Cover: Insights from the Plan Blue 21 Game

Insights from the Plan Blue 21 Game

Examining the Role of Sensing and Partner and Allied Contributions to Competition with Russia in the Arctic

Published Dec 14, 2023

by Elizabeth M. Bartels, David A. Ochmanek, Nathaniel Edenfield, Brien Alkire, Katherine Anania, Michael Bohnert, James Bonomo, Julia Brackup, Hannah Jane Byrne, Rachel Costello, et al.


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Research Questions

  1. What Russian behaviors in the competition space in the Arctic threaten U.S. security interests?
  2. What roles can sensing play in deterring adversary behavior and in supporting U.S, allied, and partner responses to challenges in the region?
  3. What roles might interagency and international partners and allies play in sensing and response operations?

Since 2016, Plan Blue wargames have explored scenarios that depict large-scale war fights against state adversaries in order to help U.S. Department of the Air Force (DAF) leaders better understand the demands of these potential war fights, evaluate the capabilities and limitations of programmed forces to meet those demands, and test new approaches to projecting power. The 2021 iteration of the game (Plan Blue 21) was set in the Arctic, in keeping with the Department of Defense's 2019 Arctic strategy, which calls for enhancing capabilities for operations in the region and strengthening the rules-based order there. The purpose of the game was to increase the DAF's understanding of the capabilities, posture, allied command, control, and communication relationships that may be called for to support future Arctic operations.

Focusing on competition with Russia in the year 2030, game play took place in the context of steady-state competition and crisis operations rather than large-scale combat, and it explored the intersection of two key trends: (1) changing environmental conditions and (2) the completion of current Russian investments in new military capabilities and infrastructure in the Arctic. Plan Blue 21 was also specifically designed to test the extent to which capabilities for persistent and visible intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance can provide real-time situational awareness and potentially contribute to “deterrence by detection.” U.S. players in Plan Blue 21 benefitted greatly from the participation of officers from key allied and partner countries that have important interests in and capabilities for operations in the Arctic region.

Key Findings

Plan Blue 21 produced insights regarding potential Russian behavior and assessed their ability to threaten U.S., allied and partner security interests in the Arctic during competition

  • Russia has little need to upset the status quo to achieve its Arctic objectives and undermine alliance cohesion.
  • Russia's greater freedom of action in the Arctic potentially allows it to impose costs on the West.
  • Misaligned perceptions between the West and Russia are a potential source of unintentional escalation.

Sensing can play a critical role in deterrence and crisis response in the Arctic

  • Enhanced sensor coverage and communications infrastructure and the ability to share information across agencies and national boundaries proved important to the formulation of coordinated responses to emerging situations..
  • Having and publicizing information about Russian behavior in the Arctic did not affect Russia's willingness to challenge U.S. and allied interests there, but it could help strengthen alliance cohesion and popular support for allied policies.

Plan Blue 21 highlighted some of the ways that the United States' security ties with its allies and partners are invaluable strategic assets and can offer key advantages in the Arctic

  • Western unity is key to allied success.
  • Because of their proximity to Russia and the Arctic, U.S. allies and partners can offer both critical capabilities and strategic insights.


  • Improve coordinated information-sharing and decisionmaking for maintaining alliance cohesion and managing crisis escalation by creating new, informal channels for discussing Arctic security issues, expanding resources devoted to assessing publicly available information, developing caveats that facilitate releasability to all arctic allies and partners, and exploring technical options for rapid, secure communication and data-sharing.
  • Enhance engagement among officials from the United States and allies and partners by convening regular tabletop exercises and games and expanding field and command-post exercises focused on Arctic operations.
  • Improve multilateral consultation and decisionmaking by including interagency representation and normalizing nonmilitary leads.
  • Recognize and prepare for the fact that Russian representatives should sometimes be included in deliberations.

Research conducted by

This research was prepared for the Department of the Air Force and was conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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