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U.S. Navy Runs From Reality
by James Dunnigan
July 1, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

One of the many little feuds going on in the upper ranks of the U.S. Navy has to do with training officers how to fight, or not, as many believe. It comes down to how many training exercises and wargames (simulated, on a computer, exercises) should be scripted (few decisions), or "free wargaming." At the moment, most of the exercises are scripted. That is, the major activities in the exercise are contained in a script, and the participants cannot deviate from those major plot points. This is done largely because of the large number of exercises that are run, at all levels (from a part of the crew, up to a task force with many ships) to make sure everyone knows the many, and often complex, procedures everyone must go through to get the job done. Running a ship, and ships operating together, is a very complex business. So these exercises (often called drills at the lower levels) are necessary. But a minority of captains and admirals insist that, without training exercises that allow the unexpected, and the opportunity to deal with it, commanders won't really be ready for combat. This is "free wargaming," where a scenario lays out who is involved (and with what kinds of ships, equipment and land based material), what the objectives ("victory conditions") are, and then lets the commanders have at it. Many commanders find this messy and unconvincing.

The navy still does some free wargaming, but even this is controversial, for the preferred format is the BOGSAT (Big Old Guys, Sitting Around a Table). This is similar to role playing games (like Dungeons & Dragons), where more emphasis is placed on the interaction between the participants, than the technical aspects of the battle that commanders would have to deal with.

The golden age of U.S. Navy free wargaming was the 1930s when, during a series of live and simulated wargames, the navy worked out all aspects (except Kamimazes, no one saw that coming) of the battles they were to encounter later during World War II. Free wargaming continued in the navy after World War II, but after the Cold War ended, there was a shift in leadership style in the navy. A "zero tolerance" (for lots of things, some of them bad, some just uncomfortable) atmosphere took over. When this new leadership style was extended to wargames, and "scripted" became the preferred mode. That's because it was more predictable and controllable. This is where proponents of free wargaming gag, as they point out that potential foes are not likely to follow scripts, and may even seek to exploit them. Defenders of the scripted approach feel that American commanders can adapt quickly enough, especially if they have all their procedures down cold. The free wargame advocates respond that history shows that the ability to adapt is good, but some previous practice with an unpredictable foe is even more useful.

So far, the script crew is still in charge, but the free wargame proponents are gathering strength, especially after army and marine commanders, with recent combat experience, again confirm the usefulness of experience dealing with the unexpected.

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