Michael Peck’s article on COIN Gaming

Firmer Ground Suggests that the U.S. Army is getting better at simulating COIN in its efforts to train soldiers for COIN.

Its a good article, but one which when one looks critically at what the Army is doing has a fair amount of “damning with faint priase”. I responded over at Small Wars Journal on the topic, cross posted below:

Changing peoples attitude and belief systems (what is often the object of the stuff we recently have been lumping togeter as “COIN”) is not an easy task. In the case of simulations and COIN, you have a case of Simulation community (owners of a very nice set of woodworking tools) being told that this weekend, they have to entertain their 3 young grand-daughters who want their friends to come over. Totally outside their wheelhouse. But gosh darn it if they are not going to have the best weekend building birdhouses, and learning to use tools.

“The exercise community has not generally been successful in developing COIN models and simulations that can predict outcomes with a reasonable degree of confidence,” he said. “This is particularly true of games looking at complex contingencies, where psychological and social lines of operation, such as information operations and political negotiation, are hard to capture in mathematical models.”

Not able to proedict outcomes. Really? I’m shocked…SHOCKED!

The crux of the issue is that Combined Arms warfare has been a very determinsitic and mechanistic discipline. Moving large military units, supplying them in the field, applying their firepower, and assessing the results were subject to encapsulation in mathematics that gave a sence of predictabily (those pesky outliers always gummed up the REAL execution, but IN THEORY we knew what was going on…)

Now we have moved from the realm of turning the crank on a really complicated machine, to one of trying to convince people to change their mind, to accept new – to them radical – ideas about how to live. The closest thing to a theory for that is Everett Rodgers theory of Diffusion of Innovation.

And unfortunately it is a descriptive, not a prescriptive theory. It tells you the relationships between elements and effects, but there is no math associated with it that lets you predict what will happen in a given situation.

So this group (the M&S crowd) that has really nice tools for building things, has to look beyond their toolset if they are going to succeed in entertaing their grand-daughters all weekend. One which they are sure they can accomplish by employing their tried and true tools.

“We were able to show when there were additional civil affairs teams, the presence of those teams changed what tasks the company commander chose to conduct,” Lambert said. “Company commanders did less kinetic events. It wasn’t how they were thinking in the beginning, but they changed because the civil affairs teams were talking to them, and convinced them to use a softer approach. This changed the number of kinetic actions that took place. And those that did take place, they were getting better information, more pinpoint targeting, and less collateral damage.”

WOW! So if someone has only guns and experts in using guns, they use guns all the time, but if you give them alternatives to guns, and experts in the alternatives, those get added to the mix. $6million dollars of simulation engine to figure that out???

You bring home the new table saw to build those birdhouses, and the girls all start playing in the box it came in… They just don’t appreciate the creative building process…

Another exercise is planned this year to test the effects of adding company intelligence support teams.

3 guesses what the outcome of THAT is going to be…

Is this stuff really that significant? Is this really the best we can do? Do we REALLY believe that we are going to come up with simulations that can predict outcomes of efforts to get people to give up generations of cultural baggage and “come into the 21st century”? Can these guys predict how many times tears will erupt in the midst of a weekend alone with the grand-kids??? Might they have to look beyond building birdhouses?

“If we’re talking about how a foot patrol in Baghdad affects how the populations view their government and the insurgents, I’ve got no idea how to model that.”

And anybody who says they do have a bridge they are selling too. ITs not rational, its not measuable, its constantly changing and challenges the basic tenets of what it means to “model” something (i.e to represent it in simplified form so the behavior of the actual system can be understood.)

How do you do that when it is part of a truely complex system that cannot be simplified without losing the salient behavioral characteristics?

“As we get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and start looking toward Africa, what we would love to do is to prevent any sort of armed intervention from being necessary, by understanding the way those populations are reacting and maybe getting in on the ground floor to help them be more stable,” Appleget said. “We are not going to forecast irregular wars happening in Africa. But what we understand from [irregular warfare] is that it’s all about the population. We’ll get a sense of those populations, how they change over time, and how they react to different stimuli.”

That assumes that is an overall governing ruleset that allows these dynamics to be characterised. From everything we know, there aren’t. Read Rodgers Diffusion of information and how simple things like getting people to use a source of clean water work when you add in all the cultural baggage.

“Most interesting to me is how this will play out with senior leaders,” Lambert said. “They are used to the kind of results we portrayed in the past, the combat simulations where you get X percent of goodness via metrics like the number of threats killed. It will be interesting to see how they respond to these softer assertions where we say, ‘If you put five more civil affairs teams in, it changes how company commanders conduct operations.’”

“Our senior leaders were spoiled by the way we did combat modeling. We came up with numbers that they could use to support acquisition decisions. Then we became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and DoD said, ‘OK, where are my models? You’ve been at this for six months. What’s taking you so long?’ Ignoring the fact that our physics-based combat models took years and years to develop, and if you look under the hood, they’re not perfect, either.”

Gee, so our stabs at the “easy problem” were not really as good as we sold them to be… We oversold past capability and now are reaping what we have sown.

Maybe instead of trying to make fun out of building birdhouses, it might be better to build a doll house and play with them iinstead. Maybe instead of trying to model and predict what will happen when we perform COIN actions, or to imply that if we train people to perform those activities to a strict enough Measure of Performance, then we will get favorable results.

Maybe we should find ways to educate those we send out to diffuse new ideas with an appreciation of what they are up against? Is a tool that tells me that a given cours of action is better than another 60% of the time, rather than 50-50 REALLY that helpful. Will saying I used it protect my career if i follow it and happen to have the 40% come up 4 or 5 times in a row?

Don’t pound people over the head that using the tools is going to get happy results. Teach them to be creative, adaptive and flexible and reward them for taking chances and following their instincts rather than relying on models and sims to give them the right answer.

“The best you’re going to do is get insights and give senior leaders a kind of probability space of different outcomes if they do this or that.”


How about educating leaders to be make decisions under uncertainty based on developing relationships, following their intuition and a basic moral compass, you know, like we all do in “real life” when it comes to our families, friends and collegues? Who would base thier actions in these relationships on a “decision tool” somebody told them they should use?

Rather than relying on a simulation-based decision aid whose only saving grace is that by declaring it “officially correct” one never has to worry about risk to their career if they do what it recommends.

Secure from Cynical Rant Stations 😉

About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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1 Response to Michael Peck’s article on COIN Gaming

  1. Skip Cole says:

    > So if someone has only guns and experts in using guns, they use guns all the time, but if you give them alternatives to guns, and experts in the alternatives, those get added to the mix.

    Getting ‘the mix’ correct is the real issue, and then developing the force that can deliver it. We are still not sure on what that mix should be, and in absence of that clear picture, commanders will tend to do what they are just comfortable with, or what is least likely to blow up in their face.

    One big, almost invisible, problem that I see is creating the right incentive structure to create the force that can do really tough things. Others have pointed out that at one moment in time one needs to be a steely eyed killer, and then the very next moment, someone with the patience and decorum of Mr. Rodgers. A hard mix of skills, attitudes and proclivities to recruit for, and to develop in people.

    But even if we had theories that were ‘mostly right,’ and we knew how to develop the force we need, selling that might not be possible. Right now our nation and armed forces are in transition, and its hard to see if what will come out will be what we will need. In the absence of solid knowledge, our political leaders will (just like the commander on the ground) go with the most comfortable, or the least likely to explode. This is seldom the optimal.

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