The only winning move is not to play

Wargaming helps to explore and test concepts, and is also very interesting.

So assuming you now reasonably understand how you want to fight, and you understand the enemy and relevant strategic plans, how do you answer the most important question: who will win?

One way is through a constant schedule of preparatory activities and exercises, but if you picked up on the titular reference then you’ll know the other: wargames.

I’ll expand in a bit on how wargames can be used to understand the balance of power in different forces, as well as how they can be used to understand some final lessons tying together how we fight, but for now here’s three interesting things about wargames!

1. Wargames take all forms, shapes, sizes and purposes

Some you may have heard of. Risk, or Diplomacy for example, are fairly well known. But wargames can be played from the international, strategic level as either simple military (e.g. Risk), or full nation simulation games with economies and industry (e.g. Axis & Allies).

Wargames can be computer games (… there are many, many examples. I’ll just leave these here), or can be board games. They can use miniatures, or can be formalised thought experiments. There are even business strategy games that are given the name “wargame” because they have the same design and play implications.

Have a look here for one of many attempted lists of wargames.

2. Wargames are used at the highest level

In 2002 the US famously tried the “Millennium Challenge 2002” – a wargame aimed at demonstrating that US power is unassailable in the Middle East. It’s a famous embarrassment, where the opposition force (OPFOR) commander designed his actions to avoid US strengths and highlight weaknesses (as any good commander / leader / bid writer / whatever will do). He won, sinking the equivalent of an entire carrier battle group and “killing” 20,000 US personnel. The ships were “re-floated”, and the wargame carried on under much constrained rules.

Wargames are used to test political outcomes, and potential outcomes of military operations. In fact, one is so accurate at testing the question of whether Israel can destroy Iran’s nuclear reactors that its creator has been investigated for providing classified material. Which, if you were a clever intelligence agency, is what you’d do after making sure the numbers were wrong.

Either a command post / mini ops room somewhere, or a realistic wargame running. Taken from a very good article on rules of wargaming learned from the Millenium Challenge 2002 here.

Wargames are often run before beginning a major conflict – “MC ’02” as it’s also known is thought to have been preparations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom). The same invasion was less charitably portrayed in Desert Crossing. The Sigma Wargames were a series run to try to predict the impact of US intervention in Vietnam – the results were rather prophetic. Unsurprisingly wargames that gave the wrong answer tend to be quickly forgotten.

The German plans for the First World War were conceptually tested via wargames – predicting major battles, and validating the robustness of plans.

We in the UK use them as well, to design and test future concepts of incorporating new technologies, or new ways of fighting. There’s a hidden society of wargamers out there – if you’re interested then get out and make connections.

3.  Wargames are fun!

I’m a massive fan, whether we’re talking computer-based, table top, or more conceptual games. They are both interesting and fun.

A statement of wargamer perceptions, from a wargaming forum.

A later post will be talking about the game “Wargame”, and about how it usefully helps to demonstrate how even kids can get to grips with how the West wages war (shown below).

This is about how the games tend to go.

But next, I step away from defence entirely.

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