Monday, April 15, 2019

We Need to Talk About Wargames

If someone comes to you to sell a certain CONOPS, strategy, or program and they open with, “We’ve wargamed this, and … “ – then immediately take everything that follows with a grain of salt. You are being either played by crafty people who think you a fool, or you are being bluffed by someone who really does not know what they are doing.

One of the most important things you can do in peace, or prior to any operation, is wargame, but it is a supporting activity, not a lead.

Wargaming is hard, takes time, and can create additional staffwork … which is why they can be unpopular, and sadly often not done or done improperly. That isn’t the problem with wargames – the problem with wargames is that they are not understood for what they are; games.

There are too many people who think that wargames are some kind of crystal ball, that they can tell you what the future holds. That is one of the most dangerous misconceptions out there.

Wargames are just a planning tool. They test out assumptions. They also allow, if you are lucky, for a creative Red Team to find your weaknesses and oversights.

Wargames are also a tool people with agendas use against the uninitiated and unassuming. You tell me the results you want, and I can create a set of wargames to will give you the results. Ask me to get the opposite result, and I can do that as well; with the same Blue Team, Red Team, White Team, and Green team – whatever rainbow of complications we start with.

Here’s how.

At their core, a wargame is about assumptions and the action/reaction to them. How much of this or that; how effective is this or that; what can or cannot be done from where; what you start with – what the opponent starts with. You can get vastly different results from tweaking any of those variables. (See Millennium Challenge 2002)

What wargames are not good at are measuring political will, morale, intent, and to a lesser extent (depending on the quality of the wargame), readiness.

It also cannot – often due to the compartmentalization of various capabilities – fully account for the role of intelligence, underappreciated capabilities, and of course, blind stinking luck.

In the last week, I’ve had some very smart people use the, “I was briefed by Admirals X,Y, & Z that they’ve wargamed _____, and it tells us that we need to get rid of _____ and expand _____.”

That set me off a bit, roughly in line with the above. Then today, we had this;
A Russian invasion would depend on rapidly seizing the Baltics in less than a hundred hours, presenting a fait-accompli before NATO can effectively respond. In 2016, wargames by the RAND think tank found that Russian forces could seize the capitals of Estonia and Latvia in between thirty-six to sixty hours—though the study may have been based on debatable assumptions.

Meanwhile, Russia’s cyber propaganda and disinformation campaigns would seek to turn international opinion against NATO “starting” a war against Russia’s “humanitarian intervention.” Moscow would essentially be gambling that Western European countries would be unwilling to risk nuclear war to liberate already-conquered Baltic states.

“Debatable assumptions.”

Any wargame of value has “debatable assumptions.” If done correctly, it will be followed by another wargame with equally “debatable assumptions.” THAT. IS. HOW. THEY. ARE. DONE.

If anyone tries to make a point with you by throwing wargame results in your face – without leading with a discussion about the “debatable assumptions” that went in to them – kick them out of your office. They are either trying to con you or don’t know what they are doing.

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