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Reforming 21st Century Navy Intelligence To Answer the CNO’s Call

By Millard Bowen and David Andre

In January 2016, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) issued A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, which defined the current operational environment and laid out our Navy’s most pressing challenges within a framework of three interrelated global forces. These global forcesthe classic maritime system, the global information system, and the increased rate of technological creation and adaptationrequire the Navy’s Intelligence Community (IC) to adapt for the 21st Century.

Of the four Lines of Effort identified in the CNO’s Design, the Navy IC can directly affect three: Achieve High Velocity Learning at Every Level, Strengthen our Navy Team for the Future, and Expand and Strengthen Our Network of Partners. The fourth Line of Effort— Strengthen Naval Power at and From Sea — will derive direct advantages through Navy IC advancements in the other LOEs. Within this context, this paper identifies three challenges and proposes solutions to help the Navy IC effectively execute the CNO’s Design.

Challenge 1: Disseminate Ideas and Information Across the Intelligence Community

There is a contradiction inherent in the Navy IC’s professional development between generalization and subject matter expertise. On one hand, the Navy IC is a relatively stove-piped community, with little overlap between the disparate specialties and geographic commands that constitute the larger naval intelligence enterprise. At odds with this is a development paradigm for Intelligence Officers that prizes geographic diversity and job variety. In practice, this means that Intelligence Officers repeatedly find themselves at the bottom of the learning curve. Tour lengths and career progression permit only a modicum of regional or topical expertise before moving on to different problem sets.

The current career path for Naval Intelligence Officers. (US Navy Bureau of Personnel)

This creates an environment where the only Subject Matter Experts (SME) on a given target or region are often civilians at shore-side facilities where their expertise is directed (or constrained) to a select few leaders in the IC and greater DoD enterprise. Coupled with this situation is the current trend where most Intelligence Officer training resides at the unit level, allowing operational tempo and personality types to de-standardize the frequency, quality, and accuracy of the training.

The Navy lacks a consistent, IC-wide ability to ensure sustained familiarity with current intelligence, technology developments, and emerging challenges and threats. Aside from the baseline knowledge established in the Navy Intelligence Officer Basic Course (NIOBC), the majority of junior Intelligence Officers are defined by their assignments and therefore lack a strong grasp of the greater body of information in the IC. It is critical that Intelligence professionals provide warfighters and decision-makers context and probability; this paper contends that our current professional development does not develop this capability. In a future electromagnetic- (EM) degraded warfighting environment, relevant intelligence expertise needs to be available organically, across pay-grades and platforms. There will be no time for an Intelink hunt.

Solution: Use Modern Technology to Disseminate Practical Knowledge IC-Wide

To address these shortfalls, the Navy IC needs to use new technology to share ideas and information efficiently. The intent is not to turn generalists into SMEs, but to bridge knowledge gaps and prepare Intelligence Officers for the full array of jobs available. Using SMEs to develop the baseline knowledge of the community increases information flow and encourages innovation. To pass new information, the IC has traditionally relied on CDs and e-mails with uncertain distribution, messages with no mechanism to confirm readership, and ad-hoc training subject to the variations of trainers and the training environment.

An example of a periodic Navy audio series, the CNO’s podcast, Soundings. Click to listen to the February 15, 2017 episode on the core attribute of toughness.

The IC should augment these traditional methods with the creation of periodic video and/or audio lecture series to instruct the Navy IC on current information. Use the example of a podcast or TED Talks where an Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) or Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC) SME uses audio and visual aids to provide the ground truth on myriad topics to Navy Intelligence personnel worldwide.1 Instead of being constrained by the unbalanced knowledge that intelligence professionals develop individually, leverage SME knowledge to educate the broader community—effectively turning a weakness into strength. Underpinning this effort will be a central repository where the briefs reside, readily accessible to the fleet. These products will allow Intelligence Officers and enlisted Sailors to arrive on-station familiar with ongoing threats, trends, and maritime security challenges wherever they are assigned. This will enable high velocity learning by accelerating the dissemination of expertise and leveraging specialization to enhance the knowledge of the greater intelligence community.

We propose that these products be spearheaded and developed by ONI a minimum of once a month, no more than an hour in length, and hung in a low-bandwidth form on the Secret Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) Network; SIPR has to be the medium of choice to reach the greatest audience, afloat or ashore. Audio versions of the same briefs can be posted to the web for bandwidth constrained platforms and units, and the corresponding visual aids can be included in downloadable zip-files. Additionally, distributing an annual DVD compilation of the briefs to all Navy units would enable periodic training regardless of connectivity or bandwidth.

Challenge 2: Emphasis on Bridging the Operations and Intelligence Divide

There is a wealth of evidence—albeit mainly anecdotal—pointing to a persistent need to strengthen communication and trust between Unrestricted Line (URL) Officers and Intelligence Officers. To support operations effectively, the Navy IC must develop a better understanding of at-sea expeditionary warfare operations, operational terminology and practices, and the challenges that operators face. Similarly, to effectively consume and synthesize intelligence products, warfighters and planners must understand the cyclic relationship between intelligence and operations. Knowing what the Navy IC can provide, how missions and operations feed intelligence assessments, and how to frame questions effectively will ultimately improve productivity and the quality of naval intelligence professionals and operators alike. Ironically, the IC typically understands the capabilities and limitations of foreign forces well, but we can do a better job understanding those of our own fleet.

A strong relationship between intelligence and operational professionals is vital to successful mission execution, such as this photo of planning efforts leading up to Exercise BOLD ALLIGATOR 2011. (US Navy Photo by MC1 Phil Beaufort)

Junior URL Officers typically have limited cross-community learning and familiarization due to their respective warfare qualification processes and job requirements.2 These early years are exactly when junior officers need to begin learning about other communities, so they can foster the trust that is critical in the operations and intelligence relationship. The foundation of these relationships lies in an appreciation for one another’s work and an understanding of the interrelatedness of each community. The IC must accept responsibility for educating naval warfighters on our community while educating ourselves on theirs. Increased alignment will enable operators to understand the right questions to ask, thereby allowing intelligence professionals to provide improved time-sensitive, succinct, and relevant intelligence to our fleet.

Solution: Identify and Employ Cross Community Engagement Opportunities

A primary focus of an Intelligence Officer’s first tour is the completion of their professional qualifications—a process that can take up a majority of their time. Our first proposal is placing emphasis on getting our 1830s qualified as quickly as possible and then using the remaining time in their initial tour to embark a variety of ships and submarines; the benefits are three-fold.

Foremost, it will broaden the young officers’ knowledge of our fleet including the hardware, technology, and terminology associated with conducting at-sea operations. Second, it will allow them to receive valuable training from peers working across the operational spectrum. Lastly, it will foster side-by-side communication and cohesion with URL peers. Part of this initiative might include NIOBC students completing their initial Personnel Qualification Standards (PQS) before graduation, thus speeding their Information Warfare (IW) qualification process upon entering the fleet.

The second proposal is integrating intelligence familiarization into the training pipelines for URL Officers. This familiarization would occur primarily aboard big-deck amphibs and carriers, where officers can receive in-depth tours and briefs on the routine operations and capabilities of strike group intelligence centers. The training will demonstrate the value intelligence teams provide, how to communicate with them, their limitations, and how URL Officers contribute to Indications and Warning (I&W). In the case of Surface Warfare Officers (SWOs), this could become a small portion of the Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) already being taught.3 An alternative and complimentary approach to address existing apprehension between Operations and Intelligence is to increase the number of lateral transfer URL Officers in the 1830 accession model. A third prospect is expanding the SWO-Intel option at all accession sources so a larger number of future Intelligence Officers will have completed initial URL tours aboard surface warships, thus developing familiarization and relationships with other communities.

These suggestions alone will not break down all barriers and communication challenges between Ops and Intel. However, when coupled with frequent engagement opportunities, familiarization with new intelligence practices, and manning and accession changes, increased trust and cohesion amongst our Fleet’s cadre will flourish.

Challenge 3: Improve Awareness of International Maritime Security Organizations, Shared Lines of Effort, and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) Developments

The CNO has charged our Navy with expanding and strengthening our network of interagency and international partners. Maritime security organizations across the world possess valuable knowledge, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP), along with lessons learned regarding their experiences with MDA and maritime security threats. It is imperative that we expose our Intelligence Officers to these organizations, their practices, processes, and ideas. Collaboration and novel lines of communication with these agencies will help enable the global information-sharing network required for the coming decades. However, to get there, these partners must believe we understand their concerns, modi operandi, and capabilities, and they must trust their USN counterparts.

LT David Andre works with SEACAT exercise participants to share information for a common regional maritime picture and coordinate responses to maritime threats. (Government of Singapore)

Many partner navies align closely with U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) missions, an area where the U.S. Navy lacks proficiency. We can improve relationships with those navies by working together, understanding their challenges and perceived threats—even if they are atypical for our fleet. An example of this is Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU), which is the scourge of developing maritime nations the world over, but garners little attention from the USN.

We can enhance our international relationships and improve information sharing by familiarizing ourselves with maritime threats like this, enabling more effective management of lines of communication. Understanding our international partners’ concerns will make us a more effective partner, paving the way for cooperation and trust across a range of issues.

Solution: Engage with Local and Foreign Maritime Security Organizations

Identify organizations that practice the key principles of MDA and information sharing, like major CONUS and OCONUS port operations control centers, USCG and Department of Homeland Security Interagency Operations Centers, and multi-national coordination centers like those in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Lisbon, Cameroon, and Northwood.4 Send groups of mid-career Intelligence Officers on periodic familiarization trips to these destinations for engagement and collaborative discussions on current trends, threats, and lessons learned from combating maritime security threats.

The USN target audience will be Lieutenant Commanders (O-4s); the goal would be to—at least once a year—send a small group of personnel from various commands to spend 2-4 weeks touring these sites. Their mission would be to receive briefs on their hosts’ missions and capabilities, and provide reciprocal briefs on information sharing and maintaining MDA. This would potentially look like a scaled-down version of the initial familiarization training that a Foreign Area Officer (FAO) receives.

The overall goal of this initiative is to broaden our connection to the greater MDA and maritime information sharing communities, establish and maintain relationships and working lines of communication. Participation in these visits can be tailored to inform the Navy IC through end-of-mission briefs to leadership at ONI, Combatant Command (COCOM) JIOCs, and numbered fleets. Longer-term opportunities exist in the form of International Liaison Officer posts at foreign maritime security centers. These liaison billets foster greater understanding of international and regional maritime security trends and the capabilities and limitations of global partners. Similar to the SECNAVs Tours with Industry program that affords military members an opportunity to work with large civilian corporations for a year; this international exchange program will expose officers to new ideas and organizations, fostering relationships, information sharing, and improving MDA.


The Navy Intelligence Community has played a vital role in our Fleet’s success from Midway through the Global War on Terrorism. To continue this effort, the Navy IC must demonstrate initiative and creativity to address the challenges identified by the CNO. Usable and timely intelligence must be communicated across the fleet to decision-makers and warfighters in all phases of operation. To effect these activities, new technologies will be used, new domestic and international relationships will be required, and an increased level of coordination and trust must be fostered amongst Intelligence and Operations professionals.

Cross-community trust and engagement will enable improvements in all parts of the intelligence cycle, better preparing our Fleet for the warfighting environments of the 21st century. Navy IC-led international partnerships and information sharing will provide new levels of access to intelligence, facilities, and new technology in this era of increased globalization. These changes will not happen immediately, they will require adaptation, ingenuity and a cultural shift. This is an opportunity and challenge we are ready to accept.

LT Millard Bowen is a former Surface Warfare Officer and was most recently the N2 for COMDESRON SEVEN in Singapore. He is currently serving as the Operations Officer for NCIS’s Multiple Threat Alert Center (MTAC). He can be reached at

LT David M. Andre is a former Intelligence Specialist, and has served as an Intelligence Officer and Liaison Officer assigned to AFRICOM. He is currently serving as N2 for COMDESRON SEVEN in Singapore. He can be reached at

The views expressed above are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official views and are not endorsed by the United States Navy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other body of the United States Government.


1. An additional benefit to this approach is the Navy’s younger generation of Officers and Enlisted will likely be more receptive to multi-media training tools like these.

2. This is more common in the Surface Warfare and Submarine communities. Aviation Squadrons and Naval Special Warfare units have assigned Intelligence teams, so there is more familiarity earlier in their careers with varying degrees of success.

3. There may be opportunities for similar Intelligence familiarization training in the initial training pipelines for Naval Special Warfare, Aviators and Submariners, but future collaboration with those communities will be required to identify when and how best to integrate these topics.

4. Singapore hosts the Information Fusion Centre (IFC), Kuala Lumpur hosts the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB PRC), Lisbon hosts the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre – Narcotic (MAOC-N), Cameroon hosts the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Inter-regional Coordinating Center (ICC), Northwood, England hosts the NATO Maritime Command HQ, the NATO Shipping Centre (NSC) and the Maritime Security Center – Horn of Africa (MSCHOA).

Featured Image: Two U.S. Navy Sailors and Peruvian sailor confirm position of simulated enemy destroyer in combat information center aboard guided-missile frigate USS Rentz during wargames as part of annual UNITAS multinational maritime exercise, off coast of Colombia, September 14, 2013 (U.S. Navy/Corey Barker)

Featured Image: Two U.S. Navy Sailors and Peruvian sailor confirm position of simulated enemy destroyer in combat information center aboard guided-missile frigate USS Rentz during wargames as part of annual UNITAS multinational maritime exercise, off coast of Colombia, September 14, 2013 (U.S. Navy/Corey Barker)

Is Somali Piracy Back?

By Joshua Tallis

Late Monday, crew on the Emirati-owned oil tanker Aris13 activated a distress call indicating they were being pursued by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The subsequent hijacking, once confirmed, would mark the first successful Somali act of piracy since 2012. This of course begs the question: Is Somali piracy back?

The answer is probably yes; also probably no (forecasting is a bad business to be in these days). Credible arguments could be made in either camp. Here I’ve chosen to explore some of the key points on either side.

Is Piracy in Somalia is Making a Comeback?

When Somali piracy spiked in the late 2000s, the international community was fairly quick to respond. Somalia sits alongside some of the most important shipping lanes in global trade, and precipitously close to three maritime chokepoints: the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz. Rising insurance premiums for shipped goods and the market-wide consequences of scares to the free flow of oil made addressing piracy off the horn of Africa an issue of importance for many navies. One of the largest such engagements was operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s contribution to counter-piracy. Ocean Shield and related efforts, like EU’s operation Atalanta, were heavily credited with the dramatic reduction in Somali piracy that followed. As Rear Admiral Terry McKnight (USN, Ret) notes, though after years of no successful attacks, Ocean Shield was suspended at the end of 2016. If the deterrent effect of NATO and other warships in the region was indeed primarily responsible for suppressing Somali piracy, the minimization of that deterrent could be credibly seen as providing an opening for resurgent piracy.

At the height of regional piracy, a CNA study warned that “the resilience of the pirate enterprise should not be understated.” Four years later, that cautionary note remains relevant. First, it should be noted that piracy rarely just disappears. Like any crime, eradication is an unlikely end state. That is the case off Somalia as well. Even though attacks were unsuccessful after 2012, a small number of attempted attacks were reported in the Gulf of Aden in 2013 (6) and 2014 (4). Attempts by Somali pirates in the Red Sea were also reported in 2013 (2) and 2014 (4), while attacks closer to Somali waters occurred in 2013 (7), 2014 (3) and 2016 (2). These numbers are orders of magnitude smaller than in previous years, and gaps in attacks in 2015 tell a remarkable story. For all those reasons we could look at those numbers and conclude this most recent alleged attack is an outlier (and in truth it likely is, I suspect). Nevertheless, as per the International Maritime Bureau (the organization that actually collects all this information), the attempted assaults in 2016 indicate that the “capacity and intent to attack merchant shipping still exists off Somalia.” Lingering institutional knowledge means that a resurgence is not impossible. Closely linked to this point is the idea that (like other types of crime) piracy may have a contagion effect. A successful hijacking now could produce copycat attempts, the success or failures of which would have significant consequences for the overall trajectory of regional piracy.

Of course, it is now almost a cliché to note that piracy is ultimately solved on land, not at sea. Suffice it to say that, despite apparent gains in power consolidation, Somalia remains quite clearly a country in search of greater stability (it was the top ranked state in the most recent Fragile States Index report). Like the pirate havens of lore, ungoverned spaces will always run the risk of attracting maritime criminality.

Is Piracy in Somalia is Gone for Good?

The numbers reflected above speak in large part for themselves. Piracy in Somalia, for several years now, has been as close to nonexistent as is practicable. One incident does not make a convincing trend.

Moreover, while a decline in anti-piracy-tasked warships is important to note, other deterrents continue to play an important role. In addition to a remaining naval presence, shippers also developed myriad means of combatting piracy. Embarked armed security is a very credible threat, while passive security measures (watch Captain Phillips), and best management practices (like better reporting standards) all likely contributed to declines in piracy rates and remain just as relevant today as in 2012.

Some systemic arguments are harder to make with certainty but are also worth noting. Unlike piracy in the Gulf of Guinea or parts of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, notably), Somali piracy was remarkably organized (i.e. not opportunistic). A wide-scale resurgence in Somali piracy, in the vein with which we are familiar with it, would mean a major retooling of operations for the regional transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that provide a backbone for piracy’s infrastructure (bank accounts, negotiators, financiers). Like most TCOs, it is likely that Somali gangs have diversified to survive, perhaps branching into weapons smuggling or, as a report from 2012 suggests, kidnapping foreigners on land. Making the switch back to piracy is far from impossible, but could run into bureaucratic resistance (even criminals have bosses).

The German Frigate ‘Hamburg’ (R) patrols after destroying two fishing boats (L) which were discovered floating keel side up in open waters off the coast of Somalia, in this undated handout photo made available to Reuters August 15, 2011. (REUTERS/Bundeswehr/Christian Laudan/Handout)

Globally, piracy has also just hit its lowest rates in 18 years. And when you get deeper into the details, the numbers don’t not look ripe for a Somali resurgence. Overall piracy attempts are down, including hijackings, which are the typical type of attack employed near the horn of Africa. What is up are kidnappings, seen increasingly in Nigerian piracy (which is still very active). Indonesia, meanwhile, saw a large decline in piracy, but still owns a substantial portion of total attacks, almost all of which are simple and opportunistic. If global numbers can say anything about a specific region (which is admittedly a big ‘if’), one potential takeaway is that opportunistic piracy and hit and run kidnappings are (for now) more viable tactics than those that Somali pirates usually employed.


There is more to this conversation to be sure. Historically, claims that Somali piracy was a response to toxic dumping and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing (the Somali coast guard narrative) struck some experts as an inadequate explanation for the phenomenon. Fishing has not traditionally been a major part of Somali culture or economies, nor were most pirates former fishermen. (That does not excuse the devastation of toxic dumping and IUU fishing, only its ability to causally explain piracy.) In response to this latest incident, however, that claim has resurfaced as a direct cause of the Aris 13 hijacking. Should it prove that fishermen were indeed responding to predations in Somali waters, that could spark a much wider debate once again. Only time will tell whether Somali piracy will ebb or surge. For now, our thoughts are with the crewmembers and their families.

Joshua Tallis is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. The views and opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his employer.

Featured Image: Mohamed Dahir/Getty Images

Interwar-Period Gaming Today for Conflicts Tomorrow: Press ‘Start’ to Play, Pt. 1

By Major Jeff Wong, USMCR

“As the interwar period suggests, wargaming is one of the most effective means available to offer senior leaders a glimpse of future conflict, however incomplete. Wargames offer opportunities to test new ideas and explore the art of the possible. They help us imagine alternative ways of operating and envision new capabilities that might make a difference on future battlefields.”1

– Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work and General Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, December 8, 2015

Why Wargame?

Chester Nimitz fought the Japanese long before they attacked Pearl Harbor. During wargames played at the Naval War College in 1922, the promising commander raced a make-believe fleet thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to reinforce the besieged American garrison in the Philippines. Nimitz pushed small icons representing U.S. aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliaries across a large map of the Pacific on the floor of the college’s game room – getting them west but stretching sea lines of communication across the vast ocean. Classmates mimicking Japanese naval doctrine maneuvered their fleet east – isolating the Philippines, seizing U.S. bases, and meeting the American flotilla’s advance. Under the watchful eyes of faculty serving as game umpires, battles ensued. Win or lose, learning occurred without shedding a drop of sailor’s blood or firing a single round. After the Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Nimitz – by then, the commander of the Pacific Fleet – felt ready for the coming conflict. He later wrote, “The war with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms at the Naval War College by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise” except for the kamikaze.2 

Through wargames in Newport – and others played in Tokyo and Berlin – military professionals learned about themselves, their adversaries, and potential solutions to future challenges. When used correctly, wargaming is a relatively inexpensive, yet powerful tool that offers creative solutions to complex problems. When used incorrectly, wargaming confirms poor assumptions, shapes misperceptions, and reinforces hubris. At their best, wargames are vehicles for the pursuit of intellectual honesty and leadership. At their worst, they are barely concealed advocacy platforms that set up false choices for game play to reinforce pre-ordained outcomes.3

Nevertheless, current senior U.S. defense leaders should look to wargaming’s best practices – particularly German, Japanese, and American games between the First and Second World Wars – to shed light on an uncertain future featuring evolving adversaries, emerging concepts, and untested capabilities. During the period between the First and Second World Wars, wargaming anchored the curricula of professional military education (PME) institutions, allowed commanders and staffs to rehearse and adjust plans for major campaigns, provided a venue for alternate and enemy perspectives, and informed the development of new concepts and capabilities that fed a “cycle of research” to support innovation.4 Today’s U.S. joint force would be wise to apply the best traits of gaming from the interwar-period of the early twentieth century, when wargames blended effectively with the military cultures of Germany, Japan, and the United States to yield insights that affected how they fought during the Second World War.

Military cultures that used wargames reaped their benefits. From the moment the Treaty of Versailles ended the Great War and set the conditions for its successor, senior leaders sought an edge for another global conflict that many observers considered likely.5 In Germany, wargaming expanded its role in the Wehrmacht’s cultural landscape. Officers learned the value of wargames at the famed Kriegsakademie, then applied gaming techniques to develop operational options and explore potential adversary actions during planning for campaigns such as the 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. German officers also used wargames to evolve air doctrine and inform aircraft manufacturing decisions that would have serious implications for the Luftwaffe’s strategic-bombing capabilities in the European theater.

In Japan, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto employed wargames to study the sequencing of his complex Pacific campaign, examine the likely reactions of American and British forces, and allow his subordinate commanders and their staffs to rehearse and adjust plans for major campaigns such as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the strike against the American stronghold on Midway Island. In the United States, American naval officers played hundreds of wargames at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. These games allowed generations of future naval leaders to develop a shared mental model about the strategic and operational framework of the approaching conflict against Japan and provided a venue to test new concepts such as carrier aviation.6 (See Appendix A for information about wargaming and shared mental models). Between 1919 and 1941, German, Japanese, and American wargaming techniques explored new ways of fighting, informed campaign planning, and gave officers decision-making and planning practice before war erupted.

This series of articles will examine interwar-period gaming in three parts. The first part defines wargaming, discusses its utility, and differentiates it from other military analytic tools. The second part details 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. The third part concludes by identifying best wargaming practices that can be applied to today’s U.S. defense establishment in order to prepare for future conflicts. 

What is a Wargame?

Wargaming must be defined and characterized in order to facilitate substantive discussion. Confusion reigns when military professionals, including senior officers and government civilians, talk about wargaming. Currently, no doctrinal definition for “wargame” or “wargaming” exists.7 The 469-page Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms mentions either term three times, but never actually describes what a wargame is, discusses its traits, or examines its potential utility.8  Professional wargame designers have latched onto variations of a definition established by Dr. Peter Perla, a prominent American wargame designer and longtime research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses: 

“A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operation of actual forces, in which the flow of events affects and is affected by decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides.”9

The military gaming community also acknowledges a similar definition provided by the late Francis J. McHugh, an influential game designer at the U.S. Naval War College: 

“A simulation of selected aspects of a military operation in accordance with predetermined rules, data, and procedures to provide decision-making experience or provide decision-making information that is applicable to real-world situations.”10

Wargames are often confused with other problem-solving activities that do not involve the use of actual forces, including course of action (COA) wargaming, tabletop exercises (TTXs), tactical exercises without troops (TEWTs), and rehearsal-of-concept (ROC) drills. COA wargaming is a phase of American and British military planning processes in which options are systematically examined and refined based on enemy capabilities and limitations, potential actions and reactions, and characteristics of the operational environment. During COA wargames, a planning team refines existing options with the help of a so-called “red cell”11 that role-plays and represents the activities of potential adversaries and other factors that could threaten a mission.12 TTXs are scenario-based discussions involving senior officers and staff used to familiarize participants with plans, policies, procedures, and contingencies. TEWTs are commander-led exercises that use current doctrine to exercise subordinate leaders and staff responses against a given threat or scenario on the terrain in which they would fight. ROC drills are detailed rehearsals involving all commanders and staff for a given operation. Although TTXs, TEWTs, and ROC drills are scenario-driven exercises that test decision-making, they lack the “contest of wills,” which is an essential ingredient of wargaming.

Like many tools, wargames hold both great promise and pitfalls. Wargaming is a subjective, people-driven tool that is effective at investigating processes, organizing ideas, exploring issues, explaining implications, and identifying questions for future study.13 In the interwar years, these potential benefits drove military leaders to use wargames to study, question, and understand the plans they had crafted prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. At the same time, wargaming is not an effective tool for calculating outcomes, proving theories, predicting “winners,” producing numbers, and generating conclusions.14

Game designers continually sidestep wargaming’s pitfalls to fulfill their promise. Wargames prove their military utility every time a commander embarks on a mental exercise to rehearse possible solutions to a problem, project an adversary’s response, and assess the decisions made by friend and foe. “It enables a commander and his staff to review assumptions, detect inadequate or untimely support, verify time and space factors, and reconcile divergent opinions,” writes Dr. Williamson Murray. “The game provides a means of testing ideas, of coordinating services and branches, and of exploring and considering all possible contingencies prior to the drafting of the final operational plan.”15 Realistic wargames generate useful insights for subsequent study and live-force exercising when they involve commanders who are experts in the topics being examined, and feature accurate depictions of adversaries and the operational environment. 

However, interwar-period gaming experiences also exposed potential problems. German wargames overwhelmingly focused on the operational and tactical implications of its European offensives, but neglected to scrutinize the aggressive strategic guidance that drove its campaigns – and significant operational losses – in Poland and Norway. Japanese wargaming featured a deterministic nature, confirming assumptions senior leaders made before they commissioned the games. American wargames at the Naval War College correctly invested intellectual bandwidth on war in the Pacific and the likely threat – Japan – but overlooked the pivotal 2,073-day Battle of the Atlantic, where German U-boats sank 3,500 Allied merchant ships with 13.5 million tons of shipping bound for the European theater. The Allies lost 175 warships and tens of thousands of merchant and military seamen in the Atlantic.16

Part two will discuss 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.

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. Robert O. Work and Paul Selva, “Revitalizing Wargaming is Necessary to be Prepared for Future Wars,” War on the Rocks, December 8, 2015 (accessed December 25, 2015).

2. Francis J. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 1961), 64.

3. Peter Perla (research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses), interview with Jeff Wong, October 9, 2015.

4. Dr. Peter Perla is credited with first using the term “Cycle of Research” to describe how wargames, exercises, and operations research can mutually support military innovation.  Contrast the cycle with the use of the same tools in isolation and independently. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 287.

5. Williamson Murray and Allan Reed Millett, A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 2.

6. Mental models are psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations. Princeton University, “Mental Models and Reasoning,” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2016), accessed February 11, 2016:

7. Older versions of Joint Publication (JP) 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, defined wargaming as “simulation, by whatever means, of a military operation involving two or more opposing forces, using rules, data, and procedures designed to depict an actual or assumed real-life situation.” Peter Pellegrino, “What is War Gaming?” Lecture at the Naval War College, published December 20, 2012 (accessed December 26, 2015):

8. U.S. Department of Defense, JP 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense).

9. Perla, The Art of Wargaming, 164.

10. McHugh, Fundamentals of War Gaming, 2.

11. Red “cells” and red “teams” are frequently confused for each other. A red cell is an entity typically led by a staff intelligence officer tasked with representing enemy doctrine and its likely courses of action.  A red team is tasked with challenging perceived norms and assumptions made by a commander and his staff in order to improve the validity and quality of a plan.

12. Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, MCDP 5-1, Marine Corps Planning Process (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2011), 1-5.

13. Peter Pellegrino, “What is a War Game?” lecture, U.S. Naval War College, published December 20, 2012 (accessed December 26, 2015).

14. Ibid.

15. Williamson Murray, “Red-Teaming: Its Contribution to Past Military Effectiveness,” DART Working Paper 02-2 (McLean, VA: Hicks and Associates, September 2002), 20-21.

16. Ed Offley, Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 391-92.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (May 9, 2013) Lt. Cmdr. Fisher Reynolds, assigned to U.S. Naval War College (NWC) war gaming department, and Brazilian navy Lt. Cmdr. Savio Cavalcanti, from Escola de Guerra Naval, provide inputs to a multi-touch multi-user interface as part of a control group at NWC in Newport, R.I., during the 2013 Inter-American War Game. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released)

Leadership Development Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC is featuring articles on the topic of leadership development. Read our Call for Articles here. While leadership development is always a subject of intense interest, it has drawn additional attention with the recent release of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Navy Leader Development Framework. Below is a list of articles featuring during the topic week, which will be updated as the topic week rolls out and as prospective authors finalize additional publications.

Making Good Leaders Great: Recommendations to Improve U.S. Navy Leadership by Will Wiley
Enabling Leadership from the Bottom by Jacob Wiencek
Embracing Creativity: A Leadership Challenge by David Andre
Innovative Leadership Development: Why and How by Joe Schuman
Maritime Profession of Arms in Dangerous Waters? by Tom Bayley

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: HAIFA, Israel (July 21, 2016) Commanding Officer Capt. Mike Patterson addresses the ship’s crew during a change of command ceremony on USS San Antonio (LPD 17) July 21, 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jacob Mathews/Released)