TRAINING AND SIMULATION

Marines Take Center Stage in Wargaming Boom

11/3/2023
By Hope Hodge Seck

iStock illustration

In late 2011, as the war in Afghanistan entered its 10th year, Gen. Robert Neller, then director of operations for the Joint Staff, found himself staring at the floor of an empty classroom in Quantico, Virginia, pushing around pieces of cardboard representing combat units, ships and aircraft.

It was an ad hoc and rudimentary war game simulation, using the same technology — or lack thereof — that was available to battlefield commanders in World War II.

“There has got to be a better way to do this,” he thought. Neller, an avowed Trekker, said in an interview that he imagined a “holodeck”-style simulation room where planners could program military scenarios and see the results displayed rapidly on screens in front of them.

A half-dozen years later, as commandant of the Marine Corps, Neller had the chance to make his vision a reality. In February 2017, he ordered the start of planning on a “world-class war gaming and simulation center” to be based in Quantico.

“We will work with other services to develop a world-class, multi-service-level simulation facility to execute large-scale wargames in complex scenarios,” Neller wrote. Planning, he said, would begin by the end of June 2017.

Still, Neller knew his days as commandant were numbered, and many of his ambitious ideas might ultimately die of neglect. He retired in 2019 and lost track of the effort until earlier this year, when he received a message from then-commandant Gen. David Berger. Would Neller, Berger said, be willing to lend his name to the Marines’ soon-to-open wargaming center?

For Neller, the request was “a great honor,” he said.

While Berger’s aggressive efforts to reorganize the Marine Corps for future war through Force Design 2030 had drawn the most public attention, his pursuit of advanced service wargaming capability had been equally direct. In the “Commandant’s Planning Guidance” published in 2019, Berger renewed calls for a center on the campus of Quantico’s Marine Corps University.

“As with other aspects of our current performance, our problem is not that we are not doing wargaming — indeed, we have something of a proliferation of entities engaged in the practice — but that we have not effectively harnessed this effort in an integrated process of learning, generating tangible, defensible results,” Berger wrote in his guidance. “This will change.”

The 100,000 square-foot, $79 million center is set to have a christening ceremony sometime next year and to reach full capability in 2025, eight years after Neller first proposed it. As it happens, the center is entering its latter stages of development as wargaming as a practice and discipline becomes more sophisticated, complex and highly sought-after by military commanders and strategists.

Tim Barrick, the wargaming director at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University, delivered a June presentation tracing the development of wargaming, from the earliest, chess-like board games to the addition of dimensional complexity, virtual arenas and computerized simulations. In the coming generation of wargaming, “Gen 3.0+,” he proposed artificial intelligence will aid planning and decision-making, pose as highly realistic adversary forces and deliver complex after-action analysis. And the Neller Center is positioned to be right in the middle of the action.

The center can accommodate 20 or more complex war games each year, and at capacity can run simultaneously two large-scale events, with up to 250 participants each. Inside the boxy, two-story building will be large, highly configurable “gaming arenas” that accommodate a broad range of wargaming activities and a dedicated engagement space where senior leaders can observe and analyze the results of games as they play out. The first floor of the center will house the offices of wargame design staff and the relocated Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the center’s primary customer, now located elsewhere aboard Quantico, said Col. George Schreffler, director of the lab’s wargaming division. It will also feature a 300-person auditorium for major presentations.

The second floor will feature the configurable gaming space, which can be divided into eight separate arenas for everything from tabletop exercises to advanced simulations.

Also key to the promise of the center is the software being designed for it by lead contractor BAE Systems, said Lt. Col. Wynndee Young, program manager for wargaming capability. That software is expected to deliver the processing power necessary to run simulations at a level of speed and repetition far beyond its predecessors and generate reports about the outcome of games in what amounts to real time.

“It combines a wide array of tools that no one else has combined yet on this scale and gives us the ability to play games from the tactical to the strategic level in real time … in a way we have never been able to do before,” Schreffler said. “So, you can get combat results of the decisions made by players in the games in a matter of minutes, rather than days.”

Artificial intelligence, with its ability to process and interpret massive amounts of data, will provide a backbone to the Neller Center’s suite of software and computer tools.

It will enable gamers to incorporate insights from past runs in ways that haven’t previously been possible. Plus, AI will expand the scope of games by standing in for friendly military units or adversary forces, drawing from a spectrum of information sources to make textured and realistic decisions while learning in real time from the wargamers’ actions and responses, Schreffler said.

“In the way that we do wargaming now, it would take the entire force to do what this software can give us a look at in a matter of moments in the future,” he said.

For the Marine Corps itself, the center will provide an opportunity to road test and analyze some of the most transformational ideas in Berger’s Force Design 2030, Schreffler said. The facility will make advanced wargaming tools significantly closer and more accessible to Marine leaders who might otherwise have to share time at other military facilities.

Beyond the Marine Corps, the center also holds significance for the small but growing military warfighting community.

Jeremy Sepinsky, the lead wargame designer at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank, said the most complex live-virtual-constructive wargames, which blend real-world military assets, like an aircraft carrier, with simulations and constructed environments, are often prohibitively difficult to execute. Often, he turns down proposals for game projects like this due to sheer lack of capability, he said.

“But if some of the things I’ve seen about the wargaming center come to fruition, then they might be able to do that,” he said. “You can have ground forces in the field at [Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California] that are executing some operation that shows up on a computer screen for someone at the wargaming center that is controlling … similar forces to enable that combined training.”

The plan to staff up the center with a large team of wargaming experts also has practitioners intrigued, although some warn achieving that goal will be difficult. The Marines’ current warfighting division at Quantico has some 30 staff members, but the service plans to increase that population to 180 or more in a mix of troops, government civilians and contractors over the next three years, amassing what Schreffler calls “a dramatically enhanced capability.”

Sepinsky, who estimates the total professional wargaming community at around 1,000 members, wonders if that staffing goal is feasible, particularly considering personnel demand from other centers and programs also coming online.

Sepinsky and Kevin Williamson, a wargame technician with Matrix Pro Sims, both suggested the increased realism of digital gaming aids and a growingly mainstream “nerd culture” have helped promote the trend. And as a result, experienced wargamers are in short supply.

As with many professional disciplines, expertise in wargaming must be developed and cultivated over time, making it difficult or impossible to surge talent when demand for expertise exceeds supply, Sepinsky said.

“You end up hiring people that don’t necessarily have the level of talent that you want,” he said. “You have to wait for them to grow into the capability.”

The prospect of staffing up a world-class wargaming center may be more difficult than the Marine Corps is projecting, but the practitioners who spoke with National Defense emphasized the importance of such an endeavor, particularly as warfare becomes more technologically complex and reliant on smart machines and automation.

Despite the high-tech simulation tools and the integration of artificial intelligence, wargaming, in a fundamental way, stands perpendicular to the Defense Department’s growing pursuit of AI, autonomy and robotics as combat enablers. War games highlight human decision-making — both that of the friendly force and of the enemy — and the uncertainty of warfare because of its many variables.

Wargaming is not intended to prove a concept or validate a single course of action; rather, through many iterations, it’s meant to identify unknowns and “examine the contours of a very complex problem,” said Capt. Michael O’Hara, chair of the wargaming department at the Naval War College.

“It’s one thing to look at an engineering problem and say, ‘OK, I’ve got to make a decision about how I’m going to solve this problem,’” O’Hara said. “The problem in a war game is literally fighting against you and trying to undermine what you’re trying to accomplish. And this is the power of a war game.” ND

Topics: Marine Corps News

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