The only thing that’s cheap about war is the gaming. The US military services and their assorted war colleges, the Department of Defense and various thinktanks do quite a bit of wargaming of potential conflicts such as Iran. Compared to a billion-dollar aircraft carrier, wargaming isn’t terribly expensive (all you really need is a table, chairs, coffee and danish, and PowerPoint). It’s a lot less expensive than learning the hard way in war.
Now, to the military, wargaming doesn’t mean games. It’s actually an analytical technique in the Military Decision Making Process, which essentially means analysing the likely outcomes of various choices and then making the best one. Nonetheless, what Joe Gamer thinks of as wargames — simulations involving players, maps, playing pieces and goals — is done by the military.
But one bastion of military wargaming is under assault. National defence University, at Fort McNair in Washington DC, is the Pentagon’s flagship for joint professional military education. It’s where officers leave the cloistered world of their individual service and come together to study joint high-level strategy and operations. “Jointness” is a fuzzy word but an important concept. Though sometimes the American military services seem to be at war with each other, modern warfare is a combined endeavour; the army needs ships and planes to get overseas, the navy needs the army because ships can’t occupy territory, and the air force provides an umbrella for both (and needs both to protect its airfields).
A vital part of that training is the centre for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), which conducts wargames for military and civilian personnel, Congressional staffers, and even a journalist like me, who had a chance to play the Gemstone counterinsurgency game.
But NDU’s budget is being slashed by Pentagon staffers who believe that the college is too expensive, wasteful and is doing too much namby-pamby intellectual education instead of focusing on real military education. CASL is being chopped by half, which means a much less robust wargaming capability. Though all of the military is feeling the pain of budget cuts, what is happening to NDU and CASL is an example of the military mind at its narrow worst.
Even if NDU’s wargaming capabilities are slashed, the US military will still do plenty of wargaming. The problem is that it’s too easy for the Army or the Navy to focus on gaming their bread and butter work, the armoured assaults and fleet operations that are their stock in trade. Yet there is also a strategic dimension to fighting a war, and never more so than today. US strategy — as much the US can be said to have a coherent strategy — is in flux. The decade of grinding, infantry-centric small wars in the Middle East is ending. Now the army will take a back seat as the emphasis shifts to naval and air operations in the Pacific against a rising China. US economic and financial resources, which are the foundation of American military superiority, are dwindling even as powers such as India grow.
When a nation’s strategic situation changes, that’s when it needs strategic wargaming. Anyone who has played Hearts of Iron or Axis & Allies knows there are choices of where and when to fight, and what kind of military must be built to achieve those goals. In a potential real-life conflict like a US-China war, there are even more considerations. How would victory be defined in a Sino-American war? Which nations would support America, and which would stay neutral or oppose it? What are the strategic goals that our military could realistically achieve? It’s easy enough to strike an enemy like China with a smart bomb or cyberweapon. Doing so in pursuit of a coherent, purposeful goal is something else.
NDU had a large and capable wargaming centre that could help answer those questions. And its downfall illustrates what one source told me; that this is an example of the military shunning rigorous strategic thinking and focusing on narrow short-term issues instead. We didn’t have enough rigorous political and military thinking in the days before the wars in Iraq and Afghanisan, and the results speak for themselves. There is still reason to question whether the US has a clear sense of why and how it will fight the next war.
Wargaming can’t answer all questions. But it can help us ask the right ones.
Top image: Axis & Allies Europe 1940 in Action