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Blog: Save the Sims

Jan. 16, 2012 - 05:13PM   |  
By Michael Peck   |   Comments
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The War on Terror has been tough on defense modeling and simulation. Thrust from the certainties of the Cold War into the blazing new world of irregular warfare, the M&S community discovered that what America needed after 9/11 wasn’t better simulations of how to blow up Iraqi tanks — but rather how to keep the Iraqi people from blowing up when their electricity failed.

It’s hard to mathematically predict how a country’s population will respond to American policy when not even the social scientists understand human behavior. It’s daunting to design a simulation of the Afghan economy when Wall Street’s best and brightest failed so dismally to understand the American one. But the true test of proficiency is adaptability, and defense M&S has responded to the challenge. The community has slowly begun to feel its way through the twilight world of irregular warfare and nation-building, where like quantum physics, things happen but no one quite understands why.

Institutions like the Army’s Training & Doctrine Command Analysis Center (TRAC), Naval Postgraduate School and National Defense University have made strides in understanding the bewildering interplay of military, political, economic and social factors that comprise this new, anything-but-conventional warfare.

There are no breathtaking insights here — just smaller, practical solutions. These include developing the best wargames to organize combat brigades for irregular warfare, devising crowd behavior models to predict how a mob will react when confronted by American soldiers, or understanding the social networking dynamics behind insurgent cells.

Perhaps most important, researchers are getting a handle on second- and third-order consequences. At the least, they’re beginning to realize what they don’t know, and what they need in terms of new theory and data collection. It’s not a breakthrough, but it is progress.

However, M&S now faces a new threat: an imploding defense budget that will trigger a Darwinian struggle for scarce dollars. A computer simulation is not very expensive compared to a $120 million-plus F-35 jet. A Senator will fight to protect a job-rich fighter jet, but what politician is going to filibuster to save a half-dozen geeks slaving away in a basement to predict political change in East Africa? What general would rather buy a new spreadsheet simulation than a new armored vehicle? The FY 2012 National Defense Authorization Act contains one of those pseudo-meaningful “sense of Congress” declarations that the Department of Defense should expand modeling and simulation. Let’s see if that “sense” translates into cents.

On top of budget-gutting, the Afghan and Iraq conflicts are drawing to a close, and words like counterinsurgency and peacekeeping have left a sour taste in American mouths. With the Pentagon’s attention turning toward air-naval warfare in the Pacific, or other forms of conflict such as cyberwarfare, modeling a COIN campaign may not be the most popular endeavor.

While we’re on the topic of forecasting, try one of your own. Do you believe the United States will never again engage in counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, or nation-building? If so, do you also believe that manned combat aircraft will be replaced by unicorns?

On the other hand, if you do believe that America will inevitably end up fighting another small war, won’t commanders be asking the same questions: How do I defeat insurgents? How do I build a functioning nation from a snake pit of violence and chaos? Should I rebuild the electrical grid or the sewer system first? And how do I know whether my strategy will make things better or worse?

Models and simulations can’t provide all the answers. But they can provide some, and something is better than nothing. There has been progress, and it would be a shame to waste success. Otherwise, we’ll be fighting the same old war in the same old way, and wondering why our mistakes seem so familiar.

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