Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Interwar-Period Gaming Today for Conflicts Tomorrow: Press ‘Start’ to Play, Pt. 3

By Major Jeff Wong, USMC

Interwar-Period Gaming  Insights and Recommendations for the Future

The militaries of Germany, Japan, and the United States utilized gaming between the First and Second World Wars to help them overcome challenges relating to doctrine, organization, training and education, and capabilities development. The Versailles Treaty prohibitions prompted Germany to use means other than live-force exercises to study and mature its combined arms concept, test naval and air doctrine, and drive planning for the invasions of Poland, France, and the Low Countries in the European theater. Japan effectively used wargames to inform doctrine and war planning, but biases affected game outcomes and subsequent planning of future campaigns, particularly the Battle of Midway. Japan gamed both strategic and tactical elements of its ambitious Pacific campaign, studying in detail essential tasks as part of its Pearl Harbor and Midway operations plans. Game insights prompted planners to change parts of its Pearl Harbor attack, but failed to sway leaders to examine more closely a critical element of the Midway campaign. The United States, particularly the Navy, combined wargaming with analyses and live-force exercises to study upcoming likely threats and advance naval concepts and capabilities such as carrier aviation. In the United States, Naval War College games of different variations of Plan Orange exposed officers to the theater, operational, and tactical challenges of a conflict against Japan. Many games played over the years between the world wars created a baseline of understanding about how naval officers would fight when war broke out. Now, nearly a century later, today’s U.S. military should apply best practices from those interwar years to spur innovation and overcome the kinds of strategic, operational, and institutional challenges that plagued these adversaries before the Second World War.

This is the final part of a three-part series examining interwar-period gaming. The first part defined wargaming, discussed its potential utility and pitfalls, and differentiated it from other military analytic tools. Part two discussed how the militaries of Germany, Japan, and the United States employed wargames to train and educate their officers, plan and execute major campaigns, and inform the development of new concepts and capabilities for the Second World War. This final part offers recommendations, taken from effective practices of this period, to leverage wargames as a tool today to provide a strategic edge for the U.S. joint force tomorrow.

Wargaming for Today

First, the U.S. military must expand and deepen the use of wargaming at PME institutions as a training and educational tool. Similar to the interwar period, wargames should be used to train officers to make decisions from a commander’s perspective, gain insights into likely adversaries, and learn about the war plans to counter or defeat them. Wargaming design should be part of the regular curriculum to reinvigorate this technique within the uniformed military, since PME institutions are intended to broaden officers’ professional horizons and allow them to explore new ideas. 

At the interwar-period Kriegsakademie, some students had never experienced the brutal combat of World War I and never faced decision-making under fire. Wargaming woven throughout the curriculum gave these future leaders an opportunity to practice “commandership” from the commander’s perspective. Thus, students playing in wargames estimated situations based on given scenarios, outlined courses of action after assessing situations, executed plans, and then absorbed honest critiques of their decisions. In the 1920s and 1930s at the Naval War College, students also received a primer in commandership against the backdrop of a Pacific naval campaign. The students who played the games, as well as the faculty members who designed and umpired these events, shaped and fed a shared mental model about the strategic, operational, and tactical challenges of fighting the Japanese in the coming war. Officers returning to Newport as faculty members brought with them recent operational experiences, including fleet experiments that shaped carrier aviation and informed the requirements of new capabilities.  

Beyond the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, current U.S. PME students are not taught how to plan and develop wargames as part of their regular course work. At U.S. Marine Corps University, for instance, wargaming is taught during a six-week elective at Command and Staff College (if enough students express interest in the elective), but the course fails to relate how games are relevant to real-world war planning and critical U.S. defense processes such as capabilities development.

At the next-level PME institution, students of the Marine Corps War College (lieutenant colonels and commanders) participate in a wargame as part of the curriculum’s Joint Professional Military Education II (JPME II) requirement, but they are never taught how to plan, execute, and analyze a game themselves. Within the Air Force, the Air Force Materiel Command offers three-day introductory courses with curricula tailored to the needs of a client command or organization, but these courses fall short of the integral nature that wargaming fulfilled for the German Army, Japanese Navy, and U.S. Navy during the interwar years.

The Board of Strategy plots moves during a Naval War College wargaming session in the cabin of the USS Wyoming (BB-32). Such rigorous preparatory training during the interwar years. (U.S. Naval Institute Archive photo)

To yield substantive benefits, wargaming must be integrated into service PME starting with captain-level career courses. The first exposure should be at the rank of captain in order to give young leaders intensive, virtual decision-making experience before they assume company command. Company command is the appropriate time to introduce gaming to an officer’s development because his unit gets four times larger (a Marine rifle company has 182 personnel by table of organization, compared to 43 personnel in a Marine rifle platoon) and he must have the mental acuity and confidence to operate without constant supervision from superiors. Gaming gives leaders this experience.  

As an officer’s career progresses, the wargaming curriculum should teach students how to develop, plan, and execute wargames on a larger scale. At top-level schools, an officer should be expert at applying game insights into the vast U.S. military bureaucracy, feeding future-leaning commands and organizations within the supporting establishment that play a key role in developing future strategies, concepts, capabilities, and resource allocations. With its emphasis on decision-making and reflection on the implications of those decisions, wargaming provides a tool to foster imagination and intellectual growth inside and outside a formal schoolhouse setting. Teaching wargaming design to uniformed military members empowers them to create the intellectual venues themselves when they return to the fleet, flight line, or field – much like the officers of the German Army, Japanese Navy, and American Navy did during the interwar period.

Second, the U.S. military should more closely bind service-level wargaming, analysis, and live-force exercises to provide the intellectual and practical test beds to explore and develop new concepts, capabilities, and technologies to overcome unforeseen warfighting challenges. The games and exercises should be conducted as distinct events that are separated by weeks or months, unlike the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 event, which attempted to synchronize a wargame, experiments, and exercises involving live forces around the world. 

Wargames, analysis, and exercises are complementary elements of a cycle of research that offered fresh approaches and shaped new capabilities during the interwar period. Wargaming provides an environment for players to make decisions and understand their implications without expending blood or treasure. Insights derived from games are generally qualitative in nature. Analysis uses mathematical tools – primarily computer-generated models in today’s military – in an attempt to duplicate the physical processes of combat. Insights derived from analysis are usually quantitative in Both wargames and analysis, however, are only abstractions of reality. Together, they can inform exercises that give real forces the opportunity to implement in the physical domain the new approaches and ideas suggested by wargames and analysis. (See Table 1, Comparison of Campaign Analyses and Wargames.)

Table 1. Attributes of campaign analyses and wargames.

U.S. Navy Commander Phillip Pournelle writes that each of the tools “suffer from their own biases, simplifications, and cognitive and epistemological shortcomings. When integrated judiciously, however, the cycle of research gives leaders at all levels critical facts, synthetic experiences, and opportunities to rehearse a range of events in their minds and in the Fleet or the field.” (See Table 2, Comparison of Exercises and Wargames.)

Table 2. Attributes of exercises and wargames.

The cycle of research has increased momentum at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s (MCWL) Ellis Group, which hosts weekly wargames to examine emergent Marine warfighting challenges. The games serve as an incubator for concepts and capabilities under development. During a game in 2015, dozens of uniformed officers and civilian experts gathered around a large sandtable separated by a barrier. A young Marine infantry captain explained how he planned to land his company.  On the other side of the barrier, red cell members – retired field-grade officers and staff noncommissioned officers – determined how they would oppose the landing. On the group’s periphery, analysts recorded observations made by the participants. Scribes filled whiteboards with insights from the game, which they matched against the command’s prioritized list of warfighting challenges. U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Dale Alford, MCWL’s commanding general, adopted the weekly games after observing the Naval War College’s Halsey Groups use operations analysis and wargaming to examine naval warfighting challenges. “It was mostly about getting the right people involved and in the same room,” he said.

Third, wargaming leaders must ensure an accurate and intellectually honest representation of the enemy. Most games played by the Germans, Japanese, and Americans during the interwar period featured two sides: friendlies and adversaries playing against one another. Some of today’s large service-level games are one-sided, with friendly “blue” actions being played against pre-scripted enemy reactions or a control group attention divided between representing “red” and running the overall event. However, if war is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” as Carl von Clausewitz suggested in On War, these games must adequately portray the adversary’s will.  One-sided wargames lose the essence of the opposing will when the enemy’s actions are not represented by another human being seeking to win. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, who previously served as director of Command and Staff College, required all Command and Staff College games to be two-sided affairs. “You need two free-thinking wills … within the bounds of the problem,” said Van Riper, who has consulted on many joint and service games since his retirement from active duty in 1997 and served as the red cell commander during the Millennium Challenge event.

This honest portrayal goes beyond using an expert versed on enemy (e.g., “red cell”) capabilities, limitations, and doctrine. During the Wehrmacht wargames before the invasion of France and the Low Countries, the red cell correctly suggested that French-led Allied Forces would be slow to respond to a German main effort thrust through the Ardennes – prompting planners to shift resources to the army group approaching from the forest. The red cell did not portray an idealized version of the French doctrinal response, which would likely have prompted German planners to shift resources to a different army group and resulted in a different course of action. From the Japanese wargames before the Battle of Midway, historians and professional gamers often cite the sinking – and revival – of two Japanese carriers as an admonition against biases, poor assumptions, and predetermined outcomes.

Fourth, future wargaming efforts should use different types of games for different purposes and desired outcomes. A greater variety of games can attack a problem from different perspectives. A larger number of games provides more opportunities to create fresh solutions. For a new, evolving subject, a wargame with more seminar discussion, less action-counteraction play, and fewer rules might be more appropriate in order to generate player insights and spur creativity. On a topic for which much is already known, a wargame with less seminar discussion, more action-counteraction play, and more rules based on hard data might be more suitable to refine players’ understanding of capabilities.

Back to the Future

The German Army, Japanese Navy, and U.S. Navy used wargaming to shed light on strategic, operational, and tactical uncertainty during the interwar period. In the German Army, wargaming formed the bedrock for the education of officers and provided opportunities for commanders and staffs to rehearse complicated operations such as the offensive against France and the Low Countries in 1940. For the Japanese Navy, planners utilized wargames to examine different ways to employ the Combined Fleet in the opening salvo of the Pacific campaign. The Germans successfully used red cells during their wargames to accurately and honestly portray French forces’ actions during the 1940 campaign, while the Japanese demonstrated the dangers of predetermined notions during wargames before the Battle of Midway. The U.S. Navy found wargaming to be an effective tool for educating officers as well, inculcating the practice among generations of officers who attended the Naval War College and fostering a shared mental model through hundreds of wargames that focused on a potential future war with Japan. Likewise, American naval officers also wargamed carrier aviation, discovering optimal ways to employ forces that massed firepower and extended the reach of the Pacific Fleet. These insights fed the cycle of research that allowed American naval officers to study, experiment, and develop new concepts and capabilities leading up to the Second World War.  

Interwar-period wargaming provided users with a chance to shed light on an opaque future. Although the threats are different, senior U.S. defense leaders face similar ambiguity now. The reassertion of Russia in world affairs, a militarily stronger China, and a multitude of powerful non-state actors have dramatically changed the strategic landscape. Fast-developing capabilities, nascent technologies, unmanned weapons platforms, 3D printing, and human-machine interfacing are among the potential factors of the next great conflict. With no cost in blood and minimal in treasure, wargames can empower U.S. military leaders to exert intellectual leadership and innovate to be better prepared for the future.

Major Jeff Wong, USMCR, is a Plans Officer at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Plans, Policies and Operations Department.  This series is adapted from his USMC Command and Staff College thesis, which finished second place in the 2016 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Research Paper Competition.  The views expressed in this series are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  

1.  Commander Phillip Pournelle, USN (analyst at the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense), interview by Jeff Wong, September 24, 2015.

2.  As discussed previously, wargaming is different from COA Wargaming, which is a phase of the joint and services’ planning processes, e.g., the Military Decision-Making Process and Marine Corps Planning Process.

3. Colonel Matthew Caffrey, USAF (Retired) (wargame instructor at the Air Force Materiel Command), interview by Jeff Wong, October 15, 2015.

4. Gary Anderson and Dave Dilegge, “Six Rules for Wargaming: The Lessons of Millennium Challenge ’02,” War on the Rocks, November 11, 2015 (accessed April 1, 2016):

5. Philip Pournelle, “Preparing for War, Keeping the Peace,” Proceedings 140, no. 9 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval Institute, September 2014), accessed October 15, 2015:

6. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, 287.

7. Brigadier General Dale Alford, USMC (commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory), interview by Jeff Wong, November 23, 2015.

8. Carl von Clausewitz, On War ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 75.

9. Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC (Retired) (faculty member at Marine Corps University), interview by Jeff Wong, February 2, 2016.

10. Pournelle, interview by Jeff Wong, September 24, 2015.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (May 5, 2017) U.S. Naval War College (NWC) Naval Staff College students participate in a capstone wargame. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jess Lewis/released)

Minding the Interoperability Gap

By Tim McGeehan and Douglas Wahl

A significant science and technology gap currently exists between the military forces of the United States and those of most of the rest of the world. This gap is by design and has long served as a centerpiece of U.S. defense strategy. While it has allowed the U.S. to maintain military primacy for decades, the technical capabilities of many allies and partners now lag far behind, raising concerns about the gap’s impacts on interoperability. This gap can drive critical tactical and operational decisions on where, when, and how forces are employed in a multinational environment, often with political ramifications. While the science and technology gap must be maintained over adversaries for strategic reasons, just as much effort should go into mitigating it to ensure maximization of allied capability in today’s coalition environment.

Creating the Gap

It is interesting to note that America’s allies helped it get to the top and establish the science and technology gap in the first place. Microwave radar, gyroscopic gun sights, and penicillin were key innovations critical to World War II military success and all of the initial work was performed by European scientists.1 One technology transfer episode stands out in particular when in 1940, a group of British scientists came to Washington, D.C., on what would become known as the “Tizard mission.” In a series of meetings during September and October 1940, the British shared examples and schematics of advanced technology, including rockets, explosives, superchargers, the cavity magnetron (the key to airborne radar), self-sealing gas tanks, advanced sonar, and three pages concerning a project known under its code name TUBE ALLOYS, which was the seed for the Manhattan Project.2 The British provided this giant leap forward in technology because they required America’s technical expertise to further refine these inventions, but more importantly, required the American industrial base to put them into practical use and production. This mutually beneficial exchange helped to later turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor.

The U.S. also leveraged German advances in science and technology. OPERATION PAPERCLIP was an effort to collect and extract German scientists before the Soviet Union could capture them in the closing days of World War II. These Germans were experts in aerodynamics, rocketry, and chemistry, and had invented or contributed to several of Hitler‟s “Wonder Weapons,” including the V-2 rocket (ballistic missile), V-1 flying bomb (cruise missile), and jet fighter.3 Many of these scientists had been classified as war criminals, but instead of facing prosecution were protected and put to work by the U.S. government in many programs, including what would become the intercontinental ballistic missile program and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The father of the U.S. space program himself, Werner von Braun, was one of these scientists.4

Dr. Wernher von Braun stands in front of a Saturn IB launch vehicle at Kennedy Space Flight Center. Dr. von Braun led a team of German rocket scientists, called the Rocket Team, to the United States, first to Fort Bliss/White Sands, later being transferred to the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. They were further transferred to the newly established NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama in 1960, and Dr. von Braun became the first Center Director. Under von Braun’s direction, MSFC developed the Mercury-Redstone, which put the first American in space; and later the Saturn rockets, Saturn I, Saturn IB, and Saturn V. The Saturn V launch vehicle put the first human on the surface of the Moon, and a modified Saturn V vehicle placed Skylab, the first United States’ experimental space station, into Earth orbit. Dr. von Braun was MSFC Director from July 1960 to February 1970. (Photo: NASA)

The U.S. military continues to leverage technological contributions from allies and partners, with agreements like the recently established Science and Technology Project Arrangement between the U.S. and the U.K. for energetic materials research and the Statement of Intent between the U.S. and Sweden to conduct cooperative research and development of undersea warfare and air defense technologies.5 Programs like these are the legacy of the Tizard Mission and OPERATION PAPERCLIP that helped propel the U.S. military to forefront of military science and technology, a position that it has sought to maintain ever since.

Offsets: Sustaining the Gap

The atomic bombs that ended World War II in Japan were a clear demonstration of the value and power of scientific superiority. With this lesson in mind, the U.S. engaged in massive national efforts to maintain its scientific edge. In particular, after being shocked by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the U.S. government passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958.6 At its signing, President Eisenhower said it would “do much to strengthen our American system of education, so that it can meet the broad and increasing demands imposed upon it by considerations of basic national security.”7 Adjusting for inflation to 2017 dollars, the act provided $850 million for student loans for science majors, $2.5 billion for science equipment, and $8.5 billion worth of fellowships for graduate students in science.8 The rationale was that only federal investment in the sciences would allow the nation to achieve the technological superiority over its primary competitor, the Soviet Union.9

This was particularly important because the U.S. could not compete numerically against the conventional forces of the Soviet Union. The Eisenhower administration knew it had to rely on its science and technology advantage, specifically nuclear deterrence, to avoid the costly option of deterring the Soviet Union via a massive increase in conventional capabilities. This was the first “offset strategy” and maintaining the technological lead was absolutely imperative for it to work.
By the 1970s the Soviet Union had closed the gap in nuclear weapons. In 1973, the forerunner of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program to seek out a second offset strategy.10 It pursued “conventional weapons with near-zero miss” which resulted in networks, stealth, and high tech precision munitions. Again, the science and technology gap drove the offset. This focus served the U.S. well through the next 30 years, but adversaries are now acquiring increasingly complex technology in pursuit of anti-access and area-denial strategies; the gap is rapidly closing again.

In response, the Department of Defense is currently developing a third offset strategy and innovation is the vehicle to get there.11 The Defense Innovation Initiative, overseen by the Advanced Capabilities Deterrence Panel, is chartered to maintain U.S. military supremacy against any challenger. In November 2014, Secretary Hagel explained “our technology effort will establish a new Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program that will help identify, develop, and field breakthroughs in the most cutting-edge technologies and systems – especially from the fields of robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing, including three-dimensional printing.”12 He went on to say “we will not send our troops into a fair fight. A world where our military lacks a decisive edge would be less stable, less secure for both the United States and our allies, and the consequences could ultimately be catastrophic.”13 Note that he said “our military” (U.S.) not “our militaries” (including allies) need the decisive edge.

Impacts of the Gap

Examples throughout history have shown the value of allies and partners, both in peace and in war. Allies and partners bring authority, access, signal international resolve, and enhance the legitimacy of any endeavor. However, the opportunity to reap these benefits is increasingly put in jeopardy as advances in U.S. systems hamper interoperability.

For instance, while the U.S. Navy must maintain its technological lead amongst naval competitors, it cannot afford to operate alone. The Global Network of Navies concept illustrates how valuable allies and partners can be moving forward.14 While not every navy can afford the latest high tech systems, they often bring niche capabilities, experience, and expertise such as icebreaking, counter piracy, littoral operations, etc. One particular example is the Standing North Atlantic Treaty Organization‟s (NATO) Mine Countermeasures Group TWO (SNMCMG2). SNMCMG2 comprises mine hunters, minesweepers, support ships, and explosive ordnance disposal personnel from Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the U.S. No one nation can field this level of capability (or capacity) alone. However, this interoperability is more common at the lower-intensity end of the naval warfare spectrum. Fielding systems with the speed and complexity required to win the high intensity engagements of modern war at sea (and any domain for that matter) is costly and creates major challenges to interoperability.

PHILIPPINE SEA (April 26, 2017) – USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), foreground, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Ashigara (DDG 178), left, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Samidare (DD 106), back, transit the Philippine Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean M. Castellano)

Interoperability between forces takes many forms. Compatible tactics, techniques, and procedures are required for forces to work together and achieving proficiency is largely a function of training. However, there are technology and equipment components of interoperability that are much harder to address. The U.S. military boasts a sustained long-term and large-scale investment program in science and technology, unmatched by any nation. The result is that the U.S. has fielded extremely capable but highly complex and expensive systems that are often far more sophisticated than those of its allies. Many of these systems are not capable of easily interfacing with allied systems (if they can interface at all), placing limitations on the missions that can be shared. Using an Air Force example, the fifth-generation American F-22 Raptor cannot send encrypted messages to fourth-generation fighters such as the British Typhoon or French Rafale. To remain stealthy, it was designed to communicate via encrypted messages with other F-22s and U.S. systems, but has to use traditional voice communications with these allies that nullify its stealth advantage by having to talk ‘in the clear.’15 Procuring the latest and greatest hardware from America‟s defense industry may cause the U.S. military to price itself out of fighting in and with coalitions.

The gap between U.S. and European capabilities had become so glaring that at a 2006 NATO conference a Canadian delegate remarked “NATO’s transatlantic capability gap has been at the heart of a debate over the viability and relevance of the Alliance in the new security environment.”16 To question the Alliance is shortsighted, but the concerns are valid.

Communication and interoperability of data enable the construction, maintenance, and sharing of a common operational picture (COP). This is critical for the commander’s situational awareness and allows them to mass forces and effects as required. However, some high-end systems can only communicate with similar systems or have proprietary data formats unreadable by others. In these cases, sharing the COP with incompatible units can be difficult, time consuming, and prone to errors. A lack of shared awareness adds to the fog and friction of operations, induces vulnerabilities, and in worse cases, leads to fratricide.

Incompatible units operating in close proximity can even be a detriment to mutual safety and efficiency of operations. For example, electromagnetic (EM) spectrum management is far more demanding in multinational operations than in joint operations.17 For the Navy, while operating in a tight Carrier Strike Group (CSG) formation (e.g. during a strait transit), unless explicitly deconflicted, an allied ships radar or communication system might cause EM interference on a U.S. system (or vice versa) with impacts ranging from blinding a radar to deafening a communications system. Likewise, in today’s cyber world not all defenses are created equal, and one nation’s military with lesser capabilities may inadvertently open the door to an adversary intrusion that threatens others, weakening trust.

There are also logistical concerns associated when operating with less capable forces. Highly sophisticated systems often cannot share replacement parts or components and may have unique fuel or power requirements. Additionally, a weapon system may rely on ordnance not found anywhere else in the multinational force. The aggregate effect of these issues necessitates that the U.S. maintains a unique logistical system for the sustainment of its units in the field, the burden of which usually cannot be shared by our allies. There are exceptions, like the recent Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements process whereby a U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force destroyer exchanged maintenance parts.18 However, the fact that this transfer (in March 2017) was the first one ever completed illustrates how rare it is.

Another possible impact of operating with less technologically advanced allies or partners is that they may have slower decision cycles, be less lethal, or be less survivable, thus presenting softer targets to capable adversaries. The U.S. may need to provide enhanced force protection or over-watch assets to assist them, lest they be targeted by the adversary at a disproportionate rate. Such a situation could threaten the integrity of the coalition both politically and operationally. If the U.S. assigned additional resources to mitigate this situation, it would do so at the expense of finite resources available to accomplish the mission elsewhere.19 This situation could lead to U.S. attempting to micromanage coalition partners, which would further stress the coalition.20

U.S. joint doctrine states that the composition of multinational task forces “may include elements from a single nation or multiple nations depending on the situation and the interoperability factors of the nations involved.”21 In Desert Storm the coalition utilized a parallel command structure with some forces falling under a U.S. chain of command while the Arab contingent fought under a Saudi chain of command. While this arrangement was primarily adopted for political considerations to avoid the optic of a U.S. dominated effort, it was also due in part to military interoperability concerns.22

Coalition command relationships for Operation Desert Storm. (Public Domain)

This all begs an important question: if the science and technology gap leads to so many interoperability challenges, why isn’t there more effort to close it? The reality is that there is little incentive to close it.

Lack of Incentive to Close the Gap

A discussion of the incentives to close the science and technology gap between the U.S. and its allies and partners inevitably leads to the bigger question of how to best share the global defense burden. Even though the U.S. has exquisite capabilities doesn’t mean that it can afford to do all of the high-end warfighting alone. However, many other nations do not have the funding, technology, or industrial base to assume more of the burden. More importantly, many of them do not have the political will to do so. Secretary of Defense Carter and more recently Secretary of Defense Mattis both called Europe out for “not doing enough” to ensure their own security in that they have become reliant on the U.S. military to bear a large part of the collective burden.23 In 2002, NATO nations agreed to pay two percent of their gross domestic product on defense, but many nations have not made good on their commitment.24 What incentive do they have to make the substantial investment to develop their own science, technology, and industry to close the technology gap when the U.S. can be counted on to do it for them?

That said, in some ways, the U.S. may not have as much incentive to assist its allies in closing the gap as one would think. Despite the previously mentioned tactical challenges, the uncomfortable truth is that at the strategic level the U.S. has contributed to and in some ways benefited from this arrangement. As long as other countries lag behind U.S. military in science and technology, they will continue to rely on U.S. for the associated forces and hardware. This provides the U.S. influence and leadership capital. For example, the European Phased Adaptive Approach provides European ballistic missile defense (BMD). However, the U.S. has not provided Europe their BMD technology, but has instead secured permission to station four BMD-capable Aegis destroyers in Rota, Spain. The U.S. has also established an Aegis Ashore capability at the U.S. Naval Support Facility in the countryside of Devesulu, Romania.25 The U.S. readily accepts this role as senior partner for smaller countries and in doing so secures basing rights and strategic footholds, builds coalitions, and offsets attempts at hegemony by regional powers like Russia.

Often when the U.S. sells advanced, sophisticated equipment to other nations the agreement comes with U.S. training, support, and logistics which are other avenues for influence. This carries the threat of suspending the deal or making sustainment contingent on some other national behavior. This dynamic recently played out in 2014 when France refused to deliver two new Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia based on its activity in the Ukraine.26 Likewise, the U.S suspended military sales and the delivery of 20 F-16 C/D fighters to Egypt in 2013 due to political unrest27 and the overthrow of their democratically elected president,28 and then again the U.S. suspended military assistance to Thailand following their 2014 military coup.29

The fluidity of today’s strategic environment also dictates that today’s ally could be tomorrow’s adversary. Iran still has F-14 Tomcats, F-4 Phantoms, and P-3 Orions in its inventory from the time when a previous regime enjoyed close relations with the U.S. Sharing sophisticated technology with an ally could be disastrous if they become overrun, captured, or surrender their equipment to an enemy. Luckily the Iraqi army had no game-changing technology to abandon to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but the recent episode is a cautionary tale.

Another reason the U.S. won’t assist its allies in closing the gap is that it wants to prevent proliferation of strategic technologies. Through strategic nuclear deterrence the U.S. extends a guarantee to allies thereby discouraging them from pursuing their own nuclear capabilities and with fewer such weapons in play reducing the likelihood of their use. A notable exception is the joint strategic program with the United Kingdom which is currently developing the Common Missile Compartment for new ballistic missile submarine classes.30

Handover/takeover ceremony for NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission at Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania. Fly-by of a mixed formation of Polish MiG-29, British Typhoon, Portuguese F-16 and Canadian CF-188. (Photo: NATO)

Finally, it is interesting to note that allies could likely narrow the gap by more frequently combining their efforts and resources to avoid duplication. While they do cooperate (on the F-35 for example), coordinating the defense enterprises of multiple nations is a monumental task and there remains significant fragmentation. For example, the European members of NATO use 27 different types of howitzer and 20 different fighter aircraft. They collectively spend more than four times as much on defense as Russia but much of it is duplicative.31 While nations are expected to first and foremost provide for their own defense and maintain a stand-alone range of capabilities tailored to their specific national requirements and circumstances, consolidating efforts could lead to economies of scale and drive down costs to develop and field more advanced technologies.

Mitigating the Gap

As there is lack of concerted effort to close the gap there must be a focused campaign to mitigate it. Formal alliances and regular exercises provide a venue to work out interoperability concerns before the crisis comes. There are also opportunities for cooperation in development of technological standards and shared doctrine. Even though coalitions are by their nature more temporary ad-hoc arrangements, some mitigation can be achieved through the use of liaison officers and loaned equipment.

There is also a human and cognitive element to interoperability. Programs like International Military Education and Training (IMET) allow foreign militaries to send their officers to a variety of courses, to include American service academies and war colleges. Beyond the content of the education, they build relationships and learn the mindset and approach of their U.S. military counterparts (and vice versa). Building on this to increase allied participation in wargaming and experimentation could further enhance commonality in how to address future challenges and boost interoperability.

Even if the science and technology gap prevents some multinational forces from full integration with their U.S. counterparts (e.g. into a Navy CSG), the gap can be mitigated by shifting consideration from just the operational factor of force to the interrelated factors of space – where to employ them and time – when to employ them.

The technical capability of a platform is often the largest determinant in where (in geographic space) it is employed. For example, an ally with a BMD capability may be assigned an operating area that will put them in the best position to make an intercept. A ship with traditional surface capabilities might be best to act as an escort or cover a transit corridor to deter piracy, just as a capable antisubmarine platform could be assigned along a submarine threat axis. As such, multinational force laydown is largely a function of technical capability. Political concerns and national rules of engagement also play a large role in this calculus.

JEJU JOINT CIVIL-MILITARY COMPLEX, Republic of Korea (Mar. 25, 2017) – Cmdr. Douglas Pegher, left, commanding officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63), shakes hands with Rear Adm. Kim, Jeongsu, commander of Maritime Task Flotilla 7, following a meeting between the two regarding the historic arrival of the ship. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan Harper/Released)

Another consideration is when to employ less technologically advanced forces. Platforms with more rudimentary capabilities can make large contributions, particularly during Phase 0 shaping operations or security cooperation, where much of the effort relies on presence and partnership development. Likewise, they can play significant roles in the later phases of stabilization and enabling of civil authority. However, depending on the threat, less capable forces may be positioned elsewhere during the high intensity phase of an operation. This could be politically problematic, contributing to perceptions of “ally X has no skin in the fight” or “the U.S. doesn’t trust us or consider us to really be a member of the team.” Every effort should be made to give credit where it is due and highlight the importance of the diverse contributions made by multinational forces in supporting the overall effort.

Interoperability in a particular task is often constrained by the least technologically proficient participant.32 However, some data can be reformatted to comply with other standards and forwarded to feed less capable systems, such as when forwarding between tactical data links (Link 16 and Link 22 to Link 11).33 Likewise, some attributes can be stripped from data to make information releasable to partners by using systems like Radiant Mercury.34 Technology like this will be increasingly critical going forward.


America’s technological lead is perishable and due to the global connectivity afforded by the internet, advances are proliferating at an incredible rate. Unmanned aerial vehicles like quadcopters were science fiction a few years ago, but can now be purchased commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) at Walmart and flown with a smart phone. Satellite-based imagery, encryption software, secure communication gear, and navigation systems are widely available to anyone, including adversaries. The science and technology gap remains a strategic imperative that the U.S. must focus efforts to maintain. However, in the face of increasingly capable and assertive adversaries, the U.S. must use every available avenue to mitigate the gap to ensure interoperability with allies and partners.

Tim McGeehan is a member of the Navy’s Information Warfare Community.  He has previously served in S&T positions and as an exchange officer to the UK Royal Navy.  

Douglas T. Wahl is the METOC Pillar Lead and a Systems Engineer at Science Applications International Corporation.

The ideas presented here are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


1. National Air and Space Museum, The Tizard Mission – 75 Years of Anglo-American Technical Alliance, November 17, 2015,

2. Ernest Volkman, Science Goes to War, p. 158

3. National Air and Space Museum, “Buzz Bomb”: 70th Anniversary of the V-1 Campaign, June 13, 2014,; Annie Jacobsen, Remembering ‘Operation Paperclip,’ when national security trumped ethical concern, PBS Newshour, March 31, 2014,

4. Marshall Space Flight Center History Office, Bio: Dr. Wernher von Braun, 2015,

5. Nikki Ficken, US, UK arrangement allows joint research, AMRDEC Public Affairs, February 23, 2017,; Megan Eckstein, U.S., Sweden Sign Agreement To Collaborate On Anti-Sub, Anti-Air R&D, Exercises, USNI News, June 8, 2016,



8. Ernest Volkman, Science Goes to War, p. 208;

9. Ernest Volkman, Science Goes to War, p. 208

10. Bob Work, The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and its Implications for Partners and Allies, January 28, 2015,

11. Hagel, Chuck, “Defense Innovation Days: Keynote Speech” September 3, 2014,

12. Hagel, Chuck, “Defense Innovation Days: Keynote Speech” September 3, 2014,

13. Hagel, Chuck, “Defense Innovation Days: Keynote Speech” September 3, 2014,

14. Jonathan Greenert and James Foggo, Forging a Global Network of Navies, USNI Proceedings, May 2014,

15. Dan Lamothe, What happens when the most advanced fighter jets in the U.S., France, and Britain prepare for war, The Washington Post, December 17, 2015,

16. Pierre Nolin, Interoperability: The Need for Transatlantic Harmonization, NATO Parliamentary Assembly Annual Meeting, 2006,

17. Joint Publication 3-16: Multinational Operations, July 16, 2013,

18. Megan Eckstein, U.S., Japanese Destroyers Conduct First-Of-Kind Parts Swaps During Interoperability Exercise, USNI News, March 17, 2017,

19. Michele Zanini and Jennifer Taw, The Army and Multinational Force Compatibility, Rand Report 2000,, p. 22

20. Michele Zanini and Jennifer Taw, The Army and Multinational Force Compatibility, Rand Report 2000,, p. 22

21. Joint Publication 3-16: Multinational Operations, July 16, 2013, , p. xv

22. Michele Zanini and Jennifer Taw, The Army and Multinational Force Compatibility, Rand Report 2000,, p. 52

23. Robert Burns, Pentagon Chief Carter: Europe ‘Not Doing Enough’ On Defense, Associated Press, April 22, 2015,

24. Stephen Fidler, NATO Leaders Vow to Lift Military Spending, The Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2014,

25. Luke Meineke, Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System Team Arrives at NSF Deveselu, June 6, 2015,

26. BBC News, Russia Mistral: France halts delivery indefinitely, November 25, 2014,

27. Mark Landler and Thom Shanker, U.S., in Sign of Displeasure, Halts F-16 Delivery to Egypt, July 24, 2013,

28. Ernesto Londono, U.S. halts delivery of F-16s to Egypt, Washington Post, July 24, 2013,

29. Rachel Stohl, Shannon Dick, and Axelle Klincke, US Military Assistance To Thailand, May 28, 2014,

30. Tomkins, Richard, US Navy authorizes building of Common Missile Compartment Tubes, UPI, October 31, 2014,

31. The Gryfs of Europe: Europe is starting to get serious about defence, The Economist, 23 February 2017,

32. Joint Publication 3-16: Multinational Operations, July 16, 2013, , p. III-21

33. Northrup Grumman, Understanding Voice and Data Link Networking, December 2014,

34. Barry Rosenberg, Addressing security challenges of a common operating environment, Defense Systems, June 11, 2013,

Featured Image: POHANG, Republic of Korea (April 7, 2017) – Staff Sgt. Robin McClain a cyber-technician assigned to the 621st Contingency Response Wing stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., shares knowledge with two Republic of Korea Airmen during exercise Turbo Distribution 17-3 at Pohang Air Base, Republic of Korea, April 7, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Gustavo Gonzalez/Released)

Interwar-Period Gaming Today for Conflicts Tomorrow: Press ‘Start’ to Play, Pt. 2

By Major Jeff Wong, USMCR

Interwar-Period Case Studies – Germany, Japan, and the United States

By the beginning of the interwar years, wargaming had gained acceptance among military leaders in Germany, Japan, and the United States. For the German military, Helmuth von Moltke used wargames to train and educate officers at the Kriegsakademie during his tenure as chief of the Prussian and German General Staff from 1857-88. Generations of German Army officers accepted gaming as an essential part of training, educating, and developing leaders, and they continued the practice through the early years of the Second World War. In the late 19th century, German officers passed wargaming to their Japanese counterparts, who expanded the use of gaming for campaign planning and decision-making processes. Wargaming eventually became part of the regular curriculum at the Japanese Naval Staff College, and Japanese naval leaders attributed their success during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War to insights generated by these games. Students and faculty used wargames to test new ideas about tactical maneuvers, night attacks, fleet formations, principles of engagement, and supporting forces. Unlike the Germans, Japanese interwar-period games gained a deterministic quality, with officers using game insights as evidence to support courses of action that leaders had already favored. In the United States, a Navy lieutenant named William McCarty Little introduced gaming to the Naval War College in Newport during a series of lectures in 1887. The faculty experimented with the new technique in the ensuing years and incorporated it as a regular educational tool in 1893.  During his interwar-period tenure as the president of the Naval War College, Admiral William Sims emphasized the need to test students’ decision-making abilities through the use of wargames: officers with otherwise strong reputations exposed their “lack of knowledge…of the proper tactics and strategy” in the war college game rooms in Newport.

This is the second of a three-part series examining interwar-period gaming. The first part defined wargaming, discussed its potential utility and pitfalls, and differentiated it from other military analytic tools.

Lessons from Germany: Kriegsakademie, Von Seeckt, and the Shared Mental Model

Wargaming realized its potential as a tool for learning in interwar Germany for several reasons. The PME system embraced gaming as a training and educational tool that encouraged introspection about decision-making and fostered subordinate initiative and adaptability. Senior benefactors valued wargames and the insights they generated. Wargames also contributed to a shared mental model about the strategic and operational dilemmas that the country faced upon the outbreak of war. The cultural indoctrination of wargaming expanded in German PME institutions, where officers played games to reinforce learning from lectures and seminars. Senior officers led students on staff rides that integrated elements of wargaming, forcing students to confront operational problems and formulate solutions. They conducted these staff rides and wargames in the regions of Central Europe that would become battlefields by 1939-40, including the areas adjacent to France and the Low Countries in the Second World War’s western theater and regions facing Poland and Czechoslovakia in the east. In order to graduate, every officer who attended the Kriegsakademie learned how to plan a wargame, execute the event, and apply insights toward future planning. After graduating and arriving at their parent units, officers found wargames to be an integral part of their continued maturation as military professionals. Every Wehrmacht unit from battalion or squadron upward conducted games as an intellectual substitute for live-force exercises, which had diminished in frequency due to funding shortages and troop-number restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War.

Senior benefactors in the German Army reinforced the importance of gaming. The post-war restrictions forced the newly appointed chief of the Reichswehr, Hans von Seeckt, to find different ways of ensuring the army adapted after The Great War so hard-won lessons could help inform how they would fight the next great conflict – an inevitability in the eyes of many German officers. In addition to ordering a sweeping review of the German military’s performance during the First World War, the German military chief turned to wargaming to prepare the next generation of officers.

Von Seeckt, an adherent of maneuver warfare, believed that German officers needed to understand the theoretical aspects of warfare to be prepared for a dynamic future battlefield. Wargaming became an essential element of that understanding. He expanded the term “wargame” to include other activities that resemble the modern-day TEWT and TTX, planning exercises (akin to the theater campaign planning central to the capstone “Nine Innings” exercise at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College), command-post exercises, and terrain discussions. By the end of von Seeckt’s tenure as chief of the general staff in 1926, Reichswehr officers examined Germany’s perpetual strategic dilemma – ensconced in Central Europe surrounded by potential adversaries – through wargames, with leaders at all levels immersing themselves in the details of existing plans, likely enemy reactions to German offensives, and the challenges of the physical terrain across Europe.

Other senior leaders who played wargames in this officer development system eventually used games to plan the opening stages of the Second World War. General Franz Halder, chief of the Army General Staff, commissioned dozens of wargames to examine different options for invading France and the Low Countries in 1940. General Ludwig Beck, chief of the German General Staff from 1935 through 1938, also employed games in his 1936 effort to prepare a new manual of modern operations for the entire army. After he and his advisers had decided on the principles they deemed most important in the new conditions of warfare of their time, they called on “seasoned officers” to test those principles using wargames. In the air, military aviation pioneer Helmuth Wilberg shaped future Luftwaffe operational employment through wargames during his rigorous critique of German air doctrine following the First World War. On the sea, German submarine force chief Karl Doenitz, a future grand admiral, utilized games to explore the employment of U-boats. Doenitz’s games generated new ideas such as wolfpack tactics and suggested that a three-hundred submarine fleet would be necessary to neutralize Allied merchant shipping in the Atlantic.

These wargames exposed strategic and operational dilemmas that fed a shared mental model for Wehrmacht leaders and their subordinate commanders. In this context, mental models comprise the collective tools, products, processes, and experiences that players use to make sense of the world. Games conducted prior to the invasion of France examined various iterations of Plan Yellow, the campaign to invade France and the Low Countries, and contributed to the German military’s shared mental model for how they would fight the next war. Among the numerous versions of Plan Yellow, the German Army General Staff settled on a daring version (some called it “reckless”) that feigned an attack on Belgium and the Netherlands. The feint would distract Allied Forces from the campaign’s main effort – an offensive through the Ardennes Forest that pushed German tank divisions across the Meuse River toward the English Channel, cutting off Allied lines of communication back to France. The wargames featured the services of Lieutenant Colonel Ulrich Liss, an expert on Western military doctrine who role-played as the commander of Allied Forces, French General Maurice Gamelin. Liss’ red cell accurately portrayed the likely Allied reaction – a slow response to a German main effort thrust through the Ardennes. “Liss had come to a view similar to that articulated by Hitler, namely that ‘to operate and to act quickly … does not come easily either to the systematic French or to the ponderous English,’” wrote Ernest May. Liss’ assessment during the games prompted Halder to eventually assign Schwerpunkt, or focus of effort, to Army Group A, which would push through the Ardennes. Colonel-General Gerd Von Rundstedt, commander of Group A, lamented that “the campaign could never be won.” However, the Germans did win, thanks partly to an insight generated by an accurate representation of the enemy as part of wargaming for the campaign. The Allied Forces failed to act quickly enough on the German deception until Group A’s divisions had crossed the Meuse on their way toward the English Channel.

Evolution of Plan Yellow. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the spirit of Auftragstaktik, gaming helped establish the environment that fostered initiative among Wehrmacht subordinate commanders. Officers constantly examined and questioned the assumptions behind their own decisions in wargames, which fostered an environment that encouraged initiative and field innovation. Some subordinate leaders became less afraid to deviate from their original tasks and adjust to evolving situations during combat in order to meet their commander’s intent. During the offensive against France and the Low Countries in May 1940, after General Heinz Guderian’s Panzer Corps crossed the Meuse River at Sedan, he chose to press the attack west with all available forces and drive toward the English Channel, rather than make the doctrinally sound decision of slowing down and strengthening his corps’ bridgehead to the south. In another instance during the campaign, General Erwin Rommel’s Seventh Panzer Division neared the far end of the “extended Maginot Line” at the French-Belgian border – far ahead of his adjacent units – and lost radio communications with his corps headquarters. Rommel’s superiors never issued guidance for this stage of the operation because they did not predict their advance would proceed as quickly and successfully as it did. Like Guderian, Rommel pressed ahead with the assault and pushed his panzers west until he ran short of ammunition and fuel at Le Cateau. “German generals, even German colonels and majors, certainly felt freer to try new approaches and tactics than did their counterparts in the French army or (British forces),” wrote May.

In the Wehrmacht, commanders used wargames to assess their subordinates’ strengths and weaknesses under stress. They also used games to foster trust and understanding between senior and junior officers through teaching moments in the context of the game scenario. These games became “the best way for commanders to make known to subordinates their views on various aspects of warfare,” writes Dr. Milan Vego, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “Wargames were an important means for the ‘spiritual’ preparation for war and for shaping unified tactical and strategic views.” Through gaming, leaders established a climate that allowed for mistakes to be studied and encouraged subordinate commanders to adapt their plans to changing realities in battle. The Germans also utilized wargaming to examine evolving principles within the institution about combined arms, armor and maneuver, and air doctrine in order to inform capabilities development and national resourcing decisions that influenced, for example, the manufacture of close-air support platforms over long-range strategic bombers. By the mid- to late 1930s, Germany diverted limited resources to interdiction and tactical support aircraft because of the risk to ground assault upon the outbreak of war in Europe.

In the years after the First World War, wargaming remained a valuable training tool. During games, commanders stressed the importance of a proper commander’s estimate of the situation using imperfect information, logical decision-making, orders writing, and coherent communication of those orders. A game director would conduct a thorough after-action review with participants to discuss what drove commanders’ decisions during the game and offer alternate solutions. After the group adjourned, the game director worked with senior wargame participants to draft reports that identified issues for subsequent exploration in follow-on experiments, live-force exercises, and other wargames.

To complement insights gained from gaming, senior officers also used “operational mission” (Operativ Aufgaben) games to examine future hypothetical war scenarios. Led by senior officers within the Troop Office (or Truppenamtreise, the Reichswehr-era “general staff” entity), up to 300 officers from group commands, divisions, and the schoolhouses collaborated on a potential solution that was written as a study and submitted to the Truppenamtreise for review. In 1931, one such exercise examined a war with France and Czechoslovakia. Two others in 1932 outlined a campaign against Poland.  

German interwar-years gaming enjoyed high-level support, cultural acceptance, and a shared mental model about the next Great War. Training and education that used wargames at the Kriegsakademie laid the foundation for officers to continue the practice at their units later in their careers. Believers such as Von Seeckt, Halder, and Beck integrated wargaming into strategic decision-making for the institution. In the supporting establishment, senior officers continued to wargame institutional issues such as doctrine, resourcing, and manufacturing of capabilities to fulfill projected future Wehrmacht requirements for the next war. German officers utilized wargames to first explore hypothetical strategic and operational dilemmas, then used lessons-learned to better understand campaign plans that served as the opening salvo of Germany’s Blitzkrieg in the European theater. Gaming fostered an environment that encouraged subordinate leaders to adapt, innovate, and develop creative solutions.

Lessons from Japan: Ugaki, Midway, and the Carriers That Wouldn’t Sink

The German example demonstrates wargaming’s promise as a learning and rehearsal tool, but lessons from the Japanese experience highlight potential pitfalls when the tool is misapplied, misinterpreted, or abused to support a predetermined outcome. The Japanese example highlights the benefits of integrating wargaming into the professional development of officers in the schoolhouse, but it also illustrates the potential dangers of unrealistic play and obfuscation of game outcomes.

Japanese planners examining the Pacific theater determined that a bold campaign that relied upon speed, surprise, and near-perfect synchronization would be necessary against American, British, and Dutch forces in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific to establish strategic conditions favorable to the Japanese at the onset of hostilities. Games played a crucial role in supporting Japanese assumptions about the Pacific campaign. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, directed wargames to support planning for the pivotal campaigns at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Midway Island in 1942. By the beginning of the interwar period, officers learned gaming at the Japanese War College and Naval War College, just as German military officers did at the Kriegsakademie. Japanese naval officers first wargamed an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1927, when carriers and carrier-aviation capabilities were in their infancy. During these games, two Japanese aircraft carriers (the only ones available in the fleet at the time) supported by an advance guard of submarines, destroyers, and cruisers inflicted only minimal damage on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Observers criticized the Japanese naval force commander’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor for being rash. Japanese officers continued to wargame to support planning as the army expanded operations into Manchuria and China, and planners intensified the practice starting in 1937 when they started shaping a campaign to defeat British forces in the South China Sea.

Wargames played an integral part of Japanese war planning, with the Navy hosting a series of games prior to the opening campaigns in the Pacific theater. These games included a theater-level wargame that examined the Army and Navy’s opening campaigns in the Aleutian Islands, Pearl Harbor, and the Southwest Pacific, as well as operational- and tactical-level wargames that focused on specific parts of the operations. Fleet commanders and selected staffers participated in several secret games held in fall 1941 in preparation for the Pearl Harbor attack, as well as a series of games played in early 1942 before Japanese attacks across the Philippines, the Aleutian Islands, Guam, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and Hong Kong that ultimately stymied U.S. and other allied forces across the region.

Planners used wargames conducted in the fall of 1941 at the Japanese War College to analyze the effectiveness of a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, as well as allow commanders and planners to rehearse the operation. For the Pearl Harbor wargames, Yamamoto handpicked his participants, which included fleet commanders and their staff. Yamamoto wanted the wargames to generate insights about three critical decisions as part of the attack. First, he wanted to determine the feasibility of the operation. Second, Yamamoto wanted to figure out if the fleet could achieve surprise in the attack. Third, he wanted to examine an optimal route for the approach of the carrier strike group toward Hawaii. Commander Minoru Genda, a trusted confidant of Yamamoto who served as an air officer of the carrier task force that would attack Pearl Harbor, said that the Pearl Harbor wargames “clarified our problem and gave us a new sense of direction and purpose. After they were over, all elements of the Japanese Navy went to work as never before, because time was running out.”

This picture released by the US Navy shows a Japanese mock-up used to plan the attack on Pearl Harbor. Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, Japanese naval attache in Washington, conceived the plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor in January 1941. The Japanese War College worked out the attack from this model, and in September 1941, Japanese carriers and their planes practiced bombing on an obscure island of Japan. Yamamoto had special fins placed on torpedos for the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. (Official US Navy Photo)

Japanese wargames also had vocal critics. Genda’s direct superior and the commander of the Pearl Harbor strike force, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, expressed skepticism about the games’ insights about likely Japanese success against the American Fleet. Yamamoto favored a bold attack against the U.S. Pacific Fleet and overruled Nagumo’s chief concern – that massing six aircraft carriers for the Pearl Harbor task force put a significant amount of overall Japanese naval combat power at risk. Vice Admiral Hansaku Yoshioka, among the participants of the Pearl Harbor games, decried the inflation of Japanese capabilities, underestimation of American forces, and umpire decisions that were slanted in favor of the Japanese. The games “epitomized the Japanese penchant for short-sighted, self-indulgent thinking,” Yoshioka told American interrogators following the war. World War II scholars believe this “self-indulgence” came back to haunt the Japanese during wargames before the Battle of Midway, when the Midway game series director, Admiral Matome Ugaki, overturned umpires’ rulings about the sinking of two Japanese carriers by American land-based bombers. Ugaki reduced the number of sinkings to one carrier and allowed the other to participate in the next part of the game – invasions of New Caledonia and Fiji Island.  

Wargaming professionals often cite Ugaki’s umpiring during the Midway wargame as a prime example of a good wargame undermined by leaders with a deterministic bias, but the reality is that wargaming has limitations. A wargame is a good tool to examine decision-making, establish principles, develop insights, and recommend areas for further study. It is not a good tool for predicting the future or generating hard data. In The Art of Wargaming, Dr. Peter Perla reasons that while the Japanese Midway games were “almost certainly biased,” the point that is often overlooked is that the game “raised the crucial issue of the possibility of an ambush from the north; the operators ignored the warning, a warning reiterated by the oft-maligned Ugaki.” This fact suggests that changing the umpires’ ruling of the effectiveness of land-based bomber attack was not necessarily willful ignorance, since B-17s had attacked the Japanese carrier task force on several occasions and failed to score a single hit. Perla writes, “Ignoring or changing the results of a few die rolls did not constitute the failure of Japanese wargaming in the case of Midway; ignoring the questions and issues raised by the play did.” In this case, the wargame generated an insight that key leaders of the actual Midway campaign overlooked. Other Japanese planners believed the principal failure of the game was the “uncharacteristic” play of Captain Chiaki Matsuda, the Japanese officer who role-played as the American commander. In post-war interviews, Genda suggested that Matsuda mirror-imaged Japanese behavior onto the American fleet when it did not sortie for a decisive battle. “His (non-American) conduct of the wargames might have given us the wrong impression of American thinking,” Genda told interrogators.

Much like their German counterparts, Japanese planners during the interwar period integrated wargames into campaign planning. However, the primary difference appeared to be how the game’s sponsors and stakeholders interpreted the game outputs. In the Midway games, biases, poor assumptions, and preconceived notions caused analysts to overlook critical insights and misinterpret gameplay. Like the German wargame from the 1940 France campaign, which was notable for its honest portrayal of the Allied commander, Japanese wargames also show the importance of accurate, balanced “Red” play:  the game must provide a correct picture of an adversary’s capabilities and limitations, then honestly portray how the enemy would fight in a given situation and environment.

Lessons from America: Newport, Carrier Aviation, and the Pacific Campaign

Nimitz understood the challenges of a war in the Pacific thanks to his experiences as a student in the game rooms of the Naval War College. So had Ernest King, William Halsey, and Raymond Spruance – future admirals who commanded task forces, groups, and numbered fleets in the Pacific against Japan. In the two decades between the world wars, U.S. Navy officers cycling between the Naval War College, the operating forces, and influential supporting-establishment institutions generated a shared mental model that focused on the challenges of an impending Pacific campaign against Japan. With the specter of another global conflict on the horizon, they participated in wargames, studies, and exercises in the 1920s and 1930s to explore the wide array of conceptual, operational, and tactical challenges that the bloody stalemate of First World War exposed.  

The Naval War College is the most well-known illustration for American military gaming between the First and Second World Wars. Newport fully embraced wargaming by integrating it into officer PME curricula as the Germans did at the Kriegsakademie. The Newport wargames helped bolster student and instructor understanding about the challenges of operating in the Pacific against the Japanese, and informed studies and exercises for emerging capabilities such as naval aviation, which proved pivotal during the Second World War.  

The Naval War College worked with the Navy’s General Board on future planning scenarios based on various competitors and capabilities. Officials assigned each scenario a color, including Plan Orange for a war with Japan, which formed the basis of many of the games played by students in Newport. Like other Naval War College students, Nimitz wargamed and studied these operational dilemmas during the 1922-23 academic year. In his thesis, Nimitz described the need for seizing advanced bases or developing an at-sea refueling and replenishment capability “to maintain even a limited degree of mobility” against the Japanese. “To bring such a war to a successful conclusion BLUE must either destroy ORANGE military and naval forces or effect a complete isolation of ORANGE country by cutting all communication with the outside world,” wrote Nimitz, referring to the color code-names for the United States and Japan, respectively. “It is quite possible that ORANGE resistance will cease when isolation is complete and before steps to reduce military strength on ORANGE soil are necessary. In either case the operations will require a series of bases westward of Oahu, and will require BLUE Fleet to advance westward with an enormous train, in order to be prepared to seize and establish bases enroute.” Thus, original conceptions of the Pacific campaign featuring the Pacific Fleet’s advance along extended sea lines of communication gave way to an island-hopping approach that allowed American forces to establish advance bases from which to launch air attacks against the Japanese home islands.

At the Naval War College, wargaming enjoyed a powerful benefactor in Admiral William Sims, who commanded U.S. Naval Forces in Europe during the First World War and began a second stint as president of the Naval War College in 1919. He possessed recent combat experience, knowledge of wargaming from his first term as the college’s president, and a sense of urgency to provide future leaders with more opportunities to test their combat decision-making skills and inform future naval innovation. Sims regularly highlighted gaming’s role in a naval officer’s professional development:

“The principles of wargames constitute the backbone of our profession. … In no other way can this training be had except by assembling about a game board a large body of experienced officers divided into two groups and ‘fighting’ two great modern fleets against each other – not once, or a few times, but continually until the application of the correct principles becomes as rapid and as automatic as the plays of an expert football team.”

The War Plans Division of the U.S. War Department gamed elements of American mobilization plans prior to the start of the Second World War, but the national PME institutions embraced gaming as an analytical tool, and none more enthusiastically as the Naval War College. Of more than 300 wargames conducted in Newport during the interwar period, about half focused on campaigns and tactics while the other half gamed theater-wide strategy. Among approximately 150 strategy games, all but 9 explored a possible war with Japan.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas (standing) confers with (from left to right) General Douglas MacArthur, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Admiral William D. Leahy concerning future moves in the war against Japan, during the President’s visit to Hawaii, 26 July-10 August 1944. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph) 

During games, students prepared plans based on a given scenario. Using their plans as a guide, players manipulated miniature ships on large maps depicting oceans of the world. Participants and umpires consulted charts and tables to determine game-move outcomes based on desired operational and tactical actions. During some games, students playing “Blue” – the United States – prepared and executed plans against classmates who attempted to mimic the doctrine and capabilities of the adversary – eventually Japan. In some cases, game directors ordered the players to switch sides and execute the plans prepared by their opponents. Tactical games proved useful in understanding and testing doctrines for ship movements, particularly the employment of carriers and their supporting vessels.  

The college worked closely with planners at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) to incorporate elements of Plan Orange into the wargames. College officials sent game insights to OPNAV, which integrated them into the design of the fleet problems. The fleet tested the ideas generated by the wargames during the exercises, the results of which planners sent back to Newport to inform subsequent wargames. “Thus, ideas developed or problems encountered on the game floor were often examined during the fleet problems and vice versa,” wrote Alfred Nofi. For example, during Fleet Problem VII in 1927, war college students played a scenario identical to one being used by naval, air, and ground forces exercising in Rhode Island Sound and adjacent coastal areas.

The relationship between Newport’s wargames and subsequent analyses and exercises proved particularly valuable for the maturation of carrier aviation. In the 1920s, carrier aviation concept development began at the war college, where students and faculty used games to study existing and possible doctrine for fleet employment. The fleet took inferences drawn from the games and operationalized them in maneuvers and mock battles during the fleet problems. Analysts provided an honest evaluation of the exercise results back to the technical bureaus (particularly the Bureau of Aeronautics) and the war college, and the college refined subsequent wargames to reflect insights generated by the exercises. This feedback loop contributed to the realism and creativity of game play at Newport and ultimately led to conclusions about the massing of aircraft for strikes and the need for a coherent air defense plan that integrated anti-air artillery and defensive interceptors during the Second World War.  

It is important to note that the wargames did not reveal the exact force structure, concepts, capabilities, tactics, techniques, and procedures that the U.S. Navy used to defeat Japan. Instead, the games gave American naval officers the analytic space to think and explore those issues. As the Pacific war proceeded, the U.S. Navy adjusted well to the changing realities of the conflict. John Kuehn wrote that the type of navy that America needed “had already been discussed and thought about extensively during the hearings of the General Board, in the classrooms at the Naval War College, at sea, and in the planning cells of OPNAV’s War Plans Division… Applying existing strategic, operational, and tactical solutions and then adjusting them to the realities of war came easier to Navy officers because of their focus over two decades on precisely the strategy and materiel requirements that a Pacific War without preexisting bases demanded.”

For the Americans, wargames allowed planners to explore evolving concepts and shape capabilities, as well as understand the operational challenges of the impending Pacific campaign. To develop new capabilities, wargames supported a cycle of research that informed analyses and live-force exercises in a continual feedback loop. This process reinforced realism in subsequent games and exercises, and a well-informed officer corps that tested and evaluated both types of evolutions. To develop a better understanding of Plan Orange, the Naval War College served as an incubator for creative ideas on how to overcome operational challenges in the Pacific. Through game play, officers learned how to fight against the Japanese, as well as how the Japanese fought. Students who cycled through the game floor at Newport developed a shared mental model that they carried with them to the fleet and eventually to war.

In part three, we will conclude this series by identifying best wargaming practices that can be applied to today’s U.S. defense establishment in order to prepare for future conflicts.

Major Jeff Wong, USMCR, is a Plans Officer at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Plans, Policies and Operations Department.  This series is adapted from his USMC Command and Staff College thesis, which finished second place in the 2016 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Research Paper Competition.  The views expressed in this series are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  


1. Milan Vego, “German War Gaming,” Naval War College Review 65 no. 4 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, Autumn 2012), 110.

2. Francis J. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 1961), 39.

3. David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012), 73.

4. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming, 57.

5. Eric J. Madonia, “Preparing Navy Officers for Leadership at the Operational Level of War,” paper for the Naval War College (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, March 5, 2010), 8.

6. Vego, 110-111.

7. Rudolf Hofman, “German Army War Games,” Art of War Colloquium (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1983), 6.

8. Vego, 114.

9. Ibid.

10. U.S. Marine Corps University, “About Exercise Nine Innings,” (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps University), July 20, 2015 (accessed March 8, 2016):

11. Ernest R. May, Strange Victory: Hitler’s Conquest of France (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2000), 258.

12. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 42.

13. Phillip S. Meilinger, The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1997), 171.

14. Vego, 130-131.

15. May, Strange Victory, 465

16. Ibid, 258.

17. Ibid, 465.

18. Ibid, 263.

19. Auftragstaktik is an approach to command in which a commander issues to a subordinate an intent for a given mission, and the subordinate is given the freedom to independently plan and execute the mission. This mindset gave subordinates flexibility in deciding how to accomplish an  assigned mission within the framework of the intent. Michael D. Krause, “Moltke and the Origins of the Operational Level of War,” Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art, Michael D. Krause and Cody R. Phillips, eds. (Washington, DC: Center for Military History, 2005), 141. 

20. Karl-Heinz Frieser, “Panzer Group Kleist and the Breakthrough in France,” Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art, Michael D. Krause and Cody R. Phillips, eds. (Washington, DC: Center for Military History, 2005), 173.

21. Ibid, 175-176.

22. Ibid, 176.

23. May, Strange Victory, 459.

24. Vego, 115.

25. Jonathan M. House, Toward Combined Arms Warfare: A Survey of 20th-Century Tactics, Doctrine, and Organization (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984), 52.

26. Meilinger, The Paths of Heaven, 173.

27. Vego, 115.

28. Ibid, 129.

29. Ibid, 117.

30. Evans and Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941, 469-470.

31. Martin Van Creveld, Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 168.

32. Ibid, 167.

33.  Ibid.

34. Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991), 225.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid, 234.

37. Thomas B. Allen, “The Evolution of Wargaming: From Chessboard to the Marine Doom,” in War and Games, ed. Timothy J. Cornell and Thomas B. Allen (San Francisco, San Marino: Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Social Stress, 2002), 234.

38. Prange, At Dawn We Slept, 234.

39. Ibid.

40. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming, 40.

41. Ibid.

42. Perla, The Art of Wargaming, 47.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45.  Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein, and Katherine V. Dillon, Miracle at Midway (New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1982), 35-36.

46. Ibid.

47. Allen, “The Evolution of Wargaming,” 233-234.

48. Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 2.

49. Williamson Murray, “Red-Teaming: Its Contribution to Past Military Effectiveness,” DART Working Paper 02-2 (McLean, VA: Hicks and Associates, September 2002), 42.

50. Chester Nimitz, “Thesis on Tactics,” written for his master’s thesis at the Naval War College (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1923), 35.

51. Admiral Sims is also the only active-duty U.S. naval officer to receive the Pulitzer Prize.  During his second tour as the Naval War College president, he wrote Victory at Sea and won for history writing.

52. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming, 64.

53. Students at the Army War College, Army Command and General Staff College, and Marine Corps Command and Staff College also participated in wargames during the interwar period.  McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming, 53.

54. Van Creveld, Wargames, 166.

55. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming, 53.

56. Van Creveld, 166.

57. John T. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 12-13.

58. Alfred A. Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College Press, 2010), 20.

59. Ibid.

60. Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, eds. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 316.

61. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation, 13.

62. Thomas C. Hone, Norman Friedman, and Mark D. Mandeles, “Innovation in Carrier Aviation,” Naval War College Newport Papers 37 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College Press, August 2011), 157-158.

63. Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future,” 316-317.

64. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation, 178.

Featured Image:  NEWPORT, R.I. (May 10, 2016)
Peter Pellegrino, U.S. Naval War College’s (NWC) senior military analyst for wargaming, briefs participants of a wargame reenactment of the Battle of Jutland at NWC in Newport, Rhode Island. During the wargame reenactment, Rear Adm. P. Gardner Howe III, NWC president, commanded the German High Seas Fleet and retired Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, director, Naval History and Heritage Command, commanded the British Grand Fleet.
(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released)

Indian Maritime Airpower Pt. 1

This article originally featured on South Asia Defence and Strategic Review and is republished with permission.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd) 

The once fierce IN-IAF debate about the relative efficacy of carrier-borne airpower versus shore-based airpower supported by airborne replenishment tankers has largely been muted by the availability of budgetary support for both. In fact, serious practitioners of India’s military airpower now include all three Indian Armed Forces. In terms of their holdings, operational reach, and logistical complexity, they rank in the following order: the Indian Air Force, the Indian Navy, and the Indian Army. However, the country’s paramilitary forces, too, — most especially the Indian Coast Guard and, to a lesser extent, the Air Wing of the Border Security Force (BSF) — have a significant role in the deployment of military airpower within the country and its maritime zones.  Driving this more ‘egalitarian’ approach is the growing realization that India’s rise demands an urgent and substantive investment in all dimensions of national security. These include internal (societal) as well as external dimensions. They also include intangible facets (building trust-capital, education and human resource skilling, sustainable resource-management, etc.,) as well as tangible ones (infrastructure, technology, manpower, equipment, etc.) Importantly, the investment of large sums of money is common to all of these. 

Narrowing our focus to the tangible facets of our external security, and further, to an examination of available options for the application of air power for maritime security, we find India once again in a rather unenviable position for a self-avowed major maritime power. In the coming month or two, the Indian Navy will (very unwisely and very prematurely, in the opinion of this writer) decommission the Viraat — mainly for lack of her integral Sea Harrier aircraft, which have already been phased out. This decision is typically that of a new toy relegating an older one to the basement and is probably due to the ‘Air Force-conditioning’ of the Navy’s senior naval aviators who were at the apex levels of the Navy when this decision was made. The fact that a duly constituted Board of Officers (BoO) took this decision is merely a fig leaf of a cover, for the BoO’s decision would have been governed and bound by Terms of Reference given to it. The Viraat, in her earlier avatar as the Hermes, has served admirably as a commando carrier and is internally equipped to embark and sustain 900 fully armed troops. Thus, even as the induction of four new Landing Platforms Dock (LPD) remains mired in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the South and North Blocks where the Ministries of Defence and Finance play their own version of the Pentagon Wars, the Navy has squandered the opportunity of sustaining the Viraat as an immediately available ‘Landing Platform: Helicopter’ (LPH). The ship ought to have been delinked from frontline Fleet operations, made to embark 16 ALH (the time-intensiveness of their blade-folding would not be an issue as they would be required solely for deliberate deployment and not for reactionary ones), and been used to gain invaluable procedural and operational-logistical experience for amphibious operations. But that, as the aphorism goes, is another story that will be dilated upon elsewhere. 

Where frontline Fleet operations are concerned, the new Vikrant is still a couple of years away from induction, and in the interim, the Vikramaditya and her integral air group (comprising MiG-29K variants and a woefully inadequate number of rotary-wing aircraft such as the Kamov-31, and the venerable Sea King Mk 42B and Chetak) will be all that can be fielded for the critical here-and-now element of naval airpower.On the other hand, we have the media-driven hype and hoopla over the several aerospace exhibitions and related mega-events that are being organized with increasing frequency under the ‘Make-in-India’ banner — and often by one or another ‘chamber of commerce.’ These certainly cause adrenaline rushes and surges of nationalistic fervor, but good advertising cannot for long compensate for the lack of a good product. On perhaps a more useful level, however, all this serves to generate a renewed examination of the available options in respect of this desired air power. As a consequence, debates are reignited on the ‘desirability’ versus ‘affordability,’ and the ‘desirability’ versus the ‘survivability’ of aircraft carriers versus land-based air power, contextualized not only to the prevailing security environment, but also to that expected to prevail in the immediately foreseeable future. Thus, while the criticality of the maritime domain — and that of the military maritime domain — is beyond any reasonable doubt, the question is whether aircraft carriers do, indeed, provide the biggest ‘bang’ for our collective ‘buck.’ 

As mentioned above, there are two fundamental threads along which this debate tends to proceed. The first argues for and against the ‘cost’ — or, more appropriately (even if less frequently), the ‘cost-effectiveness’ — of aircraft carriers, both within the paradigm of conflict as well as outside of it. The second examines the survivability (defensibility) of aircraft carriers in the contemporary and foreseeable battle milieu.  

Since the option of not having any airborne surveillance or combat capability at all is one that all schools of thought reject, it is relevant to compare the ‘costs’ involved and the ‘cost-effectiveness’ accruing from sea-based (integral) airpower versus land-based airpower. Inevitably, the steep cost of an aircraft carrier makes it the subject of intense scrutiny by experts and the lay public alike. And indeed, an informed debate is entirely right and proper for it is public taxes that allow one or the other option to be exercised.  Of course, the operative word there is ‘informed.’ 

Cost Comparison between Airbases at Sea and on Land 

It is true that a modern aircraft carrier costs an enormous amount of money to procure, even more to construct indigenously, and even more for it to be operated and periodically maintained (refitted), along with its complement of aircraft, over the several decades of its operational life. Available open-source inputs indicate that the final cost of the Vikramaditya has been of the order of ₹ 12,500 Crore (USD ~$1.8 billion), while the ongoing construction of the 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier (the Vikrant) will reportedly cost the exchequer some ₹ 24,000 Crore (USD ~$3.6 billion) although this latter figure also includes the cost of infrastructure enhancement of the Cochin Shipyard, where the Vikrant is being built. These are very considerable sums of money. What about the costs of the shore-based air-power option? There are equally forbidding costs to be airborne here as well — in the construction and periodic maintenance of ‘coastal’, ‘inland’ and ‘forward’ IAF airbases. For instance, just the replacement cost of a single runway on an existing air force base can easily cross ₹ 600 Crore.  In the case of a ‘virgin’ airbase, the construction cost would have to include land-leveling and associated land-development costs as well. At the USA’s Atlanta airport, for example, the cost of adding a fifth runway capable of routinely handling wide-bodied jet aircraft was $1.24 billion which is about ₹ 7,500 Crore. Add to this the cost of the parallel taxi track, the sheltered, bombproof hangars, the ATC, the various radars, navigational and communication equipment, and the self-defense wherewithal—and one ends up with a cost far in excess of the overall cost of construction of an indigenous aircraft carrier.

The largest and the first indigenously-built, 40,000 tonne aircraft carrier (IAC) named INS Vikrant was undocked on 10 Jun 2015 at a simple ceremony held at the Cochin Shipyard Limited (CSL). (Indian Navy photo)  

Some analysts, in attempting to counter the inclusion of all this airbase infrastructure have tried to inflate the cost of the aircraft carrier by adding the life-cycle cost of the escort forces which, together with the carrier itself, make up a Carrier Battle Group. However, the difference is that even without the aircraft carrier each of these warships that comprise the CBG are potent and eminently deployable platforms, while without the aircraft that it supports, shore-based infrastructure is meaningless. However, the lack of mobility of an airbase ashore is where the aircraft carrier really scores over the former. Each aircraft carrier provides for an extensively mobile’airbase, thereby virtualizing a number of static ones. Once the emotive content is removed from the comparative equation, the aircraft carrier, with its operational life of some 45-50 years, is readily seen to offer the most cost-effective option for dealing with mobile maritime threats. That said, it is equally obvious that shore-based threats that emanate deep inland (and which must be countered there) cannot be met by carrier-borne airpower.  There is, thus, little option but to simultaneously incur the expenditure required to build up the nation’s shore-based airpower, most especially that of the Indian Air Force.  

Carrier Survivability 

This brings us to the question of the survivability (defensibility) of the aircraft carrier in the contemporary and foreseeable battle milieu.           

Several Indian analysts worriedly point to the acquisition by potential adversaries of reconnaissance satellites, anti-ship ballistic missiles, supersonic (and now ‘hypersonic’) long-range cruise missiles, nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSNs), very quiet diesel-electric submarines, and so on. These are serious apprehensions and neither can nor should evoke glib responses that are driven by empty bravado. There are real lives involved and that too, in large numbers. A modern aircraft carrier is run by a highly trained crew of well over 1,500 men. This roughly corresponds to one-and-a-half Infantry Battalions of the Indian Army! Other than in a nuclear war, it is impossible for the Indian Army to lose one-and-a-half battalions to enemy combat-power in just a few minutes. However, the fact this magnitude of human loss may occur in so compressed a timeframe is exactly what could happen were one of the Indian Navy’s contemporary aircraft carriers to be sunk as a result of enemy action. The effect upon residual fighting capability, as also upon resultant morale at the Naval, Armed Forces, and national levels would be no less catastrophic. Hence issues involving a careful vulnerability-assessment and equally careful vulnerability-mitigation are serious matters that merit serious and informed discussion and debate. 

Operational Employment 

As mentioned in the cover story of the Nov-Dec 2016 edition of this magazine (See “The Indian Navy, Rising to New Challenges”, pp. 19-23), in order to maximize her options for strategic or operational maneuver (at the regional-theater level) in responding to military aggression by potentially adversarial nation-states such as China and Pakistan, India is inevitably driven to acquire, possess and master ‘blue water’ naval capability. This capability is centered upon the Carrier Battle Group (CBG), which is a synergistic and mutually-supporting conglomerate of warships centered upon an aircraft carrier, such that the combat-capability of the group as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is very important to bear in mind that it is the group and not the aircraft carrier alone that must remain the central point of reference and it is a basic analytical error to try and fractionalize the CBG. Of course, not all analysts are able to resist the temptation of analyzing the aircraft carrier as a standalone ship (largely because a carrier is so hugely symbolic and tends to attract so much attention). The net result is the development of a set of apparently sophisticated but nevertheless fallacious arguments relating to the real and perceived vulnerabilities of this single platform alone. 

A typical combat-engagement cycle involves sequential Surveillance, Detection, Classification, Identification, Localization, Tracking, Attack-Criteria (i.e. Evasion / Engagement), and Damage Assessment. It is against this cycle that the vulnerability of an Indian CBG in times of conflict needs to be assessed. The first problem for an enemy that seeks the destruction of an aircraft carrier of the size and type under discussion is one of combat surveillance and resultant detection.  

CBGs routinely put to sea well before any crisis deteriorates into conflict and would invariably have been judiciously positioned firmly within ‘blue-waters.’ The fact that all carrier-operating navies realize the folly of keeping aircraft carriers in harbor and put them out to sea well in time is borne out by history. In the six years of the Second World War, only one aircraft carrier (the Imperial Japanese Ship Amagi) was ever sunk while in port. Thus, as Dr. Loren Thompson of the USA’s Lexington Institute reminds us, “…the most basic protection the carrier has against being detected… is distance. The areas in which carriers typically operate are so vast that adversaries would be hard-pressed to find them even in the absence of active countermeasures by the battle group.” 

The magnitude of this problem needs to be appreciated. The Indian Ocean has an area of some 73.6 million square kilometers. Even if one were to consider just the 3.86 million square kilometers of the Arabian Sea alone, it would be obvious that continuous surveillance of such a large water body is well outside current capabilities of any form of shore-based radar, including the much touted Over-the-Horizon ones. Persistent surveillance by sea-based radars (aboard ships and submarines) is a complex affair. The average range of detection by a shipborne radar of a large surface ship is only about 30 nm (56 km), thereby yielding detection within an area (πr2) of 9852 km², which is just 0.2 percent of the Arabian Sea! For the entire Arabian Sea to be kept under surveillance against a CBG, one would need some 471 ships, each with continuously-operating surface-detection radar, manned on a ‘24 x 7’ basis by a set of highly trained and constantly awake and alert radar operators. Persistent surveillance by submarines is a non-starter as detection-ranges are significantly lower due to the low height of the radar antenna — apart from not being an operationally viable option.

Consequently, the options of choice are satellite-based oceanic surveillance and oceanic surveillance by airborne radars. However, since any contemporary Indian CBG would be quite comfortably able to cover a distance of some 900-1,000 km in a 24-hour period, real-time detection is needed. Insofar as satellite-based detection is concerned, this calls for ground stations whose footprint would enable real time downloads of imagery (electro-optical, radar, infrared, or whatever) of medium/large objects detected at sea. An adversary seeking to make the Indian Ocean transparent must therefore possess an adequate number of adequately located ground stations. As the name implies, ground stations require ground. Such an adversary must, therefore, possess adequate territory upon which ground stations can be positioned — even if such ground stations are contemporary, small, and/or portable ones, such as the U.S./NATO ‘RAPIDS’ (Resource and Program Information Development System). All this is well beyond the current or near-term capabilities of either of India’s likely adversaries.

Turning finally to airborne detection, this is typically achieved through shore-based Long Range Maritime Patrol’ (LRMP) aircraft such as the P3C Orion, the Boeing P8I, etc. Pakistan has some capability within the Arabian Sea and China has some marginal capability at the eastern fringes of the Bay of Bengal. These capabilities are further degraded by the Indian Navy’s deployment pattern in respect of the CBG. In accordance of the principles of maneuver warfare (as opposed to those of attrition warfare), the CBG would not normally be deployed where the enemy’s tri-service strength is the greatest — in this case, within the unrefuelled combat radius of an intact enemy’s shore-based Fighter Ground Attack (FGA) aircraft. Indeed, the deployment pattern of the CBG is an overarching factor that is germane right across the combat-engagement cycle under consideration.  

But what if detection is, indeed, achieved? How survivable is the aircraft carrier thereafter? This is what the second part of this article will explore…stay tuned. 

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

Featured image: Admiral Gorshkov under refit to become INS Vikramaditya. Note ski deck. (Photo via