Better Wargaming Is Helping the US Military Navigate a Turbulent Era

In a 2016 wargame, a joint set of participants works out Air Force coordination with the Navy's Distributed Lethality concept.

Naval Postgraduate School

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In a 2016 wargame, a joint set of participants works out Air Force coordination with the Navy's Distributed Lethality concept.

Two leaders of the Joint Staff’s Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division evaluate the two-year-old effort to increase, improve, and boost the impact of analytic wargaming.

Nearly three years ago, Defense Department leaders launched an effort to revitalize analytical wargaming in the U.S. military, citing its value in navigating a previous period of dramatic change: the interwar years of the 1920s and ’30s. A Wargaming Incentive Fund has since sparked dozens of wargames, revealing critical gaps and suggesting solutions. Crucially, the effort has also improved coordination among wargamers and increased their games’ utility to decision makers. The authors, who help the Joint Staff manage the $10-million-year WIF, have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on its return-on-investment. Here are our findings.

The first WIF grants went out to seven DoD organizations in October 2016, supporting analytical wargames such as tabletop exercises, seminars, workshops, and turn-based wargames that simulated interactions with active adversaries. All told, WIF has since funded 73 activities led by 15 organizations, including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, each of the services, and all of the geographic and functional combatant commands. Thousands of people from organizations across the DoD, the executive branch, other governmental departments and agencies, and many of our allies and partners, have participated in WIF-funded wargames. The games have examined some of the most pressing threats to our national security, with their findings incorporated into documents at the highest levels. The DoD’s senior-most leaders, including the various civilian secretaries and the Joint Chiefs, have all either directly participated in or were briefed on the results of those WIF-funded wargames.

For example, WIF supported U.S. Transportation Command’s first-ever series of contested environment wargames. In 2017 and 2018, TRANSCOM commander Gen. Darren McDew cited these analytical wargames to the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling lawmakers that the games “drove changes in how we plan for attrition, cyber, mobilization, authorities, access, and command and control” and “led us to plan for denied access to our own strategic nodes, as well as those abroad.” Other WIF-funded activities include the U.S. STRATCOM-led Global Sentinel, which allow U.S. and allied operators to develop and practice multinational combined space situational awareness operations; Wargaming Workshops and Wargaming Mobile Training Teams that train the next generation of wargamers; and the Air Force Space Command-led Schriever wargames that focus on the space and cyberspace domains of warfare.

The revitalization effort also established a Wargaming Repository that allows DoD personnel to share final reports, tools, methodology, schedules, and data from completed analytical wargames. More than 500 people have so far contributed to a trove of information on over 700 WIF- and non-WIF-funded events, representing a broad swath of all the wargames DoD conducts.

The Repository’s impressive breadth and its usefulness for future planning cannot be overstated. Take space and cyberspace, two important topics that the department has been and will continue grappling with. The Repository contains entries  — reports, results, high-level insights, recommendations, and lessons learned — on nearly 20 space-focused wargames, as well as dozens of other wargames that incorporate a space challenge, all of which happened within the last four years. It also contains entries from more than 40 analytical wargames that offer unique and innovative insights into cyberspace as a warfighting domain.

Analysts who are beginning to design their own games can conduct a “literature search” of previously conducted or upcoming games to reduce redundancy (saving time, resources, and taxpayer dollars) and improve their own events — noting in particular the Repository’s “Lessons Learned” section, which can help them avoid past methodological or analytical mistakes. Wargame points of contact are also available for previous and upcoming wargames, helping users to contact colleagues to collaborate and learn more. As a reminder to visit the Repository, its users receive a monthly Wargaming Repository Report that details upcoming WIF and non-WIF games for the next nine months. Finally, every two weeks, the Joint Staff’s Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division — which manages the WIF — hosts a secure video teleconference during which organizations present findings and insights, which are available in the Repository, from WIF-funded games to the wargaming community.

Requests for WIF funding have risen each year, driven by increased demand for wargames from the  combatant commands, the Joint Staff, and the National Guard Bureau. Requests rose by 24 percent between fiscal 2016 and 2017, and by 15 percent between 2017 and 2018. Although the WIF has awarded 73 submissions, its administrators have also had to turn away 50 requests.

The competition for WIF funds will likely increase as demand for wargames continues to grow. To aid organizations, we’ve provided guiding questions, examples of a cost justification, and what’s acceptable and unacceptable submissions to help shape their submissions. As the number of requests has increased, we’ve also been able to tailor WIF awards to better fit with senior leader priorities. For example, nearly three-quarters of WIF-funded wargames have focused on U.S. defense requirements in an era of great-power competition in line with the focus of the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

Thoughts

The Repository has already proven its worth and will continue to benefit future generations of wargamers. WIF’s annual $10 million has enabled wargames that otherwise would not have occurred, revealed critical gaps, supported 3-star and above decision-making, and contributed to finding solutions to vulnerabilities that the Department was not previously aware of.

At present, the demand for WIF funding exceeds the supply, and its administrators will strive to select the best games that support decision making by the department’s senior leaders, explore its most pressing challenges, and support the National Defense Strategy. Wargames are uniquely positioned to foster judicious decision-making, especially among senior defense leaders, because by design they incorporate active adversaries, the effects of partners and allies, and the use of disruptive technological within the operational landscape. In other words, they simulate a truer-to-life depiction of future wars than other types of analytical activities. Analytical wargames achieve outcomes that in the real world would endanger lives and possibly cost untold sums; stress-test commonly-accepted concepts of operation; allow participants to design innovative solutions to mitigate risks; and ultimately enable our nation to stay ahead of our adversaries. Senior leaders and action officers alike know the unique value of analytical wargames, and it is vital that they have the resources and the tools they need to take advantage of this practice.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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