International Relations, National Security, Politics, Wargaming

Evolved Threat Wargame Observations

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the 4th and final wargame in a series examining the future of warfare.  The game itself presented a fairly standard gaming scenario, which proved to be quite challenging given the likely capabilities of red (adversary) forces and the political situation that framed the conflict.  The core of the scenario pitted US forces in the precarious position of performing a Non-Combatant Evacuation (NEO) in a country experiencing a protracted terrorist attack under foreign sponsorship, where one of the country’s ethnic groups had developed an autonomous enclave resisting the central government’s authority and threatening US operations.  Thus the political challenge came from the fact that US forces needed to navigate the complexity of withdrawing American citizens in a country on the verge of civil war, including from territory under rebel control, and under foreign terrorist attack.

As is the case in such games, the situation goes bad very quickly no matter how precise and careful the planning of the players—it is far more difficult to game crisis avoidance than crisis response, and sponsors usually focus on exploring the question of ‘what-if a conflict occurs’ instead of ‘can a conflict be prevented in the first place?’  So after the first move where players delicately planned media campaigns, diplomatic maneuvers and logistical support necessary to evacuate several thousand citizens living abroad, terrorists created an incident that quickly escalated and put a small number of US military forces and citizens at risk.  In the second move of the game, the effectiveness US dynamic planning and military capabilities were challenged by multiple adversaries with different capabilities and motivations.

My personal observations of the game can be divided in two broad categories, technology and operations.  The discussion of technology identified a litany of capabilities that appealed to the players, as well as several challenges regarding their implementation.  On the operational side, the character of the future of warfare suggested an increasing difficult environment that will stress the US military in ways that have been historically difficult to cope with.


  • The players all identified an increasing need for the use of non-lethal weapons for crowd control, clearance, and incapacitating hostile individuals without permanent harm.  This felt like a response to the need to operate within urban environments, where combatants and non-combatants are comingled, as well as the fact that determining who is what is likely to get increasingly difficult.
  • I was very surprised by other players’ confidence that non-lethal weapons could be deployed with high degrees of precision, particularly with respect to their 2nd and 3rd order effects.  Players generally believed that weapons, both lethal and non-lethal, will be increasingly precise with respect to targeting, and also with respect to consequences.  I think that this may be overestimating the extent to which people’s responses to non-lethal weapons can be predicted in detail.  It is one thing to predict the physical responses to various weapons, but quite another to anticipate how individuals and groups will adapt to their use if committed to fighting.  I look forward to more opportunities to learn more about the current and future state-of-the-art in this arena.
  • A great deal of the capabilities that the players anticipated using in the future were highly networked and precise.  The interdependence of these capabilities means that they constitute a highly complex system, with questionable and unknowable robustness for the time being.  If adversaries can defeat small pieces of the system then it may turn out that the entire system degrades quickly and unpredictably, robbing US forces of operational capabilities that depend on interdependent systems and reach back capabilities, command and control, and intelligence.
  • The increasing specialization of weapons and other supporting capabilities will stress many supporting technologies, particularly miniaturization and weight reduction, electrical power, and spectrum management.  The prospect that individual soldiers will end up carrying around large amounts of gear, much of it not needed to the actual situation they find themselves in seems high.  I’d love to see a comparison of the gear that US forces carry around the Afghan mountains compared to what Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters are carrying.

Operational environment:

  • The political environment appeared to be heading towards increasing complexity, as states continue to lose their grip on the control of populations, their identities and their access to military capabilities.  Not only will this mean that the military will confront an increasing number of small, highly armed groups that will not have traditional state structures or interests, but, as a result, the political complexity of the situation will be grow more ambiguous and challenging.  Thus, even as military technologies improve, the ability to deploy them as needed may be hampered by the political goals that motivate the use of force in the first place.  It is likely that the gaps and seams that will complicate military operations in the future will be interpreted as technical, promoting as desire for a specific widget here and there, when in reality they are rooted in the complexity of coping with ambiguity and multiple, overlapping de facto and de jure claims of sovereignty.  The real sources of adversaries’ advantages may come from the construction of niches that the US cannot easily identify or eradicate without threatening the larger system or social fabric its operations are intended to protect.
  • Many of the adversaries that the US will fight over the next fifteen years (the timeframe of the game) will be persistently mobilized fighters who never reintegrate back into civilian life, moving around the globe to fight wherever conflict is present like the old free companies of the early Renaissance.  The ability of diverse groups to network and share lessons learned will mean that adversaries will reap the rewards of being in constant contact with US forces and its allies.  The core fighters and their leadership in fifteen years will likely be the young fighters battling the US and its adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan today, fighting in Chechnya, or elsewhere today.  The result is an evolutionary dynamic where, regardless of political motivations, there will be a core group of fighters that will constantly be learning and adapting to US military capabilities (and others), creating a continuous pressure for innovation and the changing of strategies.  The result will be a persistent challenge to the core strengths of bureaucracy, which is standardization of behavior and development and teaching of doctrine.  We’ll never be able to do the same thing twice (or at least for very long), casting doubt on the long-term viability of technology with a “leave behind” operational profile that can be reverse engineered by adversaries between engagements.
  • The counter to the permanently mobilized adversarial forces may be an increasing dependence of contractors.
  • No one in game batted an eye where red’s forces were presented and included an impressive set of small arms and conventional weapons.  The fact that this was so credible to players reflected the reality that there is currently, and will likely be in the future, a very deep, global arms market that has effectively decoupled industrial production from military power, at least at very small scales.  Groups have no need to manufacture their arms since they can acquire significant lethal capabilities on the open market.

The observations above are my own, and I look forward to seeing the final report from the game to learn about others observations whether our contributions gave the developers and sponsors the insights they were seeking.


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