the DOD, serious, professional wargaming has been practiced around the world for nearly 200 years. Sometimes it has pointed the way toward success. Too often it has been oversold by charlatans, abused by the cynical, and ignored by those who most need to learn from the insights it can offer. Today we face a critical historic inflection point. We can’t afford to miss this important opportunity. It’s time to get wargaming right.
Although the United States has a substantial history of wargaming going back more than 100 years, real wargaming has been moribund for the past few decades, replaced for the most part by glorified BOGSAT (bunch of guys sitting around a table) seminars—almost always the antithesis of the vigorous pursuit of innovation. There is an urgent need to push wargaming over the barrier of skepticism and disillusionment so that it becomes a full partner with operations research/systems analysis (ORSA), and real-world operations, exercises, and experimentation.
Despite the many “goods” in the official memos, I fear some of the hidden “others”—most of which lurk in one word: systematize. Far too many organizations claim to have a new and improved wargaming “system.” Most of these sudden converts are either purveyors or patrons of big (and expensive) computer simulations, or the practitioners and participants of “bogsattery.”
Real wargaming is not about the unverifiable quantification of computer models, nor the insubstantial pontification of subject-matter experts, prognosticating about an unpredictable future. Real wargaming is about the conflict of human wills confronting each other in a dynamic decision-making and story-living environment. There is a place for technology in supporting that clash of wills, but electrons are not always the most useful technology to apply. We wargamers have understood this from the earliest days of chess and Go, from the von Reiswitz kriegsspiel, and the Naval War College’s interwar gaming program.
The instrumentality is not the game.
The game takes place in the minds of the players—human players intensely seeking ways to beat the brains out of their opponents across the table or in the other room. It is that human dynamic—and the competition, conversation, and contemplation it creates—that is our most powerful and promising source of inspiration and innovation.
So, how can the DOD leverage real wargaming to increase innovation in national and theater strategy; in operational concepts; and in tactics, techniques, and procedures to exploit new tools and ideas?
First, the leadership must recognize that wargaming as a tool is distinct from “analysis,” and as such the ORSA community is not the locus of wargaming expertise; indeed, that it is sometimes the main impediment to wargaming’s best use.
Second, as a discipline in itself on par with ORSA, wargaming needs well-placed and carefully selected experts with direct access to and trust from leadership to advise the latter on technical issues. A small office similar to—or even incorporated within—the DOD’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office is worth considering.
Third, the DOD should staff such an office with wargaming professionals who intimately understand its strengths and weaknesses. Such experts are scattered across the department and among all the services, as well as in the community of federally funded research-and-development centers and contractors.
Fourth, the DOD needs to understand better what its leadership means by “innovation” and how wargaming can help engender it. Innovation comes from inspiring and empowering game players to use creativity to find innovative ways to overcome opponents striving to do the same. This process of competitive challenge and creativity can produce new insights, identify new problems, and discover innovative solutions.
Finally, the DOD wargaming community must advocate more forcefully for insights and issues we believe our games have identified. Even more, we must be willing to stand up and point out the emperor’s lack of clothes when we come across bad wargames, and non-wargames trying to advance old ideas and advocate tired agendas.
Ultimately, we must remember, and truly believe, that wargaming matters. Wargaming entertains—it stirs imaginations. Wargaming challenges—it sharpens intellects. Wargaming creates synthetic experience—it enlightens leaders. And most important, used correctly, wargaming saves money—and lives.
Dr. Perla is a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses. He is the author of The Art of Wargaming: A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists (Naval Institute Press, 1990).