DOD takes its games to a new level

When the Germans sought to transform their military in the early 20th century, they invented the modern-day concept of war games. Those "games" gave birth to the blitzkrieg, which they would later use with devastating effectiveness in World War II.

Just years into a new millennium, Defense Department Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expects war gaming to be just as effective in his efforts to transform DOD into a leaner, more lethal fighting force.

"We think modeling and simulation is a major enabler to transformation," said Bob Martinage, senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The concept of war games and simulations, in fact, is a cornerstone of Rumsfeld's transformation efforts.

"U.S. forces will rely heavily on war games and simulations to support this program of field exercises and experiments," according to the latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Congressionally mandated document that lays out DOD's structure for the coming years.

War games, of course, have played an important role at DOD for many years. The games take several forms, such as experiments in which battles are conducted in the field with actual military units and equipment, and "tabletop exercises" in which players act out a scenario to see how they would react in certain situations.

The activities, which often rely on computer simulation to one degree or another, provide a steppingstone from the drills and classroom learning that make up daily training to the real battlefield.

With transformation, though, war games take on a different twist. Rather than simply putting soldiers through their paces, war games are seen as a way to test ideas — "new types of forces and operational concepts," as the QDR says — just as Germany did with the blitzkrieg.

Managing Change

A particular class of war games — battlefield experiments — have become more prominent over the past five years as the military services began investigating ways to bring technology onto the battlefield. During such experiments, the services are less concerned with winning and losing than they are with testing new ideas.

In 1997, for example, the Army conducted a two-week exercise at Fort Irwin, Calif., to test the use of commercial networks and systems as part of its Force XXI program.

The Army's primary interest was not seeing if the experimental forces could beat a traditional force, but rather if information technology could improve the Army's ability to track and coordinate forces on the battlefield. More recently, the service has conducted similar exercises at Fort Hood, Texas, as part of its Division Capstone initiative.

The Marines have also held a series of experiments to test advanced technology and battle tactics in different environments, beginning with Hunter Warrior in 1997, followed by Urban Warrior and, more recently, Land Warrior.

But the value of war games extends beyond battlefield strategy, observers say.

War games enable people to work through problems they may never have encountered before, said Navy Capt. Michael Lilienthal, director of the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office in Alexandria, Va., which is responsible for setting DOD policy on war gaming to ensure that the games are conducted on a level playing field.

It's not just a matter of training people, but teaching them to think in new ways.

For example, network-centric warfare — the idea of using networks and computers to make data available where and when it's needed throughout the battlefield — is simple enough to describe, but what impact does it have on basic operations?

War games provide a powerful way to take an abstract idea and make it real for soldiers.

"Since nobody could really tell you what it is, the war game is the only way you are able to discover it," said Mark Herman, a partner at Booz Allen Hamilton and a widely recognized war game creator and expert.

Lessons to be Learned

Yet there are new questions about how well such exercises contribute to transformation.

A case in point: DOD's recently completed Millennium Challenge 2002 was a $250 million experiment designed to test the service's joint warfighting abilities — a concept at the core of a transformed DOD — as well as other critical transformation tenets.

The commander of the game's opposing forces, retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, publicly said the challenge was no challenge at all because the game was, in essence, fixed so that the joint forces won. Van Riper said he was so frustrated with the exercise that he quit halfway through.

DOD officials have defended the experiment, yet the brouhaha has left some asking how effective the practice is.

"War games can be very, very useful or they can be a waste of time and money," Martinage said. And, during the past decade, the track record of lessons learned from war games has been mixed. Individual services have often acted in their own self-interest, creating games that illustrated how their service was critical to warfighting.

"Many do not explore emerging challenges that we are likely to test," Martinage said.

"What I sense happening now — since transformation — is that the war gaming and simulation community is probably going to have a challenge in trying to adapt their rather well-tried models to some very new ways of doing business," said Ray Bjorklund, an analyst with Federal Sources Inc., a McLean, Va., market research firm.

Those involved with Millennium Challenge 2002 stress that the goal was to test a specific concept, not necessarily who wins or loses, said Chris Shepherd, team leader for the Standing Joint Force headquarters, which staged the Millennium Challenge (see box, Page 20).

Martinage suggested that the success or failure of war games largely depends on the type of game used and the methodology, or rules, laid out for the game.

But just as concepts such as network centricity are transforming warfare itself, the concepts are also transforming traditional gaming techniques, experts noted.

Changing the Game

War gaming is on the "cusp of a transformation of its own," Lilienthal said. But that will necessitate research and development into new theories of war gaming. "We are still working off science developed" in the 1970s, he said.

But, experts agreed, there is no doubt that war games enable DOD to test theories and practices at a significantly low cost.

"War gaming is at the heart of transformation," said Kenneth Watman, chairman of the war gaming department at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "So much of transformation involved things that would be costly to create for real," and many of those would be blind alleys.

War gaming "allows you to explore all of the ideas people have about transformation," Watman said.

Martinage said that in the 1990s, he was involved in a series of war games that sought to look at war in 2025 in an attempt to map some of the trends. And those games nearly a decade ago examined technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles, which proved invaluable in Afghanistan.

"A lot of the things that people pooh-poohed...are now becoming a reality," he said. But just as transformation itself will take time, the transformation of war gaming is still developing, he added.

Some concepts involved with network centricity are still tough to test in a war game scenario. So some groups are taking a piecemeal approach, building parts of networks and testing scenarios.

War games enable fighters to test the cascade effects that come from network centricity, Lilienthal said. He asked, "If we're able to go from a sensor through a network to a shooter quicker than ever before without overloading them," what does that mean for warfighting?

Those questions are largely unanswered now, but officials hope that war games will provide some of the answers.


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected