Peter Perla on “Work – ing” Wargaming

Last November, in a memo on innovation Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated:

“A reinvigorated wargaming effort will develop and test alternative ways of achieving out strategic objectives and help us think more clearly about the future security environment.”

This spurred a memo on wargaming by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work that represents an important step in rebalancing what Dr. Perla describes as the “Cycle of Research” in his seminal book “Art of Wargaming”.

The cycle consists of wargaming, experimentation, and analysis working in harmony to achieve beneficial outcomes. This process can go in both directions:  inductively where specific observations from exercises, once analyzed, become a hypothesis that can be explored using wargaming resulting a theory about warfare; or deductively in which case a hypothesis can result from wargaming, which through analysis, can be used to construct an exercise where it can be tested.

“Agitating” the cycle like washing machine, back and forth, provides the most robust understanding:

Perla cycle of research by pournelle

Sec. Work states:

“When done right, wargames spur innovation and provide a mechanism for addressing emerging challenges, exploiting new technologies, and shaping the future security environment”.

He also directed a wargaming summit to occur within 45 days (of February 9th, so already in the past…if anybody heard anything about it, inquiring minds and all that…).

My suspicion is that the summit spurred the issuance of a memo from Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus the subject of which was wargaming directing several important actions, one of which is an implementation plan to be reviewed and approved by 30 Sep 15. There is currently much speculation in the wargaming community about that plan, who will do it, and where responsibility for action will reside.

After the Work memo came out Dr. Perla drafted a paper he titled “Work-ing Wargaming”, while awaiting an opportunity to publish it officially, he has given me permission to preview it here for comment by our august company assembled.


Work-ing Wargaming by Peter P. Perla

Over the past six months, wargaming has experienced a surge of attention among defense professionals. This upsurge was spurred in large part by a memo from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in November and especially a follow-on memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense (DepSecDef) Robert Work just this February. This high-level interest may be new, but serious, professional wargaming has been practiced for nearly 200 years. Sometimes it has pointed the way toward success. Too often it has been oversold by charlatans, abused by the cynical, and ignored by those who most need to learn from the insights it can provide. Today we face a critical historic inflection point. We can’t afford to screw up this opportunity. It’s time to get wargaming right. It’s too important not to.

In November, Secretary Hagel’s memo called for heightened innovation within the U.S. military establishment. He directed the department to develop “a reinvigorated wargaming effort,” calling on wargamers and decision-makers to make better use of wargames to “develop and test alternative ways of achieving our strategic objectives and help us think more clearly about the future security environment.” As a long-time student and active proponent of the proper use of wargaming, I was encouraged to think that finally the front office had recognized the unique value of wargaming for spurring innovation.

In his February memo, titled “Wargaming and Innovation,” DepSecDef Work wrote, “to most effectively pursue an innovative third offset strategy, avoid operational and technological surprise, and make the best use of our limited resources, we need to reinvigorate, institutionalize, and systematize wargaming across the Department.” Wargaming is particularly well suited to understanding this “third” offset because many of the current and future challenges we face require new ways of thinking and creative solutions to problems that we don’t yet know exist.

As with so many DoD directives, these memos contain what we in the business like to call “goods and others.”

One of the first “goods I noticed was the DepSecDef’s spelling of wargaming as a single word rather than the more frequently used “war gaming.” A small victory, perhaps, but one from which I take some encouragement. I have been fighting that fight for some 25 years as both a symbolic recognition of the dual nature of wargaming and as a means of distinguishing real wargaming from “war gaming.” The latter term has been applied broadly to anything related to but different from real war, ranging from the sadly widespread BOGSAT (bunch of guys sitting around a table) to a full-scale exercise, with tanks, planes, ships, and soldiers maneuvering in the field or at sea.

Another “good” is his recognition of the need for reinvigorating and institutionalizing wargaming across DoD. Although some form of wargaming has been practiced within the Department since the late 1940s, there were long periods during which real wargaming was moribund, replaced for the most part by glorified BOGSAT seminars—almost always the antithesis of vigorous—or rigorous—pursuit of innovation. There is an urgent need to pump new energy into the system to push wargaming over the barrier of skepticism and disillusionment so that it may become a full partner with operations research, systems analysis, and real-world evolutions in pushing the Department toward a renewed cycle of innovation.

But I fear some hidden “others,” most of which are lurking in one word: “systematize.” There are far too many organizations new to or unfamiliar with wargaming that see an opportunity in claiming to have a new and improved “system” for doing wargaming. Most of these sudden converts are either purveyors or patrons of big (and expensive) computer simulations at one extreme, or the practitioners and participants of bogsattery at the other.

We have already seen the signs of bureaucratic antibodies rising to fight against new application of real wargaming as seminars, workshops, and facilitated discussions are suddenly re-characterized as wargames. And what I like to call CSWPs—pronounced caz-whips, for computer simulations without players—are touted as precisely the sort of “systematized” and high-tech solutions needed.

As a long-time proponent of wargaming, I must challenge such cynical non-responsiveness to DepSecDef’s call for innovation.

Real wargaming is not about the unverifiable quantification of computer models of warfare—nor the insubstantial pontification of subject-matter experts (SMEs)—prognosticating about an unpredictable future. Real wargaming is about the conflict of human wills confronting each other in a dynamic decision-making and story-living environment. There is a place for technology in supporting that clash of wills, but electrons are not always the most useful technology to apply. We wargamers have understood this from the earliest days of chess and Go; from the von Reisswitz kriegsspiel, and the Naval War College’s interwar gaming program.

The instrumentality is not the game.

The game takes place in the minds of the players. Human players, intensely seeking ways to beat the brains out of the guys across the table or in the other room. It is that human dynamic—and the competition, conversation, and contemplation it creates—which is our most powerful and promising source of inspiration and innovation.

So, what is to be done? How can DoD leverage real wargaming to increase innovation in national and theater strategy; in operational paradigms for both major conflict and newly evolved forms of what used to be called brushfire warfare (not merely counterinsurgency); and in tactics, techniques, and procedures to exploit new tools and ideas?

First, the leadership must recognize that wargaming is a distinct tool—related to and building on both operations research and systems analysis but not a subset of either. That means realizing that the ORSA community is not the locus of wargaming expertise; indeed, that it is often the main impediment to wargaming’s best use. This is particularly the case with regard to the bloated software-contractor infrastructure supporting the department’s modeling and simulation bureaucracy. (Can you spell JWARS?)

Second, as such a distinct tool—as a discipline in itself—wargaming needs a home of its own on a par with the established advocates of M&S. That is not to say that it requires the sort of top heavy bureaucracy created by McNamara’s Whiz Kids. Wargamers are used to leveraging talent to make up for small numbers. No, what wargaming needs is a well-placed and carefully selected team of experts with direct access to and trust from the leadership. And by experts I mean not only experts at designing and playing wargames, but also experts at understanding and playing the REAL games of departmental and Washington bureaucratic politics. An office similar to but much smaller than CAPE is a solution worth considering. How about the office of Wargaming Application and Research?

Third, DoD needs to populate such an office with wargaming professionals who have lived with and practiced wargaming, and so intimately understand its strengths and weaknesses. Such experts exist today within the department and among all the services, as well as within the FFRDC and contractor community. But too often they have labored in isolation, separated by walls of organizational competition or classification. There have been self-generated attempts to break down these walls and connect the gamers to each other. The eponymous Connections Conference—begun in the United States in 1992 and in the past few years spawning “franchises” in the United Kingdom, Australia and the Netherlands— is a key nexus for wargaming and it deserves strong and explicit support, attention, and participation from both DepSecDef and SecDef. The wargamers who attend these Connections conferences, the wargaming community of practice started recently in the Military Operations Research Society, and the professional wargaming organizations at the various War Colleges and National Defense University are sources of the latent talent in the community, waiting and hoping to be called upon to energize innovation.

Fourth, the department as a whole—and we wargamers specifically, as the experts—need to understand just what we mean by “innovation” and how wargaming can help generate innovative solutions to real-world problems. It is not enough to create wargames that use innovative techniques and employ innovative designs. What we seek are innovative results, new insights, or new ideas stemming from such games. Innovation comes from inspiring and empowering people to draw deeply from within their own talents and experience. Wargames challenge players to go beyond their talents and experience to come up with innovative ways to overcome living opponents during the game, opponents who are striving to do the same to them. It is this process of competitive challenge and creativity that can produce insights and identify innovative solutions to both known and newly discovered problems.

Finally, we members of the DoD wargaming community must ourselves be willing to stand up and fearlessly advocate for the insights and issues we believe our games have identified. Even more, we must be willing to stand up and point out the emperor’s lack of clothing when we come across bad wargames, and non-wargames claiming that proud mantle, only to advance old ideas and advocate for tired agendas.

Ultimately, we must remember, and truly believe, that wargaming matters. Wargaming entertains—it stirs the imagination. Wargaming challenges—it sharpens the intellect. Wargaming creates synthetic experience—it enlightens leaders. And most importantly, used correctly, wargaming saves money—and lives.

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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4 Responses to Peter Perla on “Work – ing” Wargaming

  1. brtrain says:

    Interesting – Navy is developing a repository for lesson learned from all the games they’re going to play:

  2. John Curry says:

    The article is right that many military professional recognize the need for more two sided competitive contents, with each side doing all they can to win, and wargames can be a cheap part of this developing culture.

  3. Paul’s post invited comments on Peter’s ‘Work-ing Wargaming’ article. Mine are below, but please note these are from the perspective of a UK practitioner of wargaming so might be less applicable to the US situation. As I settle in to a month at the Qatar Staff College…

    Firstly, I agree 100% with Peter’s words. This to the extent that he has pre-empted almost all of my nascent Connections UK opening remarks that have been coalescing over the past few weeks. Those of you that come (please do) will hear this again, but in a more refined version as I work with Phil, Tom, Peter and Matt etc to shape the conference along the lines that Peter alludes to. Plug over!

    My main concern with respect to UK wargaming is precisely as expressed by Peter. UK wargaming is – moderately – resurgent. While exciting, this encourages people to jump on the bandwagon. Quoting Peter from a recent e-mail: “Too many people, even those with good intentions, figure, ‘How hard could it be? I’m clever; I can do a game as well as anyone.’ They then poison the well.”

    How, then, to mitigate this risk while continuing to build on the current momentum?

    Do all the things that Peter suggests. But I’d like to build on his final paragraph. Re-read this and note the words ‘entertain’ and ‘challenge’. Those are precisely the terms examined by Raph Koster in ‘A Theory of Fun for Game Design’ as he explores ART:

    “Pinning down art is tricky. What is art for? Communication. That’s intrinsic to the definition. So what is art? Media provides information. Entertainment provides comforting, simplistic information. And art provides challenging information. That’s it. Mere entertainment becomes art when the communication element in the work is either novel or exceptionally well done. It really is that simple. The work has the power to alter how people perceive the world around them. And it’s hard to imagine a medium more powerful in that regard than video games, where you are presented with interactivity and a virtual world that reacts to your choices.” Pp. 146-148

    Replace ‘video games’ with ‘wargames’ and ‘virtual’ with ‘simulated’ and Raff’s words apply perfectly to the art of wargaming (ahem). Raff slightly plays down entertainment, but Peter is right to say that it fires imagination (and engages players, which is key).

    So what? We need to raise wargaming to an art form, practised by artists. Wargames need to be (always) exceptionally well done and (if possible) novel. ‘Novel’ correlates with innovation so, without playing that aspect down, I won’t dwell on it. By ‘artists’ I mean us; not pretenders jumping on the bandwagon. And by ‘us’ I agree that Connections attendees are a good place to look. But inculcating new talent is clearly essential. Hence, as ever, to the critical role of education, and Peter explains the role that Matt’s Connections franchise might have in that (among others, of course).

    This is where my UK experiences might vary from those of folk in the US.

    Educating practitioners, new and old. I see little evidence that people without considerable experience of (war)gaming can be quickly taught how to practise the art well. Most non-gamers don’t even get the utility of wargaming and would, I suspect, struggle to design and deliver one fit for a professional purpose. Phil will have a view as to the time it takes to teach his MA students to design an effective simulation, and then add to that the challenge of using these with a sceptical military audience. My point is that short courses open to a paying public risk encouraging charlatans and profiteers. Rather, something akin to an apprenticeship might be a better approach, grafting training onto increasing experience. But I’m not an educator so have no doubt I’ll be put back in my box! With respect to existing practitioners we should concentrate on making our band of brothers an established pool of mutually supporting wargaming experts: sharing best practice, exchanging ideas and educating ourselves and each other. This as per Peter’s paper.

    Educating consumers. In the UK I think this is possible, but I would add a caveat by limiting this to only making customers aware of the utility of wargaming. We – sadly – have a much smaller pool of potential consumers in the UK and I think we can reach out to all of them given a little time and effort. Dstl are active in proselytising wargaming and a critical stakeholder in Connections UK. Add to that the fact that all UK Army officers are taught Course of Action Wargaming, plus recent initiates to introduce simple training wargames at Sandhurst and I see light on the (Army) horizon. Ironically, the Royal Navy horizon remains cloudy (and the RAF’s positively gloomy!).

    Fundamentally, I think that Peter’s exhortation “to get wargaming right” should spur us on to raising wargaming to an art form. That’s not to say there isn’t space for a plethora of different approaches; indeed, they are necessary. We must grasp the current opportunity by raising our game. Sir Clive Woodward (England’s 2003 rugby world cup coach) had a sign behind his desk that said “Better never stops”. We must design and deliver increasingly excellent wargames that raise fresh insights, and ensure that these are differentiated from poor wargames and non-wargames. Not to make money, but to make a difference.

    Graham LB

  4. elliebartels says:

    I’ve put together a quick post on some of my follow on thoughts over at Paxsims:

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