As “inter-state competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” the United States has embarked on a new era of competition with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation that will likely last several decades.1 Consequently, the Navy must focus its officers on these threats from the outset of their careers to build the relevant tactical and strategic knowledge. For some time, wargaming has been the purview of war colleges, major research organizations, and planners on major staffs.2 However, there is tremendous value in expanding wargaming to the wardrooms of ships, submarines, and aviation squadrons.
A wargame is an excellent tool for predeployment training, as it forces the wardroom to develop a fundamental understanding of U.S. and rival capabilities and doctrine. First, it focuses wardroom training on the capabilities of U.S. and regional partner orders-of-battle against those of the rival nations. Second, it focuses study on U.S. and rival national objectives and doctrine. Finally, the wardroom learns what defines victory for each side and contemplates how their specific platform fits into achieving victory in a major campaign. Unlike wargames conducted by major staffs and research institutions that focus on national policy and force-structure analysis, the objective of a wardroom-level wargame is to increase the operational effectiveness of officers.
For example, the Blue-crew wardroom of the USS Ohio (SSGN-726) conducted a daylong wargame in 2018 focused on a scenario in the western Pacific area of responsibility. The game was designed to stress critical thinking and innovation among the officers. Being a dual-crew submarine, the wargame was conducted when the Blue crew was in its off-crew period of predeployment training as part of the overall deployment training cycle.
First, the executive officer develops a scenario appropriate to the submarine’s upcoming operations, including the nations involved, the geographic location of the game, orders-of-battle, and victory criteria. The two senior department heads are assigned as leaders of the Blue (United States and allies) and Red (opposition) forces. Blue and Red teams subsequently draft the remaining department heads and junior officers. Presumably, the more experienced officers will be drafted first. The executive officer then informs the Blue and Red leaders of the game’s specific geographic location, assigns the Blue and Red teams their orders-of-battle, and explains the campaign objectives and victory criteria. This is done one week in advance of the game to allow each team to adequately prepare, plan, and strategize.
Blue and Red team leaders each play fleet commanders. For example, in a western Pacific game, the Blue leader is the Seventh Fleet commander. Subordinate members of the team are assigned as task force commanders controlling all units associated with that task force. For instance, one officer would be Commander Task Force 74, controlling all undersea and submarine assets, while another would be Commander Task Force 70, controlling the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) strike group. Similarly, the Red team leader would have an assignment such as Russian Pacific Fleet commander or Chinese South Sea Fleet commander, and much like the Blue team, subordinate officers would have control of particular task forces within those commands.
The required materials are minimal and consist of an appropriate chart of the region, several game pieces, and notepads with pens. The game is conducted in approximately eight hours (one training day) and consists of several turns. At the start, all Blue and Red land-based, surface, and aviation assets are placed on the chart in the locations chosen by each team. This assumes that both forces had time to position units in strategically appropriate locations, realizing hostilities were about to commence. The locations of undersea assets are known only to friendly team members, and notes with those locations are shown to the commanding officer and executive officer.
The first turn commences hostilities. Both teams confer among themselves and determine their movements and actions for the turn, and this consists of everything each team desires to accomplish for that turn. For example, this could be moving a carrier strike group to an area for air strikes, launching land-attack missiles, or assigning a submarine to a barrier search. These moves are written down by each team and when they are concluded are shown to the commanding officer and executive officer. Using this method, both teams execute maneuvers simultaneously. The commanding officer and executive officer then adjudicate any action that would take place—for example, the success of an air raid, undersea combat if two submarines cross paths, or the extent of damage from a missile attack. Once adjudication is complete, the second turn commences and is adjudicated.
The game concludes when victory objectives are reached by one of the sides. If time runs out before that, victory is awarded to the side that is closest to achieving the victory objectives. For example, the Red team may have a victory objective of gaining complete control of all sea lanes in an area such as the South China Sea, and the Blue team may have a victory objective of restoring total freedom of navigation to the same body of water. After three turns, the results may reveal that Blue forces have attrited a significant number of Red force blue-water assets and opened vital sea lanes, such as the Malacca and Balabac straits, for freedom of navigation but have failed to secure other critical straits. Or perhaps Red forces have driven Blue forces out of a particular body of water, have secured all sea lanes internal to that area, but are unable to operate outside that body of water because of risk of attrition by Blue forces. The commanding officer and executive officer decide which team is closer to the preestablished victory criteria.
In the case of the Ohio, it was apparent the wardroom’s understanding of the
SSGN’s position in national defense was greatly enhanced, and morale was increased as officers felt a greater sense of purpose. Junior officers transferring from the ship cited the lessons learned from this wargame as a principal reason for wanting to continue their careers in demanding national security positions ashore.
In addition, wargames among aviation, surface, and submarine wardrooms increase the opportunity to discover innovative operational and strategic ideas that can then be passed up the chain of command to be validated by other organizations. This just might produce a solution for which the defense enterprise has long been searching.
Acknowledging that the United States is locked into what will be a multi-decade rivalry with China and Russia, the Navy must do everything it can to develop young officers into the leaders and strategists of tomorrow. Unit-level wargaming is an outstanding tool to assist in this endeavor.
1. The Honorable James Mattis, Summary of the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, May 2018, 1.
2. For example, the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and federally funded research and develop centers (FFRDCs), such as the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia.