Analytical Gaming Could Help the U.S. Coast Guard Address Key Challenges


Nov 8, 2021

U.S. Coast Guard conducting a training exercise at Cape Disappointment, Washington, February 9, 2018, photo by Tom Collins/CC BY-ND 2.0

U.S. Coast Guard conducting a training exercise at Cape Disappointment, Washington, February 9, 2018

Photo by Tom Collins/CC BY-ND 2.0

This commentary originally appeared on RealClearDefense on November 6, 2021.

Wargames can provide valuable insights that enable military services to anticipate challenges and improve future decisionmaking. Partly because its primary focus is on steady-state problems not directly associated with full-scale conflict, as well as its limited resources to focus on long-term challenges that wargaming can inform, the U.S. Coast Guard has historically conducted relatively few wargames compared with other military services. While the Coast Guard Academy and others within the service have undertaken some gaming efforts, these remain relatively small in scale or limited to participation in analytical games led by other organizations.

A larger-scale analytical gaming effort could help the Coast Guard improve planning, decisions, coordination, and training across a range of areas. These methods could provide a versatile option for exploring a large range of “what-ifs,” embodying the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus (always ready). Unlike using other methods such as interviews, surveys, or computer simulations alone, the participatory aspect of gaming can be compelling for boosting understanding, engagement, and discussion as the participants “live” through the challenges embedded in the game. This can be particularly valuable for senior leaders, for whom games provide an opportunity to viscerally experience long-term issues in a way that grabs their attention. This can contribute to organizational redirection to address a changing operational environment and mitigate risks.

Gaming could be particularly useful to a service facing a series of rapid changes, as the Coast Guard is today. Many changes involve rapidly advancing technologies, such as uncrewed systems, low-cost cube satellites, cyberdefense, and 3-D printing. Gaming could help the Coast Guard to ascertain how best to acquire and prioritize specific technological capabilities, recognizing the need to integrate these swiftly advancing technologies with cutters, aircraft, and infrastructure that endure for decades.

In a small but highly-diversified service like the Coast Guard, assessing the potential impact of new technologies and their potential employment alongside enduring capabilities can require inputs across different mission, geographic, and asset responsibilities. In this context, gaming could enable cooperative, structured elicitation of a wide range of stakeholder insights. For example, a game exploring uncrewed systems could bring together the cutter, boat, and aircraft communities to assess how to use uncrewed systems to bolster existing asset capabilities, identify uncrewed system vulnerabilities or liabilities, and evaluate their maintenance and support requirements. Mission experts ranging from fishery enforcement to drug interdiction could address the system's operational effects, while personnel with specific geographic responsibilities from Maine to Guam could characterize unique operational environment issues and idiosyncrasies. Importantly, games are repeatable at low cost, so inputs can be elicited through multiple groups of stakeholders before major decisions are taken.

The participatory aspect of gaming can be compelling for boosting understanding, engagement, and discussion as the participants 'live' through the challenges embedded in the game.

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Gaming could also inform how the Coast Guard adapts to patterns of technology use by others, including the people it protects, the organizations it regulates, the partner agencies it works with, and the drug smugglers, hackers, and terrorists it seeks to counter. Personnel knowledgeable in or from these communities can portray them in a game, generating knowledge of how different actors' capabilities and choices may affect one other. Gaming is a great venue for collaborating with domestic and international partners: it is a “safe” environment for information-sharing and measured risk-taking, as well as building camaraderie.

The Coast Guard might also consider addressing potential large-scale organizational changes through gaming by posing dilemmas stemming from high-impact, low-probability events and assessing what training, force structure, and policy might need to change. Just as the 9/11 attacks caused the Coast Guard to join a new department and to refocus its efforts on terrorism prevention, the Coast Guard may need to anticipate future contingencies and examine efforts to make the organization more resilient and versatile if they occur.

The analysis undertaken in developing and supporting the game, together with the game's results, could provide a coherent and cogent body of work with the game as a focal point. Wide-ranging Coast Guard stakeholder participation might also encourage buy-in regarding the lessons learned from the game. Participants viscerally experiencing the impact of decisions on the Coast Guard and its missions, and thus the reasoning behind the recommendations, may be more likely to help overcome barriers to organizational change. Other games may be conducted primarily for training purposes, exploring options for retaining talent in the service, and exposing junior personnel to future challenges and choices before they encounter them in a real-world environment.

Gaming could also help the Coast Guard address more gradual changes, such as the current expansion of its activities overseas. The service has long operated around the globe—e.g., countering piracy in the Indian Ocean, interdicting drug smugglers along the coasts of South America, supporting science in the polar regions, and securing oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. Now, with the re-emergence of competition as a focus of U.S. National Defense Strategy, the Coast Guard is expanding its role at the intersection of diplomacy and security.

The 2020 Tri-Service Maritime Strategy, “Advantage at Sea,” describes how the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps will work together to address growing challenges from China and Russia. The Coast Guard’s unique skill sets and authorities (such as law enforcement), and the fact that it is perceived less provocatively than the Navy, enable it to play a valuable role in building partnerships and demonstrating resolve while managing escalation. Joint wargames could explore how the three services might collectively counter rivals both in “gray-zone” competition during peacetime and during actual conflict scenarios by highlighting the respective strengths of the three services and how they can best collaborate.

Participants viscerally experiencing the impact of decisions on the Coast Guard and its missions may be more likely to help overcome barriers to organizational change.

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Gaming could also inform allocation of scarce assets to meet growing demand for both domestic and overseas operations. Thorough pre-game analysis of the operational impact of different numbers of assets performing different missions—comparing impacts of less icebreaking in the Great Lakes or more training of Latin American coast guards in drug interdiction, for example—could inform robust gameplay regarding tradeoffs.

To develop a greater analytical gaming capacity, a gradual approach is likely best. By conducting games on a limited scale, the Coast Guard could familiarize its personnel with the process of gaming, its relevance for the service, and its complementary strengths with other analysis to inform human judgment. Initial successes could build momentum, enabling larger efforts and tighter integration into decisionmaking processes. The Coast Guard might also consider developing a scalable approach to gaming, first exploring implications of potential future changes (in technology, mission, procedures, etc.) in easily deployable “boxed games” played across different sectors or smaller tactical units, followed by addressing their collective findings at a headquarters or other strategic-level event that focuses on service-wide discussions. By gradually expanding its gaming efforts, the U.S. Coast Guard might improve both the quality of its decisions and the strength of its relationships, making the service ever more capable as it navigates the formidable challenges of the twenty-first century.

Scott Savitz is a senior engineer at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Abbie Tingstad is associate director of the Engineering and Applied Sciences Department, codirector of the Climate Resilience Center, and a senior physical scientist at RAND.

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