#Wargame Wednesday – Wargaming America’s Stand-In Force

Have you heard of Force Design 2030? It’s the new warfighting concept for the U.S. Marine Corps. Apparently it’s become quite controversial. What I find interesting is the prominence wargaming is getting in the arguments for and against the concept.

“Normally what would have happened in the past, there would have been a concept, there would have been war games, there would have been field evaluations before these sorts of drastic moves were made,” Van Riper said.

“Jeopardizing national security: What is happening to our Marine Corps?” Marine Corps Times, March 21, 2022

Tim Barrick, the wargaming director for the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at the Marine Corps University wrote for War on the Rocks recently about his perspective. As a wargamer I found some of his comments insightful as it pertains to the uses of wargaming.

One of the commandant’s first priority tasks was to identify risks associated with this design. The task sparked an immediate series of wargames, which I oversaw, to examine the divestments. Based on this risk assessment, the commandant decided to proceed in some areas while deferring trade-off decisions in others, pending more analysis.

Wargames…as risk assessment. A solid reminder that wargames don’t (can’t?) predict the future, but are useful to help identify areas of concern (i.e. “risk”).

In an article in Politico, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Paul Van Riper appeals, “What we want to see is these changes are based on thorough study and analysis, not just projections of what might be needed.” Yet there were reams of reports on wargames, experiments, and studies on potential investment decisions and warfighting concepts that informed Berger’s decisions. 

Wargames…as one tool in the Commandant’s kitbag to help inform decisions (not make them).

There is, however, a legitimate critique of the commandant’s approach: He handed the force development enterprise a single course of action, which dominated the analysis and wargaming in a way that left little room for a consideration of alternatives.

In the military planning process, the step for wargaming is preceded by COA (Courses of Action) development. At the very least there needs to be at least two COA identified; Most Likely and Most Dangerous. This apparently did not happen.

Having wargamed many of the ideas that contributed to stand-in forces, my view is they are, without a doubt, applicable to crisis response scenarios and will do better than the legacy force under most circumstances. 

An opinion, but again one informed by wargaming.

Force Design 2030 drops the active component infantry from 24 to 21 battalions and the size of each battalion from 896 to between 733 and around 800, according to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. As such, in the most extreme case, the Marine Corps drops active component infantry from 21,504 to 15,393 — a 29 percent overall reduction. However, based on experimentation and wargaming, the Marine Corps is likely going to settle around 800 per battalion, a 22 percent reduction in total infantry

Experimentation in the Warfighting Lab, aka “wargaming,” used again to inform a decision.

What is a concern is that Force Design 2030 envisions infantry that are both commando-like in their employment and episodically become the core of new littoral combat teams focused on sea denial. Given the National Defense Strategy, the idea of a littoral combat team contributing to a joint maritime campaign has merit. There are many joint, Navy, and Marine Corps wargames from the past several years that support this. But multi-tasking the infantry, by design, to be both commandos and littoral combat teams may undercut their ability to effectively do either. There are alternative configurations that avoid this stress to the force. The service’s World War II-era coastal defense battalions serve as precedent for this. According to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, in the ongoing refinements to the infantry battalion and the Marine littoral regiment, such an alternative approach is in consideration.

It’s good to see wargaming being used to inform decisions, as well as some acknowledgement that although they were handed a single COA, there are still alternatives emerging form the process. Marines and wargaming have a bit of a controversial history, with then Maj Gen Van Riper right in the middle of it (look up Millennium Challenge 2002).

As Paddy Griffith said, wargames fall into four broad categories; for fun, for teaching, for historical research, and for prediction. I’ll argue that even though commercial hobby wargames certainly try to emphasize the “for fun” part (though everyones defintion of “fun” is different), they also teach and can be used for historical research (as in exposing new understanding, i.e. to inform the players).

Prediction is a much tougher subject. In recent weeks I can’t even tell you how many “experts” have popped up on social media claiming expertise on tank warfare in the Ukraine based on a high score in World of Tanks. Putting those clowns aside, there are some commercial hobby players who don’t want to even touch wargames about the future and only want to play historical conflict simulations. Others look at modern/near-future games as not that different from science fiction. With the recent sinking of the RFN Moskva, I think we can at least see that some game models can be “validated.” Beyond that, I think hobby wargames can be useful in providing insight into the future. The real challenge is not in designing a wargame that looks at the future and “gets it right,” but understanding the various biases and assumptions underpinning the game and models. Before one can draw conclusions, one must understand the model.

While it has been very good to see professional wargaming getting some attention, I also see danger here. It is going to be very easy for some to say “the wargames are wrong” and therefore so are the decisions the wargames are supposed to inform. In some ways the criticisms are justified; especially if the wargames were only given a single COA to evaluate. There are some who might compare the situation to historical wargames that have only a single scenario and special rules to achieve outcomes closer to reality. As I have argued before, wargame designers and players need to be ready for “non-historic” outcomes because sometimes history was the outlier, not the mean.

Here’s to hoping the Force Design 2030 wargames were truly informative and not driven to produce a true outlier condition.


Feature image courtesy @KrulakCenter on Twitter

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

5 thoughts on “#Wargame Wednesday – Wargaming America’s Stand-In Force

  1. I wonder if there will be some who read the original article and think that the wargaming being spoken of here is about using boardgames, or whether they will conclude, very probably more accurately, that the wargaming in the services involves a good deal more than that. If either or both mode can spur engagement and dialogue about what’s needed, where and why, all to the good of course.
    One concern I have is the assumption that Chinese military modernisation is proceeding apace, without problems, and represents a direct challenge to US superiority. Chinese military journals and even commentary in authorised daily publications make it plain that there are many problems, many challenges, and that the rethink goes on.

  2. Certainly no one will ever use wargames first, last and always to define what they should or should not be doing, or buying, or standing up/down.
    There will always be lots more to point blame-fingers at.

    James Dunnigan said that the first crucial test of an historical wargame was whether it could replicate the historical event… it didn’t have to be the only, or even the most likely outcome.
    Apparently some wargames fail that test.

    When I first read about the new Littoral Regiments, my first thought was indeed about the old Coastal Defence Battalions.
    Structure now appropriate to its mission of sitting on an island lobbing missiles until it can lob no more. But will they be called on to do this, any time soon? Or will it sooner be a situation where a Littoral Regiment, or parts of it, gets sent to the waterfront region of Lower Rumpistan’s capital city to do an MEU’s job, and those missilemen and anti-air gunners find themselves driving around in Humvees doing saturation patrols, over and over again? And then they’ll need some tanks….
    I still wonder what is supposed to happen to those detachments from the Littoral Regiments once they run out of missiles and the action sweeps past them… once you plunk someone down on a small island, they don’t have much maneuver room and you have to come and resupply them once in a while; they can’t carve missiles out of coconuts like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. Do they just wait to be picked up (by a Chinese or American ship, only time and tide will tell), or stay in a ready-made POW cage?

    1. I think we could spend days just discussing what the current U.S. military defintion of “expeditionary” is. The point you raise is one I often hear; there is plenty of talk about the need to “stand-in” but little talk about getting back out. I don’t think (hope?) that the concept is to go and stay, but to “shoot-n-scoot.” At least, that’s what make sense to me…

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