The Return of Wargaming:
How DoD Aims to Re-Imagine Warfare

When the Deputy Secretary of Defense says to play more games, take note.

Over the past year, at least four directives from the highest levels of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the services, including a February 2015 memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, called for more wargaming.

“I was concerned the Department’s ability to test concepts, capabilities and plans using simulation as well as other techniques, had atrophied,” Work said by email to GovTechWorks. “While resetting and reconstituting the Joint Force after so many years of war, we needed to turn our attention toward numerous emerging challenges to U.S. global leadership.

“In this dynamic environment, Department leaders are making important programmatic decisions to meet those challenges. Wargaming is an important means of informing those decisions and spurring innovation.”

The Pentagon requested more than $55 million for wargaming for fiscal 2017, and more than $525 million over the five-year Future Years Defense Program spending plan.

The new attention has wargame experts not just pleased, but amazed. “Wargaming has gone through periods of popularity and disfavor, but I have never seen in the past 40 years any situation like this with the senior leadership,” says Peter Perla, senior research scientist with the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and a leading wargaming expert.

Already, a new classified repository has been created where wargame results can be shared across the Department of Defense, and which so far contains the results of more than 250 games. Work has also formed a special Defense Wargaming Alignment Group (DWAG) to ensure wargames focus on issues important to senior leaders and that results are shared with those leaders.

Work’s February 2015 memorandum said the Pentagon’s new wargaming program will focus on three windows of time:

  • Near-term (from now to five years): operations and logistics
  • Mid-term (five to 15 years): new capabilities and operational concepts for issues, such as overcoming anti-access/access denial (A2AD) strategies
  • Long-term (beyond 15 years): technology trends and future challenges

Work suggested wargaming techniques including workshops, Red Team exercises in which players assume the roles of enemy leaders, tabletop exercises, seminar-style wargames and modeling and simulation.

Within months after the deputy Defense Secretary set things in motion, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus ordered the Navy and Marine Corps to deliver by September 2015 a department-wide wargaming plan and a series of Navy analytical games to be conducted in 2016 and 2017. Then in January, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson released his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” which called for the Navy to “test and refine concepts through focused wargaming, modeling and simulations.”

Renewed interest in wargaming comes as the U.S. military is preparing a new defense policy called the Third Offset Strategy, which seeks to overcome rivals’ superior numbers with American technological ingenuity. The first offset strategy is considered to be President Eisenhower’s embrace of Massive Retaliation in the 1950s, which relied on nuclear superiority to rival the Soviet Union’s superior number of conventional forces. Again to overcome Soviet numerical superiority, and the second offset strategy saw the U.S. focus on smart weapons in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, China and Russia are fielding increasingly sophisticated forces and America’s technological advantages are diffusing into smaller powers, such as Iran. So U.S. defense leaders are calling for a third offset strategy.

In a January 2015 speech, Work cited adversaries’ improved nuclear weapons, new anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, long-range strike capabilities, counterspace capabilities, cyber and electronic warfare and special operations forces as examples of emerging threats to U.S. military might.

Cyber is of particular concern. Cloaked in secrecy, cyberwarfare is difficult to incorporate into wargames. But not including it jeopardizes the validity of games that attempt to simulate conflicts against opponents who will certainly use cyberweapons against U.S. forces. As cyber attacks become more sophisticated, modeling and testing strategies for both offensive and defensive operations is essential for U.S. military planners.

More broadly, wargaming offers a critical means of exploring and evaluating new technologies and operational concepts.

Wargaming “can potentially make the difference between wise and unwise investment trajectories and make our forces more successful in future conflicts,” Work noted in his 2015 directive.

Work told GovTechWorks that wargaming can help devise better strategies and optimize resources. “To more effectively pursue innovation and a Third Offset Strategy, avoid operational and technological surprise, while making the best use of limited resources, the Department needed to reinvigorate wargaming across the Department,” Work said. “Besides reinvigorating wargaming, we also need to institutionalize it and better integrate wargaming results with budget development. After all, wargaming is extremely beneficial. It helps develop leaders and enables us to go after new and innovative concepts and capabilities.”

But ensuring that wargaming results make it up the chain has been a challenge. “Wargame results are neither shared laterally across the defense enterprise nor up the chain to influence senior level decision-making,” wrote Work and co-author Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a December 2015 article titled “Revitalizing Wargaming is Necessary to be Prepared for Future Wars.” The article appeared in the defense blog War on the Rocks. “In other words,” they wrote, “even if wargames are generating innovative insights and suggesting needed operational and organizational changes, the people in position to act upon them are generally unaware of the insights or their import.”

What DoD wants now from wargames is changing, CNA’s Perla said. “I think they’re looking for more innovative ideas and strategic thinking, rather than quantitative analysis.”

What Is a Wargame?
Defining wargaming is both subjective and a matter of debate.

In their wargaming article, Work and Selva recalled what may be the most famous example of how wargaming set the course for future battle success. A series of U.S. Naval War College wargames in the 1920s and 1930s proved invaluable in World War II. They quote Adm. Chester Nimitz saying the fight with “Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise, absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics towards the end of the war. We had not visualized those.”

What the Pentagon needs today is neither “Call of Duty”-style shooter games played on a teenager’s Xbox, nor tactical first-person military training simulations like Virtual Battlespace 3, though these do have their value as training tools. Rather, when it comes to wargames, defense officials need sophisticated analytical tools to test new technologies. They also need strategies to help planners deal with emerging concepts for 21st Century conflicts, from maritime access denial to cyberwarfare.

A recent series of RAND Corporation wargames provide an example. RAND studied what might happen in the case of a Russian invasion of the Baltic States, with military and civilian players from various U.S. and NATO organizations. The wargame found that Russia could overrun the Baltics in less than three days – and that a seven-brigade NATO force could potentially deter an attack.

Perla, who wrote the seminal 1990 book, “The Art of Wargaming,” said DoD lost its focus on strategic wargaming over the past 20 years, focusing instead on campaign analysis. The difference is subtle but important: campaign analysis uses fixed scenarios but varies the numerical and technological components each time it is run, so there are varying numbers of platforms with varying capabilities. It’s a useful technique for making procurement decisions, because it allows campaign comparisons to decide which mix of forces and capabilities is most cost-effective.

But true wargaming by contrast, focuses on experimenting with the scenario itself, such as where the conflict is, who is participating and what strategies both sides use. “Campaign analysis attempts to quantity the relative effectiveness of forces conducting similar operations,” Perla explained. “Wargaming is about better ways of approaching the problem.”

Work and Perla point to a lesson learned by anyone who has ever played a strategy game against a computer employing artificial intelligence: There is no substitute for the wiles of a human opponent.

Computers can assist wargaming, but computers follow rules, while humans test their limits by breaking rules.

Or as Perla says: “When you’re facing a thinking human opponent who wants to crush you, it forces you to think more creatively.”


  1. Tyrone Bomba

    I’ve designed manual wargames semi-professionally since 1969 and professionally since 1988. The statement that “cyberwarfare is difficult to include in wargames” is nonsense.

    The way you handle it is (long story short) to include it in the game as a combat force multiplier, concentrating on its effects as applied rather than on the processes of its application.

  2. Buck Surdu

    I agree with you. You can represent the EFFECTS of cyber warfare in our conventional (kinetic) war-games quite easily. One must have the will to do so. We also have the ability to represent logistics, degraded communications, and other factors, but typically these capabilities get turned off by exercise directors before the event begins. Sad.
    Buck Surdu

  3. Chuck Turnitsa

    Completely concur. In both hobby and professional games, where outcome is the chief representational goal (i.e. – is my plan good or bad? Is my COA successful or not?), then representing the effects, as Buck mentioned, is perfectly fine.

    In a recent MORS presentation, the US Army’s C-WAM model developer mentioned that Cyber, ISR, and EW are painful to represent (at the process level), so instead they determine the effects, and which side has the edge in each. The side that has the edge in 2 of the 3 areas will then gain an odds benefit in the adjudication model. Simple, and something that has been being done in hobby wargames for decades (i.e. – column shift on the combat table, if you have an EW edge).

  4. Andrew Liebeknecht

    Commander’s intent and training objectives must be the main training focus for any good simulation. The commander knows his unit’s strengths and weaknesses better than anyone and in the gaming environment, it is a good time to fail and learn. To force what others believe is a good training package, is not the process and defeats the entire process.
    LTC (Ret)


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