Games that try military minds

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The principles of the art of war are in themselves extremely simple and quite within the reach of sound common sense. -Carl Von Clausewitz

A FEW months before the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian commercial airliner, a boatload of civilians ferrying across the Gulf was blown out of the water.

Only it didn't happen in the Gulf. It didn't even happen in the water. It happened on a computer screen at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I., during a war game, a mock exercise that had as its focus the ethics of terrorism.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Such ``gaming'' occurs here where the Navy designs, constructs, plays, and analyzes possible conflicts in scenarios that range from a minor terrorist incident up to all-out global war.

A room the size of a football field is the nerve center for this war gaming. Raised tile floors cover miles of wires connecting dozens of computers and modems linked to phones or satellites. Off to the side are small, soundproof rooms with terminals that replicate the combat information centers on board naval ships.

Yet despite all the high-tech gadgetry, ``We are not looking at how weapons systems perform, but how people perform,'' says Capt. Sergy A. Yonov, operations officer in the War Gaming Department.

``We try to get the variables down, think through the surprises, and come up with logical ways and patterns of engaging a potential enemy,'' he says. ``The computer affords us a bigger set of dice to create scenarios. It is still the thought processes of men that count,'' Captain Yonov says.

``Do we predict the future? No. We try to create it so that we can recognize it when it happens and can make rational decisions,'' says Robert S. Wood, dean of Naval Warfare Studies at the college.

``You game because there is a competitive dimension to a problem,'' he says. ``It can be against nature, people, resource limitations, or as is most likely, against all three. We guard against letting either the hardware or the software get too attractive,'' Dr. Wood says. ``Computers can tell you you have a clash, but the key issue is, do you have the right people in the chairs making the decisions?''

There is an average of one game a week, 50 weeks a year, at the War College. Some involve no more than a dozen officers. One, lasting three weeks, is an annual global-war game involving more than 1,000 participants both on-site in Newport and on-line somewhere else, be it Washington, a naval base, or a ship at sea. For this game, all branches of the services are represented, as are foreign militaries, Pentagon personnel, elected officials, congressional aides, and academics.

``Gaming forces you to think of a situation you never would,'' says William Whitehurst, a professor of history at Old Dominion College and a former staff member for 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee. Professor Whitehurst participated in the major global war game held here recently. He was President Reagan.

``I had never thought through what future Asian allies would think of the US if we didn't use tactical nuclear weapons in Europe,'' Whitehurst says. The game scenario had the Russians overrun the Continent through use of chemical weapons. The allies did not have enough chemical weapons in stock to deter the Soviets by threatening to retaliate in kind, he says. A decision had to be made whether to use tactical nuclear weapons or retreat from the Continent. ``The game made me think about who our allies would be if we retreated,'' he says.

``War games are often used to stimulate scenarios where friendly, and enemy forces, charged with a mission in support of their countries' policies, are deployed. As the game starts it sets in motion these forces, and they eventually engage each other. The object of the game must be clearly stated ahead of time, so that the scenario will ensure that they are met,'' says Jacques Naar, first holder of the Naval War College's McCarty-Little chair of gaming and research techniques, established 16 years ago.

One of the authors of the statement of requirements for the Naval War Gaming System that came on line in the early '80s at the Naval War College, Mr. Naar points out that ``it is possible to design a game to investigate whether the forces assigned for a mission are adequately structured, and therefore appropriate for the policy they support. Or one can design a game that exposes the students to decisionmaking under stress, uncertainty, and time constraints. The students must make these important decisions almost in a real-time period.''

Whenever something completely unexpected occurs, the War College will stop the game and fly someone up from the Pentagon to go over it in detail, Wood says. No matter that the incident has a small chance of occurring, if it occurs in a game, it could occur in real life, he says.

In 1942 when the Japanese were war-gaming the crucial battle of Midway, their high command refused a scenario in which they lost two carriers, says Whitehurst. The Japanese changed the outcome of the game, only grudgingly considering the possibility that they might lose one carrier. ``Well, in fact, they lost four carriers at Midway,'' he says, and were incapable of seeing that or adjusting future plans, with the result that their entire southern flank was exposed when the US secured a beachhead in Australia.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...