Editor’s note: This is the first of three articles discussing the utility of the unclassified wargame in the development of force design efforts.
What will the next fight look like, and what changes must be made to compete and win? It is impossible to predict the future, but military planners must still anticipate the character of future conflict to position U.S. forces to best achieve the nation’s objectives. In a world of finite resources, hard choices must be made to design a force capable of outperforming a committed adversary.
All the services within the Department of Defense (DoD) are grappling with this challenge, but perhaps none so aggressively and publicly as the Marine Corps. Force Design 2030 is the service’s plan to modernize and develop a combat-credible force for the future security environment. Of note, Force Design 2030 continues to shape the Marine Corps in light of the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s direction to shift from counterterrorism to state competition. This requirement was reemphasized in the 2022 National Defense Strategy. DoD has identified China as the pacing threat, though Russia continues to cause concern.
The efforts to develop, wargame, test, and refine Force Design 2030 are substantial, and the Marine Corps continues to communicate progress frequently and publicly. Still, many aspects necessarily remain classified, preventing much of the national security community from understanding the methods used to come to conclusions—conclusions that are often controversial. This can cause analysts to feel as though they can only see Force Design 2030 through a glass, darkly.
And yet, unclassified or publicly available information does provide an abundance of material through which independent assessments can be made. Anyone can look at a map, research military capabilities, calculate time-distance factors, and reach logical conclusions that are not beholden to the restrictions of classification. The more research and synthesis that is done to support these efforts, the more rigorous these conclusions become.
In May 2022, as students at the Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW), we conducted a series of unclassified exercises and wargames intended to explore the potential of two key elements of Force Design 2030: the concept for stand-in forces (SIF) and the current prototype of the Marine littoral regiment (MLR). Notably, the participants used only publicly available or unclassified material to inform, develop, and execute these events. Despite these limitations, we discovered several key findings that are useful to focus future testing, analysis, and discourse surrounding Force Design 2030. In addition, this event highlights the wider utility of unclassified wargaming to the national security community. In discussing the methods used, we aim to provide another replicable tool for independent analysis and synthesis in support of all force design efforts. Another key benefit of staying at the unclassified level is developing findings that can be freely shared with allies and partners.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab sponsored the Agile wargames, the final event of a three-phase exercise that was the capstone event for the School of Advanced Warfighting academic year 2021–22 curriculum. Each phase comprised a distinct but interconnected event.
During the first phase, participants conducted Exercise Agile Competition. The students acted as members of either a Marine Forces Pacific (MarForPac) operational planning team (OPT) or a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)–Eastern Theater Command (ETC) OPT. The MarForPac OPT was notionally chartered to develop a campaign concept to deter Chinese aggression and investigate how SIF could best be used in competition with China through 2025. The PLA–ETC OPT was tasked to develop a campaign to enable future operations to reunify Taiwan with mainland China.
In the second phase, participants transitioned to Exercise Agile Response, and students playing the role of MarForPac planners assumed the roles of III Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) planners in 2025. Participants were required to develop a commander’s estimate in the event competition escalated into crisis. Starting conditions presumed the campaign concept developed in phase 1 had taken effect. This commander’s estimate was aimed at the 2028–30 timeframe and assumed that SIF and the MLR will reach full operational capability (FOC) by then. The PLA team continued to plan from the ETC level—though with resources available from the Central Military Commission—to develop a plan to isolate and coerce Taiwan into reunification with mainland China. Specifically, the PLA team settled on a “quarantine,” or “joint blockade campaign,” combined with escalating coercive means to isolate Taiwan and extract political concessions up to and including an agreement to accede to reunification.
Finally, the third phase tasked all participants to explore how the SIF maneuvers and is sustained in the littorals in support of a naval campaign in competition and during the transition to crisis, within the specific analytical method of a student-developed wargame. While previous wargames examined the utility of the MLR in competition and conflict, the requirement to explore the MLR’s capability/capacity to enable naval campaigning required additional exploration. The requirement to use unclassified sources imposes limits on the fidelity of the information used to conduct certain assessments. Still, the game designers recognized that it permitted the greatest transparency and allowed for the widest dissemination of any findings generated by the wargames, as well as open discourse across the profession of arms.
Participants were assigned to three separate OPTs for phase 3. Each OPT covered overlapping objectives, from measuring assurance and deterrence to quantifying the cost effectiveness of SIF and MLR. The wargames were conducted simultaneously, not sequentially. The following discussion recounts the execution of one such game and presents findings for consideration by those working on force design and MLR employment concepts.
Force Employment Wargame
The specific objective of this wargame was to determine how the MLR provides viable military options for the naval campaign from competition to crisis below the nuclear threshold. The wargame employed the following scenario, logic, game play, and game mechanics:
Scenario. MLRs are fully operational capable and rotationally deploy across the first island chain. Regional allies and partners have hardened their diplomatic posture vis-à-vis China and now permit the United States to base different combinations of lethal and nonlethal capabilities and supplies in their territories. There are indications and warnings that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is preparing to isolate Taiwan. In response, Task Force 37 is tasked by Commander, Indo-Pacific Command (IndoPaCom) to establish situational awareness for the joint force in the vicinity of key maritime terrain; conduct sea denial from key maritime terrain; and establish sea control in the vicinity of the first island chain. Task Force 37 is an integrated naval force consisting of two carrier strike groups (CSGs), four surface action groups (SAGs), and III MEF. Joint force support was limited to individual Air Force fighter, bomber, tanker, and airborne early warning squadrons based in Korea, Japan, and Guam.
Game logic. Based on the outputs of Exercises Agile Competition and Agile Response, the OPT recognized that the MLR can be employed in multiple configurations. These different configurations could yield different levels of response when employed against the PLA in the vicinity of Taiwan. Consequently, this wargame’s framework was constructed to examine the effects of different levels of MLR force structure deployed in a Taiwan scenario.
Game play. The Operational Wargame System (OWS) was selected as the game engine. OWS is a wargame toolkit for testing war plans and decisions at the operational level of war across all domains, employing joint warfighting concepts. The team conducted four iterations of a modified version of the Assassin’s Mace—War in the Pacific module of OWS. These iterations were tailored to have a light, medium, and heavy MLR packages, with additional elements of Task Force 37 and joint force enablers.
Assassin’s Mace was played by Red and Blue teams, with Red representing the PLA (with a focus on the ETC) and Blue representing Task Force 37. Each game consisted of three to four turns. On each turn, Red went first, and Blue second. Red’s objective was to isolate Taiwan and close off a sea line of communication (SLOC) to external actors. Blue’s objective was to maintain a SLOC with Taiwan. Both teams were given the limitation of avoiding horizontal or vertical escalation, which would be artificially injected by the game facilitators.
Game mechanics. The Assassin’s Mace module uses a tabletop map to depict an area of operations stretching from China to Japan. Each turn consists of seven phases—planning, movement, IO/cyber/counter-ISR and force protection, theater ISR and local detections, combat, regeneration, and assessment. Joint capabilities and combat formations are maneuvered and employed during each turn, with actions resolved through dice rolls compared to values on each unit representing that unit’s capabilities. An adjudicator resolves actions between players and resolves circumstances not built into the OWS rules, using the wargame’s objectives as the guide for arbitration.
The OPT played two games with player teams in the same room and viewing the same board. The OPT then played two blind games, in which each team moved to a separate room with a separate game board and could see only adversary units revealed through the course of gameplay. As noted above, both players aimed to avoid escalation, which allowed primarily for the exploration of the MLR’s utility in competition. When game facilitators determined that gameplay had exhausted findings within this limitation, they applied injects to escalate the scenario to conflict to permit further exploration.
Findings and Observations
While these findings are bound by the limitations of this particular wargame and are not meant to be conclusive, they provide valuable data that can help shape future discourse surrounding the development of the SIF and the MLR. Among the three games developed during the Agile series, this game revealed qualitative findings best suited to focus future efforts in similarly qualitative wargaming, experimentation, and testing. The most common and most significant findings that characterized the entirety of the gameplay are:
MLR as a covering force. The MLR served as a nontraditional covering force to gain and maintain contact with the enemy, deny information about the main force, conduct counterreconnaissance, destroy enemy security forces, and develop the situation. The MLR used its nonlethal assets, deception, and joint offensive cyber and space capabilities to intercept, engage, delay, disorganize, and deceive the enemy. This suggests the MLR, when integrated with the proper joint enablers, can serve as not only a screening force but also a covering force.
More sensors than shooters. The primary benefit of the MLR was its value as a sensing capability rather than a kinetic strike asset. The MLR did possess some credible lethal capability, but its value was bound within a finite window of time and space that had to be coordinated with effects provided by other forces and domains to maximize effectiveness. This suggests the MLR might be better served by weighting what it is best at—its role in reconnaissance/counter-reconnaissance.
Avoidance and sea denial. When RED identified the location of MLR forces, it avoided placing naval forces within range of the MLR capabilities to mitigate risk of escalation. However, this effectively provided the very sea denial that Blue was hoping to achieve in the vicinity of the expeditionary advanced bases from which the MLR was operating, demonstrating the MLR’s contribution to sea denial.
Ambiguity leads to commitment of forces. Ambiguity of location and depth of the MLR, in combination with the ambiguity and depth of the rest of the naval forces, caused Red to commit significantly more ISR and naval forces than were necessary to mitigate the actual threat present in any given location. This effect became much more pronounced when combined with effects that degraded Red’s ISR capabilities. This suggests that the MLR provides an asymmetric advantage in terms of the resource commitment and effect on the enemy scheme of maneuver.
Sustainment as a pacing function. Light amphibious warships (LAWs) were used to insert and sustain the MLR in each game, and larger force packages required more sustainment, generating more LAW sorties. This caused Red to prioritize finding and targeting the LAWs. If Blue wanted to protect them, this required allocation of additional air and surface assets for escort—increasing the signature of each LAW sortie. This suggests that SIF commanders may have to prioritize assumption of either risk to mission or risk to force when employing larger MLR force packages. It also suggests the need for tightly coupled plans with allies and partners.
A Clearer Vision for the Future
Searching for an accurate vision of the future is military planners’ perennial challenge. Even if they gain better clarity of the future, they must constantly balance the demand to win the wars of today with the need to win the wars of tomorrow. This involves many delicate trade-offs and the management of myriad forms of risk. Compounding this challenge is the classification and compartmentalization of information that can better inform the task at hand. Some of the most important assessments and wargames may never be revealed to most analysts and thinkers who contribute to this cause, while classification can also leave allies and partners in the dark.
Still, yielding to this dilemma is fruitless. No planner will ever have access to all information—there is just too much, it is too compartmentalized, and every analysis and wargame will inevitably have limitations and imperfect conclusions.
An abundance of unclassified information can support the development of useful analyses and wargames and inform public discussion within the joint force and among future planners and defense stakeholders. We participated in and designed multiple wargames within the context of a single exercise and generated findings that can help inform force-design efforts. As national security planners and writers continue to grapple with wicked problems, they can be well served by staying agile enough to incorporate similarly designed wargames in their research and design efforts to help find a clear vision for the future.
Additional authors: Lieutenant Colonel Semming Rusten, Norwegian Army; Major Demetrio Riggio, Italian Army; Major Tim Russell, U.S. Army; Majors Andrew Wright, Eric Prentice, Paul Trower, Clark Smith, Ryan Hamilton, U.S. Marine Corps; Lieutenant Colonels Caleb Reed, Mark Saville, Pete Combe, and Brian Kerg, U.S. Marine Corps.