A student describes his strategy during hands-on exercises at the Basic Analytic Wargaming Course taught by the Naval Postgraduate School Wargaming Mobile Education Team in Wiesbaden, Germany, Aug. 30 thru Sept. 10, 2021.

A student describes his strategy during hands-on exercises at the Basic Analytic Wargaming Course taught by the Naval Postgraduate School Wargaming Mobile Education Team in Wiesbaden, Germany, Aug. 30 thru Sept. 10, 2021. U.S. Army / Thomas Mort

The DOD Needs a Joint Wargaming Center

The recent explosion of wargames obscures several flaws in the current system.

Reinvigorate our wargaming efforts, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work told Pentagon and military leaders in 2015. Services, research institutions, and industry have since responded with an explosion of wargames. But these largely uncoordinated efforts have left knowledge gaps, reflected various biases, and insufficiently addressed mid- and long-term scenarios. To fix these problems and ensure unity of effort, the DOD should create a Joint Wargaming Center.

In his memo, Work prescribed three lines of effort. The first, led by the services and combatant commands, looks up to five years ahead and focuses on current concepts. The Joint Staff leads a mid-term effort, studying new capabilities and operational concepts five to 15 years out; while the Office of Net Assessment leads a long-term effort focused on technology trends and competition. 

The near-term line has proven to be the easiest for the DOD to execute, mainly through service entities such as the Air Force Wargaming Institute and the Naval War College, which focus on educational and service-specific wargames. The services continue to invest in wargaming capability and modeling and simulation that complement their specific missions, such as the Wargaming and Advanced Research Simulation Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, and the Marine Corps Wargaming and Analysis Center in Quantico, Virginia.

But as the Pentagon responded to the new wargaming guidance, so too did industry and the research institutions associated with national security. This response, while well-intentioned, means that mid- to long-term wargame efforts are not being led as intended by the Joint Staff and Office of Net Assessment. Instead, much of the wargaming design, execution, and report writing is contracted outside the Department of Defense. 

One consequence is that too many wargames are built on data that is outdated, insufficient, generalized, or inaccurate. Mid- and long-term ones that involve policy and strategy development are too often conducted at an unclassified level. Considering the role of sensitive intelligence and classified information in senior leaders’ decision-making, this practice should now be considered obsolete. 

As well, the utility of wargames increasingly depends on current and accurate technical data, systems information, and emerging technology, but there is no process for ensuring that new data reaches every wargaming and modeling and simulation organization across the Defense Department.

Finally, wargames hosted by industry and research organizations, many of which receive funding from industry and foreign entities, may be subject to pressures that distort the games and the lessons that are drawn from them. 

There are other problems as well. The proliferation of wargaming means key participants across government agencies must choose from an overwhelming list of invitations, creating a lack in unity of effort. Wargames often lack the diversity that would come through inviting (and compensating) experts in wargame design, international relations theory, the humanities, and exquisite technologies. Adjudication techniques are often stuck in the industrial age; rolling dice cannot usefully determine outcomes in complicated fields such as international relations theory, operational concepts of employment, and technical information related to current and emerging technologies. 

All this leads to many wargames producing reports based on bad data and influenced by institutional and personal bias. The creation of a Joint Wargaming Center would address these challenges. And it would give the Joint Staff and Office of Net Assessment the ability to design, execute, and adjudicate wargames with the appropriate participants while minimizing and identifying bias. Ultimately, it would enable senior leaders to receive more accurate recommendations from wargames. 


The new center should subsume the various Joint Staff directorates involved in wargaming and report to the Joint Chiefs’ Vice Chairman. The Vice Chairman’s office will prioritize the center’s wargaming efforts by looking at future challenges and opportunities that align with decisions made by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. Its oversight will also help ensure that any bias allowed into the wargame can be accurately described to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense. 

The center should have a specialized division that reports to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment, which will help the office with the manning and funding it needs to take on the mission of leading long-term wargaming.  

Operationally, the center should help move away from wargames hosted by industry and research organizations, in the spirit of National Security Presidential Memorandum 33, which aimed “to strengthen protections of United States Government-supported Research and Development (R&D) against foreign government interference and exploitation.” 

Integrating diverse expert opinions from industry and research experts will be critical to the new center’s credibility. This is best accomplished by inclusion of a wide range of experts in events such as the Air Force’s Annual Trilateral workshop in France, which this year involves technology integration. This will ensure that strategic challenges and opportunities are more thoroughly explored through various viewpoints. 

Finally, the DOD should stand up a wargaming data-fusion center capable of agile software development and processing. It will collect data from across the U.S. government and use it to update every wargaming center in the DOD and as well as intelligence agencies. This center will also create better ways to adjudicate wargames, including by using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. This supports Deputy Defense Secretary Katheen Hicks’ vision for Data Advantage by tracking data and recommendations for continued use in multiple iterations of wargames. 

Lt. Col. Gabe S. Arrington is a National Defense Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and Seminar XXI Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An Air Force officer, he previously served as the Executive Officer to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.