December 17, 2000
Wargame Games; The more generals think about what will happen in battle, and more anxious they get. There's no endeavor more uncertain than going to war. Unlike betting on the wrong Super Bowl team, losing a war can get you killed or, worse, ridiculed in the history books. While large quantities of alcohol and tranquilizers have been consumed to deal with the anxiety, a better solution has always been available. Namely; wargames, which have been around for thousands of years and are now a big business. While often made fun of, these "combat simulations" are very useful. Civilian versions are used profitably by many companies.
As with many other areas of military technology, America took the lead in wargaming after World War II. As we enter the 21st century, the United States is spending billions of dollars a year on wargames. And, as with most military procurement programs, some strange things go on. The oddest development has to do with the lack of compatibility. Wargames are, after all games. They do not exactly replicate reality. That's why they are called simulations. But, like their civilian counterparts, if they get close enough to reality, they give the user an edge. The ability to see the future a little more clearly than your opponents is often the margin of victory.
But the U.S. military establishment is a vast and varied collection of organizations. The army, navy and air force all develop their own wargames and each service has a different take on what the other services do. This has meant that their wargames were not compatible.
But it gets worse.
Not only do the services not understand what each other does, and how they do it, their wargames cannot work with each other. Since most actual operations involve army, navy and air force units operating together, wargames are no help at all in practicing for these real life encounters. For decades, the military wargamers have been asking for something that would more accurately reflect what actually happens when the shooting starts. Finally, in the early 1990s, the opportunity came. Enough people in the Pentagon felt that a "joint" (all services) wargame would be a good thing. To insure that all the services would work together, a new organization, DMSO (Defense Modeling and Simulation Office) was created in 1991. In 1996 the JSIMS project was launched. This was to be a family of wargames, one for each service plus others for joint things like logistics. JSIMS itself would be the software and procedures that would enable all the service specific wargames to work together. DMSO established technical standards, but left it to the services to create the wargames, and to work out the details of how they would cooperate. JSIMS was to be ready for use in 1999. It would be an ambitious project, able to operate on a world wide network. Estimated cost was a few hundred million dollars.
Then the Pentagon games began. First, each of the services had to get contractors to work on their individual games. The army was the first to do this, in 1996, when they contracted Lockheed-Martin to do their WARSIM. But then, at the end of year, the JSIMS contract was awarded to TRW. This delayed things a bit, as the TRW folks had a different idea of what the JSIMS standards would be. Actually, the army wanted nothing to do with JSIMS, but the Pentagon told them that they had to cooperate or see their WARSIM lose it's money. Then the software architects for each of the service's games got together to work out the compatibility problems. They discovered that there were more disagreements than expected. It was so bad that in May of 1997 all the architects were called to the Pentagon to explain why JSIMS should not be cancelled. This got everyone's attention. Throughout the Summer of 1997 many meetings were held and much heat was generated. But no solutions. Finally, project managers (military officers, usually colonels) had a meeting and agreed that they will do all their games as parts of JSIMS, rather than separate games. The civilian system architects form the "Council of Architects" and make it happen. So JSIMS mutates from a family of games to one game that deals with whatever each of the services needs done. Problem solved.
Oops, not so fast. Soon many people in the services, including some of the JSIMS project managers, had second thoughts about one big wargame. All the old interservice animosities surfaced. So a compromise was imposed that sort of pleased everyone and drove up the cost and complexity of the system. All this came from a common Pentagon problem known as "power without responsibility." Many people can get involved with deciding how a project will be done without having any responsibility for the resulting mess. The most obvious (but not the only) offender here was DMSO, which established standards (High Level Architecture, or HLA) and software that would be used to make sure that all future wargames could pass information back and forth and, in effect, cooperate. DMSO saw the unified JSIMS as a threat to it's HLA and got behind the movement to force all the JSIMS software already written to be, in effect, redone. JSIMS was now going to cost over a billion dollars, be at least three years behind schedule and, worst of all, might not work as well as expected because of all the changes.
On the positive side, so many people and organizations got involved in the battle over how JSIMS would be organized that no one can afford to kill the project lest they get tainted with part of the blame. The Pentagon at it's best, and worst. Your tax dollars in action.