“Conventional overmatch encourages adversaries to pursue indirect approaches.”
– Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy
Wargaming is an essential component of professional military education, but is it obsolete for the irregular challenges of competition today? Revelations of the “miserable failure” of the emerging Joint Warfighting Concept in a wargame revolving around a battle for Taiwan, as well as Russia’s recent massing of 100,000 troops outside Ukraine, seem to justify a focus on traditional military capabilities. But can wargaming also address the indirect aspects of adversary approaches — like social media influence campaigns and dual-use infrastructure acquisition, that incrementally advance their positions of strategic advantage? The time and resources available for military education are relatively fixed, driving an evolution of classic teaching methods to produce leaders who can achieve intellectual overmatch against the nation’s adversaries.
Despite progress in using games to explore emerging concepts and capabilities, wargames still overwhelmingly focus on the traditional fight. However, tailoring wargaming specifically to hone irregular warfare competencies may mitigate the unintended consequences. One approach with great promise is updating wargaming in a way that drives classroom dialogue and learning to develop the student’s ability to recognize and avoid blinders connected to the application of strictly traditional military power.
This article discusses irregular warfare-specific gaming injects to deter gray zone coercion and facilitate multi-domain operations in armed conflict — such as psychologically hardening populations against subversion, denying the financial access that provides leverage over partner nations, and supporting resistance partners against occupation. The intent is not to create masters of irregular warfare, but to increase students’ familiarity with its utility and limitations in expanding options for decision-makers.
Education as the Bedrock of Intellectual Overmatch
The Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy directs the Defense Department to “institutionalize irregular warfare as a core competency.” It specifically tasks professional military education institutions, like the U.S. Army War College, the Naval War College, and the Command and General Staff College, to produce graduates who can analyze and evaluate the employment of irregular warfare within an integrated campaign against peer adversaries. Going hand-in-hand, the recent Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance formalizes the ongoing process of adapting professional military education to changes in the strategic environment.
Two significant challenges — conceptually and practically, make rapid “institutionalization” of irregular warfare difficult. First, the post-9/11 counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fights in Afghanistan and Iraq create a narrow understanding of the larger phenomenon. Irregular warfare is much more, and China and Russia are using irregular approaches (information warfare, ambiguous or denied proxy operations, and subversion) as their principle ways to compete. The U.S. military’s role in competition is not just about large-scale combat operations or irregular warfare – the challenge is how to do both, specifically their seamless integration to shape the environment and advance U.S. interests.
Second, military education curriculum does not change overnight. Revisions require long lead times for implementation. However, injecting small irregular warfare aspects into existing experiential learning events such as wargaming does not overburden instructors or require large changes to course content. With minimal time and resource costs, such injects facilitate expanding the conceptual framework for how to employ irregular warfare to both deter adversary coercion and enable decisive operations in war.
An Irregular Upgrade to Wargaming
Bringing wargaming into the classroom in a format usable by the typical seminar and a single instructor is not easy. When primarily focused on the use of military power to achieve national security objectives, a game must account for the very real and different timescales and dynamics across air, land, maritime, cyberspace, and space domains and in the information environment. Scenarios must be close enough to real world problems to maximize student engagement and learning outcomes, while also being suitable for an open source, unclassified international academic environment.
As part of the larger evolution of its curriculum, the U.S. Army War College developed two generations of a wargame that seek to meet these challenges of realism and practicality. The first version is set in a Euro-Atlantic context and the newer version in an Asia-Pacific context. The focus is on providing students multiple opportunities to develop and implement various decisions about military actions and activities against a thinking adversary and understand the consequences of those decisions.
The introduction of operational design exercises — focused not on armed conflict, but on competition campaigning — can set conditions for gaming the interaction of traditional and irregular warfare. This competition campaign is where irregular warfare can contribute to asymmetrically setting the theater to compel adversary behavior changes, contribute to deterrence by denial, and establish conditions for success in armed conflict. The planning for irregular warfare (or lack thereof) would then have positive or negative impacts during the transition to and during armed conflict. Irregular warfare-focused content would consist of the following, represented as effects or payoffs similar to the use of air, space, or cyber capabilities:
Cognitive Access Denial. Building societal resilience through Foreign Internal Defense, Civil Affairs Operations, and Military Information Support Operations can psychologically harden populations against adversary influence operations to prevent subversion, intimidation, or mobilization as proxies. These activities support partner nation initiatives, such as the Baltics’ whole-of-society “Total Defense” approach to national security, with a focus on enabling allied civilian populations to protect themselves.
Financial Access Denial. Fiscally preparing the environment can deny adversaries the financial access and influence derived from coercive economic statecraft. This Counter-Threat Finance approach to setting the theater employs economic risk assessments and compliance structures, and influence campaigns that amplify grievances associated with predatory economic statecraft, to harden partner commercial sectors against proxy, patronage, or corruption networks and state-owned enterprises employed by adversaries.
Support to Resistance. Creating a “bitter pill” in the form of partner nation resistance capability — reminiscent of the “Forest Brothers,” signals that military occupation would be too difficult or costly. Resistance serves as a layer of unconventional deterrence through publicizing the capability — to affect adversary decision calculus it cannot remain secret. Publicizing the capability also plays a psychological role in informing the population that such an organization exists and that it will carry the fight while under occupation. At the most basic level, this involves security cooperation activities that showcase working with partner nation territorial defense forces to resist invaders.
Blunt-Layer Unconventional Warfare Transition. When deterrence fails, the Joint Force can conduct unconventional warfare to prevent a fait accompli and enable combat forces to surge into theater. This involves supporting the aforementioned resistance forces once under occupation, as well as advising and assisting partner nation special and auxiliary type forces. Support to such resistance activities disrupts enemy movement, logistics, and command and control, and enables the penetration of anti-access/area denial systems with forces already on the ground “inside the bubble.” Longer term, it facilitates a smoother transition of national sovereignty back to the liberated country.
Cost-Informed Counterterrorism. Despite shifting focus to strategic competition, the United States must still address the ongoing terrorism threat. While Russia is its primary focus, U.S. European Command continues to balance resources to address violent extremist organizations, particularly from its southern approaches. Students must plan for ongoing counterterrorism activities, even if at minimal levels, and account for intelligence and partnership resources required to prevent an attack in a critical location, such as Paris or Rota, that could disrupt the alliance during game play.
Of equal importance is “consolidating gains” during combat operations. Failure to address “consolidation area” operations places land forces at risk for command and control and sustainment disruption by local insurgents and enemy special purpose forces, as well as threatening post-combat strategic consolidation of gains. Students can mitigate by allocating a land force capacity towards counterinsurgency and stability operations in the consolidation areas instead of on the front lines, presenting a trade-off that cannot be ignored.
Towards an Irregular Complement to Traditional Preferences
The Joint Force must address both the traditional and irregular aspects of strategic competition in wargaming to keep pace with its adversaries. It just requires a bit of innovation and willingness to stray outside the box of cultural preferences. An irregular upgrade to a generic wargame at any professional military education institution can accomplish the following with relatively low cost in time and resources:
First, it expands the conceptual framework for how to deter adversary gray zone coercion and facilitate multi-domain operations by partnering with indigenous resistance forces.
Second, it prompts students to acknowledge partner nation considerations — specifically the Baltics’ “Total Defense” programs, and work with and through U.S. embassy country teams and the relevant authorities and funding required for such activities.
Third, it encourages students to appreciate the long lead-times associated with human-centric preparatory activities for successful irregular warfare outcomes, in contrast to “cold start” attempts like the failed initial training and equipping of Syrian rebels against the Islamic State.
Finally, it forces assessing tradeoffs in where to prioritize limited intelligence and security cooperation resources during steady-state competition to address both state adversaries and enduring terrorist threats.
Despite offering low-cost benefits, these irregular warfare injects are only a quick fix to address the larger gap in U.S. military culture that adversaries exploit. Longer term, military education requires balanced curriculum content incorporating irregular warfare as an essential element of American warfare, not as an outlier. Education reform must also coincide with updates to doctrine. For example, operational design doctrine must be revised to include elements that reflect a broader understanding of influence to address a wider spectrum of challenges from cooperation through armed conflict. Students would then be armed with a more comprehensive planning framework in any given wargame.
Further developing wargaming and its use in professional military education to better account for irregular warfare is a cost-effective way to upgrade the software — the mindsets and cultural preferences — that will allow the United States to thwart adversaries from pursuing indirect approaches that offset America’s conventional advantages. Affording students the opportunity to conduct low-risk experimentation with irregular warfare concepts in the classroom before being asked to formally plan or implement them is worth the time and effort to develop cognitive overmatch against our adversaries.
Views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, the Department of the Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.
Lt. Col. Steve Ferenzi is a U.S. Army Strategist with recent service in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command G-5. He contributed to the development of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy and holds a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Col. Christopher Hickey is a U.S. Army Strategist serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Professor of Military Studies Chair at the U.S. Army War College.
Col. Christopher Hossfeld is a career U.S. Army infantry officer serving as faculty in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations at the U.S. Army War College and has helped lead the implementation of wargaming in its course content.
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