Game Over

How War Gaming Affects Military Planning

Recently, United States Central Command, the combatant command responsible for military operations in the Middle East, conducted a war game to assess the consequences of Israel striking Iran in protestation of their nuclearization efforts. The simulation found that an Israeli strike could lead to regional war; if that were the case, the United States would likely be involved.

What are war games, how are they conducted, and who participates in them? How should their predictions about Iran’s future affect American dealings with Iran today? I interviewed Yale University Professor Paul Bracken, who teaches courses in Management and Political Science. Professor Bracken has participated in war games and has advised the federal government in multiple capacities, including United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM), which was disestablished on August 4, 2011.

War games simulate situations by asking players to adopt the characteristics of real-life personalities – in recent games, someone has had the challenge of trying to mimic the often irrational thinking of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and pitting players against one another. Because its players determine its course, a war game reflects the human imponderables that make war difficult to model otherwise. The outcomes of war games help nations, and in particular, their militaries, develop plans. If Iranian leaders attack an American warship in the Persian Gulf – as they did in Central Command’s recent simulation – then military planners must decide how to respond. Their bosses demand nitty-gritty details from them, including how many American casualties a counter-strike would cost.

When I ask him who participates in war games, Professor Bracken responds with a long list: military officers, diplomats, retired military officers, retired diplomats, intelligence officials, White House officials, virtually all of the Cabinet agencies, and “sometimes,” he says, “they throw in an academic!” The sponsor of a war game influences its participants; in preparation for the recent simulation in which Israel strikes Iran, Central Command invited trusted colleagues to play.

Professor Bracken says war gaming dates back to ancient times. Military personnel developed chess to use for strategic purposes before it became a popular board game. Before computers, war games were conducted manually. Bracken points to buildings in Newport, Rhode Island, a “center for naval games,” as conducive to simulations. There, naval personnel used tiled floors to mock the movement of ships across oceans. For years, war games have been officiated by umpires, as disputes almost always arise.

Today, Bracken says leaders do not have to choose between games conducted by computers and games conducted by role-playing human beings. Instead, they try to combine the two. There was a time when only computer models were thought to be objective, but Bracken says if people contaminate the decision-making in a simulation, they “contaminate it such that it is more realistic.”

The war game conducted to assess the consequences of Israel striking Iran, called Internal Look, has also been used to assess communication and coordination among Central Command units in situations unrelated to Israel and Iran. Though the scenarios of war games have changed with time, the goals of these exercises have not. This time, Internal Look found that an Israeli strike could lead to regional war. I ask Professor Bracken if the United States would – or would have to – involve itself in such a war. In response, he says the New York Times article, published on March 19, 2012, that made the recent Internal Look simulation public was “almost certainly leaked.” Though he admits he cannot prove this, he reasonably asserts that the article could influence domestic public opinion about potential Israeli-Iranian conflict. It could also discourage Israel from doing something rash. The United States does not want to involve itself in a regional war, but Internal Look concluded that the United States would almost certainly be drawn in to a conflict. Why? Bracken says if Iran starts bombing oil ports in the region, “the United States will have to involve itself.”

The computer from the 1983 American Cold War movie “War Games”

Though government officials conduct war games to help them predict the results of real-world situations, it is undoubtedly difficult to gather intelligence about the thinking of Iranian leaders. I ask Bracken how accurately war games predict how leaders will react to crises. He asks me, “compared to what?” He continues, “some people do not like [war games] because they would rather handle a complex question with [another] methodology. What would that be? An expert judgment? A staff-directed study?”

Government officials approach war games with trepidation because they are less controlled than experts or studies. Bracken says most people “can predict with high accuracy” what an expert or a study is going to conclude. He says both will “hold the party line,” depending on who is in office. Though they can and do make inaccurate predictions sometimes, Bracken insists that games are one of the best ways to plan for future conflicts: only games introduce scenarios experts and officials have not thought of.

If played repeatedly, war games can help officials determine how much involvement in an Israeli-Iranian crisis the United States would be able to afford. If the war is long but our effort inadequate, Bracken fears we will “re-create a Vietnam debacle,” but if our effort is sizeable, the American public, fatigued by more than a decade of conflict in the Middle East, is likely to oppose it. Once wars games begin, players consider factors – like the consequences of minimal involvement – that they had not considered before. Bringing those factors to light makes gaming useful.

Bracken says, “I think it is good that these things are being gamed…we need to really think them through. We should examine these questions with many methodologies, but gaming should certainly be one of them.” Why include other methodologies in his prescription? Ultimately, Internal Look reminds us that an Israeli strike – and an Iranian counterstrike – will be complex, unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable.


Meredith Potter is a junior in Saybrook College.


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