Chapter9.gif (961 bytes) Wargames at War

The Military Experience with Wargames

Wargames in the military have a long history, as the concept of working out battles ahead of time struck many ancient soldiers as an easy way to gain an advantage. Chess was an ancient wargame developed to train apprentice commanders on the finer points of battlefield operations as they then existed. In the 1700s and 1800s, chess developed into more complex wargames that most gamers today would recognize. It was only in the last thirty years that hobby wargames came to infiltrate the previously computer dominated regions of professional military gaming.

Military wargaming has been quite popular and effective from the early 19th century through World War II. These wargames were quite similar, and in sometimes identical, to the wargames described in this book. But several things happened after World War II which took wargaming down a blind alley. These events were:

  • Success of Operations Research techniques in supporting military operations during World War II.
  • Identifying wargames with the Germans, the major symbol of evil during World War II and a regular user of wargames throughout the war.
  • A move away from the use of historical study to formulate future plans and policy (especially in the army and air force).

Russia still wargamed, but under a thick blanket of secrecy. The US, which dominated the rest of the worlds military thought, had lost the habit of wargaming. The US Navy still wargamed, but the army and air force dominated the US armed forces and neither of these services had any more interest in wargaming.

The net result was that the traditional, history based manual wargame was replaced by computer driven simulations of current and future events, designed using operations research techniques. This caused four unfortunate results.

First, operations research was not capable of accurately modeling all the chaotic events that take place in combat. This has only recently been acknowledged as a serious problem and is finally being addressed.

Second, the Cold War created an atmosphere in the Pentagon that made dispassionate analysis of US and Russian forces difficult and usually impossible for political reasons. The Russians were the enemy and enormous US defense expenditures could only be justified if the Russians were always portrayed as an awesome threat. Realistic, history based, wargames would show Russian limitations and this was not acceptable.

Third, the discarding of military history as a tool made it impossible to catch the errors. The OR based wargames created an artificial world where the possible outcomes fit the preconceived ideas of senior military and government leaders. With the historical approach, you could get a reality check from recent experience. The OR based wargames soon lost all credibility with the military, and much of the civilian leadership.

Lastly, the problems noted above caused wargamings original purpose, officer training for combat command, to fall into disuse. Instead, the "models and simulations" were given the job of finding out what future wars would require in terms of weapons and ammunition. In other words, "wargaming" was reduced to a logistics support function. These mainframe based "wargames" were also used to justify most new weapons systems. The operations research approach had turned into a Frankenstein monster.

What Exactly is Operations Research?

Operations research (OR) is a 20th century technique combining science and common sense. It sounds arcane and intimidating, but the concept is basically very simple. What OR tries to do is get to the bottom of a problem and implement a solution. For example, an OR practitioner would improve the manufacture of an item (like automobiles) by carefully examining all the steps and components that go into making a car and then systematically measuring and testing all of those steps and procedures to find which ones could be better or more efficient. Widely used by industry to fine tune their operations, the military got its first exposure to it during World War II. During that war, military operations became a great deal more technical and OR was a technique that was in the right place at the right time. OR was widely used in logistics, manufacturing, the battle against German submarines and by the Air Forces.

Operations Research in Wargaming

Ironically, many wargaming techniques are the same or similar to those used in Operations Research. Wargames are not as scientifically rigorous as OR, but that is largely because the first wargame designers realized that attempts at simulation were doomed to failure because of the complex nature of warfare and, because the earliest wargames had no computers to assist with the bookkeeping. A similar situation is routinely encountered with weather forecasting, with the result that forecasts for more than 48 hours in the future become completely unreliable. More powerful computers have gradually made longer range forecasts practical. Yet warfare is even more changeable than the weather, while there is less plentiful (and less accurate) historical data available on warfare. But wargaming does has one advantage over weather forecasting, and it is summed up in the ancient military saying, "it's not a matter of who's better, but who's worse." Victory goes to the side that has more advantages, and playing out the maneuvers and uncertainty of warfare in a crude wargame tends to give the wargamer the edge.

Part of this "Wargamers Edge" derives from the analysis the wargamer must perform to play the game or, as many officers do, create their own on the spot. A wargame is a very organized look at a military situation, because a wargame must have precise rules and accurate information in order for it to portray a military situation with any degree of success. Because battles occur with much less frequency than the weather, most soldiers have only a vague idea of what combat will be like. They are much more likely to be familiar with, and prepared for, say, a blizzard. Wargames give the soldier a hint of what combat is like, and this provides an edge which is often crucial. Yet many military users of wargames are unaware that they are using OR techniques (albeit usually the simpler ones) to create and use their games. Many OR professionals ARE aware of this connection, which is why many in the OR field, particularly those with military experience, have taken to wargames in the past twenty years.

OR professionals are accustomed to examining military events from a very narrow perspective. Wargames enable them to see combat situations in a broader context. Wargames require analysis of terrain, Order of Battle, losses and many other factors. Those who have used historical wargames also become familiar with the techniques used to connect real events with the same events depicted in a wargame.

  Wargames, Models, and Simulations

  Wargaming and the Professional Warriors

  Table of Contents

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