In recent years, many Department of Defense (DoD) leaders have emphasized the need for more war gaming to achieve better informed decisions. War games take many forms, from small, swift seminar games, to the large multifaceted games for which the Naval War College is famous. War games can improve the objectivity and comprehensiveness of the decision-making process, whether for planning, budgeting, or conducting operations. But it would have been better if DoD leaders had espoused restoring a full spectrum of analytical methods—from mathematical models, to simulations, to war games, to the at-sea exercises the Navy conducted in the 1950s through the 1980s. That combination achieved better policy, strategy, operations, logistical plans, technological advancement, and combat tactics.
Between strategy and tactics is a campaign conducted at the operational level of war—an intricate series of actions by many entities that often are widely distributed geographically and functionally. One aspect of defense modeling—campaign analysis—that the best operations and systems analysts exploit is described in an essay published in the Military Operations Research Society’s journal, Phalanx, in September 2013. Campaign analysis is too much an art form to rely on decisions based on quantitative results alone, but when an artful analyst does quantitative analysis well, the supported leader and staff will make better choices and avoid the worst mistakes.1 A campaign analysis adds objectivity to temper what sometimes are a leader’s too-passionate proclivities based on wishes instead of cool judgment.
The Evolution of Campaign Analysis Tools
In the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) joint campaign analysis (JCA) class, students are taught success stories in how applying artful mathematical modeling leads to better decisions, especially after the decisions have been fine-tuned with simulations and war games. Students are assigned a three-day “ministudy” representing a Navy staff rapid-response analysis or fast turnaround study of an unexpected operation.2 The first day is devoted to figuring out how quantitative work can help; the second to the analysis; and the third to recovering from mistakes or responding to questions from the decision maker.
The JCA course has evolved over the years. In the 1980s, the problems were less ambitious because the available mathematical modeling tools were rudimentary. Nevertheless, the results were often rich with insight. For example, in 1982 students examined the likely outcome of the Falklands War before the fighting began. They predicted an Argentine victory. I thought then and still believe if the Argentines had done a campaign analysis no more complicated than what the students did, Argentina would have won the war.3
By 2000, campaign analysts could ask more complicated questions, because the analytical tools were better. Excel or equivalent spreadsheets allowed them to make many runs with many variations. Google Earth allows close inspection of terrain, inhabitants, and roads in great detail at the scene of action—for example, on a Spratly island, at a segment of the Philippine coast, or in the Natuna Islands archipelago. PowerPoint slides could be made swiftly and changed on the run. PowerPoint is so flexible students have to be taught that effective communication includes the art of not overloading a presentation with extraneous text, figures, or photos, and never to show raw spreadsheet results! The NPS models are not as complicated as those used by defense contractors paid by the day or by the page and student inputs are few enough that everyone can easily grasp the cause-and-effect relationships.
The Evolution of Campaign Analysis Subjects
In the early 1990s, emphasis on NATO and war at sea in the Atlantic shifted to coastal operations, mostly for projecting power and influence around the world. The 1990s analyses entailed radically different models and inputs, with emphasis on the littorals in places such as North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia. Another dramatic shift came after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Tools for antiterrorist analysis were needed, eschewing elegant but unhelpful figures such as the comprehensive “bird’s nest” diagrams of interrelationships involved in peacemaking and peacekeeping operations. Ways to thwart piracy also were studied, with many procedures adopted by the Fleet.
In recent years, the JCA course anticipated the rise of China and assigned studies of People’s Liberation Army–Navy (PLAN) vulnerabilities at sea in the western Pacific and Indian oceans. Students estimated the effectiveness of U.S. submarines and small missile corvettes to restrict Chinese trade or create a “no man’s land” in the China seas, where all PLAN surface ships are put at risk by an offensive sea-denial campaign. The students also examined the consequences of PLAN occupation of the Natuna Islands or Palawan and how swiftly the United States could establish defensive positions with Marines in those and other strategically critical islands. They demonstrated that the bases could be augmented with air cover either from carriers or land bases. The many advantages of defending rather than retaking an island stood out starkly.
The Rewards of Campaign Models and Analysis
NPS students are told to aim for an 80-percent solution from which three things should flow. First, with a suitable operational scenario in hand, the staff can immediately design an executable operation order. Second, if time permits, there can be further refinements, using war games and simulations. Third, adding technological innovations can and should be explored. Neither the NPS staff nor the students knew whether their models were naïve or artful, but the staff understood they did not have time to adopt a cumbersome model for a comprehensive study.
Recently, NPS has followed the campaign analysis course with a war gaming course in which the same problem is assigned to enrich the students’ understanding of the human decision-making element to concept exploration. Modern tools and new kinds of campaign problems need not require complicated models or a massive simulation to understand the campaign’s effects. New tools help explore more variations, probe geographical effects, and communicate which side has more attractive options, as well as help discover the ways and means to give leaders more choices and cramp the enemy’s choices.
The tools with which to conduct richer campaign analyses have come a long way since the 1980s, empowering operations analysts to look more rapidly at a wider variety of scenarios and inputs. When the Pentagon or a fleet staff must make an urgent decision, today’s models add flexibility and the means to examine more variations. Useful campaign analysis remains as much art as science, and the goal is still to exercise a simple model to quickly identify the most important factors influencing the results. For example, a simple model can show the enormous advantage of being first, not second, at the scene of action. It shows the decisive advantage of firing missiles effectively before the enemy can respond and how losses can be reduced by doing so.
Artfully simple models communicate what the analyst can and cannot represent to the decision maker, such as the difficulty of measuring the fog of war and the presence of operational inefficiencies that affect the performance of both friend and foe. The decision maker must then add his own experiential judgment in a sophisticated way.
NPS’s Department of Operations Research is internationally renowned for developing cutting-edge tools for data mining, optimization, statistical rigor, and sophisticated applications of game theory. It also exploits structuring and transferring data for easy access. Nevertheless, though there are many more sources of data and computing power is far greater than ever before, the inputs to campaign-level war games have not improved much. The observation “all combat data is dirty data” remains true. And unexpected surprises will always confound the analyst–decision maker team. Neither art, nor science, nor wisdom can eliminate all uncertainty. But artful models with quantitative results—the very best of modern war gaming—remain critical to arriving at the best military decisions.
1. By campaign analysis we mean experienced professionals using analytical models and at-sea exercises to gain insights about a series of engagements to achieve an objective in a joint operating area such as the western Pacific. See “Campaign Analysis: An Introductory Review,” by J. Kline, W. Hughes, and D. Otte, in Wiley Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science, ed. J. Cochran (John Wiley & Sons, 2010).
2. During the Grenada Operation in October 1983, VADM Joseph Metcalf and his Second Fleet staff had to plan the operation while his fleet steamed to the island. Joe was an OR graduate in my class (1964) who combined the objectivity taught in class with the boldness required to carry out the operation.
3. In essence, the students foresaw the need to prepare the airfield at Stanley on the eastern island to handle fighter-attack aircraft. By doing so, the many Argentine aircraft could have struck the Royal Navy task force at shorter range and done sufficient damage to compel the British to abandon their landing plans before their outnumbered AV-8 Harrier STOVL aircraft could attack the islands.