Intelligence: Back to the Future With Predictive Analysis


November 14, 2005: Back in the 1970s, some CIA analysts discovered a new way to analyze the mountains of information they were receiving. The new tool was wargames. Also called simulations, these were, well, games, where you could explore the what-ifs of historical, or contemporary conflicts. This gave the analysts a better idea of what was going on, what the most likely options were, what the correlation of forces (as Soviet wargamers liked to put it) was and, in general, what to look for.

Unfortunately, not many analysts could use this new tool. That's because most of the games available were on historical conflicts, not future ones. But the accuracy of those wargames in "predicting the past" demonstrated to some of the analysts that these games could be useful for predicting the future. However, there was another, more serious problem. These were manual games (maps with a superimposed hexagon grid, half inch pieces of cardboard to represent units and other items, and up to 64 pages of rules regulating play.) These games were called, at the time, "the hobby of the overeducated," because you had to be something of a geek to figure them out. That, however, certainly applied to many CIA analysts, and they were able to create games, or game-like tools, on contemporary situations, or use the commercial games on future wars that began to appear in the mid 1970s.

The paper (or "manual") aspect of these games was important, because it allowed the analysts to understand exactly how the games worked, and thus have confidence that the game results were not leading them astray. Soon, computerized versions of these games appeared, but because they were "black box" games, how exactly they worked was hidden inside the software. Analysts were much less eager to use these games as research tools. Moreover, these "strategic simulations" were relatively rare in the world of computer games. The best selling computer wargames were "mash and bash" type games (think DOOM or WARCRAFT) that were more intent on getting players hooked, than to enlighten them about historical, or contemporary, events.

Why do wargames work for intelligence analysts? Probably because they were created through a fortuitous combination of OR (Operations Research) and historical research, in a chess like format. OR is one the major (and generally unheralded) scientific developments of the 20th century. OR is basically applying mathematical analysis to problems. OR turned out to be a major "weapon" for the Allies during World War II. OR, like radar, was developed in the 1930s, just in time for a major war, when whatever was available was put to work to win the conflict. OR is also, half jokingly, called a merger of math and common sense. It is widely used today in science, industry and, especially, in management (it's the primary tool of MBAs, where it's called "management science".) With wargames, the most important OR tool, at least for historical wargames, was the ability to "backtest" (see if the wargame could accurately predict the outcome of the historical event, if the same historical decisions are made). For wargames on contemporary situations, the backtest is, instead, a predictive tool that reveals likely outcomes.

For predictive analysis, wargames, like OR in general, create a framework that points you towards the right questions, and often provides the best answers as well. Like many OR problems, especially in the business world, the game framework is often quite rough. But in war, as in commerce, anything that will give you an edge can lead to success over your opponents. A wargame is similar to what engineers call "a 60 percent solution" that can be calculated on the back of an envelope.

The commercial manual wargames produced some impressive results when it came to actual wars. In late 1972 a game ("Year of the Rat") was published covering the recent (earlier in the year) North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam. This game didn't predict the outcome of the war, but it got the attention of people in the intelligence community, especially those who knew something about wargames, for it was a convincing demonstration of what a manual wargame, using unclassified data, could do in representing a very recently fought campaign. There was even talk that these games could actually predict the outcome, and details, of a future war. The next year, wargames did just that, accurately portraying the outcome of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The game ("Sinai") was about to be published when the war broke out, but some people in the intelligence community knew about it. A member of the Israeli UN delegation had watched the game in development (he was a wargamer), and was assigned to camp out at the publishers offices, while the war raged, and report what the game was predicting.

There weren't many wars to practice these predictive techniques on after that, until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Months before the Coalition counterattacked, a game appeared ("Arabian Nightmare"), that predicted everything, including the low Coalition casualties. This time, the media got wind of it, and the game was featured on "Nightline" in October, 1990. This didn't cause much excitement with the general public, it was just some more weird stuff on the tube.

What about the war on terror? From a wargamers perspective, it's not a difficult conflict to simulate. International terrorists are nothing new, and if you know how to work out the media impact on this, you've got yourself a wargame. Actually, you can do most of this stuff on a spreadsheet (which is a good vehicle for many types of predictive analysis). Same with the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan. Both countries are behaving as they have for centuries. Anyone familiar with the history of these two places, won't be surprised with what's going on there now, or how it's all going to turn out. Forget the media, they haven't a clue, and don't need one to stay in business.

Remember, wargamers are also historians. They look at things from a historical perspective, and immediately apply an OR approach to any even they are studying. First thing they think of is; who has what, what can they do with it and what are the goals of the different factions? The Afghan tribes have issues, always have, always will until the tribal system fades away. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab minority wants to be in charge, and some of them are willing to fight on to avoid war crimes trials and confiscation of the oil money they stole. Al Qaeda is yet another attempt by Islamic conservatives to conquer the world. The Turks kept them in check for centuries, but thousand year old dreams die hard, especially in a culture that has found so many ways to fail.

Wargames put things in perspective. They force you to face reality. As a result, this kind of tool is not popular with politicians (who have a different kind of reality) and journalists (who want headlines, not reality.) But people in the military still use these tools to quickly get a grasp of fast moving situations. General Barry McCaffrey, CINC of SOUTHCOM, for example, was faced with a war between Peru and Ecuador in 1995. The Pentagon and the White House were looking to him for a quick analysis of the situation. Fortunately for him, the guy who designed Arabian Nightmare (Austin Bay, a reserve officer mobilized to debrief former Cuban soldiers among the Cuban refugees being moved through Panama was in the area). LTC Bay came to the attention of a colonel on the CENTCOM staff, who remembered seeing some of Bays wargaming work at the Army War College, and asked LTC Bay if he could whip up a Peru-Ecuador wargame overnight, so they could put together an analysis for GEN McCaffrey. It was done, and, when McCaffrey briefed the Joint Chiefs, he used LTC Bays game, and its analysis. It was noted that McCaffrey's tools were better than anything that Leavenworth or DC area analysts were able to come up with. McCaffrey gave Bay a commendation medal.

The Pentagon wargame budget is over a billion dollars a year, but little of that is spent on simulations to assist intelligence analysts. In the CIA, wargames are still considered exotic. There has been some talk (for decades) of creating a "QuickSim" system that would enable military, diplomatic or intelligence users to quickly put together a wargame on any area, and just about any kind of situation, as an aid to figuring out what is going on. But no one is interested enough to put up the money.

So it is still the few hobby wargamers throughout the defense community who get called on to create, on the spot, simulations in support of projects. This is a hit or miss approach to using such a valuable tool, but that's what happens when you have something valuable, but obscure, and just a wee bit odd. There are many such wargamers still working in intelligence jobs, and they still get called on, from time to time, to work their magic. But these skills should not be considered magic. Like OR, wargames make great use of the "less than hundred percent" solution. The use of abstraction and approximation in wargames often puts off the scientists (even though many scientists are big fans of wargames). But, year by year, more analysts adopt the use of wargames as an analytic tool, even if no one completely understands how, and why, they work.


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