Support: February 10, 2002


The Curse of Wargames- In the early 19th century, modern wargames were invented and promptly became a powerful tool for helping soldiers learn how to fight. Wargames concentrated on the officers tactical skills. Typically, an officer had little chance to realistically practice battlefield maneuvers until the shooting started. Learning under fire was very costly. Wargames in the United States went out of favor after World War II, and were rediscovered in the 1970s. Not all the services were able to use wargames with the same effectiveness. The navy, which never really lost touch with wargames after World War II, had the fewest problems. But the navy had a very successful history with wargames, and because of the nature of naval warfare, did much better with wargames than the marines, army and air force. 

The 1970s wargame revival was partly fueled by a desire to take advantage of the many officers and troops who had been using wargames produced by commercial publishers. This led to a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that the uniformed wargamers were able to develop useful wargames. The bad news was that the manual wargames were difficult to learn. This was something that was discovered in the 19th century. Some armies (notably the German) were more successful in getting their officer to exert themselves and use the games. Most other nations, including the United States, were not able to convince their officers to make the effort. In the 1970s, it was thought that having the troops design and develop the games, the usability problem would be overcome. This worked, but only at the higher schools where the students were all the cream of the officer corps. It was pointed out at the time that the first American wargames, developed after the Civil War, were put together by officers. Even so, for most officers, it was too much work to use them.

The situation was saved, sort of, by the arrival of microcomputers. Computer based games eliminated the learning curve. But, once more, there was a drawback. It took a lot more effort, manpower and special skills to create computerized wargames. Whereas with the manual wargames, anyone who played them a lot could create them, the computerized wargames required programmers, plus sound and graphic artists. These people tended to be civilians without any real understanding of the military. While a military guy with combat arms experience might be designing the game, he often lost control of the process. Since the civilian specialists had the final cut, so to speak, on the game, they often introduced features that, while "neat" to civilian eyes, made the game less useful for the troops. On top of that, there was the military bureaucracy. Since computer wargames cost a lot more, there were was more supervision by senior officers and civil servants. These folks also tended to be less familiar with the purely military aspects of the game. Worse, the project supervisors are often ordered, urged or otherwise coerced into adding more features to the game to address non-combat matters. While the game may have originally been conceived for training combat troops, you can't ignore the non-combat "communities" these days. These folks comprise some 85 percent of the military. So many computerized wargames suffer "Death by Bureaucracy" as the features are piled on until the game can't do much besides keep a lot of people off unemployment. 

Meanwhile, the troops not only need wargames, but many of them really, really want wargames. The different services have addressed this problem in different ways. The marines have been the most successful. When the wargames renaissance began in the 1970s, the marines literally went to the commercial wargame publishers, camped out at their offices and took away all they could carry (physically and mentally.) Like the Germans, the marines had no trouble getting everyone to play the games. This was interesting, as tests with randomly selected army troops showed that it took a lot of effort to get them to learn even the simplest wargames. This was not unexpected, as extensive market testing had shown that only a few percent of the population had a natural ability and inclination to play manual wargames for pleasure. The marines showed that with the proper motivation ("marines can do anything"), the troops can handle it. 

The marines were also pragmatic and practical. The games were kept simpler, as they had learned from the commercial wargame designers that too much complexity was counterproductive. In the 1991 Gulf War, the simple marine wargames were dead on when predicting how the marines would do. The marines kept on revising their plans and testing them with their manual wargames right up to the day before they moved off into battle. The marines kept that attitude of practicality when the computerized wargames came along. They bought simpler wargames, modified the games themselves or paid the developers to do so, and got a lot more out of their games. Of course, the marines don't have that much of a bureaucracy problem. The marines preach, and practice, the idea that "every marine is a rifleman." That means that everything in a wargame either helps the guys carrying rifles, or it doesn't go into the game.

The army started out like the marines, but got derailed because the army troops were not as motivated as the marines. They would not make the effort to play the games. There were exceptions. In some units, there were officers who were able to provide the motivation. But this was rare. The army also suffered from the "Death by Bureaucracy" when they developed computerized wargames. Some good games were produced, but many collapsed of their own weight and others were top heavy with unneeded features.

The air force had always had good flight simulators. This was because combat pilots tended to run the air force, and they could quickly see if a flight simulator had the right stuff or not. Knowing that a general might come in to try out a new simulator and quickly discover any deficiencies tended to focus the simulation developers. But when it came to wargames that covered operations outside the cockpit, the air force was no better off than the army.

The air force experience was ironic in other ways. During the Vietnam war, the air force noted the poor performance of their pilots against the North Vietnam, and came up with the "Red Flag" program. This was a wargame with real aircraft in which the enemy flew similar warplanes to what the North Vietnam had and used enemy tactics. This kind of wargaming made American pilots a lot more effective. But the air force never applied the "Red Flag" approach to a similar problem with BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment, finding out what damage was done to enemy when they were bombed.) This was, and remains, a key problem, as the air force can't (and still hasn't) produce a useful air campaign game without some way to accurately game out the BDA problems. It's not just the air force. The other services have similar problems creating games that will realistically deal with problems like fighting in cities, electronic warfare and protecting surface ships from submarines and mines. 

Another problem all the services have is creating games for classroom use. The military schools (mainly for officers and NCOs) don't have the money to create computer games and there was still the problem with getting the troops to play manual games. Actually, there are solutions for that sort of thing. Role Playing Games (RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons) solve that problem by putting most of the workload on the instructor, who is the only one who really has to know the game rules. An RPG can cover any aspect of military operations, and there are plenty of people in the military who know how RPGs work. But the military, except for the marines, have never actively recruited their own people to create games. The other services have had instances where officers simply took the initiative and created teaching games on their own time. Some of these were actually adopted for classroom use. But this sort of thing is still rare.

With all the talk of "transformation" in the military, perhaps one aspect of this should be having the army, navy and air force talking to the marines about how to use wargames.




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