In the opening days of the Iraq invasion in 2003, then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld infamously quipped, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” The offhand remark ignited indignation, but the United States had the Army it wanted. This Army won in the opening days of the Iraq War and excelled in the preferred American way of war—high-intensity combat underpinned by cutting-edge technology.
But this style of warfare is infrequent and brief. Despite the US military’s institutional preference on preparing for conventional conflict, irregular warfare (IW) remains the most prevalent form of warfare since 1945. This trend shows no signs of change in the twenty-first century. The United States cannot opt out of these messy wars, and must be ready for irregular warfare in the conflicts of the future.
Unfortunately, the United States’ primary force for irregular warfare, the US Army, is anything but prepared. Retired Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, former commander of Army Special Operations Command, argues that the American military lacks a proper conceptual and structural basis for irregular warfare. Further, the Army fails to adequately educate or prepare for this type of conflict. Put simply, the US Army is not particularly good at, does not prefer, and does not care to think about IW regardless of the mandate of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the current National Defense Strategy.
The Army faces two challenges in preparing for IW conflicts: a substantial cultural preference for conventional warfare and a need for new concepts, strategies, and approaches to IW. Both of these challenges can be addressed through tailoring wargaming to hone IW competencies within the force. While wargaming alone will not deliver these solutions, events designed to explore irregular warfare systems will help develop better models to understand issues, opportunities, and constraints.
Wargaming also opens players’ minds. Despite thoughtful caveats about the lack of empirical studies on wargaming’s effectiveness, the Department of Defense widely accepts wargaming as important for developing and testing concepts and training leaders. Wargaming has enjoyed a recent renaissance, partially because of top-down emphasis. Wargaming experts Peter Perla and E. D. McGrady argue, “Wargaming’s power and success (as well as its danger) derive from its ability to enable individual participants to transform themselves by making them more open to internalizing their experiences in a game.” They explain that wargaming provides “synthetic experience through stories” and increases empathy in the players. Wargaming also boosts receptivity to new options in a way that other forms of learning do not. The psychological experience of the game itself leaves players more open to new, creative, and unexpected ideas and outcomes.
We recommend that professional military education and operational forces make four adjustments to IW wargaming. These changes will increase receptivity to new ideas among players while simultaneously developing and refining concepts to leverage the full range of IW capabilities in “creative, dynamic, and unorthodox ways.”
Four Keys to Better Wargames
Focus on the Narratives
In irregular warfare, narratives carry the day. Narratives describe how individuals experience the world around them and then communicate that information to others. The Department of Defense has enormous blind spots in understanding how adversaries interpret our actions and spin new counternarratives.
Each party to a conflict comes with its own narratives. Robert Rubel, who chaired the Naval War College’s Wargaming Department, notes that participants routinely fail to connect the political and military aspects of the game. Unfortunately, this often results in unnecessary and costly escalations.
Russia successfully employs narrative as part of its IW campaign in the Baltics. There, a sophisticated Russian propaganda offensive drives wedges between various ethnic and cultural groups. Further, a combination of disinformation and cyber efforts in Baltic countries undermines citizens’ trust in Baltic government and security institutions. Successful employment of narrative requires adjusting the approach to resonate with the target audiences; a single blanket message would not work. IW wargames must force players to grapple with and employ narrative as a key component of their IW approach.
Plentiful Parties and Overlapping Objectives
Irregular warfare wargaming requires more robust, skeptical third-party teams with knowledge of political warfare and narratives. In traditional wargames of conventional conflicts, enemy and friendly forces fight over discrete objectives with minimal third-party engagement. However, in irregular warfare scenarios, third parties’ interpretations of friendly and enemy actions may decide the conflicts. Further, many parties simply defy these categories.
The Syrian Civil War provides an example of the complex array of actors involved in IW. To secure its interests, Russia must support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, defuse friction with Turkey, partner with Iran, defeat ISIS, and isolate the United States. No wargame could responsibly model the Syrian conflict without these and other players competing and seeking to advance their own objectives.
Unfortunately, US wargames understate the complexity of these types of situations. Once third-party players begin to outnumber friendly and enemy players, the games will begin to represent IW’s complexity. Attempts to accomplish this type of wargaming are nascent, but they do exist. The work done by Lieutenant Colonel Arnel David and Dr. John De Rosa on gaming narratives in the Baltics provides an example of what this type of approach would entail.
Whole-of-Government cannot be Controlled by the Military
Wargames are too military-centric. While the military aspires to a whole-of-government solution to population-centric conflicts, wargames rarely reflect this aspiration. Too often, the military assumes a degree of latitude not representative of real-world constraints. Expanding interagency and coalition teams in wargaming is one way to ensure more instruments of national power are realistically incorporated, rather than simply assumed.
Games Should Seek a Position of Continuing Advantage
Successful strategies in an actual irregular warfare conflict create conditions favoring long-term success, rather than the achievement of discrete military objectives. Irregular warfare–oriented games should employ an approach tailored to the scenario and avoid an emphasis on specific, traditional military outcomes. Though military objectives will still play a role, the use of the military instrument must be fully integrated with other activities intended to create favorable conditions for successful military actions.
Reprogramming the Game: Making IW Problem Solving Innovative and Accessible
The observation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast“ is particularly true when the culture in question is centuries old and an organization’s members are naturally inclined to resist change. Strict military hierarchy serves to reinforce this resistance to change as it thwarts creativity and innovation among its members.
Commentators on national security have routinely criticized the Department of Defense’s relative neglect in institutionalizing the capabilities and education necessary to meet irregular warfare’s challenges. Wargaming alone will not deliver these solutions. However, events designed to explore irregular warfare systems will help develop better models to understand issues, opportunities, and constraints. Narratives developed in such political-military games generate and promulgate insights. These events can spark hard thinking about future challenges and requirements.
Replicating IW is hard. As compared to conventional conflicts, IW campaigns will often play out over months and years. Fortunately, new wargaming tools offer promise to unlock new IW concepts and shift perceptions of IW. These tools can take many forms: for example, planning wargames as asynchronous, multiday events would leverage the time between turns to stimulate creativity and new IW concepts. Similarly, transitioning to a virtual format for some types of wargames not only can add more nuance to the scenario, but can make participation more accessible to tactical and operational decision makers across the force who may not normally have the opportunity to engage in these exercises. Increasing distributed, scalable, and easily manipulated irregular warfare wargames both for the operational force and at all levels of military education will not only promulgate new concepts and shift mindsets about irregular warfare, but will better prepare the entire defense apparatus to approach the contemporary security environment in dynamic and innovative ways.
Susan Bryant is a retired Army colonel who currently serves as executive director for Strategic Education International. She is also an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University and a visiting lecturer at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Her education includes a doctorate from Georgetown University, a master’s degree from Yale University, and a master’s degree from Marine Corps University’s School of Advanced Warfighting.
Tom Nagle is a retired Army strategist. He is the creator of WarPaths, an online platform for designing and conducting distributed, asynchronous matrix wargames, which applies the concepts discussed here. He holds a PhD in government (international relations) from Georgetown University and is a West Point graduate.
Image credit: Chavonne Ford
From the "Preface" to LTG (ret.) Cleveland's "Rand" piece entitled "The American Way of Irregular War: An Analytical Memoir" (therein, see Page "iv") — an paper which is referenced/linked at the third paragraph of our article above:
"To provide a proactive defense against the irregular warfare campaigns of our enemies and the necessary offensive potential to destabilize our Great Power adversaries, we must turn to, and not away from, the American way of irregular war."
What is this "American way of irregular war" that LTG Cleveland is talking about here — a way of war that LTG Cleveland suggests (?) we have recently "turned away from?"
This is the American way of irregular war in which the U.S./the West — in as many ways as it can possibly think of and in as many ways as it can successfully pull off — and using every capability that (a) is currently available to us but also (b) any capability that might be developed in the future — once again:
a. Causes our (the U.S./the West's) way of life, way of governance, values, etc., to:
b. Become our "big guns" and
c. The "pack of wolves" that are — forever and always — standing directly in front of Putin's, Xi's, Kim Jong-un's, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's and the Islamists (etc., etc., etc.) "door." (Actually, standing INSIDE their doors!?)
Thus, as relates to (for example in this case?) the "offensive" side of LTG Cleveland's "American way of irregular war" — to understand the following from LTG Cleveland and certain of his contemporaries:
"Advocates of UW first recognize that, among a population of self-determination seekers, human interest in liberty trumps loyalty to a self-serving dictatorship, that those who aspire to freedom can succeed in deposing corrupt or authoritarian rulers, and that unfortunate population groups can and often do seek alternatives to a life of fear, oppression, and injustice. Second, advocates believe that there is a valid role for the U.S. Government in encouraging and empowering these freedom seekers when doing so helps to secure U.S. national security interests."
(See the National Defense University Press paper "Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone" by Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin)
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
Is it from the perspective that I offer above that we might — now — properly engage in "Wargaming for the New Great Game" today?
(A "wargaming," thus, in which we, once again, have [a] taken the initiative and [b] are fighting from "our" [think "transformation"] rather than "their" [think "sovereignty"] preferred ground?)
Forgive me but I have an "off" question. The picture for this article shows figures I recognize from casual wargames. Do "professional" wargames use figures? I just have to ask, or it's going to bug me for days.
Generally, no. The "toy factor" is not a requirement to get people to play professional wargames, so when there are tabletop exercises they use counters or iconic markers, NATO symbols etc. which transmit more information than a model tank.
I suppose we should be grateful that this article was not illustrated with a shot of a game of RISK, which is the usual thing when stories about wargaming come up.
Here is an example of a matrix game being played at the US Army War College, with large symbolic counters on a map to frame the arguments. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=10208376165875104&set=pcb.10208376167395142
In my initial comment above, I suggested — using LTG (ret.) Charles Cleveland's "Rand" item "The American Way of Irregular War" (which is referenced/linked at the third paragraph of Susan Bryant and Tom Nagle's article above) — that:
a. The manner in which we might to do "war" and "wargaming" for the new great game today (to wit: in our New Cold War); this might:
b. Follow the manner in which we did "war" and "wargaming" for the old great game of yesterday (in the Old Cold War); this such "manner" being, shall we say, by
c. "Weaponizing" U.S./Western exceptionalism.
There is, however, a problem with this such suggestion today; this being, that:
a. While U.S./Western exceptionalism — during the Old Cold War — had a decidedly "conservative" and thus a decidedly "positive" bent to many people both here at home and there abroad
b. Today, American exceptionalism — given its new "change" requirements — is now often seen as being "aberrant" and "revolutionary" in nature and, thus, is often seen in a "negative" manner by populations here at home and elsewhere today.
THIS SUCH "CHANGE" — IN HOW AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM IS NOW SEEN BY BOTH OUR OWN POPULATIONS IN THE U.S./THE WEST AND BY THE POPULATIONS OF THE REST OF THE WORLD — THIS HAS NOT BEEN LOST ON OUR OPPONENTS, WHO HAVE NOW DECIDED TO "WEAPONIZE" SAME AGAINST US, AS THE FOLLOWING APPEARS TO DRAMTICALLY CONFIRM:
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past."
(See "The American Interest" article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.”
(See the “National Review” item entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French.)
"During the Cold War, the USSR was perceived by American conservatives as an 'evil empire,' as a source of destructive cultural influences, while the United States was perceived as a force that was preventing the world from the triumph of godless communism and anarchy. The USSR, by contrast, positioned itself as a vanguard of emancipation, as a fighter for the progressive transformation of humanity (away from religion and toward atheism), and against the reactionary forces of the West. Today positions have changed dramatically; it is the United States or the ruling liberal establishment that in the conservative narrative has become the new or neo-USSR, spreading subversive ideas about family or the nature of authority around the world, while Russia has become almost a beacon of hope, 'the last bastion of Christian values' that helps keep the world from sliding into a liberal dystopia. Russia’s self-identity has changed accordingly; now it is Russia who actively resists destructive, revolutionary experiments with fundamental human institutions, experiments inspired by new revolutionary neo-communists from the United States. Hence the cautious hopes that the U.S. Christian right have for contemporary Russia: They are projecting on Russia their fantasies of another West that has not been infected by the virus of cultural liberalism."
(See the December 18, 2019, Georgetown University, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs article "Global Culture Wars from the Perspective of Russian and American Actors: Some Preliminary Conclusions," by Dmitry Uzlaner. Look to the paragraph beginning with "Russia and the United States as screens for each other’s projections.")
Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:
Given the information that I have provided above,
a. Can we actually pursue "war" and "wargaming" in the new great game today; this, by
b. Using LTG Cleveland's (American exceptionalism?) ideas above?
Given the horrible consequences both here at home and there abroad — of having U.S./Western exceptionalism now to be seen in negative rather than in positive terms (exs: see the events of Jan 6, 2021, and see the "weaponization" of U.S./Western exceptionalism by our opponents described in my second comment above);
Given these such horrible consequences, what, might you ask, would cause the U.S./the West do go down the "change" road — that I discuss in my second comment above?
Robert Gilpin, in his ““The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century” (see the "Introduction") appears to provide an answer:
"Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.”
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
As Gilpin notes above (see "produces many losers" and "poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions"), it is:
a. For the sake of global capitalism that:
b. U.S./Western exceptionalism — both at home and abroad — has now come to:
1. Be seen in such negative terms by populations both here at home and there abroad. This such development effectively;
2. "Torpedoing" LTG Cleveland's ideas regarding irregular warfare — as discussed in my first comment above?