While tabletop exercises are routinely used for team building, improving team responses to disaster preparedness, and emergency planning, they can also contribute to less time-critical challenges such as program management and officer training.1 Most warfighters understand wargaming, and many senior officers have participated in wargames. However, boots-on-the-ground wargames can be hard to schedule, prepare for, and fund—especially if considerable realism, simulation, and participation are needed. By contrast, tabletop exercises are faster, easier, and cheaper to arrange.
AT/FP Tabletop Exercises
Program managers can use tabletop exercises to focus on the requirements for platforms, strategies, untried tactics and procedures, and real-world threats. Unit commanders and commanding officers (COs) can focus on training for the optimal employment of those same platforms, strategies, tactics, and procedures. In both cases, tabletop play focuses on the identification/validation of risks, needs, assets, capabilities available, and approaches; always keeping in mind the possibility of enemy retaliation. Tabletop exercises help avoid potential coordination problems and improve response, well in advance of actual emergency operations—especially when focused on antiterrorism/force protection (AT/FP).
I first became involved with AT/FP tabletop exercises as a Naval Station commanding officer, and later at the Center for Naval Analyses. In the latter work, I developed tabletop exercises for disparate Army commands about to work together for the first time in strategic ports of embarkation and/or of debarkation (SPOE/SPOD), such as Shuwaikh, Shuaiba, and Doha, in Kuwait. Although the primary mission of in-country forces may have been offensive, during their entire time in port they needed to assume a defensive posture and were highly vulnerable to terrorist attack. Potential SPOE/SPOD personnel often were reservists unused to prolonged active duty or unfamiliar with U.S.–host nation organizations and “lash-ups.” Tabletop exercises related to these issues can support deployers before they deploy.
New missions should be gamed before funds and forces are obligated. Missions not adequately planned for in advance or supported logistically in progress will take longer to conduct and increase force vulnerability. Whereas well-planned and supported operations will leave forces vulnerable for shorter periods and therefore make them less vulnerable overall.
Commanders can game force operations for forward/remote operating bases (e.g., Kuwait), where only limited resupply and maintenance may be available. Tabletop games can identify potential time-wasting delays and attendant vulnerabilities before the forces even deploy. They also allow (perhaps for the first time) budgeting decisions to coexist with warfighting decisions.
The table below contains potential tabletop “value-adds” for program managers and COs, who routinely lack time and funds for what could be considered discretionary or “nonessential” initiatives. As a result, those same program managers and COs can, the sooner for it, have their “essential” duties misdirected, distracted, or otherwise pushed in the wrong direction. A tabletop can accomplish a great deal by identifying potential problems before they happen; or by dismissing at the outset an inappropriate approach, product, or strategy.
Well-structured and well-played tabletop exercises can identify material and nonmaterial gaps and overlaps within the program as they relate to the successful completion of the mission and develop courses of corrective action (COAs) based on threat and risk identification and assessment. They can then determine the optimal functional alignment of assigned forces in the command structure.
Figure 2 describes the creation and continuing improvement of tabletop exercises. An ongoing feedback loop will increase productivity and potential contribution.
The tabletop process can identify (if only at the early stages) the need to craft a robust command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) approach, including an all-too-necessary AT/FP readiness assessment, if only to protect U.S. forces, regardless of the location or projected scenario.
This next figure is an overview of the tabletop development and implementation process. The value of the tabletop is proportional to the amount of preparation that goes into it. Exercise planners must ask: What do I want to learn from the play? What do I want to convey to the players? How can the tabletop exercise be optimized to realize its goals and objectives? How do participants reinforce each other? How are necessary information and situational awareness optimally exchanged? Last, does it adequately address antiterrorism, force protection, and crisis response? These days, this last question is an indispensable element of any tabletop.
For a program manager: The conduct of the tabletop can support (1) program validation or minor modification, (2) major engineering or organizational changes, or possibly even (3) program cancellation. For a commanding officer: A stronger command posture can result from an exciting training opportunity: a “dry-run”—replete with real-time lessons learned and feedback. Any command in any service can markedly harden its security posture through a structured AT/FP tabletop exercise program.
1. As defined by the Defense Acquisition University, “a tabletop exercise is an activity in which key personnel assigned high-level roles and responsibilities are gathered to deliberate various simulated emergency or rapid response situations,” employing all available assets and assessing additional requirements as needed.