Wargaming- The original think tanks.

BJ Armstrong, one of the more vibrant thinkers in the public naval sphere, has a great post at USNI arguing for a return to the Navy’s historically strong habit of wargaming.

Under the auspices of the Defense Innovation Initiative, announced by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel before he left office, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has sounded a call to revive the practice of wargaming in the Department of Defense. In a memo issued Feb. 9, Work announced plans to “reinvigorate, institutionalize, and systematize wargaming across the Department.”

This memo is a vital first step, and should instigate a Navy wide re-examination of when, why, and how we conduct these evolutions across the force. Lessons learned a century ago demonstrate that the Navy should take the memo’s intent on board, but must go even further than Mr. Work’s suggestions in order to maximize the warfighting ability and innovative spirit of the fleet.


BJ mentions in the full article the tendency of late for wargames to be conducted at ever higher levels. These “echelons above reality” diminish the actual value of wargames. Of course, if you look at our post today on nuclear targeting, you might discern one of the reasons for the shift to higher levels. Nuclear war can only be wargamed. And since any nuclear war is a political act, rather than a truly military one, it of course has to be conducted at a political level. That such a level has filtered back to the conduct of wargames at the operational and tactical level of conventional warfare is not such a good trend. One suspects it is also a function of the modern era of communications, where we talk about the Strategic Corporal, but in fact face the Four Star Squad Leader.

For many, many years, the Naval War College at Newport, RI focused on wargaming. The games looked at likely (and a few unlikely) scenarios the fleet might face, and gamed out what current and proposed platforms could do. They tested tactics and future capabilities. They tried foreign tactics and platforms. The results of games at Newport were used by the General Board in deciding on characteristics of both the fleet composition, and the characteristics of individual ship classes. When the Navy went before Congress and begged for money, they had reasonable answers to why they needed what they were asking for. Newport was, in effect, a think tank.

Unlike many think tanks today that are comprised of analysts, however well educated, the Naval War College consisted of both a faculty with stability to provide institutional knowledge, and a student body that constantly brought new ideas and perspectives from the fleet- that is, the actual operators, and ultimate customers of the College’s product.

Finally, wargaming allowed for a wider interaction with, and testing of, innovations in the whole of the Fleet. Concepts first developed at the gaming tables were evaluated by the CNO’s staff, and the General Board which advised the Secretary, and then taken through practical tests in tactical exercises at sea. The results of the exercises were fed back to the games in a virtuous cycle which refined and perfected the ideas and methods. This was the system used in the inter-war years to develop naval aviation and undersea warfare: concepts central to American victory in World War II.

Wargaming is more than simply a simulation, or a tactical training scenario. There’s a large number of milbloggers today talking strategy. The problem with that is, politicians will either set the strategy, or screw up your planned strategy. Wargaming is the bridge between techniques and strategy. The tactical and operational level is the realm of the military (or naval, in this case) art.

It’s expensive to actually operate a fleet, and actually fighting one isn’t really practical for training purposes. Most simulations and exercises today are focused on current doctrine. Pre-deployment workups are focused on certifying that the ships and other units involved are trained and ready to accomplish their next deployment, using current accepted doctrine. Wargaming, be it at the War College level, or at the fleet, or lower level, can and should be an incubator for discerning what our next tactical doctrine should be.

8 thoughts on “Wargaming- The original think tanks.”

  1. I’m trying to figure out why anyone in an officer grade in ANY branch involved in combat arms WOULDN’T be a wargaming fanatic.

    This is a simple, cheap and entertaining way of educating ANYONE in how to deploy and use a given set of units in a given scenario. Because yep, sure as Hell, your orders in the real deal might be stupid, counter-productive or REALLY risky. But you STILL have to accomplish the mission, WITH the assets you are given.

    If you’re doing that “stupid” mission for the first time, with bullets and artillery raining down on you, it’s not going to be a good day for your troops. Because you’ll make stupid choices that some wargaming would have taught you were STUPID choices.

  2. It’s interesting to note that the pre-WW2 NWC wargames and the Fleet Problem wargames against the IJN missed the Long Lance torpedo.

    1. True. But your research on that period also probably shows the Navy had a pretty fair idea of what various campaigns would look like.

    2. According to S.E. Morison, the Navy accurately anticipated all the major developments before the war, except kamikazes. I expect we can file the Long Lance under “poor intel,” vs. wargame errors.

      We had some decent intel on the Zero before we entered the war, but it wasn’t absorbed properly. Or taken seriously. I don’t know why they ignored the data. Bias confirmation (Japs can’t build anything worth a damn) I expect.

  3. The German General Staff saw Kriegspiele as a very important adjunct in the training of any officer. Avalon Hill used to sell a game by the same name. The documentation that came with the game said it was taken directly from the General Staff’s game. It seemed somewhat primitive in comparison to Avalon Hill’s other offerings, but was a good start in the world of war gaming.

    1. toofatlardies.co.uk/Kriegsspiel.html has several variations of the Kriegsspiel rules.for sale. Their Chain of Command rules are currently very highly regarded in civilian gaming circles for small unit WWII combat.

    2. Avalon Hill was acquired by Hasbro and they discontinued most of Avalon Hill’s line. Last I looked they didn’t sell it, but that’s been close to 20 years ago now.

      I remember when “Squad Leader” came out years ago. That seems to be the only hardcore war game from the golden age of war gaming still sold these days. I gave Blitzkrieg, Panzer Blitz to my brother. I bought SPI’s Blitzkrieg extensions, and Global War as well. My brother acquired those as well. I think he left them at my mother’s place when he moved out. If he did, I’m going to reacquire them just to have. I don’t know anyone these days that I could play with.

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