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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 7 of 10]

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[Editor’s Note: The following is Jeffrey Webb’s noteworthy college thesis from 2015, written during his time at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, to be reprinted here in its entirety, in ten parts, with the author’s permission, for your reading enjoyment. Footnotes have been extracted from this presentation of Jeffrey Webb’s writings, to enhance this casual reading experience, but we’ll gladly share footnotes with anyone who is interested in seeing the sources and such.]


Written by Jeffrey Webb

Chapter 7: Military Wargaming and the Unthinkable

The advent of atomic warfare with the end of the Second World War put a new combat paradigm into the minds of politicians and generals around the world. Atomic warfare was destruction on a scale never before seen. Existing models and simulations had been unable to predict the reality of the atomic bomb with any accuracy until one had actually been detonated. Once the Pandora’s Box of atomic weaponry had been opened, it was only a matter of time until the technology proliferated. Against that probability, American strategists had to begin to think about what author and RAND strategist Herman Khan called “the unthinkable.”— Nuclear war. This ushered in two innovations in professional wargaming— an increased importance on civilians like Khan and the adoption of computer-assisted simulation in professional wargames.

The modern computer was originally a wholly military technology, backed by the military and designed for strategic purposes. The early computers, like the 1946 Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, were set to work on these strategic tasks. In the case of ENIAC, the specific task was calculating the likely outcome of a nuclear war given the result of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The importance of computers as a military technology and the spinoff technology of video games will be covered in depth in the following chapter, but it is sufficient to note here that once computers became available for military use they became ubiquitous in any task requiring excessive mathematics or statistical analysis. It was not long before entire simulation games were being run exclusively inside military computers, which provided the ultimate in rigid Kriegspiel due to their ability to crunch numbers in a fashion that would be impossibly unwieldy for a human umpire.

This chapter will focus on wargaming through the 1950s-1980s, and the rise of the RAND Corporation. RAND is a government-funded entity designed to study military matters under the guise of an entity created “To further and promote scientific, educational, and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare and security of the United States of America.” Much of RAND’s theoretical work took the form of wargames, often complex wargames that ultimately helped steer the course for US policy in Vietnam. The synthesis of tabletop war games and computers became a hallmark of RAND and professional military wargaming in general as the computer became more capable, faster and less resource intensive.

During World War II, a branch of wargaming known as OR, or Operational Research had begun to be used in developing theoretical models for combat operations. The term dated back to 1937 when the British began to use OR techniques to refine radar research. OR was differentiated from other wargames in that games had traditionally modeled the conventional warfare of the day, OR took into account new technologies and new applications of the same in order to develop new strategies and tactics based on untried or unknown technical developments. Everything from sea mines to submarine warfare to the bombing of population centers and railroads was fed into the OR paradigm for analysis and improvement.

The effects of OR and simulation study became rapidly apparent. Convoy operations were adjusted as statistical analysis revealed that larger convoys took smaller percentages of losses given German U-Boat deployments. Depth charge settings on anti-submarine aircraft were changed in response to new information on precisely how quickly a German submarine could crash dive- the new research showed the default setting for the depth charges gave the Germans too much credit. This allowed U-Boats to slip away as the anti-submarine munitions detonated at the wrong depth. Once the actual abilities of the U-Boats were statistically accounted for with real data the OR scientists were able to predict the proper setting for the depth charges. The increase is efficacy was such a dramatic effect the Germans were convinced a new weapon was being used on their U-Boats.

Wargames played by the US Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Research Group (ASWORG) during World War II revealed replicable results that when faced with aircraft detection, German submarines would attempt to tailor their evasion to the search pattern of an aircraft. This allowed ASWORG to create a simulation wargame that allowed them to deduce a new tactic that resulted in tricking the Germans into selecting a predicable evasion course based on the detecting aircraft feigning an intentionally misleading search pattern. As better results were derived from the gambit, more submarines were detected with less flying time necessary.

Post-war, operational research and wargaming slowed down as the massive US military demobilized. Many felt that atomic weaponry would now make large armies and navies redundant. A subset of this thinking was that of General “Hap” Arnold, who in 1949 became the only American general officer to hold five-star rank in two US military forces— the US Army Air Corps and US Air Force. Arnold had been heavily involved in US strategic bombing efforts and was of the opinion that atomic weapons, controlled by the new US Air Force, would be the decisive factor in any future war. Arnold’s concern that the brilliant civilian minds supporting the military during the war would no longer be accessible to the military once they returned to academia caused him to create Project RAND.

Project RAND was named for the phrase “R and D” or “Research and Development.” Originally, RAND was associated tightly with Douglas Aircraft, the largest manufacturer of aircraft in the Unites States. RAND was to be the US Air Force’s private think tank of exceptional civilian talent to develop weapons. It almost immediately began to outgrow this fuzzily-defined mandate into an organization much wider in scope. RAND had a major advantage over other defense contractors in that it reported directly to General Curtis LeMay, Deputy Chief of Staff for Research and Development of the US Air Force. LeMay ensured that RAND also had total freedom to make suggestions and communicate without fear of reprisal from the Air Force- this was to be a research organ that would try to avoid the power politics often associated with military contracts as well as the tendency of military officers to reject ideas that ran counter to their experience. LeMay insisted on projects of a “long range nature” being studied by RAND, and the freedom and independence of RAND to do so was paramount to this directive.

RAND began to use wargaming in a new way. The political-military wargame, or “pol-mil” created a tool that was a spiritual descendent of free Kriegspiel and a somewhat parallel older sibling to the 1970s-era roleplaying game. The RAND of the 1960s took the advice of political scientists like Harold Guetzkow of Northwestern University who advocated the use of role-playing style wargames to create an understanding of international relations and politics. These games consisted of players being assigned to political as well as military roles, and given mission objectives consistent with those roles. Guetzkow saw these games as an attempt to “maximize their goals and minimize their losses.” This was essentially the goal of every wargame with a campaign element, but was true also of the political game. The subject matter had moved from the battlefield to the world stage of politics.

At RAND, Herbert Goldhamer focused on political games that further divorced themselves from quantified mathematical models. The conclusion of Goldhamer was that any attempt to mathematically quantify political gaming would force a simplification of the real-world situations which the game was attempting to model. This would create confusing results that would not be applicable to actual situations. Goldhamer had proposed the forerunner to pol-mil games in 1954, his Cold War Game, which caused the creation of a permanent wargaming facility in the Pentagon.

The Goldhamer Cold War Game started a standard for the gaming that continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The game consisted of players assigned to represent various countries, with players chosen for their familiarity with that country’s political system. The Cold War Game was played in 1955-1957 and later included senior State Department personnel as players.  One or more players took the role of “Nature” and handled everything from natural disasters to famine to technological advances. The American players had a free hand in their play, but were bound to follow current US foreign policy in their decisions.

MIT and Columbia University made use of Goldhamer’s gaming techniques in their own pol-mil games. One MIT professor, Lincoln Bloomfeld, studied the pol-mil game structure and offered ideas and conclusions of his own about the efficacy of such games and how they might best be used.

Bloomfeld termed his pol-mil game style “reality gaming” but maintained that any attempt to predict the future based on wargaming alone was foolhardy. Bloomfeld felt “Artificial simulation of events is going to distort reality in inescapable ways.” It was Bloomfeld’s opinion that pol-mil gaming offered value to uncover factors which might not be considered by planners or analysts without having players step into their roles for the duration of a game. Players in the role of other nations would also be able to achieve some insight into the thought processes that led to various decisions on the part of the nation or faction they were assigned to portray. Finally, Bloomfeld noted that the conduct of these games often led to the identification of areas of research that had not yet been identified. This would lead in turn to further gaming or other research into the new concepts.

The pol-mil games on the Bloomfeld model stressed pre-planning on the part of the players. Bloomfeld preferred the term “Political Exercise” or “PolEx” as he felt what he did was neither a game nor a simulation. Simulation, Bloomfeld felt, implied explicit computer or mathematical modeling. Game was thought to be more formally structured with a more definable set of goals and rewards.  A written thesis of strategy was often required in order to force players to think about the position of their real-world counterpart and the factors relating to the decision making process. The most important part of the game was the “post-mortem” or after-action discussion of how the game had gone. Analyzing the conduct of the game and the decisions made by the players was thought to offer as much or more insight into the situation being modeled as the game itself. Bloomfeld and others thought that the competitive nature of the games combined with the role-playing element that put each player in a position to attempt a unique goal with a unique set of assumptions brought about a revelation of information that would not be possible with solitary consideration or group discussion alone.

Many of Bloomfeld’s MIT games seemed to predict events that actually came to pass. A 1960 game foretold of the fall of the Shah of Iran. Another predicted the rise of a pro-Castro Venezuelan government. Another predicted internal troubles in Angola. Strategies attempted by players in these games had a tendency to be much more creative than the RAND or Pentagon-sponsored games in no small part due to the fact that the games and their results were not classified. While the names of the players were kept secret, the games and their results were not.

Bloomfeld’s MIT games revealed several points of interesting data with which policymakers had to come to terms. One of the direst was the effect of the Vietnam War and its political backlash on American decision-making. In a number of scenarios in which US and Western interests were threatened, US teams repeatedly balked at using unilateral military force due to the quagmire that was Vietnam. The mistakes the US had made getting involved in the Southeast Asian conflicts caused players to avoid committing US military forces on anything but a last resort basis.

It is interesting to note that Bloomfeld himself in later years had a mixed view of the actual value of his time spent creating and running games for the government. Even though Henry Kissinger and other policymakers were involved in his games over the years, and his final game involved members of the Nixon cabinet, he felt that the conclusions and lessons of those games rarely, if ever, made it to the hands of those who actually made policy. His opinion seems to ignore the fact that many more players than just Kissinger were themselves policymakers with influence at high levels of government. He summarized his ideas as to the value of his games with a simple statement. “…the value of the game is not in prediction. It’s an exercise in understanding what your problems are going to be.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff had a slightly different take on pol-mil gaming than Bloomfeld and RAND. Players in the JCS games were specifically instructed not to assume a specific role. Teams represented political entities, not players representing specific persons in a chain of command. The JCS games often resulted in actual policy recommendations, and role-playing at the individual level was considered to be restrictive and potentially disruptive to the intent of the games. These games at times involved the Assistant Secretaries of State and Defense, and served as a bridge between the experienced military officers of the Pentagon and the so-called “Whiz Kids” the civilian sector was bringing into military policy circles.

As established in Chapter 5, one of the main dangers of wargaming is beginning the process with faulty assumptions. Many of the games run by the Pentagon in the 1960s made the political assumption of a Sino-Soviet Bloc as a monolithic political entity. In hindsight, this was an oversimplification and misunderstanding of dire proportion. The bonds of communism between the Soviet Union and China had never been what Pentagon planners and theorists assumed. This colored much of their wargaming in the political arena. The assumption of a communist monolith in the East meant political and military strategies to deal with such an entity were not reflective of the actual cohesion between Communist nations.  Much of the result of these wargames were derided outside the Pentagon as “squishy” or “touchy-feely” and given little credence by military commanders.

The professional military establishment saw a decline in wargaming in the 1960s and 1970s as this perception spread. RAND continued wargaming throughout this period, integrating computers and strategic models that informed the Air Force’s bombing efforts in Vietnam. All the while RAND continued to deal with the idea of nuclear war and how to deal with the possibility of a conflict that could not be conventionally won.

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