Wargaming reveals weaknesses

A USMC ops planner’s experience explains the key benefit of wargaming:

Back in May of 2012, I was holding an Operational Planning Team for a Major Pacific OPLAN. This was a big event. We flew in over a hundred participants for almost three weeks of work. I fought with my boss, the G5, over several key points about this OPT and I eventually was able to do things how I wanted. I spoke directly with the CG everyday during the OPT, with three formal briefs to him. Because we were a Joint Force Land Component Command for this OPT, we had players from all services and Special Forces (which is basically it’s own service.) I had interagency players, a full Red Cell, Green Cell, and Red Team. This was the biggest non-exercise event I witnessed in my three years at the MEF. And it was my FIRST OPT and first opportunity to be on the dot for a critical event. I routinely worked bast 1900 and worked past 2100 twice during the three weeks. This was BIG and IMPORTANT and we only had one chance to get it right. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I am smart enough to get help from smart people. I leaned heavily on three key personnel who had been around awhile and knew what they were doing. And they were great. We got through Problem Framing and Course of Action (COA) Development and were ready for the COA Wargaming step. The CG had settled on one COA, and we were testing it to see if it worked. COA wargaming is another area I fought with Col XXXX on and one. He agreed to let me run it my way and get out of it what I thought I needed.

So, we started the wargame. On the second (SECOND!!!) turn, the Red player took his turn and we were all face with the extremely obvious and extremely uncomfortable realization that our one and only COA was untenable. The result of 2 1/2 weeks worth of intensive work had just failed catastrophically in front of the audience. In the middle of the uncomfortable silence, broken by teeth sucking, I looked to the three officers who had been helping my so much throughout. All of them slumped their shoulders and looked away. One of them actually walked out of the back of the room. I was faced with the uncomfortable realization: “No one is going to save me.” This is the real world. There isn’t an answer in the back of the book. There is no instructor stepping in to bail you out. You are on your own and it is all on your shoulders. I looked out at the OPT and realized that my reputation, this entire event, the time and energy of over a hundred people sat on my shoulders and had no opportunity to start over and fix it. This is what it means to be a planner. It is all on you.

So, I used my favorite OPT tactic and said, “Everybody take 10!” I grabbed my two trusted agents (LtCol XXX and Maj XXX who worked closest with me, LtCol XXX will come up again in three slides) and went into the back room to discuss what we should do. They were both a little shell-shocked and no help. So, I fixed it. The problem, as it turned out, was timing. I adjusted the timing and changed the character of one force and its mission. And we recocked the wargame with the new COA. And it worked. It worked so well that, with minor modifications, it went into the plan of record. We have since referred to that wargame as the most successful COA wargame ever, because it identified a critical flaw in the COA and we were able to adjust the COA to opvercome the flaw.

The challenge, of course, is that people have to be willing to accept the information produced by the wargaming session. In vast bureaucracies like the U.S. armed forces, they are much more likely to sweep any uncomfortable information thus gathered under the carpet and pretend everything is fine, because in most cases the real world test will never come and the planning flaws will remain undetected.

It is eminently clear that the Obama administration does not have anyone advising it who is well-versed in wargaming, or rather, it is not listening to anyone who is.