Why Militaries Should Play Games with Each Other


Aug 14, 2020

An amphibious landing demonstration, part of Rim of the Pacific exercise at Pyramid Rock Beach, on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, July 29, 2018, photo by Sgt. Aaron Patterson/U.S. Marine Corps

An amphibious landing demonstration, part of Rim of the Pacific exercise at Pyramid Rock Beach, on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, July 29, 2018

Photo by Sgt. Aaron Patterson/U.S. Marine Corps

By Jonathan Cham and Deon Canyon

This commentary originally appeared on Honolulu Civil Beat on August 14, 2020.

In 2018, a group of senior officers gathered in an air-conditioned hall in Waikiki to discuss the two simultaneous explosions that had just rocked the hulls of U.S. and Chinese vessels as they passed bows on their way through the Singapore Strait. Later details would link the incident to pirate activity.

However, with news still breaking, it was easy to suspect an unprovoked attack.

A few participants looked visibly anxious as the group collaborated to produce an initial response, with some breaking off to draft press statements for the worried public.

Fortunately, there were two silver linings to bolster an otherwise unfortunate day.

First, the people in that room were generals, admirals, and civilian officials from over 20 countries in the Indo-Pacific, with each bringing invaluable experience and perspective to manage what was clearly an evolving international crisis. Men and women from countries large and small spoke up to voice their concerns and offer tentative solutions to the crisis.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the incident itself was fictional; it was part of a scenario-based exercise hosted by the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies as part of its program on Transnational Security Cooperation Games.

Recently, there has been new attention to multinational exercises hosted in Hawaii by the U.S. military—and with good reason. Military activity has often come with environmental concerns and costs, ranging from depleted uranium shells on Pohakuloa Training Area on the island of Hawaii to the bombing of Kahoolawe that made its water table unusable for decades.

Now, with rising rates of COVID-19 and vulnerable populations at risk, Hawaii's people are understandably nervous about the upcoming Rim of the Pacific exercise scheduled for this month.

Building Common Understandings

One group in particular, the Cancel RIMPAC Coalition, has gathered over 12,000 signatures in protest of the exercise. As the petition on DIY Roots Action states, “The international naval war practice in Hawaiian waters is provocative in regional affairs and with the COVID-19 virus, military personnel from 20-plus countries arriving in Hawaii will endanger citizens of the isolated island state of Hawaii.”

We believe that there are real concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19, and the Department of Defense should do its utmost to limit the exposure of Hawaii's residents to any associated health risks. The U.S. Navy has responded in part to these concerns by making RIMPAC an at-sea-only event.

However, with regards to whether RIMPAC will harm regional affairs, we would like to offer additional perspective. International exercises (in their best form) can increase communication and collaboration, as well as cultural understanding, among militaries that may otherwise have no opportunity for this level of engagement.

International exercises can increase communication and collaboration, as well as cultural understanding, among militaries that may otherwise have no opportunity for this level of engagement.

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Moreover, war games themselves offer opportunities for militaries to think critically about future crises (exactly like COVID-19) that may impact the world in the near-, medium-, and long-term future.

International exercises are designed to test the implementation of common operating platforms, build common understandings, and share knowledge between militaries.

For example, in the 2016 Exercise Balikatan, the Hawaii National Guard aided the Armed Forces of the Philippines in learning new search-and-rescue techniques.

Recounting his experience, Sgt. 1st Class, Jason Kaaiakamanu said, “Our role here is to show them [the AFP] our techniques and procedures as far as what we do for search and extraction. Along those lines, we know that they have a lot more natural disasters where they can use those techniques more than we do in Hawaii.”

As a capstone exercise, service members were challenged to solve a realistic disaster scenario with the lessons they had learned throughout the week. RIMPAC, too, contains a significant focus on disaster relief, which is essential as the hurricane season is forecasted to be intense this year.

Of course, while humanitarian work is generally agreeable to most, there is no denying that military exercises teach sailors and soldiers to “fight future wars.”

Jon Letman, a frequent Civil Beat commentator, made this point back in 2014. Indeed, previous iterations of RIMPAC have helped develop the DoD's new concept of “multi-domain battle,” which sets the framework for U.S. operations in any future conflict with China or Russia.

For those concerned that RIMPAC may provoke our Indo-Pacific neighbors, it is worth remembering what a broad, multinational exercise communicates to the region. The United States can and frequently does exercise by itself.

However, when the United States coordinates its efforts with 25 other nations, it signals a commitment to work with and support the interests of those neighbors.

Finally, let's return to the war game that began this article. While this game existed independent from the exercises in RIMPAC, it highlights key ways in which all scenario-based games and exercises can bring military leaders from around the region into one room to confront issues that impact everyone.

By confronting hypothetical scenarios in a simulated environment, participants interact with other players, test strategies or capabilities, and form valuable insights to better prepare themselves for when a real crisis hits. At their best, these games elicit voices from diverse backgrounds to tackle complex, interwoven problems.

Outcomes become more interesting when players are made to confront the full human cost of various crises, when they take initiative to introduce new black swan events, and when they are forced to manage the consequences of their actions.

We recognize that the risks of COVID-19 are very real, and any reasonable measures to mitigate these risks must be considered. This could mean changing the size, frequency, or location of engagements. It could mean developing innovative ways to host these exercises online.

However, COVID-19 cannot be a blanket check on international engagement by our military. The word “Balikatan,” for which the war game exercise mentioned above is named, means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Tagalog.

In this spirit, we support opportunities for our military members to stand shoulder-to-(6-feet-apart)-shoulder with their international peers, to confront real issues, and to learn how to collaborate.

After all, with the effects of COVID-19 expected to last for decades, the forward thinking found in games may be exactly what we need.

Jonathan Cham is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Deon Canyon is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.