Making a move during a unique wargame hosted by RAND with a group called Girl Security, photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

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August 20, 2019

A Wargame at RAND Puts Teen Girls in Command

Photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

The infantry is taking heavy losses. Whole artillery battalions have been wiped out. Fighting to stay in the game, the young women huddled around a table strewn with maps and planning papers are running out of options.

“So do we have any intention of sending a nuke, a chemical weapon?” one asks.

“If they break through, I guess we could use one,” answers another.

“If they break through, I think we have to.”

This is much more than just a typical tabletop wargame. The players trading moves and countermoves in a RAND conference room are all young women, in their teens or early 20s. They're part of a nationwide movement to bring some diversity to the male-dominated field of national security.

They're new to gaming, learning strategy on the fly. But when it comes to finding their way through difficult situations, they have something most generals lack: the experience of being a teenage girl.

Young women affiliated with a group called Girl Security plan their next moves during a unique wargame hosted by RAND, photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Too Few Women Sit at the National Security Table

An interviewer once asked then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about her dress size. It was another example of what one writer has described as a tax on women in national security: the overlooked credentials, the seats at the back of the room, the double standards.

Women hold barely one-third of the senior executive positions at the State Department, and represent fewer than one-fifth of the senior officials listed at the Department of Defense (DoD). They are much less likely than men to reach the highest pay grades in government, to serve in the senior ranks of the intelligence services, or to appear on the Sunday morning talk shows. Of the ten congressional committees that oversee foreign policy and national security, only one is chaired by a woman.

Women represent fewer than one-fifth of the senior officials listed at the Department of Defense.

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In recent years, as women across America marched for social justice and shared their stories of harassment and abuse on social media, those in national security organized for change as well. One group, the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, has challenged all presidential hopefuls to pledge to seek gender equity in their top national security hires. The group—which counts RAND's Christine Wormuth, a former under secretary of defense, as an adviser—has signatures from 15 candidates so far.

That was the backdrop as 14 young women, from as far away as Texas and Montana, filed into a RAND conference room overlooking the Pentagon on a recent summer afternoon.

'Girl Security' Empowers Young Women

The scenario: North Korea has developed a long-range missile that can hit the West Coast of the United States. In response, the U.S. has resumed large-scale military exercises with South Korea, despite threats from the north of “grave consequences.”

When American forces start arriving for the exercises, North Korea fires a volley of shells into greater Seoul. South Korea retaliates with a missile strike. Both sides mobilize for war.

Lauren Buitta spent more than a decade paying the tax as a national security specialist and editor. “I almost feel like I'm the lesson learned,” she said. “I had female mentors, but I didn't really have the compass that I needed.” In 2016, she founded an organization called Girl Security to engage and empower the next generation of women in national security. She approached RAND analysts about introducing some of her young students to the often-closed world of wargaming.

With the Pentagon as a backdrop, Samina Mondal, right, listens as RAND's Stacie Pettyjohn reviews the blue team's tactics during a unique wargame hosted by RAND, photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

With the Pentagon as a backdrop, Samina Mondal, right, listens as RAND's Stacie Pettyjohn reviews the blue team's tactics

Photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

RAND has been associated with wargames since the earliest days of the Cold War. It has used games to study everything from nuclear security to health insurance. But there was one other reason RAND was a good fit for Girl Security: Both directors of its Center for Gaming are women, as are many of the center's top analysts. They call themselves the Dames of Wargames.

They didn't need much convincing.

“There are times when I'm running a wargame, and I'm the only woman in the room,” said Becca Wasser, a senior policy analyst at RAND. “That's what we are trying to address here, to build a pipeline for young women to join us so that a woman analyst leading a wargame is no longer a novelty.”

High Stakes and New Traditions

Alexis Visser discusses options with her team during a unique wargame hosted by RAND, photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Alexis Visser

Photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Charlotte Gorman, a master's student at the University of Texas, talks strategy with members of the blue team during a unique wargame hosted by RAND, photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Charlotte Gorman

Photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

“What do you guys think about bringing them up, the infantry?” Alexis Visser asks as she studies the game map. She's 19, a student majoring in international relations and an Army reservist. She's on the blue team, playing the American and South Korean forces attacking straight up the Korean Peninsula.

“Toward Inchon?” asks Charlotte Gorman, a master's student at the University of Texas at Austin with an interest in diplomacy and an internship at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

“Or would that be overkill? I'm just asking,” Visser says.

“How do we avoid provoking them into another attack?”

“The question is, 'Can you break through fast enough that they just stop?'” says Stacie Pettyjohn, a senior political scientist at RAND and codirector of the Center for Gaming. “If you go like this”—she sweeps a hand across the map, up through the center and then over toward the coast—“you're putting them in a vice.”

The wargame shows just how difficult national security problems can be—how every move requires sorting through bad options and trying to find the least worst.

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RAND analysts—Elizabeth Bartels and Jenny Oberholtzer, in addition to Wasser and Pettyjohn—designed the game on their nights and weekends. It plays out on a huge map of the Korean Peninsula, overlaid with hexagonal spaces, with little plastic tanks, boats, and soldiers as game pieces. Its purpose is to show just how difficult national security problems can be—how every move requires sorting through bad options and trying to find the least worst.

It's a lesson in strategy, in the hard realities behind the daily news headlines, but also in agility and resilience. In that, it's not so far removed from the daily life of a teenage girl, Buitta said. “These are life skills,” she said. “I want these girls to feel empowered. When they confront issues where they're feeling marginalized, they will have had this experience.”

The name of the game is “Tangling with Tigers.” It's not the kind of game anyone wins.

Meaghan Burnes, 19, a history major inspired by her grandfather's service in World War II, said the wargame hosted by RAND helped her see herself doing military analysis or strategy as a career, photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Meaghan Burnes

Photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Rose Kelly, 18, a student interested in nuclear security and the intersection of gender and security, plays the red team during a unique wargame hosted by RAND, photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

Rose Kelly

Photo by Dori Gordon Walker/RAND Corporation

“So the situation is … not good,” Pettyjohn says as time runs out.

The red team of North Korean forces, its infantry in tatters, has fired chemical weapons as it pulls back from part of the front lines. A tank battalion for the blue team, rushing forward, has hit a nuclear land mine the red team left behind. On the game board, a red mushroom cloud marks the place. Both sides seem stunned at how quickly the conflict escalated.

“There were no good solutions,” says Meaghan Burnes, 19, a history major who later says the experience convinced her she wants to pursue a career in military analysis or strategy. “The cons always seemed to outweigh the pros. It was just, what situation can you figure out that would have the most pros?”

“A lot of the decisions, strategies, and conversations were very reminiscent of what we see with military officers and DoD actors,” Wasser assures the players. Asked how professionals would have played the game, she tells them: “Not much different than you.”

A few days later, Rose Kelly is still thinking through the moves of the game. She's 18, with an interest in nuclear security. The experience, she says, was “super transformative … it was such a pleasure to receive guidance from female experts and veterans, while working with so many other young women.”

She blames tradition and ignorance for keeping people like her out of national security for far too long. “Tradition can afford to be shaken up,” she says. “Ignorance must be shaken off.”

She has a small plastic tank, painted with glitter, on her trophy shelf, next to speech awards and gavels from the Model United Nations. Game organizers gave one to every participant with a request: That she keep it as a memento, wherever her career might lead.

Doug Irving