Modern War Games: How Simulations Help Prepare For Conflict And Crisis

Image courtesy of Abayomi Azikiwe via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

You and I may play games recreationally, but governments all over the world have a different motive: to simulate and test responses to potential conflicts and crises.

Called “war games” by some, this type of exercise differs quite dramatically from anything you WoW players are used to. More importantly, the results of these digital games and simulations mirror the real life aftermath of hypothetical battles or catastrophes — and in theory, strengthen or inform the way in which they’ll be handled should they occur without risking money or safety.

Here’s what you should know about different types of simulations, how they could save (or risk) actual, non-virtual lives in the future — and why they have their limits.

Modern war games, yesterday and today

Militaries and governments have found ways to model and enact hypothetical wars dating back to the Prussian War in the early 1800s. Add over a century and a half and the power of modern computing to the well-honed physical games of the past, and you get an unparalleled level of insight.

Such simulations in America date back to the Cold War, when the Pentagon opened a gaming facility to model potential conflicts, according to War Games author Thomas Allen. Since then, the Pentagon, Army, Air Force, and Navy have modeled conflicts like nuclear warfare or territorial flashpoints.

How they work

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”ruo3oLMTj2b6Yzb5qWq8TPBfEIaX4rYR”]Modern war games consist of models and simulations, which build one one each other to create the game, Air Force Research War game Coordinator Matthew Caffrey writes. Models are proportional representations of reality, simulations are these proportional representations over time, and the war game itself involves players making tactical decisions.

Modern war games typically have two sides: Red and Blue. Simulations typically enact plausible scenarios as challenges to players, and the results can inform tactical and strategic solutions to problems faced in the real world.  Little else is known openly about the specific nature of these games, as they are highly classified.

Notable examples

Several examples of notable war game-type simulations that we know of, which pertain to the U.S., UK, and NATO, in the past several decades include:

1999, Desert Crossings: The United States Central Command conducted a series of war games to assess the potential outcome of invading Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein. The resulting report was pessimistic about outcomes, and its conclusions similar to what actually occurred after Saddam’s overthrow.

2002, Millenium Challenge: A $250 million American war game designed to test new technologies and “network-centric” warfare involved live exercises and computer simulators between Blue (the U.S.) and Red (an unnamed adversary in the Middle East).

It’s alleged by the former “enemy” commander that the game was restarted after he made an unconventional move. He stepped aside after the reboot, and claims that the remainder of the game was fixed for American victory.

2003, London: A simulation of a chemical attack on the subway beneath London’s financial district was tested, measuring response including decontamination and medical assistance.

2009, Pentagon: A two day simulation of a large scale economic breakdown had participants role play a global financial crisis with players representing the U.S., China, Russia, East Asia, and “all others.”

2013, North Korea: The Pentagon simulated the potential outcomes if a North Korea-like nation (called North Brownland) were to collapse, to grim results: it took players 52 days and 90,000 troops to secure the fallen nation. Just take a look at the video below.

2014, UK & US: America and England collectively carried out a war game to simulate the failure of a major transatlantic bank.

What’s next?

Pentagon war-gamers have named the collapse of Pakistan, rise of a militant China, and the collapse of North Korea as three nightmare scenarios for which simulations are preparing the army to react to. Beyond even this, the biggest threats to the military, war-gamers say, are the future challenge of megacities, competition for resources, and new types of cognitive and physical ammunitions.

But for all that war games and crises simulations have done for the U.S. and other countries, the world was no more ready to handle or predict ISIS, the crisis in Ukraine, or the Ebola outbreak in Africa. This just goes to show that war games are truly useful in planning for already-imagined scenarios.

As we’ve come to understand, more predictive imagination will be needed from the CIA and other intelligence agencies to accurately prepare and test war games for catastrophic possibilities like the ones that have caught us off guard thus far.

We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert