By Dougal Robertson
At the beginning of World War Two, German U-boat captains settled on a revolutionary new tactic when attacking against Allied ships.
“Otto Kretschmer, one of the leading U-boat aces, began to stage his attacks from point-blank range, instead of maintaining a distance of two to three kilometres from the target as recommended by the manufacturers of their torpedoes,” says Simon Parkin, author of A Game of Birds and Wolves, an engaging history of what became the Battle of the Atlantic.
“Kretschmer would approach a convoy of merchant ships from the rear, on the surface, at night, when it was far harder for the Royal Navy escorts to pick out the U-boat in the dark. Having snuck into the middle of the convoy Kretchmer would make his attack like a fox in a henhouse before diving to wait for danger to pass.” This pioneering tactic was adopted by many of the U-boat captains and was successfully used to evade Royal Navy ships tasked with protecting convoys.
How did the Royal Navy attempt to understand this problem? Parkin’s research led him to the Royal Navy’s Western Approaches Tactical Unit, or WATU. WATU was formed at the start of 1942 to identify why Navy escorts were failing to fend off U-boat attacks.
WATU’s founder, then-Commander Gilbert Roberts, re-staged a notorious battle from December 1941 using after-action reports. By reverse-engineering the battle via the wargame, he and the Women’s Royal Navy, or ‘Wrens’, who staffed WATU, exposed the secret U-boat tactic.
“This led to a fundamental change in Allied tactics,” Parkin notes. “WATU’s great contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic was in forcing Navy Captains to think not as autonomous individuals as they had for the early part of the war, but as a unified team working in co-ordination with one another. This shift in thinking had a profound effect on the Allied fortunes in the war against the U-boats.”
Central to WATU’s success was the creative application of wargaming. Much more than an attempt to validate existing tactics against a partially-known threat, Roberts’ and WATU’s approach was to explore a range of possible scenarios, trying to understand the enemy’s thinking by asking ‘what if?’.
Despite none of the Wrens at WATU having had direct experience in naval warfare, through careful study and analysis they began to place themselves in the position of the enemy and understand his thought process. They began to understand the decision-making of submarine commanders like Kretschmer.
The Rise and Fall and Rise of Wargaming
Wargaming is central to military decision-making but is often undervalued.
During the Cold War, nearly all military planners knew the Red Army would attack through the Fulda Gap from East Germany. The operational plan was known; all that remained was to analyse the statistics of the Central Front and use computer models to determine the rate of effort that would lead to success. But with the end of the Cold War came an end to such narrow thinking. Warfare became increasingly complex, ambiguous and multifarious.
“In times of uncertainty people become more interested in wargaming,” says Major Tom Mouat, of the Technology School in the UK Defence Academy at Shrivenham. “The nature of warfare has changed, and understanding the problem is only part of the solution. Wargaming to understand a problem helps when the world is a dangerous place.”
Major Mouat runs wargames for the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD). Since the end of the Cold War the UK MoD has moved away from the statistical analysis of operational problems posed by the Red Army to dealing with complex, ambiguous threats such as the use of political warfare against treaty states. “Computer simulations often concentrate on qualitative analysis,” Major Mouat says. “It’s important to get multiple people around a table to understand decisions and how they are made.”
It is in the human dimension that wargames can provide the most value to military planners and commanders. Understanding why decisions are made – and preparing for the unexpected – is the real power of games. While games can be fictional, they often define reality by shaping the future.
Major Mouat notes that military organisations are often very good at measuring success, but less confident in understanding failure. “Sometimes lack of success and failure are the same thing, such as Operation EAGLE CLAW, the disastrous US attempt to rescue hostages held in the US Embassy in Tehran.
“But we can also have ‘unfortunate success’,” Mouat adds. “For example, what might have been the outcome of the raid to capture Bin Laden if several of his wives and children were killed and a Pakistani policeman shot during the raid? Would it have been considered decisive? Understanding the probability of something happening allows an intelligent discussion to occur about risk.”
What then, is a wargame? Dr Peter Perla, writing in The Art of Wargaming defines it as a “a warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operation of actual forces, in which the flow of events is affected by decisions made during the course of events by players representing the opposing sides”.
Perla also first proposed the ‘cycle of research’, linking wargames, analysis and exercises. The cycle of research recognises the three components are not the same: wargaming focuses on human behaviour, a qualitative activity. Analysis or operational research provides a quantitative basis for decisions. And exercises test and adjust the theories and models developed during wargaming and analysis.
While all wargaming is about understanding decisions and helping decision-makers, wargames can be split into two broad categories: analytical – or research – games, and learning – or training and education – games.
According to Dr Robert Burks of the US Naval Postgraduate School, analytical wargames are “designed to collect and analyse information from wargame play. These results either feed directly into a decision or are used to develop other analytic products.”
Wargames of both types can establish multiple possible outcomes for a scenario while reducing the possibility of determinism or groupthink. Analytical games set limits and allow players to explore concepts where the cost of failure is unacceptable: for example, games were used during the Cold War to try and understand and control the possible use of nuclear weapons. Training with games allows decision-makers to practice operational art and become more familiar with ambiguity and friction in warfare.
Wargaming goes back much further than the Second World War and the early decades of the Cold War. Matthew Caffrey, of the US Air Force Research Laboratory, draws a distinction between ‘first generation’ wargames – such as chess – that are abstract strategy games, and second-generation wargames that introduced the simulation of warfare.
The Prussian military was the first to use second-generation wargames to solve operational problems in the aftermath of the defeat by Napoleon at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806.
The first ‘Kriegsspiel’ dedicated to operations and tactics was introduced in 1811 by Lieutenant Johan von Reisswitz. Von Reisswitz’s son Georg then simplified his father’s game in 1824, making use of paper topographic maps instead of ceramic terrain tables. By 1837 Chief of Staff of the Prussian army Helmuth von Moltke ordered increased wargaming, introducing innovations such as the ‘staff ride’ where war college students were taken to likely invasion corridors on the Prussian border and discussed their battle plan.
The development of second-generation wargaming spread across the world over the next 75 years, influenced both by Prussian success and the adoption of Prussian wargaming methods in the US, Russia, Europe and Japan.
In the period leading up to World War One civilian wargames also started to grow in popularity. Jane’s Naval War Game was named for its designer, Frederick Jane. Initially the game only had detailed technical information on four British ships, and when Jane added information for the German Navy, it created a controversy. The next edition of the game then included All the World’s Warships, the first of hundreds of titles published by the Jane’s Group.
‘Third-generation’ wargaming, according to Matthew Caffrey, is the simulation of armed conflict depicting all elements of national power and examining all dimensions of conflict within a society. Caffrey notes the development of third generation wargaming was “motivated by the need for a strategy to preserve the independence of an interwar Germany too weak to defend itself through military means alone.”
Third generation wargaming seeks to understand the human dimension of warfare. While complex, drawing in the political context brings wargaming closer to understanding the nature of warfare beyond single engagements and operations.
The use of technology in wargaming has fluctuated with strategic circumstances. During the Cold War there was emphasis on quantifying solutions to a known problem – the Red Army striking through the Fulda Gap.
But as Major Mouat notes, technology and artificial intelligence doesn’t help define the problem. “There’s this idea that as artificial intelligence becomes more pervasive then human factors will become less important. Well, the day you can make Cortana lose its temper we are back to trying to understand human emotions.”
Mouat uses dice in the MoD wargames to get players to consider the human element. “It’s not about gambling – players can pause the game to try and increase the probability of success, based on their understanding of risk. Mouat believes technology in wargaming is best applied to enable games, such as using computer-based tools that assist play or help facilitate games.
Technology and computers will never change the fact that war is a human endeavour, and subject to the interplay between the Clauswitzian trinity of emotion, chance and reason. This is the strength of Perla’s ‘cycle of research’, where the outcomes of a wargame are fed into operations research simulations, and the likely outcomes tested against reality during exercises.
The types of future conflict involving the ADF will probably be complex and ambiguous, operating in what is termed the ‘grey zone’, short of declared or overt hostilities. In these contingencies full of doubt and traps, commanders and decision-makers must be comfortable with their own decision-making.
“Wargaming prepares the decision-maker for a broad situation, not a specific problem,” notes one ADF insider with extensive experience in game design. “The ADF training systems are often constructed as hurdles for people to gain a specific competency – and this means they aren’t designed to develop people’s mental attitudes.”
Wargames teach understanding: the structure within a game can limit a problem, so that human behaviour and events are seen as a chain of decisions, not the chaos and randomness that can appear to manifest in war.
The wargame developed by Roberts and the Wrens in 1942 was ideally suited to the problem it attempted to solve. The design of the game was tailored to the asymmetrical battlefield of the ocean.
But when fine-tuning his game, Roberts benefitted from the position of WATU’s office in Liverpool. It enabled him to interview in person naval officers fresh from action against U-boats. The reports meant he could refine the game so it was always relevant to the changing situation at sea.
“Roberts was a talented teacher and communicator, which accelerated the effects of the wargame as he was able to drive home the lessons to his audience,” says Simon Parkin. “These naval officers were fully aware of the gravity of the ‘games’ they were playing and their potential for life-saving tactics on the Atlantic.”
Perhaps the most profound reason for playing wargames is they are not predictive. A well-structured wargame isn’t about developing adversary courses of action or testing operational plans. Instead, it prepares the players to be surprised. We will never know the future, but wargames help us understand possible futures. And applying creative endeavour to warfare may help us maintain the peace.
Dougal Robertson is an executive analyst at Felix Defence, with 13 years’ experience as a military intelligence officer. He has worked in tactical, operational and strategic commands and deployed with the ADF to multiple locations.
He is a graduate of the RAAF Fighter Intelligence Instructor Course and holds Masters’ degrees in International Relations and Intelligence & Counter-terrorism.