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Published Airpower Journal - Summer 1990
THINKING FOR THE FUTURE
Lt Col David B. Lee, USAF
To be prepared for war is one of the
most effectual means of preserving peace.
WAR is chaotic, full of unknowns, and governed by chance. It can be mastered only through practice, and the best practice is combat experience. Today's airmen, however, lack the campaign experience of their predecessors. Indeed, World War II and Korean warriors are all but extinct, and even the ranks of combat experienced officers from the Vietnam era are thinning.
Tactically, our Air Force pilots and support personnel are second to none. Training almost constantly, they have honed specialty skills to a fine edge. Yet, can the same be said of officers involved in directing the application of air power? Air, power is a theater asset, distinguished by speed, range, and flexibility. But theater-wide exercises are costly, both in terms of time and resources. Because field and command-post exercises are threatened by proposed cuts in the defense budget, the prospects for training officers in the art of employing air forces are not good. Further, host nations are apprehensive about the United States conducting air activities over their territory, especially in light of the rash of aircraft accidents in Western Europe over the last few years. Additionally, environmentalists concerned about the effect of military exercises on the environment constantly urge a curtailment of large-scale maneuvers.
What can be done during peacetime to train and educate our current and future leaders for wartime air campaigning? War games can help. This article reviews concepts of war gaming and its historical developments. It also considers the advantages of war gaming, as well as its limitations and pitfalls.
The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines a war games as "a simulation, by whatever means, of a military operation involving two or more opposing forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real life situation."1 The war game has been around almost from the time combat began. The oldest and best known war game is chess. Although its origin is unknown, most people agree that chess developed from the Indian game "Chaturanga," which used a standard map and pieces representing the arms of the day (e.g., elephants, infantry, cavalry, etc.). It was played by four people according to fixed rules.2
In 1664 Christopher Weikhmann of Ulm, Germany, developed a warlike game called the "King's Game." It had 30 pieces per side and 14 distinct moves. About 120 years later, Helwig, master of pages to the Duke of Brunswick, devised a game whose playing pieces represented entire military units (e.g., infantry, cavalry, heavy and light artillery, etc.) rather than individual soldiers.3 The playing board consisted of 1,666 squares, each colored to represent a particular type of terrain. The most notable of the chess-like games of the eighteenth century was "Neue Kriegsspiel," developed by George Vinturinus. It featured a game board of 3,600 squares depicting the terrain between France and Belgium, troop lists containing 1,800 units of various arms, and a 60-page rule book including new rules for reinforcements and logistics.4
The next round of improvements was made in 1811 by von Reisswitz, a Prussian military official. In his game, the chessboard was eliminated in favor of terrain modeled with sand. Troops, now represented by colored blocks of wood, were no longer confined to chessboard squares but were permitted to move freely about, based on their capabilities.5 Von Reisswitz's game was further developed by his son, a lieutenant in the artillery of the Prussian Guards. The younger von Reisswitz replaced the sand table with a large-scale map. In addition, he revised the rules of the game to more closely resemble combat of the times6 and invented the red and blue color coding for sides, which continues in war games today. Finally, the younger von Reisswitz's game used an umpire to settle disputes and determine casualties. Communication delays, limited intelligence, and rates of maneuver as well as the above innovations were covered in a rule book entitled Instructions for the Representation of Tactical Maneuvers under the Guise of a War Game.7 The younger von Reisswitz's efforts caused the then chief of staff of the German army, Karl von Muffling, to exclaim, "It's not a game at all, it's training for war. I shall recommend it enthusiastically to the whole army!" And he did.8
As rules became more complicated and battlefield experience more common, a group of Prussian Kriegsspiel officers began to agitate for "reforms." In 1874 Klement W. von Meckel and Col Julius von Verdy du Vernois argued that umpires should not render decisions based on rules but on tactical experience. They further argued that the randomness of games should be eliminated because game results should reinforce proven tactics.9 In von Verdy's book War Game, published in 1877, he proposed to eliminate the written rules and govern opponents by tactical rules which would become obvious during the course of the game.10 These reformists produced a basic dichotomy in way games still present today: rigid games whose outcomes were based on rules versus free games whose outcomes were based on umpire expertise.
Germany continued to use war games as a resource for training military officers on how to think about warfare. They were especially important tools in the aftermath of World War I, when ceilings on both, manpower and spending were placed on the German army.11 Germany went so far as to require each regimental officer to devote one evening a week to war gaming. Game play continued well into World War II and was used to think through many campaigns.
Other countries began to try out war games in the late 1800s. The British started informal gaming that used German rules in 1872 and, acting on a directive issued by the Duke of Cambridge, formally adopted war games in 1883.12 Each military district in England had its own war games. These games used some large-scale campaign as a backdrop, with part of the action occurring in the players' own military districts. From there, individual garrisons confronted military problems of attack and defense.13 Games were also used to illustrate military history and geography.14 Unfortunately, the British adopted the most rigid of the war-game rules for training, and when the Boers did not abide by them during the second Boer War (1900-1902), the British dropped the whole concept of war gaming for some 50 years.15
Japan appears to have adopted war gaining during the same time as the Europeans, although no definite date can be established. Works from von Meckel were translated into Japanese and used throughout the Japanese army, and the Japanese war college.16 The victory that Japan enjoyed over Russia in 1904 was attributed, in part, to war games.17 The Japanese "gamed" the Midway campaign as well as the raid on Pearl Harbor--the latter in the presence of the actual carrier task force commander, Vice Adm Chuichi Nagumo.18
US experience in war gaming began late in the nineteenth century. Maj W. R. Livermore of the Army Corps of Engineers is credited with producing the first major US military war game. His game, called "American Kriegsspiel," was based on the works of German war gamers von Meckel and von Verdy.19 Published in 1879, Livermore's version allowed tactical, grand tactical, strategic, fortress, and naval. Play20 on a map with 10-foot contours and drawn on a scale of 12 inches to the mile.21 Livermore modified German war-gaming methods by giving each side incomplete information on the opponent's position and deployment.22 However, play followed a rigid format since combat-seasoned umpires--required for free games--were virtually nonexistent in the United States. Livermore hoped that his game and innovations would simplify and speed up play, but by 1898 he had to conclude that the time required to master the rules offset any timesaving features in the game itself.23
US Army gaming activities continued through World War II, based on the 1908 work of Capt Farrand Sayre, entitled Map Maneuvers and Tactical Rides.24 Sayre introduced one-sided games, whereby the umpires played opposing forces; plastic map overlays; and grease pencils for marking unit information and movement.25
Naval war games were introduced to the United States in 1887 by Lt William McCarty Little (USN), who lectured on the concept of chart maneuvers at the Naval War College.26 This variation on war gaming became a regular part of the Naval War College curriculum in 189427 and had two levels of play: strategic and tactical.28 In the strategic game, forces were deployed to detect the enemy fleet, relying heavily on patrols and naval screens. In the tactical game, fleets maneuvered to obtain the best position to destroy the enemy. Over 300 naval war games were played at the Naval War College between 1919 and 1941.29
The US Air Force's war-gaming experience began in the 1950s and, until the late seventies, was limited to the professional military schools of Air University.30 During the seventies, Air Force war gaming was divided between Air University, United States Air Forces in Europe, Tactical Air Command, and US Readiness Command. But in 1984 the Headquarters US Air Force Wargaming Review Group was established to ensure a cohesive Air Force approach in satisfying operational wargaming systems requirements.31 As a result of the group's findings that year, the Directorate of Operations for the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff, Plans and Operations was made the executive agent for Air Force war-gaming policy, requirements, concepts of operation, and budgets. The same year saw the creation of the Air Force Wargaming Center at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, whose mission is to plan and conduct war games in support of USAF educational and operational requirements. Additionally, the center was chartered as the Air Force war-gaming clearinghouse and the technical focal point on war gaming for the Air Force. Two other wargaming organizations were also placed under the auspices of the Air Staff: (1) the Warrior Preparation Center created in 1982 and located at Einsiedlerhof Air Station, Federal Republic of Germany, and (2) the 4441st Tactical Training Group (commonly known as Blue Flag) located at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Commercial computer war games were developed in the early 1980s, one of the first of which was "Tanktics," published in 1981. This game simulated a tactical tank battle, with a human pitted against the computer. While the computer resolved hidden movement and combat, the human player entered direction, movement, and firing orders for friendly tanks. Since computer graphics were not very good, the human player visualized friendly and enemy forces with a hexagonal map board and cardboard chits. Since then, these games have vastly improved, both graphically and substantively, as the power of the personal computer has increased. Game scenarios range from antiquity to World War III and beyond.
The first and foremost advantage of war games is that they make people think about war. Players can test their skills in the art of making decisions that affect thousands of people, despite the paucity of information (Clauswitz's famous "fog of war").32 One example of such thinking is the evolving strategy of the US Navy during the interwar years: the concepts of aircraft carrier-based fleet engagements and "island hopping" were developed from war games played at the Naval War College.33 Adm Chester W. Nimitz acknowledged the usefulness of war games in a letter to that institution: "The war with Japan has been [enacted] in the game room 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."34 Furthermore, Germany's tactical expertise on the battlefield during World War II was attributed to the use of war games in the education and training of its officers.35
Second, war games can be used to investigate new ideas without risking the lives of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. For example, the use of light aircraft carriers and battleships in coordinated landings was gamed at the Naval War College some 15 years before the actual landings,36 and the Japanese--in their gaming of Pearl Harbor--developed tactics for delivering a torpedo attack in shallow harbor waters.37
Third, war games can provide a less expensive alternative to command-post and field exercises, which have casts of thousands and are used to check command and control procedures and unit employments.38Further, war games allow commanders to run a campaign plan repeatedly without actually extending resources and causing unit fatigue.39 For example, the American crossing of the Roer River in World War II was gamed many times without subjecting troops to hostile fire. When the actual operation took place, virtually nothing came as a surprise.40
Fourth, hours of boredom sprinkled with moments of terror are a reality of the battlefield, and critical decisions are often made during the moments of terror. But time can be compressed or expanded during war games to focus on campaign issues and discuss available options. The hours of boredom can be disposed of in a tick of the clock.
Fifth, any location in the world can be the setting for a war game. Since battles are fought over maps rather than actual territory, they do not affect treaties, international relationships, peacetime safety restrictions, or the environment.41
War games, despite their many virtues, are not a low-cost, universal solution. Because of their limitations, they supplement, but do not replace, other training techniques.
First, war games do not match reality. Most of the functions of war, ranging from the movement of ground troops to the positions of reconnaissance satellites, can be approximated to some degree, but the model can never predict exactly what would occur in a real conflict. Furthermore, many important aspects of battle, such as human relations and mechanical failures, cannot be satisfactorily quantified or simulated in a game.42
Second, war games do not convey the threat of death that is prevalent on the battlefield. And losing or inappropriate play does not call down the severe penalties (dismissal, court-martial, execution, etc.) that accompany failure. Since physical threats are not real, players may not react the same way in a game as they would in real life; that is, they may be more complacent or more aggressive than in actual combat.43 Other people may play the game to reach the "school solution" or to appease the game sponsor. The German army made sure that an officer's promotion was never based solely on the results of a war game, using the latter as only one of many indicators of performance.44
Third, war games are not as inexpensive as they may appear. A good military game often takes a year or more to develop. For instance, specialists must research the topic, develop a plan of attack, construct necessary gaming materials, prepare briefings for participants, and write after-action reports. Others must design, play, and umpire the game (the number of umpires often equals or exceeds the number of players). The process also includes administrative aspects, such as message-traffic handling, audio-visual projection, and supply functions. Further, if the war game uses computer support, computer specialists must program and operate the equipment.
In short, war games are the shadow of war and must be taken neither too seriously nor too lightly. Taken too seriously, war games can be considered predictive, a conclusion history has shown to be false. Taken too lightly, they cannot serve the purpose for which they were made--training for war.
War games help people learn how to think, but if players misuse or misunderstand them, they can be counterproductive. Regardless of their level of experience, players can succumb to certain pitfalls.
This Isn't Correct
Insisting that something about the game isn't right--probably the most common pitfall--reveals more about players than about the game itself. The complaint is especially prevalent when players are not doing well or actually have been defeated. At that point, they typically declare the war game to be in error and lose enthusiasm for continuing. This pitfall stems from their inability to deal with the environment portrayed in the game. Although understandable, this attitude is dangerous. Indeed, aspects of World War I did not meet the preconceived notions of some of the warring generals. Unfortunately, they were more than willing to continue fighting "the old-fashioned way" to the tune of several million casualties. Correctness counts after the war, and what is right or wrong can be proven only in the crucible of combat. Future wars will inevitably be fought differently from their antecedents, and the side flexible enough to accommodate change will probably win.
This Does/Doesn't Prove My Point
Another pitfall occurs when a war game produces an answer that the sponsor did or did not want. Using a war game to prove one's contention is travesty of how the game should be used. War games are designed to raise issues, not settle them. Furthermore, rejecting the outcome of a game because the result does not fit one's preconceptions invites failure on the battlefield. The classic example of this pitfall is the Japanese gaming of the Battle of Midway.45 During the game, an umpire determined that two Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk after a surprise attack by American aircraft. The chief umpire, Adm Matome Ugaki, fresh on the heels of the victories at Pearl Harbor, refused to believe such a "bizarre" result and overturned the lower umpire's ruling. One of the carriers was immediately resurrected, and the other returned later to support attacks on New Caledonia and the Fiji Islands.46 This overturning of the results based on preconceptions disenchanted many of the junior officers at the game. Moreover, it provided a false sense of security to the senior officers--a feeling that eventually contributed to the Japanese defeat at Midway a few weeks later.
The Results Will Show Who
Is Going to Win
Viewing the results of a war game as an infallible indicator of success constitutes the final pitfall. War games, as already noted, are not war and cannot duplicate the chance and often unrelated events of reality. Thus, they should not be considered predictors. One example is the Germans' Schleiffen Plan, probably the most gamed plan of its time. Troop movements were painstakingly calculated, train schedules scrupulously kept, and rates of supply and ammunition carefully determined. Unfortunately the game did not take into account the fact that the French had the same capability as the Germans and were equally willing to use it. Thus, the rapid appearance of the French at the front came as a great surprise, upset the entire German plan, and resulted in a deadlock.47 Another example is the previously mentioned comment of Admiral Nimitz. Although a multitude of possibilities had been war-gamed at the Naval War College, the admiral had to concede that Japan's use of the kamikaze came as a surprise.48
Can war games be of use to the Air Force? Yes! Airmen can benefit from them throughout their careers. For example, games can enhance novice airmen's study of military subjects. One Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at the University of Pittsburgh uses war games to illustrate the Korean War, and his students show marked improvements in learning both the geography and the history of that conflict. In Air University's Squadron Officer School, students participate in games that cover operations of the tactical air control center and systems analysis. Air Command and Staff College students apply their classroom lessons about aerial warfare, ground combat operations, and strategic nuclear theory by playing war games. The Air War College uses games to further student understanding of campaign planning and air power employment. The Air University Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education (AUCADRE) employs war games in its Joint Flag Officer Warfighting Course to educate senior officers in issues pertaining to unified commanders. Students in AUCADRE's Combined Air Warfare Course are exposed to general operating concepts in the central European theater through the use of a war-game exercise. And the Warrior Preparation Center uses war games to train in-place battle staffs for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Blue Flag trains battle staffs for theaters such as Korea and Southwest Asia.
Is this enough? No! War games must be taken beyond the schoolhouses at Air University and into the field. Just as one cannot become a chess master in a single game, one cannot uncover all the intricacies of aerial warfare in a single war game. In the absence of real combat experience, war gaming should be used to season current and future leaders. Indeed, war games can be used creatively to examine or discover issues in any Air Force job or area, such as air base operability and air base security. Results that show promise can then be verified through field tests and exercises.
If war games are to be implemented successfully, Air Force leaders must make a personal commitment to their use and success. Commanders must insist that the right people--and not their surrogates--exercise their thinking in the area of war fighting. Failure to do so can result only in confusion and eventual defeat. In addition to having the right people participate in games, commanders must ensure that the proper personnel and resources are used to design, develop, and produce them. This is not to suggest that war games should rely on large computer systems and glitzy graphics. The use of high technology must depend on the objectives of the war game, its audience, and available resources.
Is the Air Force falling into any of the pitfalls of war gaming? Sometimes. Players may succumb to the "this isn't correct" pitfall, especially if things do not go according to plan or if they are embarrassed because of their bad decisions. Since no one wants to look bad in front of subordinates or superiors, the war game, controllers, and umpires make excellent scapegoats. The "this does/doesn't prove my point" and "the results will show who is going to win" pitfalls have not yet affected the Air Force, although it is only now considering using war games on a wide scale. In time, the Air Force will become more susceptible to these two pitfalls, especially when advocates seek support for their pet programs or missions.
The thoughtful application of air power is just as important as new hardware on the ramp. Therefore, in light of the dwindling number of combat-experienced veterans, declining defense budgets, and increasing environmental concerns, the Air Force must carefully consider the role of war games in the evolution of air strategy and doctrine. Just as the advantages of war games are great, so is the potential for their abuse. The greatest danger lies in attempts to use them to prove points or to predict the future. History shows that people who have tried to use war games for these purposes have lost far more than a game. However, by paying strict attention to the purpose of war games and by critically examining the issues and concepts they provide, the Air Force can use them, as W. McCarty Little said, "to provide the right thing, rightly applied, and in time."49
1. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Publication 1, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1 June 1987), 393.
2. Col Paul S. Deems, "War Gaming and Exercises," Air University Quarterly Review 9. no. 1 (Winter 1956-1957); 99; J. K. Hjalmarson, "The Development of War Games," Canadian Army Journal 15, no. 1 (Winter 1961): 5.
3. Andrew Wilson, The Bomb and the Computer (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968), 3.
4. Theodore E. Sterne, "War Games: What They Are and How They Evolved," Army 16, no. 3 (March 1966): 44.
5. Wilson, 4.
6. Ibid., 5.
7. Deems, 162.
8. Wilson, 6.
9. Ibid., 8.
10. Edgardo B. Matute, "Birth and Evolution of War Games," Military Review 50, no. 7 (July 1970): 53.
11. Hjalmarson, 8.
12. Farrand Sayre, Map Maneuvers and Tactical Rides, 5th ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Press of Springfield Printing and Binding Co., 1911). 5.
13. Ibid., 21.
15. M. R. J. Hope Thompson, "The Military War Game," Journal of the Royal United Service Institution 107, (February-November 1962): 50.
16. Sayre, 25.
18. Thomas B. Allen, War Games (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1987), 74.
19. Wilson, 14.
20. Francis J. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming, 3d ed. (Newport, R.I.: Naval War College,1966), 2-21.
21. Wilson, 14.
22. Matute, 55.
23. Wilson, 15.
24. Ibid., 17.
26. Anthony S. Nicolosi, "The Spirit of McCarty Little, US Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1984, 74.
27. McHugh, 2-44.
28. W. McCarty Little, "The Strategic Naval War Game or Chart Maneuver," US Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1912, 1213.
29. Michael Vlahos, "Wargaming, the Enforcer of Strategic Realism: 1919-1942," Naval War College Review 39, no. 2 (March-April 1986): 17.
30. Deems, 111.
31. Report of the HQ USAF Wargaming Review Group, January 1985, 17.
32. Defense Science Board, Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Computer Applications to Training and Wargaming (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, May 1988), 6.
33. Vlahos, 19.
34. Wilson, 39.
35. "War Games," Military Review 41, no. 6 (June 1961): 68.
36. Vlahos, 15.
37. Wilson, 41.
38. Report of the Defense Science Board, 5.
39. Lee J. Davis, "Map Maneuvers, Their Preparation & Conduct," Military Review 31, no. 8 (November 1951): 19.
40. Sterne, 67.
41. R. H. Holt, "Preparation of Map Exercises,"Military Review 27, no. 10 (January 1948): 21.
42. Dean M. Benson and Glenn E. Muggelbey, "Preparation of a Map Exercise," Military Review 30, no. 9 (December 1950): 26.
43. "War Games," 76-77.
44. Ibid., 64.
45. Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya,Midway, The Battle That Doomed Japan, ed. Clarke H. Kawakami and Roger Pineau (Annapolis, Md.: US Naval Institute, 1955), 96.
47. Wilson, 22-23.
48. Garrv D. Brewer and Martin Shubik. The War Game. A Critique of Military Problem Solving (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 119.
49. Little, 1233.
Lt Col David B. Lee (BS, Illinois Institute of Technology; MS, AFIT; MA and MBA, University of Missouri) is chief of the Air Force Wargaming Center's Operations Analysis Division, Air University Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education (AUCADRE), Maxwell AFB, Alabama. His assignments have included the 351st Strategic Missile Wing, Whiteman AFB, Missouri: the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory, Edwards AFB, California; and the Air Force Center for Studies and Analyses, the Pentagon. Colonel Lee is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, College of Naval Command and Staff, and Air War College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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