Next War: #Wargaming the Changing Character of Competition and Conflict

  Moltke the Elder (Wikipedia)

Moltke the Elder (Wikipedia)

Starting in 1858, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder issued a series of tactical problems in the form of map exercises, often one-page military problems designed to train Prussian staff officers and commander.  Moltke needed a vehicle to help officers visualize the changing character of war.  European countries fielded increasing large formations, moved by rail, capable of increased firepower.  By analyzing the map exercises or conducting staff rides, the “Great General Staff” could develop options for mobilizing corps, conducting separate lines of march, and concentrating at the decisive point for the final battle.  Wargames were how the military profession adapting to changing material conditions and socio-economic dynamics that altered how and why political actors fought wars.  They offered a unique means to teach the essence of tactical victory, campaigning, and strategy, which Moltke saw as a “free, practical, artistic activity” that set the conditions for battlefield success.

Over the next year, as a part of an ongoing series on #wargaming, we will return to Moltke’s vision of a series of map exercises that illuminate the changing character of war and, in the process, help the military professional develop new theories of victory.  Every month #wargaming will feature a vision of the next war by publishing a campaign-level decision game.  These short, seminar-style games are designed to help national security professionals think about multinational  campaigns and major operations possible, but not necessarily probable, in the near future.  These modern map exercises can be played individually similar to a tactical decision game, or used by a group to discuss military strategy and practice. 

As defined by Philip Sabin, wargaming refers to “any type of warfare modeling, including simulation, campaign and systems analysis, and military exercises.” For Peter Perla, “wargaming is part of a larger toolkit of techniques for learning about warfare” that often explore “future military situations” through the “interplay of human decisions and game events.”  Similarly, according to Frank McHugh, wargames provide the national security professional “decision-making experience and decision-making information” based on a simulation of a particular conflict situation.

The games in this series will be take the form of short, seminar games that can be conducted by collaborative networks of individuals sharing their ideas or in small groups.  The games will establish a scenario and available forces.  Based on this initial data, readers can discuss military options, possible adversary countermoves, and the resulting cascading effects.  These discussions provide a vehicle for the national security professional to visualize and describe the changing character of war.     

For example, recently the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group used future decision games to investigate major contingencies possible in the next twenty-years.  Similarly, a group of Marine, Army, and Air Force officers in the Marine Corps University, Advanced Studies Program are constructing a series of campaign-level decision games to hypothesize new manned-unmanned teaming concepts. In each case, small teams visualize future war and describe the military problems likely to confront Coalition and Joint forces engaged in multi-domain battle.  These teams develop a mission, a concept of operations and articulate a theory of victory and the required capabilities, joint functions, and considerations to achieve it (such as doctrine, organizations, training, etc.).  They learn and adapt short of the feedback of actual battle.

  Radha and Krishna playing Chaturaji, an early form of chess in ancient India (Chess Odyssey)

Radha and Krishna playing Chaturaji, an early form of chess in ancient India (Chess Odyssey)

Seen in this light, wargames are ultimately about knowledge construction in the profession of arms.  They help professionals generate problem statements and new theories of victory.  These theories in turn became hypotheses tested via game play.  A thinking adversary, not a lonely computer algorithm based on force ratios, pushes back. This feedback loop helps the professional reconsider their theory of victory (i.e., is it sound, does it assume too much risk, does it align ends-ways-means, what capabilities are required, what tactical and enabling concepts are required, etc.).  Wargames are an iterated, evolutionary approach to learning how to fight. As analytical exercises, they are cheap, broadening, and push professionals to combine doctrine, their experiences, and imagination to develop new approaches to warfare.  Wargames are the essence of good staff work, an often forgotten truth Moltke the Elder used to build the “brain of an army.”

There is a long history of using wargames as a heuristic to develop new theories of victories and train leaders.  The popular game chess dates back to ancient India where it was called chaturanga, a Sanskrit name for an epic army. The game, a simulation of war involving warfighting functions and formations of its day, helped rulers and their advisors visualize and describe military problems while practicing new schemes of maneuver. The Persians picked up the game and it spread throughout the world often paralleling the conquests of early Islamic kingdoms and trade routes.  Similarly, after the unification of Japan in 1602, Tokugawa shogunate held a “Castle Game” series based on the ancient Chinese game, Go, to make merit-based promotions to cabinet positions.

  20YY Report (CNAS)

20YY Report (CNAS)

There is similarly long, often underappreciated, history of map exercises, seminar games, and other wargaming formats used to train staffs and test new concepts in the United States.   The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) used map exercises to train staffs in modern tactics on the Western front in World War One.  During the 1920s, Admiral William Sims used wargames to educate officers and enable them to develop a new theory of victory for carrier aviation.  General Donn Starry, used a series of wargames at Fifth Corps simulating engaging Soviet armored formations in the Fulda Gap to test the Active Defense doctrine. These games were a critical component in the subsequent emergence of the Airland Battle doctrine.  The Office of Net Assessment used the 20XX games to envision how proliferating precision strike capabilities would change the character of war.  This effort provided some of the intellectual foundation for the 20YY report and the third offset.  Of note, the champions of the third offset advocate using wargaming as a vehicle to develop new concepts and prepare for future conflicts.

This ongoing series continues this proud tradition. The games published over the next year will provide a forum for the national security professionals to imagine the next war.  They will provide “reps, not sets” an iterated series of futuristic map exercises that help practitioners describe and visualize the military problems likely to confront the United States over the next twenty-years.


Benjamin M. Jensen, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Marine Corps University, where he runs the Advanced Studies Program, and a Scholar-in-Residence at the American University, School of International Service.  He is the author of Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army (Stanford University Press, 2016). 



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