Are war games a competitive edge of conventional forces vs. non-state 4GW foes?

I recommend reading the threat on military simulations that started here and has moved over to the DNI blog.  Some of the participants have considerable experience in this field.  Here are a few thoughts about the value of military simulations, esp. as a tool to accelerate the transformation of conventional military forces — their adaption to an age in which 4GW is the dominant form of war.

Simulations allow organizations to test themselves in a changing world, against potential enemies.  As discussed previously, they are an antidote — perhaps the antidote — to victory disease.  But only if the designers, operators, and participants allow for the good guys to fail — and if senior decision-makers listen to the results (more on these considerations in the next post in this series).

The roots of military simulations are lost in history.  Kriegsspiel, German for war game, was developed in 1824 to train Prussian officers.  The US military use of simulations has accelerated since the early applications of the 1950’s.  The Millennium Challenge exercise cost $250 million, the largest of the hundreds of simulation projects run in recent years.  This history shows that simulations have the potential to force innovation by highlighting weaknesses in doctrine and force structure, but can just as powerfully serve to re-enforce the status quo.

Martin van Creveld has a few things to say about war games.  Considering his track record, I suggest that we listen closely.

  1. Given the complexity of warfare, it is virtually impossible to design a wargame that will be totally “objective” or that will not in some way pre-determine the outcome. Even in a simple, symmetrical game such as chess white has a slight advantage.
  2. Given this elementary fact, proper use of wargames requires that many successive ones based on different assumptions be played. It also entails the teams, or commanders, on each side changing places so as to gain a real appreciation of their own, and their opponents’, possibilities and limits.  An exercise that does not use wargames in this way is largely wasted.
  3. In my view, most high-tech and expensive games are a waste of money.  Provided one knows what one is doing and does not try to do everything at once, one can obtain equally good results by very simple means. In fact, too often such games, instead of encouraging such knowledge, are used as a substitute for it.
  4. For that reason, I very much doubt whether the high tech and expensive wargames at the disposal of conventional armed forces really give them an edge over their 4GW opponents.  It is brains we need, not electronic wizardry.

Chet Richards comments on this:

This {van Creveld’s #3} is key if you’re going to use these games as a substitute for real operations.  You want to build Fingerspitzengefuehl for operating in conditions as close to the actual thing as possible.  Think of how people practice the martial arts: First, rote repetition of moves, then stylized combinations that put the moves together, then hours and hours of mock combat.  In the military we usually just do step 1 and rarely get past step 2.

In any case, because 4GW, whatever it is, seems to have at most a small military component, I’m not sure, exactly, how wargames would help.

“Fingerspitzengefuehl” is a German word for “the feeling in the tips of your fingers.”  This tells Dutch farmers when their daffodil bulbs have matured for shipping.  It is a master baker’s sensitivity to dough, knowing by touch when the mix is right and when fermenting is completed.  (source)

Some tentative conclusions after reading the comments here and at the DNI thread

Simulations can help us adapt to a changing world, but they can also magnify conceptual errors.  We know so little about 4GW that large scale games — with their many built-in assumptions — might lose simulations’ greatest values for us:  discovering the boundaries of our ignorance.  That is, the ability to learn what we do not know, and what we know that is not so — the key factors as we enter the 4GW age.

Hence small games might work best.  This allows running them many times, giving several advantages:

  • more participants can be involved in the process, each with different perspectives,
  • low-risk experimentation, and
  • rapid evolution of design.

Another reason for a well-funded programs of small game developments:  we are experimenting, not testing known solutions.  Esp, as Chet notes, the domain — in the sense used in computer science — of 4GW simulations should include not only geopolitics (that is not new) but also sociology.  These fields are even less analytically well-founded than military science, so the development process will be longer and more complex.

Humility about what we know and what we can accomplish might be the most important design considerations for 4GW simulations.  With that as our foundation, we can learn and gradually build larger and more powerful simulations.

Please share your comments (brief and relevant, please), or email me at (spam-protected spelling) fabmaximus at hotmail dot com.

Update:  Zenpundit‘s note on this series is (as usual) worth a look.  Esp. his comments on the nature and function of gaming, both military and in general.

Previous articles on this subject

  1. Recommended reading: an autopsy of the 2002 Millennium Challenge war games
  2. War games, the antidote to “Victory disease”
  3. Are war games a competitive edge of conventional forces vs. non-state 4GW foes?
  4. During Millenium Challenge 2002, by Ed Beakley (Project White Horse blog), posted at the DNI blog
  5. What we should have learned from MC02, by Dag von Lubitz, posted at the DNI blog

5 thoughts on “Are war games a competitive edge of conventional forces vs. non-state 4GW foes?

  1. FM, I disagree with your second paragraph. “Simulations” can never ” … allow organizations to test themselves in a changing world, against potential enemies.” Simulations are, and always will be, fallacious attempts to cram complex adaptive thought into a synthetic environment — and therefore can never be an honest test against “potential enemies”.

    A better way to phrase it is “Simulations allow organizations to test themselves against known parameters.” We can run simulations of air turbulence over new aircraft designs, we can run simulations of how we think CO2 emissions affect climate, we can run simulations on traffic congestion in urban sprawl — but we can never devise a simulation that will lead us to success in 4GW or COIN or anything where Boyd’s rubric of “people, ideas, hardware – that order!” applies.

    I completely agree with the balance of your post, though — in particular the adage of the “small”. The reason the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab was so successful in its early days was because it started small and built up (q.v. the URBAN WARRIOR Limited Objective Experiment [LOE] series and the CAPABLE WARRIOR LOEs conducted on the cheap and often in conjunction with the late-90s Boyd Symposia). Very few independent variables, very clear experiment objectives and assumptions, and rigorous data collection.

    Unfortunately we at USJFCOM J9 had an inclination for the “Super Bowl”-type of event — which was in direct contrast to my theory that the value of any experiment was inversely proportional to its size. I’ve provided more feedback on MC-02 (the “granddaddy of them all”) at this link.

  2. I agree, that was an overstatement. As Scotty says “Instruments register only those things they’re designed to register.” (Star Trek, “The Naked Time”).

    Still, having good people attempt to “break the system” in games is the closest we can come to texting outselves against the unexpected. Outside of actual war, of course.

  3. FM, If you have the chance, a deeper tour of conflict models/simulations would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks, SB

  4. You will find some excellent material on the DNI thread, I expect. There may also be another article about this appearing on DNI. I have one more article in this can for this series — perhaps posted tomorrow.

    What about this subject do you find of interest, and why?

  5. Martin Van Creveld’s point #2 above is key to the utility of wargames. For my personal edification and enjoyment I often play a PC-based wargame series, Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War, favoring a number of key battles and campaigns, mostly from World War II — the 1940 Battle of France, Crusader and Kasserine Pass, the Invasion of Sicily, a number of Eastern Front engagements, and the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. I always alternate sides and try to vary the initial deployment schemes. Playing these scenarios has been a useful supplement to the extensive reading I do in military history.

    As a USAF reserve officer many years ago I drilled at the National War College’s Wargame and Simulation Center, designing high-level political-military scenarios and helping run tabletop simulations for field-grade and flag officers. So from many perspectives I’m a believer — with the caveats Van Creveld outlined.

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