A storm is brewing. Thousands of gamers are working to upend traditional models of training, education, and analysis in government and defense. This grassroots movement has developed across several countries, under a joint venture—Fight Club International—within which civilian and military gamers are experimenting with commercial technologies to demonstrate what they can do for national security challenges. But while technology is at the core of this initiative, its more fundamental purpose is to change culture—no easy feat in military organizations, with their characteristic deep sense of history and layers of entrenched bureaucracy.
A common obstacle to introducing transformational technology is the imagination of the user—or, put differently, the willingness of the user to be genuinely imaginative. Early testing with Fight Club, in a constructive simulation called Combat Mission, showed that civilian gamers with no military training outperformed military officers with years of experience. The military gamers were constrained in their thinking and clung dogmatically to doctrine. They discovered, to their frustration, that their speed of decision-making was lacking against gamers with greater intuition and skill.
At the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, this is beginning to drive change. Recently, alongside a traditional wargame, a Royal Marine major played Combat Mission to explore with greater fidelity what the potential reconnaissance fight in the wargame’s scenario would look like. In doing so, the officer illuminated a corps reconnaissance mismatch, which led to necessary changes to the corps plan. The study of war through experiential learning vis-à-vis games is enabling warfighters to become more adaptive.
Given vast budgets and direct access to world-leading science and technology, Western militaries are among the most empowered to capitalize on advancements in modern computing, data exploitation, and artificial intelligence. Yet, they face an equally significant obstacle: conservative institutionalism. The test these militaries face mirrors the greater societal challenge of retrofitting state services with transformational capabilities designed for a more efficient future.
Few institutions have a more profound sense of their past than the military. Young, aspiring military commanders consult their history books when developing an understanding of what it means to lead. Examples may vary but the themes are similar: physical presence on the battlefield, setting a personal example, inspiring followers with words and deeds, selfless commitment.
What if all that was to change? How would an institution with such deep historical roots adjust to the disruptive forces of modern technology? How do you embrace start-up culture when your DNA is bound by the past and immobilized by bureaucracy?
Modern militaries will pay institutional lip service to the disruptive capacity of technological advancement, incorporating terms such as “revolution in military affairs” into their professional lexicons. But how many military leaders will vote to make themselves (or the organizations they grew up in) obsolete? The individual fear of personal obsolescence is, collectively, an institutional obstacle to change. Unimpeded, technology will do to the military what Frederick W. Taylor did to US industry in the early twentieth century: if not vital to the enterprise, you are no longer required. Had that process not taken place in industry, the United States would have been left with an outdated and unviable industrial production model and, consequently, vastly diminished economic power. Likewise, if fear of obsolescence is allowed to stop it from occurring in the military, the result will be an outdated, overmatched force—too slow and too inefficient to keep pace with adversaries.
The human factor is technology’s greatest limitation. Pilotless fighter aircraft can outmaneuver piloted aircraft given respective G-force tolerances. Modern autonomous vehicles are by some estimation 70 percent safer than an average driver. Modern ground sensors will detect images and patterns better than a human. A $30 thousand drone can search more ground than a $12 million manned reconnaissance vehicle. Yet, there is a reluctance to adopt these technologies wholeheartedly, and it stems from the fact that humans like to be relevant—a subjective frailty felt keenly in institutions built on a foundation of human example. Witness the powerful narrative at play in Top Gun: Maverick.
Humans Still Matter
What of the human? It is not the value of the human to pull a trigger, but to exercise judgment over whether to pull the trigger at all. It is the human role to appreciate strategic context, appreciate consequences, and apply moral judgment. Technologies like AI demand that humans continue to do this, but more quickly and better. The Fight Club group in the UK, partnered with the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, is exploring how games can improve human performance in a fast-paced war, where robots and unmanned platforms are changing battlefield dynamics. Early evidence shows that the military is not yet ready for this type of fight. It is fast and lethal, requiring new structures and capabilities to contend with a maelstrom of complexity.
Alongside better bots, the military needs better humans, capable of navigating complex adaptive systems with greater speed and wisdom. We need to discover and develop modern-day Ender Wigginses, capable of coordinating a symphony of capabilities to harmonize effects on a sensor-ridden battlefield.
What of the gamers? Well, they can help. If the last century was defined by the power of motion pictures and the moving image, the twenty-first century replaces these linear media experiences with the interactive power of gaming. Games generate powerful stories, experiences, and most importantly, data. There is enormous potential in gaming through the unfettered collection of learning data. Fight Club is pushing in this direction by crowdsourcing insights from games, to inform new ways of thinking and fighting. From strategic-level matrix games that examine ways to compete in gray zone warfare to simulating ways to defeat integrated air defenses, wisdom from the crowd helps identify anomalies worthy of further exploration. This is the way. This leads to discovery, learning, and adaptation—in peace and war.
Changing how we fight is as (if not more) important than buying new things to fight with. Games in the US Marine Corps found asymmetric advantages to offset the need for more heavy and expensive tanks. The US Air Force leverages a commercial game, Command: Professional Edition, to stress test concepts and inform procurement purchases. The United States Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity has researched how gaming can mitigate cognitive biases that affect decision-making and intelligence analysis. Studies show that games-based learning increases a gamer’s capacity for sensemaking. Clearly, leveraging gamers and introducing more gaming can improve strategic performance in defense and government, but will we allow a cultural change to take root? Or will institutional biases stand in the way?
The world’s leading military academies contain the portraits of history’s most storied leaders—to use Theodore Roosevelt’s words, those that were “actually in the arena.” But what if the future, with an emphasis on rapid judgment rather than physical example, demands that our leaders remain above the arena, not actually in it. That they exploit the cold, dispassionate vantage point of a spectator to orchestrate a clear strategy, rather than an emotive calculation influenced by the “sweat and dust and blood” of battle.
The idea that the generals of the future are the gamers of today will be anathema to institutions built upon practical example. Yet, if we cling to the past and remain fixed in the present, we will inevitably mortgage our future.
Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Moran (British Army) and Colonel Arnel David (US Army) are members of the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. They have advocated for and delivered purposefully disruptive experimentation examining how AI and machine learning can advance the processes and planning methodologies of targeting, wargaming, and decision-making across land headquarters. Thanks to Shashank Joshi and Nicholas Krohley for an early read and review of this article. Any errors or issues are the authors’ own.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the British Army, or NATO.
Image credit: Tech. Sgt. AJ Hyatt, US Air Force
Wargaming has a long and storied history in military tradition. Many of the elements of modern tabletop and computer games trace directly to Kriegspiel, and less terrain-heavy games such as chess, hnefatafl, and go have long colored operational and strategic art.
Even today’s sand table rehearsals are kin to those wargaming roots – though sand tables, sadly, are also becoming less common.
Rather than present modern wargaming (which still requires real input to be truly viable) as a novel concept that traditional military convention will shun, it should be embraced as the evolving iteration of a validated and long-standing tool in a proven toolbox.
Leeroy Jenkins. How soon we forget.
As the article describes, popular/populist computer "wargaming" and its technology have now fused with the real battlefield and are a qualitative not just chronological leap.
Being a military and naval history *board* – more academic? – game designer … and concerned citizen and parent … this worries me.
Things are going "out of control" tactically as they are strategically – dangerously – and that is unstoppable even by our traditional military bureaucracies which have existed to *keep* control.
I’m not sure if I understand your comment as intended, sir. If so, I suggest that popular video gaming entering into military thinking as no different than boxing or football concepts doing so in the past.
We celebrate the “Left Hook” that was so decisive in Desert Storm and gave us such battles as 73 Easting that serve as proof-of-concept for AirLand Battle. Terms such as “End Run” continue to be used when conceptualizing operational design. It seems natural that video game terms like “Rocket Jump” or “Respawn” might enter into the lay vernacular as future planners/audiences shift to greater experience with first-person shooters than with football strategy. The possible synergy between the two is almost inspiring.
I agree that the popular games present a potential and dangerous tangent that may shift attention away from real-world needs, but this can be controlled for: Just as generic strategic concepts are contextualized through terrain-based models (sand tables, etc.) and experience (field problems, CPXs, etc.), so too can the overlooked variables within popular games be fixed by quickly reminding young leaders (possibly through a paintball in the temple) that what they experience in the game isn’t the full picture.
The bureaucracy IS a problem, but these fixes take place far below the bureaucracy’s purview – if commanders do their job and shield their subordinates from the bullshit rolling down from higher.
May I present for possible publication a proposal on
COTS Aircraft Carrier CVL(x)
(Commercial Off The Shelf Aircraft Carrier Vessel Light)
Cost $16M per COTS Aircraft Carrier CVL(x) in 2months
Cargo Containers (40ftx8ftx8ft) are lashed together to form 600ftx320ft flight deck (192,000sqft),
2-hanger decks (180,000sqft/deck) & (9,000,000cuft volume), 2-pontoons (Polynesian style)
Catamaran hulls (600ftx100ftx50ft).
Self-erecting struts push multiple hydrofoils 60ft below keel of this 1,000ton ship to clear 42ft waves
of sea state 10 “Whole Gale Storm”. Control ship (sea-worthiness is not required, all
WWII museum ships can be repurposed; battleship "USS Massachusetts (BB-59)" has 9 16inch guns
12inch armor and heavy cruiser "USS Salem (CA-139)" has 9 8inch guns 8inch armor; out gunning current
fleets and current 1,000pound missiles cannot penetrate the armor plate)
"Granny goes to war"!
will sit in “dry-dock” on primary pontoon that houses GE LM2500+G4 (47,000shp = 34MW) turbine &
generator set for propulsion. Excess power of additional 30 sets (totaling 1.4Mshp = 1,020MW &
occupying 10,000sqft deck space & 320,000cuft of volume) can power DEW's; LASER’s, RADAR’s,
Rail Guns, Propulsion, etc.
45,000shp produces a foil borne speed of 10mph on designed foils.
101,000shp produces a foil borne speed of 45mph on the same foils at different angles of attack.
The World Record on foils is 322mph.
More power MORE SPEED!!!
Cost $16M per COTS Aircraft Carrier CVL(x) in 2months
If $4,000/container x 4,000containers = $16,000,000 per COTS Aircraft Carrier CVL(x) in 50 US ports
that have cargo container cranes in 2months and generate 300 COTS Aircraft Carrier CVL(x) in 1year.
I could be wrong about this, but don't the most popular games allow near-immediate regeneration from wounds and of course resurrection from being killed? Perhaps when those games shut out the user for getting wounded, or terminate his account when killed, we might have a better simulation of the "sweat and dust and blood of battle".
Maybe we should also look to Starship Troopers rather than Ender's Game?
The most popular games do favor gameplay over realism. I believe there was an Onion article a few years back making fun of the concept of the “most realist military video game.”
You’re thinking, specifically, of a style of game grouped within a few different genres (first-person shooter, adventure, etc.). The entire industry and, thus, academic research on the industry, is relatively young and terms vary by developer/producer/scholar… suffice it to say you’re speaking of the “popular” games that you see teenage boys playing. This is deceptive, as they represent a much smaller percentage of the video game market than is assumed.
The category of games generally designed for real-world application (agriculture, civilian aviation, military wargaming, etc.) are generally referred to as “serious” games. These can range from tractor and flight simulators to the Navy’s MMOWGLI system. It is at this level of design that the real-world effects of mundane (from a gameplay perspective) variables garner real consideration: It’s a lot more fun to barrel roll a 747 if you needn’t worry about gravity, loft, pitch, yaw, and all that boring pilot crap; it’s impossible to learn something of how to truly fly one without that stuff (pilots are nerds, especially fighter pilots).
Despite those industry distinctions, there is still some training value in being able to reiterate immediately. When I would conduct training w/ simunitions, I would always include a few rehearsals where joes were instructed to keep going, despite getting hit. The pain was enough deterrent to continuing to make the same mistakes, while reinforcing the idea that you don’t quit just because you got hurt.
We have always fought our wars based on our core capabilities as a society. WWI and WWII the most dangerous weapon was still a well-trained man with a rifle, but introduction of our manufacturing capabilities in the form of vehicles (armor and aircraft, especially) expanded the battlefield and how we fight. From Blitzkrieg to Air/Land battle, we adapted our way of war all to the way to the current information centric warfare.
As we have a youth population familiar with gaming and largely unfit for physical duty in the armed forces, being able to put them in virtual control of unmanned combat vehicles within an organized team may be a good bet for us. There are a number of cultural, ethical, and moral aspects that would need to be examined – but it certainly plays into our 21st century skill sets.
Having said that…are we entirely sure who designed these games? If any information from the evolutions are being transmitted to those coders? If these games might be constructed by malign interests to nudge us in this direction or mislead us into changing doctrine based on faulty results? It would seem this would be well within the Chinese/Russian grey-zone and total war concepts – and they certainly have more than a little involvement in software companies and programming areas.
One piece of evidence I have noticed in DCS models (Russian) is that when our forces face off against Russian and Chinese forces, the Red forces perform almost perfectly – well beyond the known parameters of the weapons systems employed. Even when setting those weapons at lower levels of functionality, the AI in the games seems to rig the results. Their radars detect stealth aircraft, as another example, well outside the possible detection range of their systems.
Now, for entertainment, this might make for some more interesting battles. But were this carried forward in the simulations used by our armed forces, making decisions on how many missiles are needed to saturate the anti-missile defenses of a Chinese task force or perform SEADs on Russian SAM networks – for instance – could be critically affected and degrade our operational capabilities. This would be the first step in shaping the battlefield.
"perform almost perfectly – well beyond the known parameters of the weapons systems employed."
KNOWN parameters. MAYbe Eastern – Russian and Chinese – wargames are just over-optimistic, like Nagumo's Midway planning games were. Or maybe they have something we don't KNOW about … like the decoy system that reportedly enabled a Russian cruise missile to take out a foreign fighters' barracks near Kyiv some months ago now.
Wouldn't we have been startled, observing a pre-WW2 Imperial Japanese Navy wargame, to see the "unrealistic" speed, range, and hitting power of their torpedoes we later discovered had those, since they had invented the solution to have oxygen-driven torpedoes? (Okay, on 7Dec41 the Japanese sank U.S. battleships at anchor like the British had done to the Italians at Taranto in 1940, but *at sea* that was IMPOSSIBLE … for 3 days?)
"Exceptionalist" – assumptions of Western superiority – thinking has undone us in the past … like in the South China Sea on 10Dec41.
"WWI and WWII the most dangerous weapon was still a well-trained man with a rifle,"
"What weapon is responsible for the most deaths in WWI?
The greatest number of casualties and wounds were inflicted by artillery, followed by small arms, and then by poison gas. The bayonet, which was relied on by the prewar French Army as the decisive weapon, actually produced few casualties."
"The Oxford Companion to Military History. In the Napoleonic wars and WW I and II most fatalities—over 60 per cent on the western front in WW I—were caused by artillery. In the desert in WW II, where the hard rocky landscape enhanced the effect of the shells, the percentage rose to 75 per cent. Not for nothing did Stalin, whose artillery arm had a tradition of excellence, call it ‘the God of War’ in a 1944 speech. Furthermore, it is not a clean way to die. The injuries and mutilation caused by artillery, its capricious effects, its operators unseen, make it a hated and feared instrument of war."
And we are seeing this in Ukraine right now. In 1944, Stalin referred to artillery as The God of War. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hSTTPkp2x4
Respectfully, sir, casualty counts are not the only factor in decisiveness of a weapon or tactic.
Even throughout the 19th century, bayonets were directly responsible for relatively few kills – but the tendency of a bayonet charge to rout enemy formations was often decisive.
Artillery may have been the greatest casualty-producing arm in WWI & II, but far from the decisive factor in their conclusions (admittedly, it was a major factor in Russian tactics on the Eastern front, as it’s proving to be, now in Ukraine).
The Louisiana Maneuvers (legitimate, analog wargaming) were arguably priceless in our army’s success.
Making recruits fit for physical duty in the armed forces is a very easy thing to do after enlistment/contracting.
It is not exclusive or.
But will the military allow an Ender Wiggins to rise that fast in the military? How do we find an Ender with the current administrative and officer pipeline career expectation? Do current training/educational methods evaluate students for the ability to manage at a Field Grade or General Officer level? Remember, Ender wasn't a very good Soldier, but was a great commander. Current military practices would not allow for that kind of jump. I agree Wargaming is the best way to find the thinkers that can adapt to very dynamic and fluid conditions, but to say that 1LT Smith won the Military Wargaming Games and got promoted to COL / BG / MG is a stretch. Plus, Ender didn't have to worry about budgeting or manning issues.
There’s some noteworthy points here… worth the read and appreciate the insight
Time spent in the batter’s box swinging at anything will increase your skills exponentially over merely reading or talking about it. Gaming allows you to focus the skills you develop by making the simulation’s models closer to reality and we’ve used rehearsals and simulations to great effect in the US military.
The authors touch on some of the following but they omit some pretty basic truths that are equally important.
• Automated combat systems operating through AI decision-based algorithms – as we saw in Terminator – will never match the “potential” ethical decision making of humans in the loop. Plenty of unethical humans in the combat decision trains of history have done worse… but they, at least, could be held accountable.
• Automated combatants alleviate the ethical and moral dilemmas involved in deciding to send your sons and daughters to war in the first place. No one feels the loss of a destroyed truck, plane or combat coffee maker… lost people are felt for generations.
• Synchronizing the combined arms fight still requires mastering foundational skills, understanding human and system capabilities, limitations and gaps as well as the ability to develop and communicate all of that through disciplined planning processes.
• The physics of combat will always require physical stamina, mental toughness and – most importantly – the ability to impart a sense of purpose in the dudes and dudettes who have to walk out through the wire to fight in the first place.
• Perhaps just as importantly, no simulation will demonstrate the visceral consequences of poor leadership like real life heat casualties, weapons malfunctions, poor marksmanship and running out of fuel in the middle of a fight. That all takes real life experience in the batters box.
Simulations are a fantastic tool that should continue to be leveraged.
The recent Russian examples of employing an unethical, unprofessional and untrained military led by senior leaders unencumbered by any sense of consequence is a great parallel to the faulty idea that simulations can somehow replace a culture of military professionals seasoned by the actual experience of being in the arena – covered in blood, sweat and dirt.
Here on MWI I have previously referred to this as a new "populist technology" with even kids able to affect a real war, just by using open source recon capabilities, if not very remotely operating small drones themselves. And with our media showcasing Russian misdeeds, our computer nerds and geeks *vastly* outnumber the Russians'.
And small killer drones in the hands of criminal syndicates … or rogue intelligence agencies … are a whole new horror.
This is a very good, timely, and important article.
It also brings us back to the morality of how this technology is used. Having remote control of a weapon – detached from a battlefield very possibly to the point of being on a different continent – can numb "players"/operators to the horror of war, as we have already seen in cases of some bomber commands.
But there is an entirely other level the article overlooks: If conventional militaries – and rice bowls and budgets – become obstructive and even a liability, what then? In May 1992, when Gorbachev gave his end-of-the-Cold-War speech at Westminster College – I was there and am even quoted on the front page of the 7May92 St. Louis Post-Dispatch – we were all so HAPPY the Cold War was over, and we could re-prioritize more productively. And since, we have run out of TIME on the environment.
The West's current Confrontation policy is a Cold War throwback and a potentially terminally dangerous one. Will the new war technology make conventional war … and war itself … obsolete and/or even more intolerable than Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have done?
The world wonders.
It will be another TF Smith.
I hope I’m wrong.
By the way, a grognard – veteran board wargamer – Napoleon referred to his griping older veterans as grognards, reputedly – over here in Norway was an early hobby board wargamer. He was in the Norwegian Army and up in Kirkenes, facing the Russians.
He and a buddy were playing a wargame on their off-time, and their superior ordered them to put it away and not do that while on base: that the (operational) levels of decision in the game were far above their pay grade!
He tried to go over their platoon leader's head, but command backed their officer, and my wargamer friend decided NOT to make the army a career as he had intended. He has a mind that immediately grasps anything and would have made a fine officer.
When I was a day-counting U.S. Army draftee 67-69, my interest in wargames faltered, but if I *had* been "caught" by one of my sergeants or officers playing one, I'm certain they would have been impressed and very supportive, by contrast.
Above and beyond my pay grade, in 1968 I sent a DF up to our USArEur commanding general, urging that we clerks and cooks and other REMFs be given brief individual anti-tank weapons training which was OJT for such during The Battle of the Bulge, and command liked it.