Toward a History-Based Doctrine for Wargaming

By Caffrey, Matthew, Jr. | Aerospace Power Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Toward a History-Based Doctrine for Wargaming


Caffrey, Matthew, Jr., Aerospace Power Journal


Editorial Abstract: While most human endeavors must deal with adversity or overcome opposition, warfare holds a unique place. When people decide to wage war against one another, they enter into a "zerosum game" (for one side to win the other must lose) where the goals are quite literally as important as life and death. Given the stakes and uncertainties, it's not surprising that those who contemplate war developed an early and abiding interest in gaming possible outcomes. In reviewing the evolution of wargaming, Lieutenant Colonel Caffrey shows that it too has been impacted by the familiar factors of fog, friction, and chance-often in ways the game designers or sponsors did not intend or could not envision.

SADLY, BOTH THE medical and military professions get to bury their mistakes. Because the cost of errors can be so high, student doctors are now using simulated patients to learn from their mistakes before treating real patients. For the same reason, the military has used wargames for centuries. Ever more powerful computers appear to promise increasingly more effective wargames. But will future wargames enlighten or mislead us?

Throughout history, wargaming has provided life-saving insights and dangerous mirages. If such mixed outcomes were random, there would be little use in studying the history of wargaming. However, history provides the raw material for anticipating cause and effect. By learning this history we will be able to devise ways to maximize the benefits of wargaming while minimizing its dangers. This history also provides insights into historic decisions and will suggest a connection between the spread of wargaming and of democracy. Finally, it's an interesting story.

What's in a Name?

First, what do we mean when we say "wargame"? The term wargame is simply a translation of the German Kriegsspiel. Unfortunately, many in the military are simply uncomfortable with the term wargame, perhaps feeling that war is too serious to be a "game." This makes researching the history of wargaming challenging because wargames have been called by other names. These include "map maneuver," "chart maneuver," "field maneuver," "exercise," or increasingly, "modeling and simulation."

Some use the terms modeling, simulation, and wargaming as if they were one term, but they are distinct elements of wargaming. Models are simply proportional representations of reality. A painting is not a model, but a blueprint is. Models vary in abstraction; a physical model of an aircraft, a blueprint of that aircraft, and a mathematical equation representing that aircraft's characteristics are all models. Simulations are proportional representations of reality over time. For example, a small wing that is proportional to a full-sized wing is a model. Put that wing in a wind tunnel and measure the effect of various wind speeds and you have a simulation. As for wargames, while the earliest wargames were multisided abstract representations of combat, modern wargames require multiple sides that compete within a simulation of an armed conflict.1

An exercise may or may not also be a wargame depending on whether or not it fits the above criteria. Typically, the deciding factor is the presence or absence of a thinking opponent. Hence, a Red Flag exercise with its aggressor force is a wargame, while a mobility exercise is not.

In the Beginning

Wargames emerged among the rulers of all early civilizations.2 Cultures separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years felt the same necessity to prepare their future rulers to outthink other rulers. Though games like "Go" and chess are abstract depictions of war, they did (and do) teach "downboard" thinking; that is, anticipating the consequences of one's possible moves and the opponent's possible responses, an essential skill in the deadly game of war.

1664-1800. On the Brink

As the modern era dawned, there was an acceleration of changes that would impact and be impacted by wargaming. …

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