Well, they didn’t exactly fail, the rules were just changed

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.


  1. Toejam: You can’t come on to my site and call me names! I may be an armchair quarterback, but I sure-as-shooting no Libral-Democrat!

  2. Whoa, Toejam, he’s way too friendly to the military to be a liberal. He’s pointing out some things here. He may not be completely right, but WOW, that’s a little over the top. Murdoc, the U.S. military has been using the same war game formula for a long time. If they like it, you can only kill so many, etc. I think that they should hire me to run them. The guy that used the motorcycles and suicide boats was dead on. Realism needs to be emphasized, not just ‘looking good’ after it’s over.

  3. I totally agree with you Murdoc. I mean, we are way more technologically advanced than most of our foes in the ME. So isn’t it the exact kind of situation we would encounter when dealing with lower-tech foes. Foes, who would use non high tech methods to essentially ‘sidestep’ ultra high tech. Technology does not make a soldier. We need instinct, and improvisation of the sort that Van Riper has displayed.

  4. Wargames are BS. Always have been, always will be. In the last exercise I conducted, a three man OPFOR troop was able to take out a 25 man encampment, mainly because the MILES gear on our .50 Cal machine guns wouldn’t shoot through the grass they were hiding behind. If someone would like to explain to me how that is ‘realistic’ training, I’m all ears.

  5. Drew: Well, the live exercises certainly have their shortcomings. I’d suggest that they are still valuable as long as everyone realizes what those shortcomings are. More than those sorts of exercises, though, I think we’re talking here about the computerized tactical and strategic simulations along the lines of table-top commerical wargames. That’s a real cheap way to test out ideas and look for weaknesses. And come on…Lazer Tag is F-U-N.

  6. There will always be shortcomings, but I doubt much else can help build battlefield tactics, and instictive decisions based on terrain etc. I dont think we want to go down the communist spetznatz (possible wrong spelling, I realise) route of raiding real places with real people and using live ammo. It is well known that without having experienced real bullets going past you, you will never quite know how someone will react. So as long as we have the instincts of what to do implanted, I’m pretty sure in the right situation the rest will follow.

  7. try: http://www.projectalbert.org General Van Riper was instrumental in getting this project started. The issue of ‘what if’ is vitally important to the US military, and, yes, many think that wargames are ‘fixed’ and of only limited use.