May Madness: Competitive Wargaming in a Pandemic

What starts with the enemy sinking three of your amphibious assault ships, and ends with a toddler interrupting the outbrief to a three-star general? A successful wargame in the age of COVID-19.


War on the Rocks

June 1, 2020

What starts with the enemy sinking three of your amphibious assault ships, and ends with a toddler interrupting the outbrief to a three-star general? A successful wargame in the age of COVID-19.

When the Marine Corps Command and Staff College was forced to shift from in-person instruction to a distance-learning model in response to the outbreak, the faculty and staff were confident that we could make our seminars work. We were not so sanguine about the execution of our capstone exercise, Pacific Challenge X. The scale and complexity of running a 250-odd person wargame, remotely, seemed daunting, indeed.

The results exceeded even our highest expectations. What was thought to be a threat to execution turned out to be an incredible opportunity. The distributed virtual medium actually increased participation from a host of different agencies and stakeholders, who otherwise would not have been able to support the event. And the natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism.

Given the realization that disaggregation is not only possible but, in many ways, better, future exercises will capitalize on the insights of this event.


The exercise is designed to test and evaluate students’ planning and decision-making abilities against a thinking opponent at the operational level of war. Driven by both our own insights and the newly-issued Commandant’s Planning Guidance, our faculty set out last summer to redesign what had been a two-week planning exercise, into a longer and more demanding one, culminating in a competitive wargame at the combined joint task force and functional component level.BECOME A MEMBER

Contrary to assertions professional military education was stagnant, this exercise, like the rest of the College’s curriculum, had evolved with every iteration, incorporating feedback from students, the civilian historians and political scientists and seasoned military officers on the faculty and staff, and external participants. It was a robust planning exercise, incorporating not only the organic resources of Marine Corps University, but also outside senior mentors, including three retired general officers, a retired deputy administrator at the United States Agency for International Development, and a retired U.S. ambassador. Our leadership believed students needed an opportunity to not only apply the operational design concepts they learned throughout the year, but to test their plan against a peer adversary.

To ensure the “fight” was informed by both capabilities and threat, our faculty and staff collaborated with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and the Marine Staff Training Program to add a second phase to the exercise. In this phase, students would be “battle staff” for “Blue.” participating in a dynamic wargame against an adversary force. A retired general officer would lead the adversary “Red” force, which would include a number of our students and a delegation from the National Intelligence University.

That was the plan.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. In accordance with Defense Department health protection procedures, the College shifted to a simultaneous distributed online format on March 19. Executing the lectures and seminars wasn’t an issue. Our College of Distance Education has conducted online professional military education for decades. Faculty and students alike quickly adapted to the virtual environment. Indeed, we anticipated this would be the easiest part of the remaining curriculum to execute virtually. We shifted the remaining security studies, war studies, and leadership department courses to earlier in the curriculum, in order to allow our warfighting department maximum time to prepare and rehearse for a remote execution of the exercise.

The efficacy of executing a large planning exercise along with a competitive wargame with over 250 participants under such conditions was very much in question. The staff and the students, though, were not deterred. The faculty jumped into high gear, tested a battery of information management and collaboration tools, and conducted multiple rehearsals. To account for the multiple competing demands on the students, the battle rhythm was adjusted, and the exercise extended to provide the staff the flexibility to account for anticipated friction.

We were hoping to achieve at least a significant fraction of the in-person experience. In many ways, we got much more than that.

The distributed virtual medium actually increased participation from a host of different agencies and stakeholders, who otherwise would not have been able to support the event. The paucity of Navy officers, especially unrestricted line officers, has been a challenge for all of the staff and war colleges ─ even at Newport ─ in recent years. Indeed, we had only three naval officers in the class. This year, cadre from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center augmented the combined joint task force maritime component staffs. They served as subject matter experts on mine countermeasures operations, amphibious operations, maritime logistics, and composite warfare command and control.  And they did this all remotely, from three hours away, at Little Creek. Students representing the logistics staff participated in video teleconferences with service liaison officers at the Defense Logistics Agency at Fort Belvoir. Even our international officers, who were ordered home during the pandemic, were able to participate from their countries.

The natural friction created by the distributed online format, to our pleasant surprise, increased realism. Students playing the role of headquarters staff officers could not simply walk next door to discuss targeting or collection with colleagues. The framework forced the students to communicate via various digital media to collaborate and produce products.

The tyranny of distance defines the future operating environment in the South China Sea and the Western Pacific. Operations there would necessitate the dispersion of the functional components over multiple countries and time zones. Furthermore, the ability to collaborate and plan as a battle staff, while distributed, will be an operational necessity in the future operating environment. The survivability of fixed command posts with thousands of servicemembers working in close proximity under canvas may have worked for stability operations in the Middle East, but will not survive in a high-end fight against a peer adversary. The exercise demonstrated the efficacy of distributing the staff in population centers, masking signatures by riding on local networks, and virtually hiding in plain sight.

Counterintuitively, the distributed virtual format actually increased the students’ access and exposure to the senior mentors. In previous exercises, mentors played the role of the task force and ground component commanders, receiving briefs and generating and responding to requests for information. During the virtual planning portion of the exercise, though, their role was more that of a coach, dialing into individual staff and functional component planning collaboration rooms to ask questions, offer guidance, and provide mentorship. For the actual “fight” and during commander-focused battle rhythm events, they provided the joint commander’s perspective through virtual battlefield circulation tours conducted with a mere keystroke.

For the first time, students conducted cross-functional staff integration in the form of boards, centers, cells, and working groups. to put their plans into execution. The student “staffs” shifted from planning to supporting the commander’s decision cycle under conditions of uncertainty generated by adversary actions. This reinforced the concept of operational tempo relative to an adversary.

Adding direct competition to the capstone exercise increased the quality of the products. The level of analysis and detail was both qualitatively and quantitatively superior to previous iterations. The complexity of the students’ plans, reflected in a system of systems approach, required the students to think through synchronization in all domains. Cyber operations were timed to support global strike; operations in the information environment shaped deception operations; open source intelligence found holes in host-nation logistical support ripe for exploitation and allowed aircraft to scramble to safety ahead of an incoming strike.

This is not to say the students’ plans were perfect. Failure produced the best learning opportunities. For instance, the efficacy of Blue’s deception plan diminished when their targeting board failed to include an enemy radar on the no-strike list. By taking out the radar, they eliminated a channel of information that they had intended to use to show Red their feint.

The detail generated by the students, even at the operational level, was exceptional, but proved challenging for the wargaming cell to digest and process. The adjudication cell went to great lengths – working into the early morning hours to properly account for player actions to the degree of detail that satisfied their professional judgment.

The competitive aspects of the exercise started long before planning transitioned to wargaming. Students needed to react to a contested information environment in which their narrative, legitimacy, and access were under continuous attack. Dueling narratives played in the “media” and “social media” under the supervision of strategic communication experts from headquarters Marine Corps. Students conducted mock press briefings and were subjected to hostile questioning from journalists, followed by detailed outbriefs. Embedded within the media injects was open source intelligence on the adversary’s disposition. When the student “staffs” were paying attention, collection plans were augmented with open source intelligence.

Shifting to a distributed online format required us to rescale the exercise. Instead of three combined task forces,­­ each planning and then fighting an adversary force, we collapsed players into two combined task forces for planning. Only one had the opportunity to fight their plan.

But even this setback was mitigated. The remaining students were organized into operational planning teams to work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on its PROTEUS digital wargame. They test their decision-making skills against a thinking adversary ─ their fellow students ─ in a time-constrained environment. PROTEUS provided the students with a multi-domain, combined arms wargame to test their ability to jointly plan and execute battlefield operating systems, in an environment where the electromagnetic spectrum was contested. As part of a cross-functional team, students completed their planning based on a situation that included unmanned systems and logistical constraints and then fought it out, tournament-style, to crown the best team as the winner.

Lessons Learned

Instead of balking at the unexpected impact of the pandemic, we revised and improved the exercise with the traditional marine skills of adaptability, flexibility, and commitment to overcoming challenges. The team created new, virtual opportunities for dialogue and collaboration. These new digital spaces for cooperation and team-building did not simply duplicate the capabilities that were lost due to social distancing; these spaces made room to bring in expertise from other professional military education centers, services, and government agencies beyond the Marine Corps University campus.

Even aside from the short-notice switch from an in-person exercise, backed by months of planning, to a remote execution, we faced unique challenges from the pandemic. Not only were the students, faculty, staff, senior mentors, and other participants operating via unfamiliar remote technologies. They were doing so with a myriad of competing demands and stressors. Most of the students and many of the faculty had school-age children at home and had to juggle the demands of the exercise with the need to assist in home-schooling. Additionally, their short-term futures were in limbo, with stop-move orders temporarily canceling the needed steps for packing up their households and transitioning to their follow-on assignments. And, like most other Americans, they had to deal with the social deprivations of the lockdown and concerns for at-risk loved ones. While the interruptions from small children provided some additional friction and much-needed levity, we have no intention of building it in to future exercises.

Additionally, we are keenly aware that our ability to shift so smoothly to remote teaching was facilitated by having spent the past seven months building relationships in-person. There’s no way to fully replicate the resident experience remotely.

Way Ahead

The Commandant’s Planning Guidance issued last July by Gen. David Berger directed professional military education schools to be more rigorous and competitive. Accordingly, we have added more educational wargames to the 2020-2021 curriculum. The university will provide students with venues in which they can compete, fail, iterate, and learn from multiple tries against their peers and faculty. Intra- and inter-seminar group wargames are expanding to channel and encourage healthy competition, allowing opportunities for students to win and lose in an educational environment, ultimately learning from each outcome, and preparing them to make better decisions when real lives are on the line. In this way, gaming is a key part of learner-centric education, reinforcing efforts to increase academic rigor and accountability, while developing more lethal warfighters who are also ethical leaders, creative problem solvers, and critical thinkers.

The unanticipated experience of executing the capstone exercise virtually, in the middle of a global pandemic, had a silver lining; it expanded what we thought of as possible. Despite little planning time, and all parties operating in crisis mode, we were able to get support from a variety of Marine Corps and Defense Department agencies. Personnel who would not have been able to attend in-person due to travel and budgetary restrictions could still, on short notice, support a remote exercise.

With the advantage of more lead time, the principle could be applied at much greater scale to make the exercise richer and more realistic. For example, the land, air, and maritime component commanders and staff sections were played by army, air force, and marine students in Quantico. In the future, they could be played by students at our sister institutions at Fort Leavenworth, Newport, and Maxwell Air Force Base. Indeed, it would be possible to increase realism and complexity much further by expanding the concept to include students at the war colleges.

This would be challenging, requiring the alignment of not only schedules but curricula and equities across multiple institutions. But the result would be a more realistic exercise, leveraging the talents of the Joint force. Moreover, it would further the Joint Chiefs’ new vision for professional military education, suggesting that “Curricula should leverage live, virtual, constructive, and gaming methodologies with wargames and exercises involving multiple sets and repetitions to develop deeper insight and ingenuity.”  Our colleague, James Lacey, explored this recently.

Such efforts would help make wargames more robust and break down barriers between the siloed communities that too often work in isolation from each other. The new online collaboration forums created for Pacific Challenge could help address the concerns of Jon Copton and others of “how the next generation of wargamers will be trained.”

To put it mildly, we would have much preferred not to have the academic year disrupted by a global pandemic. But being forced to adapt on short notice taught us valuable lessons that opened the aperture of what is possible in future exercises.

Original article