Chapter9.gif (961 bytes) Wargames at War

The Payoff, and Warnings

Wargaming has greatly influenced DoD decision making since the 1970s. While the older computer driven models are still used to forecast future needs for logistics and personnel levels, the manual games are now created all over the place to support local decision making. My lectures at the Army War College and similar places stressed the relative ease with which one could develop useful wargames on the spot. Fifteen years after the first of these lectures in the mid-1970s, that advice was bearing fruit. Thousands of officers went to work on existing games and new designs. In 1978, for example, an Army officer stationed in Thailand sent a game to the Army War College that was incorporated into the curriculum. There were similar cases closer to home.

This profusion of manual games based on the principles of historical wargame design, particularly the need for validation, had an increasing effect on all existing military wargames, models and simulations. By the early 1980s, it became increasingly difficult to shrug off real or imagined criticisms of unrealistic results in the older models. This created a fair amount of ferment in the modeling community during the late 1980s and early 1990s. What it came down to was that many of the older models used to generate analysis to support DoD budgets and military planning were probably quite inaccurate. No one on the inside is eager to admit this publicly, as these are often the same people who have stood behind, and sometimes created, these models for several decades. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact will have a lot to do with avoiding any real embarrassment in this area. The old models, focused as they were on the potential war with the Warsaw Pact, are now being quietly retired and replaced with a new generation of models. If not replaced, the older models are having their analytic guts replaced with stuff that is more likely to conform to the real world.

This does not assure the reality of models in the future. While history is a good guide, indeed an iron guide, for historical wargames, there is more opportunity to rewrite the history of battles not yet fought. It's now widely known that previous models often were modified so the results would conform to what the current defense policy was. This can still happen. A case in point is the extraordinarily low casualties in the Gulf war. This was off the scale as far as historical battles go and, while it may indicate a trend, it's not going to be the norm any time soon. But that doesn't mean that Congress won't demand that all future military actions be measured by how low the casualty count was in the Gulf, or how low some politicians thought it should be. The politicians also determine what the military objective is when they order the troops out, and even if the officers warn of high casualties, politicians will crucify any commander who loses more troops than the current political wisdom thinks should be lost. As a result of this mindset, there will be pressure on model builders to show low casualties, or at least shave the numbers a bit downward. Future wars have not been fought, so you can make adjustments, and making adjustments is the norm, not the exception.

This trifling with the numbers is nothing new and I have personal experience with it. My first run in with this drill was in 1976. I was designing the Firefight game for the US Army Infantry School. They wanted a realistic game of small unit combat in an central European environment. Part of that environment was a lot of underbrush and trees. We had people go out, literally, into similar terrain and check the lines of sight (unobstructed view) gunners would have. The game showed that you rarely got a clear shot for more than 500 meters. Several Bundeswehr studies of west German terrain in the 1960s and 1970s showed the same effect. When our Infantry School liaison saw the map and realized that tanks were not going to be able to use their long range guns to full effect, he said something would have to be done. I suggested another game map showing desert terrain. No good, we were told, the emphasis must be on the wooded terrain of central Europe. And because the Army was still diligently studying the Israeli experience in the 1973 war, they wanted the troops to experience the usefulness of long range tank fire. After much talking back and forth, it was agreed that we would strip the underbrush and many of the trees from the game map (which was taken from actual Army maps of training areas in Germany and Georgia) and even flatten a few troublesome hills. Now the troops could get those 2,000 meter shots their commanders were so found of. In the game, anyway. It's a good thing the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1989, because there were still a lot of US Army commanders who had visions of long range tank shooting in Central Europe. After the incidents of 3-4,000 meter shots in the Iraqi desert, many probably still believe they'd get the same results in Europe. Fortunately, the troops (and I was one for three years) are remarkably free of the delusions of their commanders. Unfortunately, the commanders make the policy, give the orders and generally structure the environment the troops will have to fight in.

Another example was the second change the Infantry School wanted to make in Firefight. As was my practice in tactical level games, I made an allowance for "command control" problems. That is, you could be certain that some of your orders would not be carried out, and you never knew exactly which ones. Bad communications, inept subordinates, misunderstandings, the reasons are endless. Yet every war and every army suffers from these problems to one extent or another. The friendly fire casualties in the Gulf war were just one of the more obvious manifestations of this problem. In the games, I assign a degree of command and control difficulty to each unit in proportion to its historical performance. The Infantry School dismissed any problems with command control out of hand. "The US Army doesn't have any problems with command control," I was told. Telling a former enlisted man in the combat arms such nonsense was a big mistake. I'd been waiting twelve years (since my discharge) to chew out an officer for assuming they were in complete control in the field. So I had a good time of it, explaining the battlefield facts of life to the poor wretch from the Infantry School. No go, however, so in Firefight command and control would function as every proper commander wished they would. The Army obviously was not yet ready for the lessons of history. Vietnam was at that point still in the category of a bad memory. In a few years the Vietnam experience did become history, was studied and by the early 1980s command control problems were being addressed. You got to have patience in this business.

Sometimes patience isn't enough and events overtake poor modeling and wargaming. For nearly fifty years, the Warsaw Pact and NATO armies faced each other in Central Europe. Throughout the period, US modeling always predicted a high risk of the Russians quickly sweeping to the Rhine, and beyond. In all the modeling I have done, this was rarely the result. When all the quantitative and qualitative factors of both sides were taken into account, the Russians were faced with a slender chance of victory, at best. Ironically, on the other side of the Iron Curtain it was taken as an article of faith that the Russian divisions would cut right through the NATO defenders. In 1989, glasnost allowed several Russian General Staff model builders to admit that their studies had also shown that Russian victory in Europe would be unlikely. But until recently it was considered a career threatening move to push these history based models too forcefully.

The next round of blowing smoke will involve restructuring the armed forces for the vastly different military needs of a post Cold War world. The armed forces need accurate models to determine who well, or poorly, they can carry out the missions given them by the government. We were lucky in the Gulf, we finally got to fight that big air/armor battle in Central Europe. We were well trained and equipped. Instead of the Russians, we had the less capable Iraqis using Russian equipment. Fate may not be so benevolent the next time around.

Finding Wargamers

Fate has less to do with the effective use of wargaming than does the presence of individuals who understand wargaming and are willing to stick their necks out to initiate and preserve wargame use. Wargames are very complex beasts and few people are capable of understanding them. This is unfortunate, but in my thirty years of working with wargames, I have been repeatedly reminded that the talent for understanding wargames is spread quite thin throughout the population. Probably no more than a few percent of the population can grasp the internal concepts of wargames. Somewhat more people can use manual wargames, or at least go through the motions. Wargames running on computers are much easier to use as there is less about the internal workings of the game you have to understand and more clear cut decisions you can make. About a quarter of the population can profitably handle a good computer wargame. Because of this, the history of wargame use in the military is replete with situations where wargames disappeared simply because there weren't enough people with the wargame "talent" available to keep wargames in use. For this reason wargames disappeared from the US army before World War II, and didn't reappear until the 1970s. Even the US Navy, which has long ago made wargames part of their very fabric, has had periods where the wargame centers were largely run by people who could use wargames but didn't really understand what they were all about. The US Air Force, created from the Army Air Force in the late 1940s when wargaming was largely forgotten in the army, took over twenty five years to rediscover wargames. This was an interesting development, as the highly technical air force had plenty of well educated, scientifically inclined people, a group that produces most wargamers. But until a potential wargamer discovers what wargames are, and then rises to high rank, no one will be issuing orders to begin using wargames. Eventually, the air force did this. But it took a quarter of a century.

Designing wargames requires a special, and rare, set of mental tools. Go through the last chapter of this book again if you have to be reminded of this. The manual wargames, unlike the computer wargames, bring players into intimate contact with the details of the games design and mechanics and for this reason there were very few people who could handle playing the manual games. In effect, the audience for manual wargames is pretty much restricted to those who are capable of designing them. Early on, I realized this and found that it only took a little pressure to convince potential designers that they could do it, and many of them did. As a result, the several dozen designers I trained in the 1960s and 1970s can be found today designing a lot of the games used by the military (as well as doing commercial products, and sometimes both). Many more wargamers simply took me at my word, "if you can play them, you can design them."

Computer wargames are a different matter, as you do not have personally manipulate and comprehend all the details of such highly automated games. To design a decent computer wargame, it's still safest to go back to a manual design first.

The military is run in such a way that unique talents are often not recognized, much less put to use. Those with wargame design talent rarely find themselves in jobs dealing with wargame design. Even then, most military people are only in an assignment before moving on. This is a major reason why civilian consulting firms are hired to do a lot of the wargame work. The civilian firms seek out people with specific talents and keep them in the same job for a long time. But for many decades, even the consulting firms could not recognize wargame design talent. This situation created all those models, simulations and wargames between 1945 and the 1970s that, by and large, were not of much use. Through most of this period, the US military high command (the JCS, Joint Chiefs of Staff) maintained an organization devoted, in theory, to wargaming. Whether it was called the Joint Wargames Agency, SAGA or whatever, it always had only people who's turn it was to serve with the JCS and rarely were these people who really understood what a wargame was. Ray Macedonia was one of these, serving on the staff of SAGA for several years. But Ray was one of those people who could understand a wargame, yet until the mid 1970s, he'd never seen a real one. Once he did, he went looking for other wargamers and got the show on the road.

In the past, similar individuals in the right position at the right time, either discovered wargames or reinvented them. But these situations are rather rare and for this reason, wargaming has always been a sometime thing. When I was first called down to lecture at the Army War College in the 1970s, I immediatly realized that the most important thing to do was to make as many people there aware of what a wargame was (whether they understood them or not) and to drive home the point that there were many wargamers in the military and all you had to do was find them and put them to work.

Thus, for over fifteen years, I have been making the same point about knowing what a wargame, and a wargamer is, finding them and letting these rare individuals perform their magic. This approach has worked. As long as it continues to work, wargaming will not disappear again.

Simulators and Air Force Wargaming

One wargame area where the OR crowd did shine was in vehicle simulators. Over half a century ago the first aircraft simulators were developed to aid pilot training. As computers became more powerful, so did the aircraft simulators. Today, they are remarkably similar to those you can buy to play on your PC, although the military ones often cost more than the aircraft they simulate and are extremely realistic. Simulators are also available for complex ground vehicles (tanks and APCs). Simulators, as the name implies, simulate the operation of a specific vehicle. This is a much less complex task than simulating an entire battle. It works, and as computers become more powerful, it also works with a larger number of simulators operating together. So the "OR" approach to wargaming has reached the point where they can accurately recreate several aircraft, or several dozen armored vehicles, in combat.

One of the most ambitious ground vehicle combat simulators is Simnet. This is basically a network of inexpensive armored vehicle simulators built from off the shelf components. Moreover, the PCs the run these individual simulators are electronically linked to others in the same area and still more Simnet simulators around the world. Thus a tank battalion in the US can, via satellite link, fight it out with a tank battalion in Germany. Simnet also provides helicopter and air froce aircraft cooperation. Simnet has been in the works since the late 1970s and has been quite popular with the troops, as well as very effective. The army has wisely decided to expand Simnet use and improve the technology. Simnet is a rare example of military procurement where civilian technology is quickly, and cheaply, adapted to military use.

The Air Force, for all their technology, never got into wargames in the traditional sense, but instead invested heavily in simulators. The Air Force was, and still is, a pioneer of a branch of wargaming called "simulators." These highly computerized devices simulate flight realistically enough so the pilots get nearly as much out of "flying" the simulator as they do flying actual aircraft. But until recently, the Air Force didn't do much wargaming as such. They had some planning models for logistics, and developed one of the first military computerized parts inventory systems. But during the 1980s, the Air Force War College spent a lot of money setting up an Air Force Wargaming center. For the first time in the nations history, all three services (plus the Marines) were heavily involved in wargaming.

  Professional Wargames and Military Decision Making

  Wargaming Abroad

  Table of Contents

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