How Can Wargaming Improve Government Response to Catastrophic Events?


May 29, 2020

The Hawaii National Guard hosting the 2018 Pacific Rim: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Response, Enterprise Wargame at its Joint Force Headquarters in Honolulu, HI, July 10, 2018, photo by Tech. Sgt. Andrew Jackson/U.S. Air National Guard

The Hawaii National Guard hosting a wargame at its Joint Force Headquarters in Honolulu, HI, July 10, 2018

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Andrew Jackson/U.S. Air National Guard

This commentary originally appeared on War Room on May 29, 2020.

Wargames are abstracted models of national security challenges, where players' decisions and their consequences are adjudicated within a rules-based environment. Due to its inherent flexibility as a tool, wargaming can be applied to a wide range of issues. Scenarios can be diverse, including military conflicts, terrorist attacks, and humanitarian responses. Yet, it is important to understand what wargaming can and cannot do. Wargames explore possible scenarios based on research and analysis, but they do not predict the future. Similarly, wargames can highlight challenges and key decision points, but do not offer validated solutions. Most importantly, wargaming offers the greatest utility when integrated within a cycle of research, including modeling and simulation and field exercises.

With these caveats in mind, wargaming can improve government responses to catastrophic events in two fundamental ways—through analysis and education. Analytical wargames are designed to produce new knowledge, such as identifying trends or potential problems. For instance, Dark Winter, a 2001 wargame involving a bioterrorist attack, discovered that the federal government was ill-prepared for a large-scale health crisis. Dark Winter highlighted several problems such as insufficient vaccines and the difficulty of a unified response across levels of government. Likewise, in Outbreak 2019, the Naval War College wargamed a multi-national humanitarian response to an infectious outbreak in a developing nation. Within the wargame, divergent institutional prerogatives and a scarcity of information often led to competing responses. These examples demonstrate how analytical wargames can help inform policy and produce insights for future research.

Meanwhile, educational wargames are designed to enable experiential learning—to learn by doing. Both Clade X and Event 201, wargames designed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, sought to inform and educate senior leadership about infectious disease response. Likewise, FEMA offers a publicly available tabletop exercise to train the private sector in disaster response. Educational wargames enable various stakeholders, such as analysts, practitioners, and policymakers, to dynamically work through a problem. Decisions have consequences within wargames, creating an interactive feedback loop. As a result, wargames create the opportunity to boldly question assumptions, test innovative solutions, and learn from mistakes.

Wargames may not predict the future, but a well-designed and well-executed wargame can better equip both analysts and practitioners in facing an uncertain future—filled with unknown dangers.

Sebastian J. Bae is a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University.