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The Difference Between Military & Civilian Wargames
Discussion Board on this Wargame Articles
by Michael K. Robel
June 18, 2004
Civilian and military wargames are quite different. On the face of it, there does not seem to be a great difference between a civilian and military wargame. They both have much the same view of the battlefield – the helicopter view from above and the players have a selection of various tasks that they can order. However, there are several differences, not all of which are apparent to the casual observer.
The U.S. Army recognizes three types of simulations. The first are Constructive Simulations. These are much like typical civilian wargames with a helicopter like view of the battlefield and the older ones actually used hexes to control movement. Next are Virtual Simulation, like a flight or tank simulator, but also for rifles, air defense missiles, drivers training, and even mechanics. Last are Live Simulation in which an entire unit from platoon to brigade unit may be deployed to the an instrumented training range in a giant game of laser tag at places like the National Training Center and the entire unit is trained at one time.
Finally, the military is looking at integrating all of these, so that in a single exercise, all of these simulations could be used at once. For example, a corps commander in Fort Hood, could be playing a constructive simulation which uses terrain in the South Western US, while one brigade is training live at the NTC, and while his attack helicopter battalions use virtual training to attack constructive units.
A challenge with this approach is to have the constructive and virtual units interact with a live unit in such a manner that they are not engaged by forces they cannot see on the battlefield.
The most widely used U.S. Army “wargames” are called “Constructive Simulations”, and include JANUS (not an acronym), the Brigade/Battalion Battle Simulation (BBS), and the Corps Battle Simulation (CBS). JANUS is used most for company to Brigade Training, BBS for Battalion and Brigade Training, and CBS for Division and Corps Training. These are the most widely used simulations for training in the Army today, although others are available. Finally, there are the emerging simulations like WARSIM or OneSAF.
The DOD definition of a wargame is “is a simulation......of a military operation (that) involves two or more opposing forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real-life situation.” Further, Wargaming is the process by which command and control (C2) training simulations task the participants to employ during the conduct of an exercise. Wargaming allows the participants to conduct various military tactics and operations against an opposing force normally in a competitive environment. This process forces participants to react to the responses of the opposing force in the development of plans and the execution of operations so as to satisfy participant missions. The complexity and sophistication of current simulations allow a high degree of reality to wargame participants. Wargaming is used in both training simulations and simulators.
Note the emphasis on “Command and Control Training Simulations” versus tactics. Here is a list of things that these C2 simulations can be expected to do:
Assist units in preparing for Mission Training Evaluation Plans (MTEPs) while minimizing costs and resources.
· Exercise and evaluate internal staff training and unit standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Develop an awareness of the lethality and complexity of the modern battlefield.
Evaluate written material and verbal communication processes between: commanders and staff members; commanders and subordinate commanders; commanders and adjacent commanders (US or international); and commanders and higher levels of command.
Provide feedback to measure situational responses and staff ability to develop alternative courses of action.
Note that there is no stated emphasis on tactics. Further, the Army states there are several things that these simulations should not be used for:
C2 training simulations should not be used:
as "truth machines" relied upon to determine if C2 decisions made by commanders were correct or incorrect.
in a context to provide a "go" or "no-go" solution to a particular operational problem.
to analyze plans in specific terms of outcome.
to validate war plans and they must not be used for that purpose.
Finally, “it is a mistake, repeat mistake, and a misuse of these simulations to attempt to validate war plans. The algorithms used in training simulations provide sufficient fidelity for training, not validation of war plans. This is due to the fact that important factors (leadership, morale, terrain, weather, level of training of the units) and a myriad of human and environmental impacts are not modeled in sufficient detail to provide the types of plans analysis usually associated with warfighting decisions used to validate war plans.”
The big difference between military and civilians wargames is that a civilian game is used for enjoyment. There may be – and usually are – learning points available for civilian games, and more than a few civilian games are used for task training by the military (more about this later).
Another difference is the US military has at least two definitions for the term wargame. The first, and possibly oldest, is for that part of the military decision making process in which the staff attempts to evaluate what course of action to choose and attempts to visualize how the battle will flow in each one, so that they can recommend one to their commander. This is a real art and not every officer is capable of running a wargame. It is a very subjective process, one that is easily polluted by the prejudices of the individuals regarding training, weapons capabilities, the effects of the environment, and such on the battlefield and their units. It takes a great deal of discipline to run a staff wargame correctly and, as we saw above, the Army position is that these simulations will not be used to wargame out courses of action.
FM 101-5 (Staff Organization and Planning) lists desirable characteristics of a wargame:
Remain objective, not allowing personality or their sensing of what the commander wants. to influence them. They must avoid defending a COA (Course Of Action) just because they personally developed it.
Accurately record advantages and disadvantages of each COA as they become evident.
Continually assess feasibility, acceptability, and suitability of the COA. If a COA fails any of these tests during the war game, they must reject it.
Avoid drawing premature conclusions and gathering facts to support such conclusions.
Avoid comparing one COA with another during the war game. This must wait until the comparison phase.
Both C2 (Command and Control) and the staff Wargaming procedure share some desired characteristics in order to be used to their fullest extent. They should be realistic, neutral to the decision making process, and allow free play (more on this later). One would think, if wargames could be set up and played fast enough and employed with some critical thinking and skepticism, that they could be used in a tactical situation to assist in the decision making process. (Some commanders do this in spite of the official injunction.)
The other definition is more familiar civilian war gamers, which is to actually “play” a wargame. The normal terms for these exercises are “conduct simulation training” or Command Post Exercises (CPX). CPX’s can be played through simulations or in a live mode, with or without large numbers of troops. Some officers bridle when they are told they are playing a game, as if it is beneath them, and those that play these games for a hobby pastime or as a learning tool are sometimes belittled. This is a situation that is becoming somewhat rarer as computer gaming has become more prevalent.
The players in this case – role players really –play their part in the command organization, usually in a battalion workstation. In this respect, they are much like role playing games: A role playing game in a dungeon designed by Dilbert. In the work station, which can consist of several terminals, company or battery commanders play the part of the maneuver players, and the mortar platoon leader or Fire Support Officer may play the Combat Support units, and the Logistics Officer (S4) plays the Combat Service Support units. The battalion commander serves as the workstation commander, commanding his units assisted by some or all of his staff. A brigade may have two or more workstations to control all their units. These players are not the focus of the training, although they usually get some ancillary training from the exercise.
The training audience may vary from a company commander playing JANUS (a computer wargame very similar to the simpler civilian wargames) with just his platoon leaders and a small support staff, to a Corps Commander playing with all his subordinate units, their supporting staffs, plus a large contractor support staff. This could place the total number of participants in the hundreds, or even thousands, with as many as 300 or more work stations involved. Nearly every Army Post has a simulation center capable of playing stand-alone games or tying in with other installations for very large distributed exercises. The author took part in a game that linked units in Birmingham, Alabama with others in Italy, Germany, and other parts of the US.
The largest exercises are for Division, Corps, and even theater commanders. These may be played once a year, and about every two to three years. These commanders take part in the Battle Command Training Program which is run from Fort Leavenworth, involves a profession Opposing Force team (composed of contractors who are former military personnel), and a horde of observers, including retired General Officers, to evaluate their performance. Brigades may conduct simulation training two to four time a year, depending on their training schedule and the Brigade Commander’s desires, usually to prepare for a major training event, like going to the NTC, or in preparation for an actual deployment. These events are really tests for the commanders involved, although they are never actually phrased that way.
While winning and losing is important – perhaps the most important thing – in civilian wargames, it is not necessarily the most important aspect of the military wargames. Rather, the exercise emphasis is on the staff planning process, orders production, reporting, and execution of the plan. This is not to say that the commanders, the staffs, and the role players do not think that winning is important. No Army or Marine officer likes to lose anything. However, the training may not be as valuable if the emphasis is on winning.
From time to time, the competitive juices may well take over the role player’s actions (on both sides) and start to dominate the game. This can derail the training objectives and has to be quashed. Even with this emphasis, commanders and players will press attacks beyond where they would actually be abandoned. Experienced players with detailed knowledge of the simulation can use that knowledge to dominate play, just as in civilian games.
Some training events are based on incident lists and all the good tactics in the world are not allowed to change the outcome of what everyone is training to do. An excellent example of this was the Cold War era REFORGER exercises conducted in Germany each year (with units flown in from the United States for that purpose), where Red would attack for one week, be halted by Friday, everyone would rest a bit over the weekend, then on Monday, Blue would counterattack, and by the next Friday, restore the situation. These exercises involved hundreds of thousands of troops, over thousands of square miles, consumed enormous resources, and are part of the reason the Army uses constructive simulations so much now.)
Constructive simulations have a close relative in analytical simulations that try to analyze weapon system performance and so on to serve as a kind of electronic proving ground for weapons and organizations. Both of these games frequently omit the soft factors of war from the unit’s performance.
There are several civilian simulations used in military training. Among them are TacOps, Brigade Combat Team, Decisive Action, and Harpoon 3. Others, such as Warcraft, have been adapted for use. Most of these support games multiple players and can be used in a manner similar to that described above. One big advantage of these commercial wargames is that they are somewhat more simple to learn, easier to use, and take less support staff to run. This makes the commercial wargames more suitable to an academic, individual, or even small unit application than the larger military simulations. Decisive Action, for example, was specifically designed and programmed by an infantry officer instructor at the Command and General Staff to assist in instruction. TacOps exists in military and civilian versions and civilian enthusiasts – with and without military experience – frequently get together for informal Command Post Exercises, some of which are quite complex and lengthy. For them though, the objective is entertainment and an attempt to gain a better appreciation for the challenges faced by commanders and units in the modern military.
The current U.S. Army simulations, such as the Corps Battle Simulation (CBS), are all about 20 years old and are a bit long in the tooth, and while they keep evolving, were really meant to model the classic large scale battle of annihilation as found in the Fulda Gap or during Desert Storm. In fact, LTG Wallace, Commander of V Corps during the 2003 march on Baghdad, said that they trained against the wrong enemy, partly because CBS could not portray the actual fight that they would face. Current simulations are less able to handle the rather more nebulous, multi-sided, quasi war situations now being fought. They rely on the role player to control every unit on their side (ranging anywhere from 10 – 50 separate units), react to the enemy, report to their commanders, and respond to orders.
The Army (and Defense companies that create wargames) are developing new simulations to fill this gap, that can be used both as analytical and constructive simulations, serve for electronic rehearsals, and contribute to course of action analysis. New simulations in development, like WARSIM (operational level) and OneSAF (tactical) are employing units with more intelligence so that they can plan their own movement, engage targets, and chain together various orders. This allows the military personnel using the game to control more units, act more like a commander (rather than a video game player), and reduce the staff necessary to directly play the game. This allows the military users to concentrate on stuff they would have to do in actual combat. Some simulations may even be integrated directly into combat vehicles and command and control software. This would enable units to conduct training (wargames) anytime, anywhere. The navy has actually taken the lead in this, mainly because warships have, for decades, been controlled from a “Combat Information Center” that is basically a room full of computers and large displays.
The effective use of simulations will continue to be a cornerstone of Army training to enable it to train better, become more lethal and agile, and continue to dominate the fluid and nebulous battlefields of the 21st century.
Training With Simulations Handbook found at
FM 101-5, STAFF ORGANIZATION AND OPERATIONS, available at
Successful War Games Combine Both Civilian and Military Traits,
Video Game Helps Teach Armor Officer Skills,
Army Charges On With Joint Simulation System,
TacOps fun for war gamers,
Games Soldiers Play,