First, let us define wargaming:
The US Armys FM 101-5 Staff Organization and Operations states wargaming is a disciplined process, with rules and steps, that attempts to visualize the flow of a battle. It is more of a mental wargame/map exercise done to attempt to discern weaknesses and strengths of courses of action. Its utility as a analytical tool is questionable because it is too subjective, and depends on the staff's ability to apply a great many factors without the automated assistance. Regardless of how well it is executed, wargaming therefore affects every US operation.
The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedic Dictionary defines wargame as practice maneuvers imitating the actual conditions of warfare.
A great number of events therefore qualify as wargames, for instance, maneuvering troops in the field, in conditions short of war, with or without an opposing force. These kinds of operations are called Live simulations by the US Army, and reach their highest practice at the regional training centers at Fort Irwin, California; Fort Polk, Louisiana; and Hohenfels, Germany. These are essentially great games of Laser Tag.
The US Army also defines two other types of simulations that could be termed wargames:
Virtual, - simulators that replicate a particular weapon system, such as a tank or aircraft. First Person shooters in the civilian world, that concentrates on improving the ability of the crew or individual to perform a specific task.
Constructive. These are simulations in which the staff normally does not see the wargame directly. Rather, they are connected to it through their command and control devices and the "players" input orders directly into the wargame. The military simulations in this category are Corps Battle Simulation, Brigade/Battalion Battle Simulation, JANUS, JCATS, OneSAF, and WARSIM. Comparable civilian games are Armored Task Force, Brigade Combat Team, Decisive Action, and TacOps.
So how do these wargames affect history?
Live simulations played a great part in the defeat of the Iraqi Army in the two US Gulf Wars. These live simulations enabled the units and soldiers to have already fought their first battle, under realistic, though not fatal, circumstances. Many soldiers said the NTC Opposing Force tougher than the Iraqi Army, and at least one unit that did very well in Iraq was mauled when it returned to the NTC.
The ability of virtual or task trainers to produce excellent results is evident in such disparate tasks as the US Space Program and in the ability of crews to operate their equipment in a variety of circumstances.
Most units undertake anywhere from 1 to 4 constructive wargaming exercises a year. These may be unit run exercises designed to gain terrain appreciation, improve staff procedures, or to find problem with plans before an exercise or deployment.
US Army brigades and divisions periodically are evaluated during exercises in which the contractor staffed Opposing Force from Fort Leavenworth, KS, fights the unit, accompanied by a horde of observers ranging from major to retired general. These exercises are designed to test the staff's ability to plan and control tactical operations.
The emphasis is not to win the battle, but on learning how to do better. Winning is more fun, builds confidence in yourself and your staff, unit, and procedures, but somehow, there always seem to get more learning points in defeat. It is better to be defeated a hundred times in simulation than once on the battlefield.
Wargaming has its origins in antiquity, with the invention of games such as Chess and Go, and has been used as a training tool for over 200 years. Wargaming has been a serious hobby, for soldiers and civilians, for about 100 years. Given this history, has wargaming actually influenced military history?
There are several other instances of using wargames to influence planning:
In The Complete Wargames Handbook, Jim Dunnigan relates how Mark Herman, developer of the Avalon Hill board game "Gulf Strike" administered an exercise using this game to consider various courses of actions relating to the invasion of Iraq. Mark quickly set up a game in the Pentagon that is said to have quickly exposed the faults of the Iraqi Army, how the US should flow forces into theatre to win the war, and suggested a general strategy.
CENTCOM, III Corps, V Corps, and VII Corps used CBS to prepare for their deployments to the Persian Gulf to help find potential flaws in their plans, and all units conducted extensive rehearsals (live simulations) prior to attacking.
After World War II, Admiral Nimitz said of the Naval Wargaming effort between World War I and II, that it revealed nothing in the war was a surprise except Kamikazes. While this may true in the strategic and operational sense, at the tactical level, the US Navy learned in combat what it might have learned in wargames.
The successes of Japanese wargaming before attacking Pearl Harbor and the Germans before invading France are well known.
Not all experiences are positive. LTG Wallace, the V Corps Commander during OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003), remarked, "The enemy we're fighting is (a bit) different from the one we'd war-gamed against." This is in part a reference to that we did not correctly anticipate what would happen there and also to the fact that our current simulations do not effectively model Stability and Support Operations.
The Battle of Tannenberg in 1914 unfolded nearly exactly like the Russian wargame foretold, the Russian Generals commanding the attack discovered a flaw in their plan when they came upon the Masurian Lakes. Apparently the plan was not changed; the battle was a Russian defeat.
Less successful too were the German wargames of the Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and the Japanese at Midway in 1942.
From this brief survey of wargaming, we can see wargaming has affected history and military operations. Unfortunately, many of these effects are lost to history because they are informal and we only know about the notable successes or failures. But, an important fact to remember is that war is a chancy operation, and just because a plan wins or loses in simulation does not mean that it will do the same on the battlefield.
As Peter Perla said in his Art of Wargaming, ...analysis of outcomes is the beginning of wisdom, not the end product. -- Mike Robel
Davis, Morton D., Game Theory: A Nontechnical Introduction (Particularly chapter 2, pp 13 14)
Dunnigan, James F, The Complete Wargames Handbook. (Especially Chapter 9)
Perla, Peter, The Art of Wargaming (Especially Part 1).
Prados, John. Pentagon Games: Wargames and the American Military
US Army, FM 101-5 Staff Organization and Operations (Especially Chapter 5, pages 5-16 24).