Learning from ones mistakes, or successes, is one of the less talked about techniques the American military uses to stay ahead of potential battlefield opponents. But this kind of learning process is rare. For generations, learning from past experience was via veterans of past wars, historians and journalists writing books and magazine articles on "the lessons." This was a hit or miss approach. For most of the last century, wargames were also used. But these were subject to manipulation by those who had made up their minds and did not want to be contradicted.
Currently, wargames (mostly computer ones, but a few manual games are still used) provide staff officers and planners with an opportunity to revisit recent military operations. This has become a lot easier to do in the last few years, as military wargames became more like commercial wargames. The major improvements have been in ease of use, and the ability to quickly change things and rapidly run through a battle or operation again and again. In this way, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere) over the past 30 months can be played out in endless variations. This is important, because the next battle may be fought with the same weapons and equipment, but not with the same ideas, opponents, or results. Naturally, all this work is kept very secret. If potential opponents discovered what new tactics you had developed, they could adapt their own operations to thwart you. However, some wargame analysis are done in the open. One example is Team Trackless. This was an unclassified (and unofficial) examination of how the new army "Medium (Stryker) Brigades" would do in combat compared with units using older types of armored vehicles.
Setting up wargames of recent operations can be enormously useful. Take the Iraq campaign of 2003 as an example. The world was amazed at the speed with which three American divisions rushed into Iraq, bulled their way through sporadic opposition and shot their way into Baghdad and conquered the city, all within three weeks. The troops who were there would tell you that it wasn't as easy as it looked. And the officers running the wargames later would be looking at what little changes might have made a big difference, one way or another. What if the Iraqis had used their troops more effectively (better training, tactics and/or leadership)? What if the Iraqis had some better weapons (anti-tank missiles that can penetrate the thinner top armor of American M-1 tanks)? What if the American advance had been slower, or faster (actually, that was possible, but not a whole lot faster.) What if the Turks had allowed the 4th Infantry Division to advance on Baghdad from the north? What if the American troops had some different weapons?
These "what ifs?" are also played out for the operations after Saddam's government was run out of business. Irregular warfare can be wargamed as well. Both the Iraqi and Afghan operations are constantly wargamed to see what new equipment or tactics might work better to end the fighting and save American lives. The wargaming allows Americans to look at the situation from the enemy's perspective. When you are wargaming operations that are still going on, every new bit of information on the enemy enables you to make the wargame version of the enemy more accurate, and predictable. This kind of wargaming of the 1991 Gulf War convinced many U.S. officers that a faster invasion of Iraq, a 21st century version of the World War II "blitzkrieg" ("lightning war"), would work against the Iraqis. This was not an easy conclusion to reach, because World War II practitioners of blitzkrieg (now called "shock and awe"), found that a properly prepared (mentally, if not in terms of better equipment and troops) opponent, could trip up a blitzkrieg offensive and inflict large casualties on the fast moving attacker. But lots of wargaming, and knowledge gained in 1991 about how the Iraqis operated, convinced the American generals that the Iraqis could be successfully blitzed. This proved to be the case. But thoughtful officers will replay the 2003 campaign many times, tweaking this element or that, to better understand what a future foe might have done to trip up another such offensive.
Unfortunately, the use of wargaming in the American military is not universal. More officers have been exposed to wargaming over the past three decades, and more, and easier to use, wargames have been produced by the military in that period. As a result, most major units (division and higher headquarters) have a few wargame enthusiasts who can be trusted to run useful wargame studies. Commercial wargames are also popular, often filling in for the official wargames when the commercial ones will do the job quicker or easier.
The U.S. armed forces are also into one of their periodic efforts to encourage the greater use of military history. Officers are being encouraged to study military history more and learn from the past. This is leading some to combine their interest in military history with wargames. Historical wargames have long been of interest to a large civilian market (OK, maybe a million people or so worldwide). Historical wargames are a subset of the military history field and allow practitioners to investigate the "what ifs?" of past battles. While the military is doing that with recent operations, there's never been a lot of interest in doing the same thing with past (Vietnam, Korea, World War II and earlier) campaigns. But doing so would demonstrate that many aspects of warfare are timeless, despite dramatic changes in weapons and equipment. This, officers have discovered, provides a more accurate view of friendly and enemy capabilities in possible future wars.
Taking the uncertainty out of battlefield "what ifs?" is not as difficult as it appears, if you have the right tools and know how to use them.