Wargaming, redefined: how synthetic environment decision support tools will usher in a new state of play
The sea state was a solid 6 that day. Personnel on board the ship held tight to railings and steadied themselves against the bulkheads as they walked. But calmness prevailed – all was still going to plan, since the planners had anticipated and accounted for the choppier conditions.
Spirits lifted as the ship neared its objective – but this was to be short-lived. As the port emerged through the rain, it became obvious that the majority of its ships were scuttled. Realisation dawned: the adversary had preemptively sabotaged the port, scuppering plans and sinking the hearts of all aboard.
Were this real life, the operations centre would be furiously busy as personnel rushed to adapt and pivot the plan. But in a dimly-lit board room, the scene tells a different story. With a sigh, the adjudicator tables his coffee. ‘Let’s take five, reset and go again,’ he says.
The wargame is in full swing, its actors making decisions on the simulated environment under governed rules and adjudication models that specify how actions affect both actors and the environment. In this case, despite their best efforts to transport troops across rough, unfriendly seas, the destruction of the port was a setback that none of the participants had anticipated.
Military planners often play wargames. They’re used to analyse and validate Courses of Action (against an adversary’s own most likely and most dangerous Courses of Action). They help you find weaknesses in your plan, and also uncover overlooked opportunities. The term ‘game’ can be misleading: these are highly sophisticated war simulations developed off the back of careful analysis of the operating environment, the various audiences and the multiple factors and features at play.
Wargames are a great way of stress-testing a finalised Course of Action whilst inviting debate on its efficacy and viability. But with so many unknowns at play, the process can be slow, laborious and hinge on having the right people available at the right time – for a long time. Players have to be in the same place, flying round the world to roll a dice or draw a card. And they can only play one game at a time, test one plan at a time. When plans go awry, the physical board, pieces and players need to be reset. But what if there was a way to surface the ‘what ifs’ of a plan as it’s formulated – and act, react and adjust accordingly?
Iterative wargaming for decision making at the speed of relevance
Work on Improbable’s operational decision support tool started mid-2019, and I had the pleasure of being involved to invigorate this new approach to wargaming.
Through the power of modelling and simulation (M&S), we could test parts of our plan as it developed, rather than wargaming the whole plan at the end of the process. Using the decision support tool enabled ‘what if’ analysis – What if I closed off this power network? What if this information narrative was used here? What if I sent the forces this way? And so on.
Essentially, we could iteratively wargame our plan as it was being mapped out. When ‘no plan survives contact’ – and things have a tendency to fall apart at the first hurdle – the ability to identify obstacles early and rapidly innovate the Course of Action is, for me, a critical shift in the application of wargaming.
We took the traditional wargaming model, and turned it on its head. Instead of building a plan and then testing the forks that stem from it, we started with the ‘forks’ – or the ‘what ifs’ – and could iteratively stress-test these to rapidly hone in on the most effective Course of Action.
The conundrum that planners often face is the amount of time available for challenge and wargaming – being able to ‘micro’ wargame as the plan is developed enables the production of richer, more validated Courses of Action, which in turn enables the production of better plans when time is limited for traditional ‘full’ wargames. That said, a note of caution: there is still a requirement to wargame the whole of a plan* – not just small pieces – so wargaming as a formal activity will still remain.
From concrete answers to actionable insight and back again
I mentioned modelling and simulation before. Wargaming differs in that it rests on human decision. As a result – and to their credit – wargames are inherently unpredictable, something that contrasts with M&S, which can enable runs of multiple iterations to develop precise answers to very specific questions.
Take a simple mathematical model. If a helicopter flies at 120 knots in clear weather and 60 knots as the weather deteriorates to heavy rain, we can use the known speeds, distances and weather forecasts to calculate that, in order to get from point A to B, it’ll take the helicopter 𝑥 hours.
With wargaming, the goal is to glean insights, rather than extract specific answers. In the above example, what would happen if the airspace became contested? What heights and speeds might the helicopter have to fly at? What types of threats might be present? What if clearances aren’t received? What happens if an aircraft is downed? Is the mission even still achievable?
When modelling and simulation is combined with wargaming – as in the case of our operational decision support tool – we unlock a truly novel approach to operational planning and decision making. Users could have the ability to run models and simulations with fixed parameters hundreds of times to get very precise answers. They could also experiment with scenarios: ‘Let me run an environment when it’s clear weather. And again, but when it’s thick cloud and rain. When the threats are elevated, or when communications are degraded.’
They can then combine all these multiple runs throughout the planning process to iteratively wargame a plan – so what is arrived at is not only specific and auditable, but also logical and explainable, as opposed to arriving at a finalised plan and then attempting to fire-fight its shortcomings.
The icing on the cake with this approach is that the context around every decision and discussion is preserved. Every outcome of an explored ‘what if?’ scenario is automated and catalogued, so they can be interrogated quickly and easily. Rather than reset the board, users can sift through the tool’s file structure, adjust a previously made decision, run the simulation again, and get answers at the speed of relevance.
The future of wargaming
Any discussion around wargaming comes with an acceptance that it can be a ‘loaded term’. As contemporary events show, modern warfare often isn’t war in the traditional sense; it’s a virtual and physical battlespace comprised of hybrid threats, subthreshold conflict and grey-zone operations. In this fluid operating environment, things move fast, prompting the need to test multiple plans, to change those plans and test again – and do all this at machine speed.
As a result, when we talk about wargaming, we have moved on from red forces v blue forces. The term should instead capture all manner of trade-offs, response options and decision-making across all domains and every level of personnel, whether war is involved or not. Equally, we must accept that these are games only in the mechanism in which they are played out – the inputs are pivotal, the process is essential and the outputs can be absolutely crucial.
This is especially significant if we want advantage-winning integration across departments, agencies, organisations and international partners, not just across the operational domains in space and time. We must accept that while wargaming is a perfectly adequate term for some, others may give it a wide berth – what is clear though is that collaborative synthetic environments can enable all organisations to extract the same insights and benefits of this process, harmonising national security and resilience responses.
Making the concept of wargaming more accessible is one half of the battle. The other half is capitalising on the potential that operational decision support tools hold for ushering in a new approach to wargaming – one which puts onus on iterative decision making and decision rehearsal whilst a plan is being formulated, not after it’s been finalised. Should we win both battles, the future for wargaming in supporting personnel, policy makers and decision takers at every level is bright indeed.
– *At the operational level wargaming tends to focus on Decisive Conditions, critical events, phases or blocks of time, not the whole operation from start to finish.