Wargaming the Department of Defense for Strategic Advantage


Aug 3, 2020

Naval War College President Rear Adm. Shoshana Chatfield, left, views the wargaming hub at the college's Naval Postgraduate School program in Monterey, CA, January 29, 2020, photo by Javier Chagoya/U.S. Navy

Naval War College President Rear Adm. Shoshana Chatfield, left, visits the NWC Monterey program, in Monterey, CA, January 29, 2020

Photo by Javier Chagoya/U.S. Navy

This commentary originally appeared on War Room on July 31, 2020.

Often when we think of the impact of wargames, we envision operational warfighting or strategic crisis management games. However, applying games to the internal policies of the Department of Defense can also offer strategic advantage. Defense acquisition, personnel, and management systems have long been seen as areas in need of reform, as costs and man-hours continue to increase over the years. Gaming new policies that govern these areas can offer early insights into potential stumbling blocks and provide leaders valuable feedback on decisions before major costs are incurred.

All games can be used to understand how humans make decisions in environments shaped by competition. Classically, we think about opposing “blue” and “red” players in conflict. But when it comes to managing the DoD, bureaucratic competition plays a major role in policy outcomes. For example, in acquisition policy, tensions between Congress and the DoD, between joint and service interests, and between government and commercial standard operating procedures, have long been cited as sources of delay and increased costs. Understanding how these actors might make decisions under a new system—and how decisions will intersect—is critical to implementing any new policy successfully. Here, games can be of clear value.

These insights are particularly valuable when designing and implementing new policies aimed at reforming the existing system. Precisely because of the scale of desired change, historical data on past performance are a relatively poor guide to how new policies will work. For example, consider the DoD's new Agile Acquisition Framework's (PDF) Middle Tier Acquisition (MTA) Pathway (PDF). Intended to promote rapid prototyping and fielding of critical capabilities, the MTA pathway offers a dramatically streamlined process. A RAND game was able to simulate this process using draft guidance, and offer recommendations about some of the ways in which program characteristics and stakeholder interests might shape how the policy works in practice. That is, the game was able to offer recommendations to refine the policy before it was implemented.

Elizabeth (Ellie) Bartels is an associate policy researcher and specialist in national security policy analysis gaming at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.