Playing wargames to shape real-life military strategy
Image credit: Crown Copyright
Commercial wargames may be a crowd-pleaser for gaming enthusiasts, but what if these strategy-based tools could be used to support real-life military tactics? We speak to experts at the UK’s first dedicated wargaming centre who are setting this in motion.
Tucked away in a little town near Portsmouth, on the south coast of the UK, lies a facility. Here, those who serve our country are likely currently battling each other in games similar to those you may have come across in a store or in the comfort of your own home. Indeed, it may sound like a computer game, but they are so much more than that.
These are, in fact, wargames – a scenario-based warfare model in which the outcome and sequence of events affect, and are affected by, the decisions made by players, as described by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). It is a decision-making technique that provides structured but intellectually liberating safe-to-fail environments to help explore what works during warfare and what does not.
In fact, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has a long history of delivering these successful wargames on behalf of the MoD alongside other government departments. To take this one step further, Dstl has now opened the UK’s first dedicated wargaming centre.
The Defence Wargaming Centre (DWC), located on Dstl’s Portsdown West site near Portsmouth, was created to host wargames for all three UK services, responding to the increasing demand for wargaming as a tool both to support decisions and to develop insight into complex issues faced by defence and security.
Mike Larner, head of the DWC, says: “Wargaming enables commanders to anticipate and rehearse future conflicts which, ultimately, increases the UK’s capability to deter aggression and protect its interests.
“What’s quite different about this centre is that we’ve drawn together all of the people that are involved in wargames from different areas,” Larner adds, “so we now have a single team supporting wargames across all of the services, head office and all other departments at Dstl and the MoD.”
Currently, DWC covers around 600m2 with two large areas and one smaller open-plan area that can be subdivided further into smaller cells as required. Gaming tables, some of which have short-throw HD projectors to visualise wargame scenarios, reconfigure to the necessary shape and size. Dstl says that future upgrades are being planned to the physical space, computing, and communications, as well as further expansion to the wargaming teams and the range of tools available to them.
Beyond the wargames themselves, the centre intends to focus on research for wargaming methods, tools and techniques. “At the heart of a wargame there is some sort of simulation, and that can be anything from a board game or a map with characters being moved around,” says Larner, “or it could be a really sophisticated computer model that you’re putting all of this into and that is simulating a lot of the lower-level activities, and then it gives you results.”
In December 2019, the Royal Air Force (RAF) conducted the first wargaming exercise, Eagle Warrior 19, at the facility. The exercise was designed and developed by Dstl and involved staff from across the RAF and other services.
Lee Purslow, a wargame designer and analyst at DWC, describes the premise of the exercise: “Eagle Warrior 19 was a command and control wargame facilitated at DWC and attended by more than 40 RAF officers. The wargame used a hybridised combination of tools including digital modelling, maps and manual table-top games to evaluate the RAF’s response to various scenarios,” he explains. “Teams were split across seven cells and were assessed in their decision-making and timeliness of responses.” He delines to elaborate beyond that, saying the DWC cannot disclose any further details about the wargame for security reasons.
As well as catering to the RAF, the centre has a continuous programme of wargames that it creates for the Army – varying from physical to mental wargames. Analysts and designers are also in talks with the Navy. Furthermore, experts at the facility will soon be running high-level and more strategic games for the centre of the MoD.
‘One of the things about wargames is that it immerses people... It’s quite an interesting way of considering and analysing problems.’
“One of the things about wargames is that it immerses people,” says analyst Marianne Shirley. “It’s quite an interesting way of considering and analysing problems.” So whether that is through the means of a manual table-top or a digital model, or perhaps a ‘hybrid’ of both, analysts and wargame designers discuss and cater to the requirements of their client to create the most suitable wargame for their needs.
“The customers come up with requirements; we will decide at that stage if it’s a simulation model or a manual table-top,” Purslow explains. “The biggest difference between the two is that simulation models tend to produce more quantitative information data as opposed to manual table-top games, which produce more qualitative information.”
According to the Dstl experts, commercial wargames offer a novel way of developing and testing combat strategy, taking inspiration from pre-existing wargames. Here, analysts spend time playing the games, analysing what makes them effective, looking at the mechanics of the game, and then taking the parts of the wargames that they feel are appropriate to a customer’s requirements.
“We look at the work of other people and draw from them,” Larner explains. “We are also very interested in how [boardgames] have been translated into video games.”
In July 2019, Dstl announced a partnership with Epsom-based video game developer Slitherine Software to explore the mechanics of a few of its own digital strategy-based games such as grand strategy game ‘Fields of Glory: Empires’ and variations of the digital version of ‘Warhammer 40,000’, initially a table-top wargame.
The team at DWC are positive about the wargaming centre, explaining that they aim to embed more technology into their facilities in the future.
They will also look to grow the team at the centre. DWC currently has around 35 full-time wargamers, who work with around 100 analysts across different divisions that specialise in coordinating different services and commands. “We’re planning to carry on growing from that,” Larner says.
Furthermore, DWC aspires to bring more technology into the centre, look for technology for improved data analysis, and to develop more mobile capabilities so that participants can conduct wargames remotely.
“Some of our wargames are actually about the technology and about viewing the ways that the armed forces use it. Then we have the technology for the wargames themselves and we’re looking into how we can use it better,” says Larner. “This area, in particular, is something that there’s a lot of interest in: how it might revolutionise defence. We’re certainly tracking that.”
Indeed, DWC is interested in using greater levels of technology to design a wargame and to even better visualise what is going on in a scenario-based model. By delivering a wide variety of wargames “it represents a significant step-up in capability and signals our intent to keep developing in response to growing MoD and wider government demand for wargaming,” Larner remarks, “which is, in turn, a response to the increasing complexity of conflict”.
Shaping Afghan peace support operations
In 2011, Dstl deployed two teams of civilian volunteers to Afghanistan to support the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command (IJC) military planning teams. Dstl supported IJC, which was responsible for the combined Coalition and Afghan military campaign across the country, to shape future Nato operations at the time.
Two major planning conferences in March and November that year used Dstl’s computer simulation, the Peace Support Operations Model (PSOM), a research-based decision-support tool for examining operations and outcomes in complex environments such as Afghanistan.
Originally designed to inform future UK strategic planning, PSOM was employed by the Dstl teams in Afghanistan in a bespoke analytical process. Indeed, this process simulated the planning, execution and assessment of real-world operations by giving senior military and civilian decision-makers clear direction and insights that influenced and shaped Nato operations in the region.
These conferences were the first of their kind to use a computer-based wargame to evaluate and refine campaign planning in Afghanistan. As part of the game, the PSOM computer system provided a novel analysis capability; these incorporated complex interactions between factors such as religious beliefs, ethnic identities, socio-economic conditions, geography and terrain, as well as political and military activity.
During the process, PSOM simulated military operations and civilian development activities by placing these complex factors in context. The models described the relationships between them and used the computer simulation to provide an objective structure to track cause-and-effect and generate insights for decision-makers. The process also used the subject-matter experts within the wargame to ensure their knowledge and expertise was reflected.
Within this process, military and civilian planners were able to assess the potential effects of different courses of action and test them against different challenges.
The wargame conferences were centred on semi-rigid, computer-assisted adjudication. Interactions during the month-long turns were first determined using PSOM, but then could be moderated or overruled by the adjudication team.
Each of these conferences involved around 20 control staff and 100-150 military and civilian players, with every cell represented: red, orange, green, blue, black and white, and brown for the civilian population. The blue, green and white players comprised strategic-, operational- and tactical-level planners, with support from external civilian agencies, embassies and elements from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
Thousands of entities were simulated, with military elements represented at a company level. Within PSOM, the civilian population was simulated as a set of discrete agents with decision-sets and information properties.
This was a closed game, with players collecting intelligence from various sources. Meanwhile, one central bird table and a network of computers provided shared situational awareness. The MoD described the wargame as “dynamic”, with an open-ended narrative driven by the player decisions and how they reacted to the consequences of these actions taken.
“You have raised issues that a coalition and combined team, hundreds of thousands strong, have not thought all the way through to the finish,” IJC said in its summary of the 2011 Afghanistan planning conferences. “That early catch will save many lives as well as be critical to the success of the future campaign.”
Major General (then Brigadier) Gary Deakin, representing the British Army, said in 2014: “The use of the wargaming tool PSOM enabled commanders and their planning staffs to objectively visualise the likely outcomes of the transition campaign for Afghanistan.
“Almost three years on, and having been involved directly or indirectly in Afghanistan since, I have frequently observed events and trends which were identified as key risks to the plan in the wargaming,” he continued. “This is the most effective tool for wargaming at the higher levels I have experienced.”
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