Strategic Joint Wargame Challenges Future Leaders Ability to Think Multidimensional

  • Published
  • By Reginald Harper, Wargame Program specialist

Professional military education students from the Department of Defense’s senior-level colleges will come together at the Air Force Wargaming Institute, part of Air University and Maxwell Air Force Base, March 26-31, 2017, to test their strategic thinking and leadership in a multidimensional environment—our world in the next decade and beyond.

There will be 135 PME students from the U.S. active duty, guard and reserve officers, civilian counterparts from across the U.S. government and international officers from multiple nations.

The 34th annual Joint Land, Air and Sea Strategic Special Program, or JLASS-SP, is part of a six-day event that is the culmination of a seven-month elective, designed to provide participants an opportunity to develop and implement their own regional strategies against realistic problems. These includes nation-state military aggression, non-state sponsored cyber-attacks, weapons of mass destruction proliferation and humanitarian suffering.  Adding to their challenges, these issues are continuously occurring across the globe in succession, complicating their ability to move and position forces in a resource-constrained world.

The roots of wargames like JLASS-SP, can be traced back to games of chess in the 1600’s, pitting opponents in a turn-by-turn game of strategy. These games of chess progressed over the next 400 years, aspiring military leaders to develop a way to hone their decision-making and leadership skills without sacrificing troops and weaponry in an actual battle.  The result was the development of wargames.

According to Matthew Caffrey’s Toward a History Based Doctrine for Wargaming, Napoleon Bonaparte placed colored pins on maps to visualize friendly and enemy units in upcoming battles.  In 1824 a young Prussian officer, Lieutenant von Reisswitz, used a wargame system that his father developed to help train fellow officers. The Reisswitz system used scaled terrain models for the boards, regimental forces for individual game pieces, limited intelligence for each side, and umpires, or adjudicators, using outcome tables and dice rolls to determine the probable outcomes of specific strategies.

Over time these new-age wargames were implemented into war colleges by General Helmuth von Moltke.  As Moltke’s Prussian Armies won a series of wars against opponents with larger forces, the rest of the world took notice.

Today, computer technology and cyber connectivity have greatly expanded the application and appeal of wargames for military and government entities.  In fact, modern wargaming has taken on new emphasis, as documented in a February 2015 memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work.  He said that he expects wargames to, “pursue an innovative third offset strategy, avoid operational and technological surprise, and make the best use of our limited resources.”

“JLASS-SP is the only major educational wargame that integrates strategic decision-making, politico-military theory, and international participation across the military's senior-level colleges,” said Col. Matthew Powell, AFWI director. “JLASS-SP emphasizes the joint and combined force training that our current Chief of Staff of the Air Force called for in a recent memo, ‘Strengthening Joint Leaders and Teams…a Combined Arms Imperative.’”

In order for these annual wargames to be successful, a multi-service JLASS-SP Steering Group plans and coordinates each exercise throughout the year.

"The steering group is instrumental in synchronizing all the moving parts leading to a successful wargame," said Powell.  "The group meets quarterly to identify, discuss, and adapt processes and details to make the wargame even better next time and beyond.  As our enemies continue to evolve, we must also evolve to identify those threats and then fire for effect."

Steve Crawford, AFWI senior wargame specialist, explained that JLASS-SP occurs in two phases: a distributed phase conducted at each senior college and a collective execution phase at Maxwell Air Force Base. During the distributed phase, students use cyberspace tools, telephones and video teleconferencing to develop theater strategies, select courses of action and request initial force laydowns. Conversely, the 5-day execution phase enables face-to-face student interactions in a time-compressed environment at Maxwell.

Students and faculty from the Air War College, Army War College, Marine Corps War College, Naval War College, The Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, the National War College and the Information Resources Management College critically analyze key issues affecting the strategic and operational levels of war. Students from the service-specific colleges generally act as geographic combatant commanders and staff, while National Defense University students role-play national level policymakers. In addition to the students, over 80 faculty members, subject matter experts, and technical and support staff keep the game focused and on-track.

Not all the simulated problems can be solved by a U.S. only military solution.

 "Students will use all elements of national power to execute national and theater-level strategies, which also helps each school meet their desired learning objectives," said Col. William Jones, Army Exercise director.

Jones said the in-depth fictional scenarios are designed to challenge the select group of future senior leaders on an international stage. While addressing multiple and simultaneous global contingencies, this year's students will make their decisions on cyber defense, foreign humanitarian assistance, homeland security, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive consequence management, and stability operations.

Jones noted the exercise environment isn't limited to adaptive mission planning processes.  Students also face simulations of real-world challenges, such as media and public pressures. To set the stage each day, students view a "special report" by the fictional Global News Network, providing realism as the wargame progresses.  Students are also given a situation briefing and a daily press summary that stresses their ability to employ instruments of national power and a whole of government approach to deal with the crises at hand.

"To prevail in today's war with extremists, as well as to successfully engage with our joint, interagency, and multinational partners, we must understand, master and strategically ramp up two powerful and frequently neglected weapons: words and images," said Dr. Frank Kalupa, U.S. Air Force Center for Strategic Leadership Communication director. "This is especially imperative on social media platforms, used so effectively by terrorists."

First held in 1983, JLASS-SP has graduated nearly 3,000 senior leaders, including the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, current U.S. Cyber Command commander and National Security Agency director, Adm. Michael Rogers, current Air University Vice Commandant and LeMay Center Commander, Maj. Gen. Timothy Leahy and at least 30 other general officers still on active duty in each of the service branches.