Why Wargames Failed to Predict What Happened in Iraq (March 3, 2005 entry)
Strategy Page has a great post up on the way that the military “wargames”, and it notes that instead of “rolling dice” like consumer simulations, the military pretty much just goes with the “most likely” or the “average” results:
But one thing this gaming did not show was the extent to which the Sunni Arab supporters of Saddam would continue to fight. This possibility was recognized, and the “average” outcome was some low level terrorism. But wars do involve a lot of chance, and when the Iraqis rolled the dice in the Summer of 2003, they came up with a major effort by the Sunni Arabs to get back control of Iraq. Militarily, this was a bad decision. American military planners knew it, and Sunni Arab Iraqi leaders knew it. But in war, there’s always the risk that one side or the other will do something crazy. In the Summer of ’03, the Sunni Arabs went nuts. Of course, two years later, they had lost their little suicide ride to glory. But American commanders were caught short by crazy moves their planners could have known about, and examined in detail in early 2003, and made better preparations for. Instead, it was left to the troops to scramble and improvise. Had there been wargaming in advance, of the Sunni Arab terrorism, the troops would have been quickly equipped with police tools (for raids), databases (for collecting and analyzing information) and advance warning that armored trucks and hummers would be needed in large quantities. This could have saved the lives of several hundred American troops.
Though this all has the advantage of hindsight, I think we will all agree that more should have been done to prepare for the insurgency and terrorism that followed the initial invasion and conquest of Iraq.
The American army has long resisted using “what if?” wargaming aggressively and on a wide scale. Part of this has to do with the fact that letting things happen naturally can lead to a string of unexpected (but statistically possible) events that will, in some cases, ruin a wargaming exercise. The way the army runs wargames, dozens, and often hundreds of officers and troops are involved. These people have to be pulled away from their units, and their regular work (training, and maintaining skills and equipment) to participate in these wargames. The commanders running the wargames want to see how, for example, a large scale operation will play out. They do not like play out worst case situations, which can sometimes develop, as they sometimes do in real life. So “average” results are often used, and the unexpected events are brushed aside.
This is something that has bothered me for some time, going back long before 9/11. We often hear about the “loose cannon”-type officer shaking things up and getting shut down for not playing “by the rules”. A notable example of this would be the case of Marine General Paul Van Riper, who in Millennium Challenge ’02 used unorthodox tactics like motorcycle messengers and suicide boats to inflict losses on a numerically and technologically superior force. The exercise was halted and the rules changed to disallow some Van Riper’s tactics.
Pardon me, but isn’t that exactly why you conduct wargames? To test your theories before losses count for real?
Also, in that same exercise, rumor has it that the number of Strykers (then brand-spanking-new) that could be destroyed per engagement was capped, rules that our enemies are unlikely to abide by.
If additional time and money spent on more-realistic wargaming or running exercises multiple times with different rules to test different variables saves us lives and missions in the future, it’s obviously well worth it.
The simulations are the ones that I see no reason not to run dozens or hundreds of times. I understand why we might not want to have 25,000 troops run through the same field exercise over and over, but shouldn’t the guys running the computer-based simulations be able to do more reps?
And if they need some outside-the-box thinking, Murdoc is available.
UPDATE: Hell in a Handbasket notes the same Strategy Page post and has a few obersavtions, as well.