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© Tatti Ribeiro


Wargaming: An interview with ICONS director Devin Hayes Ellis

by Devin Hayes Ellis
April 10, 2018

This interview with Devin Hayes Ellis, the director of The ICONS Project, was conducted and condensed by Tatti Ribeiro for frank news.

Bottom line is, I know nothing about gaming, and I would like to know more.

Works for me. So the ICONS project is 36 years old now. It was founded by my predecessor, as director, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, and a couple of academics who thought it would be intriguing to see if they could use the Internet to connect classrooms and teach political science back when that was you know, cool and new, and it worked. In the last decade or so the organization has evolved from being mostly an education mission, which you know, it's had throughout its history, which we still do have, providing classroom simulations for starters, into also having a strong presence providing what is essentially wargaming. Although we often use the phrase simulation or human driven simulation.

Is there a difference between those words and definitions or are they all interchangeable?

They're interchangeable to an extent. I think it depends a little bit on who you're talking to and what the disciplinary background is. In the military context I usually say wargaming because that means something to military folks. And it usually means something pretty close to what I mean, which is,

an exercise that is organized around humans making decisions about a complex problem. 

I think we all would consider the pope of war gaming to Peter Perla, who wrote a book called The Art of Wargaming that remains one of the definitive studies of the practice. It's not really a discipline right. You know, people come from a lot of different backgrounds, a lot of them in the professional military community who do this are from an operations research analysis background, but that's a very specific set of academic disciplinary things.

How seriously do they take gaming in government and in the military?

It depends a lot on where you're talking about. So the law says, well, Title 10 mandates service level wargames. And so these are gigantic exercises and they take place annually. They are these gigantic efforts, where often people in the planning staffs of major commands and services whole time in that part of the planning staff, will be spent designing and executing Title 10 games. They also have these sort of cute permanent names. So for example, the Special Operations Command Title 10 game is called, Shadow Warrior, and that's what it's called every year. So it'll be you know, “what is Shadow Warrior 2018 gonna be about?, oh X, Y, or Z". And that's sort of how they handle that at the highest level. But those games tend to be very driven by a sort of a combination of three major factors. The long term institutional priorities of the commander of the service. So, you do not want a game that's going to undermine what you're telling Congress you should get money appropriated for. Right? The specific intent of whoever the commander there is. So if it's a service game then you know the service chief is going to have significant input on what the priorities are. What he, or hopefully a future she as well, wants exercised in that annual game. And then the third thing of course is, what are the national security priorities that are being set by the president's national security strategy, and then, the secretary's national defense strategy.

Games happen all over the place at various levels. I was recently in Europe for a small-ish tabletop exercise that involved about 60 folks from our particular command and we were very focused on one very, very specific problem and that took a couple of days and —

What problem was it?

I can’t really talk about that. But let me say this. There are only so many problems that the military’s worried about in Europe. And some of them I think we thought were from the past, and now they are back in fashion again.

On a military level, when there's time, is gaming something that usually contributes to the decision making?

Not always no. In fact you know, wargaming has sort of had peaks and valleys of fashionable-ness, I guess. You know, we talk about sort of high points in the history of war gaming within the U.S. military establishment. I think most people who study the issue would point to wargaming that the Navy did prior to World War II. Which is often talked about as an excellent example of a service really spending a lot of time and effort thinking through what could be a plausible strategic problem for them. And then gaming it on various different levels, to the extent that you know, I can’t remember if it was Halsey or Cane, but one of them said after the war, that they had worked the Pacific theater so many times prior to World War II, that the only thing with the Japanese that actually surprised them was kamikazes. That was the only thing they hadn't thought of.

Wow. And today, how is gaming used in comparison?

So I would say they are on the rise right now. For a couple of reasons. First of all I think in the last 15 years or so the community of war game professionals has really sort of coalesced in a away that didn't exist before, thanks to maybe about, a half a dozen individual people honestly, who have been crusading on this their whole careers. And you know, we now have an interdisciplinary community of interest conferences that are even international. I go to one annually in London. There's one in Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands, and here in the U.S. And you know, it's really I think…that the strengthening of that community of practice and the popularity, the rising popularity, of the methodology with some parts of the U.S. defense establishment especially, has been able to promote its utility, and has seen a sort of a resurgence in wargaming. And then a couple of years ago the deputy secretary of defense at the time got involved in the work. He was a big fan. He actually put out a memo ordering the reinvigoration of wargaming in the Department of Defense.

Has that enthusiasm continued from the previous administration to our current administration?

Secretary Mattis has not actively reversed that directive in any way. So I mean, I would say it doesn't have quite the momentum it had at the moment, when Secretary Work said make it happen. But it's not you know, I wouldn't say it's been shunted aside either, because the life cycle of reinvigorating something in the Defense Department, if people actually take it seriously and put resources behind it, we could be in the next presidential administration before they've even done the things that they said they wanted to do four years ago. So I think there's a lot of good wargaming taking place in a lot of places in the defense establishment. To be perfectly honest there's also a lot of very bad wargaming taking place all over the place, mostly because when something like that happens and everybody says, “get me a wargame”, you know part of it is box checking.

Obviously I'm a proponent of this as an analytic tool, as a decision support tool, as a training tool, because it's what I do.

But I also am very much against seeing every problem as a nail because what I do is hammer.

A lot of us think the professional conscience of wargaming is a gentleman named Steven Downes Martin, who was on the faculty at the Naval War College for many, many years, and is a professional game designer. He likes to joke that the three questions he always asks his sponsor are, what is it that you need to know that you don't have right now? Why do you think a wargame the right tool to get that? And, when do you rotate?

What are the other options in terms of analysis and running through scenarios? Gaming seems like the obvious choice if you’re looking at complex levels of decision making.

Right. I would say that if what you have is a decision making problem, then gaming is a great tool. If what you have is not a decision making problem, then it might not be the best tool for you. If what you have is a big data empirical analysis problem, wargaming is not going to help you. I try very hard not to sell this as a one stop solution for all decision issues for leaders and organizations. I also know we try to call out things, if you have a chance, when they’re not really living up to what this technique is valuable for. Because then it reduces people's interest in the technique. Right? You go to a couple of wargames that you feel were a total waste of time, and you're not going to go back to a wargame for your problem. Half the time that's because it was either a problem that should have been addressed in a different light, or it was a really badly designed game.

But I should say there is also a slightly more insidious potential problem, where maybe you have a really nicely executed game about an interesting topic, but it turns out what you got out of it, the relevance, or the utility, or how much did you really learn from that, is less than maybe you would have wanted.


Okay, so the sort of a pinnacle of the wargaming system is an outfit in the Joint Staff, in the J8 directorate, which you know, sort of studies and special plans at the Pentagon, as opposed to the J5 who are the people who actually write war plans. The J8 has a unit called SAGD which stands for…oh look it up.

[Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division]

But that unit is charged with doing very high level, what we call Pol-Mil games, which is short for political military gaming. It’s potentially about inter-agency decision making. So it's not just a military or a defense problem, it's something that would involve state, the intelligence community, Treasury, Homeland Security, whomever else has an equity in that problem. And so that's why we call it political military because you're bringing in political leaders and other interagency leaders, in addition to defense establishment leaders. And the Pol-Mil gaming that they do in the J8 at the Pentagon is usually at the very highest level. So at the national command authority level, even where the players who are there representing their departments activities, are playing the members of the national security units. Tom Allen, who is now retired, ran that organization for many years and is in that Pantheon of wargaming greats in my opinion.

He, you know, at one time said to me, “I’ve never seen a bunch of people walk away from a weeklong TTX junket, where they all got to leave their jobs behind and band together, and pretend to be fighting the Russians, and say, oh that sucked. I didn't get anything out of that. Everybody always says it was so cool, that was important.

What is the most essential thing to understand about gaming as it applies to our military and our national security right now?

Right. So I mean, I know it said it a trillion times, but I'll say it again,

I think the most fundamental thing to understand about wargaming is that its utility is pretty squarely in trying to come up with solutions to problems where there is a high degree of complexity or uncertainty. And where the critical factor that's going to take you in one trajectory or another, is in human decision making, rather than physics are unquantifiable error.

Do you work with Special Operations frequently? Do they involve you?

So, special operations, I think the special operations, the SOF community, has been called on in the last 15-20 years to do a tremendous number of very varied missions in support of U.S. national security policy. They’ve had to tackle a lot of issues and problems that are not…that are like, way divergent from what the original SF mission was back in the 70s. That's fine. So the answer to your question is yes. Because the leadership in that community has been conscientious about trying to apply whatever techniques they can to understand the dimensions of the thornier parts of their mission better. 

As a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense establishment, and we’re speaking about defense with a big D, spent a massive amount of energy and resources trying to tame the problem of complex operating environments, especially around insurgency, counterinsurgency, dealing with human populations, and all the attendant problems, trying to jam that problem set into an engineering framework. If only we can build a better, faster, stronger systems dynamics model, it will eventually spit out an algorithm where all the commander has to do is say, here's the details of my population, and the details of my mission, and it will tell you what to do to be successful.

I think that that was an enormously flawed, costly, and wasteful effort.

In part because a lot of the complex environmental modeling techniques that come out of engineering and hard sciences could be an amazing analytic tool to deal with problems in those domains, when you try to apply them to social science settings, to human terrain settings, they rely for their validity and their strength in their original homes, on having a really high degree of certainty about the causal relationships between different variables.

That was a very long way of saying, I think much more quickly than the big D establishment over all,

the SOF community noticed that they weren't getting results from that kind of approach, and they were noticing it in real time, on the ground in a lot of places. So they pivoted back to addressing some of these things with wargaming much more quickly than the rest of the defense establishment did.

You talk about SOCOM, well you know a four star commander, whose mission is to prepare and equip all of the SOF community, has a very different level of concerns about these things than a two star commanding general of a theater of Special Operations Command, who's sending guys out to do very specific missions. And so you just, you know, you want to make sure that the way you're calibrating your game addresses the level of the question. That's really, really important.

You know I always say, any game, just like any other model of reality is a tradeoff between fidelity to realism, and playability. 

Right. Thank you. I think that answers most of my questions. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

You know, not to be unpatriotic, but I think the best short introduction to how, or why to wargame, and how to do it, is the very brief manuals that the UK Ministry of Defense of wargaming has written very recently. I will send that to you because that's just a great resource for anybody who's like, while that sounds good, I want to be able to go and read about it.

Thank you! That’d be great. Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you very much. Have a good day.