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October 1, 2009: The U.S. Department of Defense efforts to create simulations and wargames of irregular warfare have again run into the old problem of history versus science. Since the end of World War II, the Department of Defense has sought to simulate war via scientific principles. This meant collecting vast amounts of data and developing algorithms that would accurately simulate every aspect of combat. The alternative was the historical approach, where less precise algorithms were created, based on less complete data, and refined using historical experience, to produce a "good enough" simulation of combat.

An example of how the two approaches work in practice occurred on August 2nd, 1990, as Iraq was invading Kuwait. The U.S. Department of Defense swung into action. One of the first things the Pentagon officials did was to wargame out the unfolding situation. All of the Pentagons computerized wargames were too slow off the mark for this job. So later that day, the first wargame used at the Pentagon was a commercial one. With all the billions spent on computerized wargames since 1945, Americas most efficient military operation in this century was initially planned using a manual wargame (Gulf Strike) that could be bought by anyone in most hobby stores for under fifty dollars.

During World War II, the German army regularly wargamed operations in much the same way that Iraqs Kuwait invasion was gamed out in the Pentagon. The manual wargames used by the Germans were very similar in style to current manual games (although the Germans considered there games military secrets and not available to civilians). When the allies invaded France on June 6th, 1944, the Germans were in the middle of a wargame dealing with just such a possibility. As reality had overtaken the games hypothetical premise, the German commander ordered the game to proceed, but not as a game but as a command tool. Wargaming had been a common practice in the Germany for a century before the Nazis came along. The British, Russians and Japanese also wargamed every major operation. In the United States, only the navy used wargames for such planning.

However, for many years after World War II, traditional wargames got little respect from the professional military wargamers because these older, history based, manual wargames were not considered precise enough for current needs. The development and application of computers, operations analysis (OR) and systems analysis during World War II firmly implanted the idea that simulations of war had to, and could, provide precise and unambiguous answers. It was ignored that history based wargames, despite being relatively imprecise and ambiguous, had usually been accurate enough to be useful. So, as the decades rolled by after 1945, even the slow learners realized that the scientific approach could not match the usefulness, reliability and timely accuracy of the older style wargames. Finally, in the 1980s, the Department of Defense, without abandoning its science approach to wargaming, allowed the older historical games (both manual and computerized) to have a place at the table.

Several military wargamers summed up the problem very succinctly by pointing out that there is a tradeoff between the accuracy of your wargame and how much time and resources you have available. In wartime, commanders have discovered that they can prepare a "good enough" analysis (or wargame) of a situation in a few hours. A few days, a few months or a few years, can create more accurate wargames. But these don't count if they are not available when needed.

Until the 1990s, professional wargaming tended to go after the most accuracy possible, and consume years and millions of dollars in the process. Indeed, the process usually overcame the search for a solution, often leading to a lost, and failed, project. That happened in 2002, when the billion dollar effort to create the JSIMS (Joint Simulations System). The experience with the $50 Gulf Strike wargame in 1990 was forgotten, or ignored.

Commercial manual wargames can generally achieve a "good enough solution." Put a wargame on a PC and you get a more accurate, and just as quick, solution. But it took the military a while to catch on to this cheaper solution sitting on the shelves of a local game store.

The more successful efforts to simulate irregular warfare accept the fact that this involves multiple games. One of these would involve self-protection (defending your troops, both in bases and outside them). Another game would involve collecting intelligence. This would involve raids and searches, establishing informant networks and success and speed at analyzing the data collected. Another game would deal with local politics, and how to persuade the local population to get along with each other, and your forces.

Obviously, all these games are interrelated. But historical wargame design always deals with that (aspects of the situation that are there, but not manipulated in the game.) Finally, there is the task of validating your wargame. Historically, this is done by setting up historical situations, playing them out using historical decisions, and measuring how close the outcome is to the historical one. Once you achieve the historical result, you engage in "free play" and see how the game hold up. You keep tweaking (making minor changes in numerical values and procedures) until you have a wargame you would bet your life on. This has been done successfully for over a century, so don't be afraid. An irregular warfare game has many historical situations to use for validation. If you can predict the past, you can predict the future.

 


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