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Team Dover Airmen point to strategic locations during the KingFiish ACE wargame at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Jan. 19, 2023. The board game teaches agile combat employment to Airmen staged in future rapid global mobility contingency scenarios. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua LeRoi)

I’ve always been dubious about the value of wargames. They may uncover weaknesses and provide some idea of how a strategy might work out, but they are played by real human beings with their own sets of unstated assumptions. Those humans are playing against other humans toward which they harbor feelings – good or bad. All that goes into the play.

Trying to fully automate them is no better. The automation is done by humans with all those mixed motives.

Then there is the fundamental problem that we don’t know the enemy’s mind. Other variables will be lacking.

There may be some analytical usefulness to wargames, but they do not predict winners and losers.

Jacquelyn Schneider, at the conservative Hoover Instituion, lays out those limitations. It’s the best article I’ve seen on that. She is responding to a congressional initiative.

In April, [Mike] Gallagher (R-WI) and [Raja] Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) convened a bipartisan group of lawmakers to spend an evening playing a war game that simulated a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan. In Gallagher’s opening remarks, he said he hoped that playing the game would impart “a sense of urgency” and demonstrate “that there are meaningful things we can do in this Congress through legislative action to improve the prospect of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Players were asked to act as advisers to the president, recommending diplomatic, economic, and military responses to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. These members of Congress gathered around a campaign map, their foreign and domestic moves adjudicated by a war-gaming facilitator from a Washington think tank. Their goal was to deter China, represented by a team made up of think-tank staff members. According to Gallagher, the game revealed that the United States needed to “arm Taiwan to the teeth”—a strong endorsement for a multibillion-dollar package of Taiwanese military aid that his China committee was considering at the time. Since then, Gallagher has taken his war game on the road, playing a version with Wall Street executives in New York City in early September, and he says he plans to play a similar game with leaders of American technology companies.

Gallagher is a China hawk, and you can guess what the outcomes were. But those of us outside can still learn something.

The history of war games shows how game designers and conveners can influence outcomes through their choice of players, rules, and scenarios. This is why, even though war games are ostensibly designed to help people understand how a war might play out, the results of this “inner” game can reveal only so much. Instead, it is the outer game—who convened the game, who is playing it, how the game is played and distributed, and ultimately why it is played—that offers real insight.

The essential puzzle piece to understanding the outer game is the decision to run the game in the first place. Games are costly. The most famous U.S. war games—such as the Sigma, Global War Game, or Proud Prophet series—required thousands of man-hours to prepare and took senior decision-makers away from their primary duties for extended periods. Games can require so much logistical support that even the top gaming facilities in the Department of Defense, such as the one at the Naval War College, can run only a few a year. Because of the resources involved, there is a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic and political fight to determine which games will be “sponsored” and prioritized. The act of gaming a particular region, weapon capability, or doctrine signals who is currently wielding the most power in the Department of Defense and what that person or group cares about. For example, a 2019 “Global Integrated War Game” seemed at first glance to be an innocuous and jargon-heavy future warfighting scenario. A closer look at the sponsoring institutions—the Joint Chiefs of Staff and functional commands such as Cyber Command, Strategic Command, and Special Operations Command—revealed how the games were being used to influence a power shift within the Department of Defense away from the combatant commands, which focus on specific geographic regions, toward “global integrators,” commands whose functions span the globe.

And here’s an overview of US-China wargames over the past decade.

Over the past 10 years, the U.S. defense community has produced a tremendous volume of analytical work on the military balance between the United States and China. Think tanks, scholars, and military institutions have weighed in, contributing valuable insights. Unsurprisingly, though, there remain noteworthy disagreements, gaps, and unquestioned assumptions within this vast body of research. Highlighting and addressing these points will help the United States better meet the challenge it faces in the Indo-Pacific.

wo major schools of prescriptive thought have evolved on how to respond in case of Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific. Those in the “direct approach” camp favor penetration of anti-access/area denial systems to enable U.S. forces to contribute directly to the conflict. Adherents of the “indirect approach” favor a variety of peripheral strategies to frustrate Chinese aims, hold assets at risk, or apply pressure through various means outside of the main theater of operations. Recognizing these schools can help sharpen the debate between them. This will benefit U.S. policymakers seeking to craft the optimal strategy while possibly creating further ambiguity for those seeking to craft a response in Beijing.

Even as the literature on a potential U.S.-Chinese conflict grows, topics such as proactive conflict termination and alliance dynamics remain understudied. Understanding the conditions, short of capitulation, in which a conflict might be brought to a conclusion will prove critical to managing escalation. Likewise, modeling the complexities of multinational military operations dispersed over thousands of kilometers is as important as understanding various operating concepts. Incorporating these strategically critical concepts into holistic assessments of the military balance is necessary to appreciate how they affect, and are affected by, more straightforward elements of military operations and strategy. 

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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