21st Century Operations and the Art of War Gaming

Kevin Benson and Colleagues

21st Century Operations and the Art of War Gaming
To cite this article: Benson, Kevin & Colleagues, “21st Century Operations and the Art of War Gaming”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 3, Winter 2012, pages 12-16.

‘The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war gamed against…’

LTG Scott Wallace, CG V Corps, April 2003[i]

War gaming is more than a step in a decision-making process. The story we will relate highlights the need for skill in war gaming, underpinned by a requirement to understand the policy objectives established by the U.S. government, but more broadly by any government that envisions the use force as a tool of policy. War gaming is vital in refining courses of action into concepts of the operation. This vital step is difficult to execute as it requires knowledge of history, force structure and capability – friendly and enemy – and most importantly, an understanding of the higher headquarters’ mission.

In late summer of 2010, the Commanding General, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas approved a request from US Forces-Iraq (USF-I) for a planning team to reinforce the efforts of the planning staff section, a subordinate section to the overall J5 Strategy, Plans and Assessment staff. The USF-I J5 Plans section faced the challenge of developing the plan that would successfully conclude the Iraq campaign. The Combined Arms Center commanding general selected a team to go to Baghdad, who rapidly assembled, read all available material regarding the situation in theater, drew equipment and traveled to Baghdad. The team arrived in October, 2010.[ii]

The situation at USF-I headquarters reflected the ad hoc condition of joint warfare as practiced by the United States. The consolidated headquarters functioned at all three levels of war, as U.S. military doctrine describes: from tactical through operational to strategic. The staff included representation from the joint services in accordance with a joint manning document (JMD), with III US Corps providing the majority of the manning. The JMD’s practical effect was that the majority of planners actually writing the plan were junior and inexperienced Army, Air Force and Marine captains and majors along with Navy lieutenants and lieutenant commanders. The majority were not staff college graduates, thus placing a very high premium on leveraging the available staff college educated officers.

The other reality of a headquarters directing on-going operations across all three levels of war simultaneously was the pressure of dealing with the immediate, as opposed to what might happen three months from now. The general officers in the headquarters depended upon reliable people to continue planning, as they were conducting key leader engagements with Iraqi counterparts, working with the American Embassy and responding to inquiries from the Pentagon and the White House. The current and future operations sections needed high quality people to deal with almost daily crises. The fact that J5 Plans was putting together the plan that would chart the course for the successful conclusion of US operations in Iraq was important, but at times it felt like the effort was not quite as important as what was going on right now. Again, this put a premium on the wise use of the talent available to J5 Plans in developing and refining courses of action for the commanding general and then refining his decision into the concept of the operations. The staff eventually outlined two specific courses of action for consideration.

Course of action (COA) one was a broad-brush approach to how to conduct the ‘advise and train’ (A&T) mission with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The three U.S. division headquarters with associated brigade combat teams would advise, assist and train the ISF divisions in their respective zones. Course of action two outlined a more focused advise, assist and train mission for the U.S. divisions in Iraq, concentrating on selected Iraqi divisions in accord with an Iraqi Ministry of Defense modernization plan. Along with the focus on training fewer Iraqi divisions, there would also be a shift of brigade combat teams to support a main effort.

Frankly there was not a great deal of difference in the courses of action.[iii] The Leavenworth team pointed this out to the J5 Plans director as well as the J5 and his deputy.[iv] All three felt that we were too far along in the process of taking a decision to go back and develop more nuanced courses of action.

As the planning effort was already beyond the COA development stage, the Leavenworth team decided that the best way to reinforce the USF-I J5 Plans team was to direct the war game efforts. U.S. Joint and Army doctrine refer to one war game session during the step in decision making for comparing courses of action.[v] The doctrinal manuals in effect at the time for planning, Joint Publication 5-0 and Field Manual 5-0, each state that war gaming results in refined courses of action, synchronization matrices, decision support templates and matrices for each course of action. This carried over into the current Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, ATTP, 5-0.1, Commander and Staff Officer Guide. By inference each COA is analyzed in the war game to the point that it is ready for inclusion into an order as the concept of the operation without further analysis.[vi] This type of effort is not feasible, in our opinion, at headquarters above battalion and certainly not acceptable at an ad hoc headquarters that encompasses the strategic through tactical level and the associated complexity of the operating environment. Another fact adding to complexity is the requirement at this level of headquarters (a four star headquarters with a large area of operations and interests) to look out to at least one year in the future. The overall effort at producing an order that would guide the conclusion of the campaign and the handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi security forces was focused on the 31 December 2011 agreed date upon which the U.S. military would leave Iraq.

There was a window of opportunity to analyze the proposed courses of action, present the analysis to the commanding general and then receive his final guidance and his decision, all the while working in collaboration with the current and future operations sections and subordinate divisional headquarters in balancing the need to address immediate challenges and getting to the final objective. Considering the range of experience among the planners and other members of the operational planning team in USF-I, and considering the guidance in doctrine, the Leavenworth team decided to merge the steps of COA analysis and war gaming with COA comparison using a multi-war game approach. The final order had to link current and future tactical actions to truly attain the strategic and policy objectives.

Conduct of the First Two War Games

Bearing in mind the dynamics of the situation in US Forces-Iraq’s operating environment, the J5 followed a process of incremental war games. War Games I & II used the belt method outlined in U.S. doctrine, modified using the quarters of calendar year 2011 as the “belts,” to develop and refine major issues in the courses of action for comparison and ultimate commander’s decision.[vii] The team also recognized the need to conduct a third war game. This war game would assist in refining the directed course of action to ensure the broadest possible understanding of the commander’s intent and clarify how every subordinate formation’s efforts would fit into the commander’s order before the J5 Plans section and the plans team could write the operations order.

War Games I and II primarily analyzed the two proposed courses of action, setting the stage for further refinement of each COA guided towards a future course of action recommendation and decision presentation to the commanding general. The entire operational planning team gathered in a room in Al Faw Palace and spent four hours assessing each of the courses of action against comparison criteria, refining both the courses of action and developing strengths and weaknesses of both. The team also incorporated the USF-I Red Team into the war game, an element educated in critical thinking methods to ensure alternative perspectives are incorporated into the planning and execution process. The Red Team led a “pre-mortem” analytical exercise prior to the conduct of the war game, designed to decouple the war game participants’ attachment to a single course of action by contemplating the failure of the overall plan.[viii]

Following briefings on the results of the War Games I and II, the commanding general consulted his division commanders and senior staff. The commanding general directed a hybrid course of action (COA 3) for a subsequent war game analysis by the J5 Plans and refinement into the concept of the operation for operations order 11-01. The essence of COA 3 was a focus on heightened training of a select number of ISF divisions with no major task organization changes and thus no corresponding shift of operational control of the six advise and assist brigade combat teams in theater. One squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was shifted from the 1st Infantry Division/36th Infantry Division zone of operations to the 1st Armored Division/25th Infantry Division zone of operations.

The Final War Game

War Game III developed the commanding general’s hybrid COA into a Concept of the Operation with the necessary level of detail to write U.S. Forces-Iraq operations order 11-01. The war game itself took place in the Al Faw Palace ballroom from 11 to 14 December 2010. We advised the staff that our fifth day, 15 December 2010, would be used if we needed the extra time. Senior representatives of the entire USF-I staff participated along with all major subordinate commands. Senior leaders from USF-I also observed and provided input during various portions of the war game. The US Central Command liaison officer observed the war game. A representative of the US Embassy also participated in the war game, contributing greatly to the staffs’ understanding of embassy concerns and to the embassy staff’s general understanding of the totality of the operation.[ix]

During War Game III, the team used the ‘time-based belt method’ from the first two war games modified to address key issues, such as operating base handover and reduction of presence along the disputed internal boundary, to get to a greater level of fidelity for planning. The staff concentrated on refining an understanding of the operation in the first and second quarters of calendar year 2011, then specific months (July to October), and finally focused on specific weeks in the final months of the operation, November and December. In a twist to a straight linear progression of time, the team actually started the first turn of the war game with the last six weeks of the operation to get everybody to understand how they would be operating in those final weeks. We then addressed the start of the operation and revisited the final period on the last game turn.

The linkage of the war game to the commanding general’s decision was contained in the commander’s concept of the operation. The final war game was designed to stress the interrelationship of major subordinate unit concepts of the operation and the 11-01 concept of the operation. The physical layout was designed to keep this in the forefront as all action took place on a large-scale map of Iraq on which unit counters and base camp markers were placed. During each game turn a unit representative walked on the map while explaining his or her unit’s concept over time and distance. We also modified the red-blue action/reaction/counter-action sequence to include: US operations (blue), the range of enemy actions, Shia extremist groups, Sunni insurgent groups, Al Qaeda (red), Iraqi government/military and the Iraqi people’s response (green). The J2 provided officers to represent red and green – Iraqi government/military. The USF-I Human Terrain Team represented the Iraqi people.

The overall guidance we provided the staff at the start of the war game is below.

Last war game

  • What we don’t answer here becomes a fragmentary order (FRAGORD) later
  • If you bring up a point of friction, be prepared to do the work to resolve it
  • If something comes up that does not make sense to someone, or if you think we are ignoring a show stopper, raise the point (and be prepared to grab an oar) [meaning someone pointing out a problem must help solve it]
  • Think beyond your unit or staff section, look at the scope and scale of the operation
  • Leave the war game with a feel for the totality of the mission and the commander’s intent

The J5 team repeatedly stressed that this was our final effort to produce the best possible operations order. The entire staff realized that we could never come close to how actual events would unfold but by active participation the staff, subordinate units and the embassy would foster a greater understanding of the intent and concept of the operation, thus setting conditions for better execution. We also used the results of the pre-mortem analysis from War Games I & II to jog our collective memory on potential points of failure and how to overcome them. Major points arose during the conduct of the war game ranging from collapsing the communications architecture to providing continuous MEDEVAC and quick response force coverage, to name a few. The Deputy J5, Brig. Gen. Harrigian, directed that we take advantage of the staff focus to resolve these issues in a number of working groups and thus we did use the fifth day of the war game.

The Outcome

The final war game achieved our plans team’s major goal: a widely understood commander’s intent and final campaign plan. Equally important, this series of war games synchronized a multitude of actions that ensured their successful execution at the operational and tactical levels. The collective war games enabled key leaders to determine prioritization for levels of effort attributed to each line of effort in time and space to sustain the campaign momentum: advise, train and assist Iraqi forces; transition tasks to the US Embassy; and withdraw equipment and personnel. The war games also enabled alignment of this prioritization to coincide with maximizing advise, train and assist outcomes to maintain situational awareness as we passed the security lead to Iraqi forces throughout Iraq. For example, this ranged from the nuances of when to hand over the patrol bases along the internal boundary between Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurds, to the required conditions for shifting from training the Iraqi Security Force to completing the requirements for the operational maneuver out of Iraq. The war games also sought to balance this effort with the physical realities of withdrawing tens of thousands of personnel and voluminous quantities of equipment – all in a very constrained timeline under combat conditions.

These key elements enabled the USF-I leadership to adjust the plan as necessary to sustain campaign gains while meeting the withdrawal timeline. The best indicator of success in this area is the successful completion of the US force withdrawal in December 2011 in accordance with the presidential directive. US Embassy involvement throughout the planning and war game process facilitated identification of key tasks for transition between US forces and the US Embassy to ensure continuity of effort between these intergovernmental agencies. Evidence of this close coordination includes presenting the final plan for approval to both General Austin and Ambassador Peter W. Bodde, the ‘second in command’ at the US Embassy. Further, CENTCOM then used the war game outcomes to assist in its effort to assess how best to allocate resources and leverage diplomatic efforts to support the transition. For instance, the war games clearly identified requirements for using multiple ports to meet withdrawal timelines – thus CENTCOM’s engagement with Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait to facilitate those agreements.

At the time of writing the actual operations order 11-01 is classified. Nonetheless the value of conducting the series of war games that refined the courses of action and then the selected course of action into the concept of the operation was demonstrated by the relatively smooth execution of operations that resulted in a near effortless handover of security to Iraqi forces and an equally flawless operational maneuver out of the country. There were of course incidents along the way that affected the plan – losses due to enemy action, accidents, misdirected cargo and the friction associated with a complex military operation – but the clear understanding of the commander’s intent and the campaign framework enabled tactical commanders to adjust accordingly to meet the theater strategic objectives. The undisputed fact remains that the military objectives were met and the conditions for accomplishment of policy objectives were also established. This was accomplished in no small part due to the detailed, in-depth war games that helped visualize the operation and enabled planners to account for the endless tasks required to execute the operation.

A dictum of Moltke the Elder is no plan can look with certainty beyond initial contact with the enemy main body. This timeless wisdom was certainly true vis-à-vis the results of our war games and the final development of the plan that guided the American handover of operations in Iraq. For example, no one participating in the war games in November and December 2010 foresaw the spark that led to the ‘Arab Spring’ in February 2011. Nonetheless the time we spent in war gaming, like time spent on reconnaissance, was not wasted.


War gaming remains vital to the development and refinement of 21st century operations. On the surface this could fairly be called a blinding flash of the obvious, but searching more deeply we believe that war gaming at the higher echelons of command is a part of the art of planning that is not addressed in our staff and war colleges. Effective war gaming in the 21st century requires an understanding of how it is linked to writing the final plan or order and the level of command at which the general staff is operating. War gaming is even more important in counter-insurgency and stability operations.

A major point that requires emphasis is the war gamer must conduct the war game two levels below his level of command in order to write tasks for the level of command one level below. For example, during a corps war game, the war gamers fight brigades in order to see the tasks required of divisions.[x] Inadequate or incompetent war gaming can lead to perceptions of micro-management by a higher headquarters. What this really points out is the inability of staff officers to think through a campaign or major operation from multiple perspectives.

The staff of the senior tactical formation in a theater of war or given operation must be able to translate operational level tasks into tactical tasks for subordinate units. In USF-I’s case this meant the US Army divisions in theater had this responsibility. Graduates of any military Command and General Staff College or equivalent must therefore have the ability to understand the operational level of war, translate operational tasks and end states into tactical tasks for brigades. This also means having the ability to war game battalion level actions in offense, defense and stability operations in order to develop tasks for brigade commanders that empower those commanders to act within the division commander’s intent. If officers cannot do this, it is up to them to educate themselves.

Doctrine proposes a detailed war game on all courses of action leading to a course of action decision briefing after which a staff goes into orders production. We argue that this might be feasible at the battalion and even brigade level but it fails to address the level of complexity at division, corps and Army level. If divisions are the highest tactical echelon then division staffs must translate operational objectives into tactical tasks for brigades. If corps are primarily operating as Joint Task Forces, corps staff officers must translate strategic goals into operational objectives. Based upon the direction Western army doctrine is taking, we will need another war game – a detailed, all-units-involved war game – that refines the commander’s selected course of action into the concept of the operation.

This war game is not a rehearsal or “rock drill” that ensures a broad understanding of the schemes of maneuver and support but a real war game to ensure that events are captured over time, tasks to subordinate commands are refined, etc. This level of effort might not be possible for every course of action proposed but must be done for the selected course of action.

The war gaming methodology, we argue, is at first a discussion of the relative merits of a course of action vis-à-vis evaluation criteria. This allows comparison and gives a reasonable assessment of the range of courses of action in either a deliberate or time-constrained environment. The second, and more critical war game, will follow the time honored methodology of belt or box with action-reaction-counteraction from blue, red and green perspectives. This allows the introduction of selected events in the red and green reaction part that will tease out potential branch and sequel planning requirements. The third war game matures a course of action into a fully developed concept of operations with the Operations Order level of detail.


We believe that any military decision making process must take into account the need to both compare and contrast proposed courses of action for decision and conduct an as detailed as possible course of action analysis war game. In the development of USF-I OPLAN/OPORD 11-01 we war gamed all courses of action, but the focus was on comparison and contrast of the courses of action against a set of evaluation criteria. While we discerned potential commander’s decision points, refined the courses of action, updated assumptions and so on, all we really did was present a recommendation to the Commanding General. The real war game was after course of action approval and preceded orders production.

The Commanding General’s selected course of action, which he refined based on subordinate commander input, was the one we further war gamed for refinement into the concept of the operation for the campaign. This war game, which preceded orders production, was vital and was the one war game that captured the attention of the general officer staff principals. We must capture this additional war game in our doctrinal reference publications, or at least make some suggestion as to the prioritization of effort. In our case we admit we were influenced by our experiences of 2003, as at that time we ran multiple war games of Operation Iraqi Freedom/COBRA II again with the final one being the refinement of the selected course of action into the concept of the operation.

We think this is important due to the fact that in our doctrine we have almost enshrined the commander as so central to the process that there is an implied expectation that this paragon of military virtue will ruminate and through divine inspiration give the lowly staff the commander’s directed course of action, one that will not require war gaming or any further refinement. This might work at battalion level but we are deeply suspicious of this approach working above that level. We must capture the need for a refinement war game in our doctrine.

For example in the U.S. Army ‘Doctrine 2015’ effort U.S. doctrine writers have done this, as shown in the passage below, drawn from the recently published, ATTP 5-0.1, Commander and Staff Officers Guide, published in September 2011.


4-184. The staff prepares the order or plan by turning the selected COA into a clear, concise concept of operations and the required supporting information. The COA statement becomes the concept of operations for the plan. The COA sketch becomes the basis for the operation overlay. If time permits, the staff may conduct a more detailed war game of the selected COA to more fully synchronize the operation and complete the plan. The staff writes the OPORD or OPLAN using the Army’s operation order format. (See Chapter 12.)[xi]

While this is a good first start, we believe that it will lock us into one way of thinking by suggesting that ‘[i]f time permits’ – a phrase which usually means no one will ever do it. The Step Four war games will never achieve the needed focused effort of refining a course of action into a concept of the operation because the focus in Step Four is comparison, not refinement.

Based on our experiences in Baghdad with a number of officers of different military educational experiences we are concerned that our schools are educating officers who really think it possible to direct a course of action at echelons above battalion without serious staff input. For example, it is said that in the Southwest Pacific theater during World War II Douglas MacArthur directed a course of action for Buna; however once past Buna we are certain his staff offered options that supported his genius.

Some might think that in this day of satellites, instant communications and shared databases that, to some extent, the subsequent publication of a textual operation order becomes redundant. We disagree. The process of critical thinking that results in the actual writing of a plan and order remains vitally important. The product of the process is a tangible document that represents the thinking done prior to engaging the enemy. A widely shared understanding of the product, the result of collaborative planning and participation in war gaming, is a step toward ensuring that while no plan can look with certainty beyond initial contact with the enemy main body, the leaders of a force will have a common point of reference when conditions change.

War is conducted in the realm of chance and while we can capture what we hope will be the sequence of events in execution we know fog and friction exist – not forgetting that the enemy also wants to win. Thus synchronization attempts can exist prior to crossing the line of departure but after we cross it chance takes over. War gaming will assist future commanders and staffs to anticipate enemy actions, understand the changing conditions of warfare and seize opportunities for victory.


[i] Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, COBRA II, New York: Pantheon, 2006, p. 311.
[ii] The authors formed the reinforcing planning team.
[iii] The associated charts that show the details of the entire order development process remain classified and can be found in the electronic archives of the US Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned.
[iv] The USF-I J5 was Maj. Gen., USAF, Noel “Tom” Jones, the D/J5 was Brig. Gen., USAF, Jeffrey “COBRA” Harrigian, and the J5 Plans was Col. Matt Dawson.
[v] See Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, 26 December 2006, and Field Manual 5-0, The Operations Process, March 2010. Hereafter cited as JP 5-0 and FM 5-0, 2010 respectively. Note: FM 5-0 was superseded by Army Doctrinal Publication, ADP, 5-0, May 2012.
[vi] FM 5-0, March 2010, p. B-21.
[vii] FM 5-0, March 2010, p. B-26.
[viii] Pre-mortem is mentioned in Dr. Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999, p. 71. The essence of pre-mortem is: 1) assume the plan is approved, 2) assume it was executed, and 3) assume it failed, and then determine what might cause failure.
[ix] Gen. Austin, CG USF-I, Maj. Gen. Jones, J5 and Col. Dawson, J5 Plans were in Washington, DC during the war game. The D/J5, Brig. Gen. Harrigian served as the senior war game controller.
[x] Note that there will be times when the actions of smaller units; e.g., medevac companies and EOD detachments, must be envisioned when these small units are vital to the concept of the operation.
[xi] Department of the Army, Army Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures 5-0.1, September 2011, page 4-38.