All posts by Christopher Kona

Fleet Battle School: Innovative Ideas through Wargaming

102. “In the transition from the era of sail to an era of war in three dimensions, great importance, and often inordinate value, has been attached to material developments. Material represents means and not the end. A nineteenth century sailor would be bewildered in a modern warship, but regardless of the appearance of ships, there is one element, the most important of all, that remains unchanged – the man himself. Human nature in all the changing years has altered but little. It is the human element in warfare which may, if understood by the commander, prove to be the only way of converting impossibility into a successful reality. With trained men and proper materials, the commander’s task is reduced to the preparation of good plans. A force inferior in material potency may, due to the moral resources of its men, prove superior in naval strength.”
FTP 143(A), War Instructions, 1944

In the recent years of Pax Americana, we have gotten accustomed to the technological superiority of the United States. However, wars are not fought by gadgets, platforms and systems, they are fought by people. The people of the United States have developed this country and built its success not on a foundation of simply inventing new technology, but on innovative and disruptive ways to use it. The carrier and the submarine were not game-changing in their technology alone, but in how they were employed in a systematic campaign of strategic constriction through striking from great distance, island-hopping to secure bases and commerce destruction resulting in decisive victory. RADAR was a technology employed by a number of nations in World War Two, but the British early-warning system employed it through a novel concept of coordinated interception to successfully defend their island. In this same tradition, Fleet Battle School enables players to experiment with various “generations” of technological capability, indicative of what is available today and in the near future to discover not just what technological capabilities are valuable in a given situation, but how it can be used in new ways to be particularly devastating.

To this end, the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) developed a wargame which could be used to experiment with new technologies and innovative tactics. The Fleet Battle School game was intended to be a wargame which would enable the crowd-sourcing of ideas, an idea which project lead Jason Chuma has previously discussed on the CIMSEC website. To reach this end, the team focused on creating a game (based on a design by Paul Vebber) which would abstract a number of the characteristics used in professional wargames to create a system which is both easy to use and would portray general relationships present in a real conflict.

Most professional naval wargames are designed with a high level of fidelity. This fidelity within the “black box” of computer simulation hides the intricate interaction between weapons and targets. While this eases the burden of a steep “learning curve” to play the game and helps staffs exercise the detailed planning required to conduct complex naval operations, the lack of transparency results in little insight into why and how the result of executing the plan emerges. Fleet Battle School is not intended to be one of these games. It is a game designed to focus on the decisions which a commander would make to employ forces and allow players to experiment with how different decisions affect the outcomes of battle in a transparent manner. Thus, while Fleet Battle School has a combat system which is based on general relationships gleaned from naval warfare studies, engagements are resolved through a series of dice rolls based on incremental ‘capability levels’ attributed to the various platforms probability of successful engagement within and between domains represented in the game. Having access to the “combat results table” that indicates general probability of success of interactions between the various “capability levels”, the commander has knowledge of the general risk he accepts by pursuing a given course of action.

1277. “While no one can predict with certainty in advance the manner in which an action will be fought, particularly on the part of the enemy, it is imperative, if coordinated action is to take place and if effective results are to be obtained, that the officer in command indicate his intentions and direct the units of his command. He endeavors to impose his plan upon the enemy. He has a definite intention to win by employing a definite method. Indecision on the part of the officer in command creates indecision and inaction in his command and invites disaster. An action begun with the declared intention to bring about an attainable result in a specified way gains the initiative.”

FTP 143(A), War Instructions, 1944

Rather than making decisions for individual platforms, the players think at the level of the operational commander and issues orders to his forces as “missions” to perform in a given location, with caveats in the form of “commander’s intent.” These orders are given for each “game day” with the players given opportunities to adapt “the Plan” to emergent events, but at the cost of adding “friction” to the force’s ability to execute ad hoc missions which they are less prepared for than those in “the Plan”. It is assumed that the commanding officers of ships and pilots of the aircraft will execute tactics to try to best accomplish the mission assigned, though this can be affected by assumptions about overall crew proficiency and the aforementioned “friction”. The player isn’t worried about whether the ship should change speed or course, or how aircraft should be maneuvered to avoid an incoming missile – the split second decisions there are better suited for simulations. The player focuses instead on how forces are employed at the operational level, using emissions control, firing doctrine, force maneuver and air power to defeat an adversary, and most importantly, identifying the need to make a decision and what the best choice to make is at that juncture.

This approach creates three effects which make Fleet Battle School a unique wargame. First, it takes much less time to execute a scenario than a professional wargame. When professional wargames take days to play a week or so of real time, a scenario in Fleet Battle School representing several days can be resolved in a few hours or a game representing a few weeks in a few days. (The CRIC had entertained the idea of building a computer version of the game, which would shorten the time for a game to about 10-30 min per game day, depending on scenario complexity.) This makes the game much more accessible to a wide audience, by requiring less of a time investment in playing through a scenario to completion. It also supports a number of swift experiments sequentially – for experiments run over a week, players can try a variety of different decisions to better understand in what circumstances the decision is appropriate, or in the event of an unlucky outcome, how the same decision may still be the best approach.

Second, the game is very accessible to those with a wide background. Fleet Battle School was aimed at enabling junior officers and armchair admirals at home to be able to explore decisions at the operation level of war, but good operational warfare is a skill which takes a professional staff years to learn. By focusing on the decisions of the commander rather than the details of the planning, the game is accessible to people who may not have experience in maritime warfare or naval aviation, and gives them the opportunity to think through the challenges associated with naval warfare. In playtesting, one of the best players was a Marine Corps captain, who used a number of creative strategies to continue to defeat opponents with naval backgrounds.

Third, the approach keeps the game unclassified. While detailed simulation has its place, the difference of a few miles of missile range, or a different flight profile, doesn’t necessarily change decisions about how to employ forces. Basing the combat results on general incremental relationships between “generations” of capability based on unclassified studies of naval combat and operations research provide the game a backbone that keeps the effects of capabilities on decision-making consistent , without requiring details that would excessively limit the intended audience of the game.

In addition to these objectives, it was critical that the CRIC also produce a game which emphasized multiplayer interaction. Frequently, naval officers and operators are not exposed to conflict with an agile and adaptive adversary until late in their career; until then they are expected to follow and execute doctrine. Wargaming can provide a valuable opportunity for officers to develop their ability to think tactically and understand how to think through the sequence of action and counter-action to defeat a clever, creative and adaptable enemy. The ability to think like a naval warrior requires cultivation, and Fleet Battle School provides one way to allow players to do that.

Finally, if you want a wide audience to play your game, you need to make people want to play your game. Fleet Battle School aims at providing a game which flows quickly enough to keep players involved, and gives them enough decision space that they can build a narrative associated with the conflict. In the future, the game is designed to support a campaign of scenarios which would allow players to build their own order of battles and identify new technology investments. By watching how players evolve their own fleets, players develop ownership of their own fleet and are committed to its success, but the game would also provides valuable lessons on which capability and platform mixes are most successful.

New technological advancement themselves do not necessarily change the face of warfare; it is how those advancements are incorporated into new or novel concepts of operation which deliver advantage to a military. Fleet Battle School was designed by the CRIC to be a way to explore and evaluate new concepts across a wide forum to understand how the United States Navy and military forces in general can best leverage emerging technologies or new ideas. At the same time, it also helps to educate a new generation of officers in warfighting, and allow them to build experience in thinking creatively about warfare against an adaptive foe.

The Warfighting Connection blog has more information on the Fleet Battle School game, and the Fleet Power system on which it is based. The Fleet Battle School game is currently in early beta testing; intentions are to provide a playable demonstration of the Fleet Power system at the Connections Wargaming Conference in Quantico, VA, 4-7 August 2014.

Christopher Kona is a warfare analyst at Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, RI. He is a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), and a former submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. He was project lead for the CRIC’s Fleet Battle School wargame project.

Innovation Collaboration between CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell and Naval Undersea Warfare Center Newport

The CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) had an opportunity to meet with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport, RI in November, 2013. The CRIC is a group of 15 junior officers and enlisted in the Navy who explore the range of ideas and technologies being employed in the military, government, and commercial sector, and then experiment to see if they could be applied in the Navy. NUWC is a Department of the Navy Warfare Center, which develops and supports undersea capabilities. The objectives of the visit included building a greater understanding of operators’ concerns among scientists, engineers, and analysts at NUWC and link some of those concerns to products that could be used as potential project ideas, and provide warfighters information on technologies currently available or under development. Below, we discuss the approach and high-level results from the event.


Two separate sessions were held to generate ideas. The first was a facilitated “ideation,” or idea-generation, session in which CRIC members were interspersed with scientists, engineers, and analysts from across NUWC to brainstorm challenges and opportunities facing the undersea force. The somewhat hectic sessions produced a wide range of ideas, it also helped to develop a broader perspective about problems at various stakeholder levels before jumping into the weeds during the second session.

The second session consisted of small groups (2-3 people) of CRIC members and NUWC personnel touring some of the technical innovation underway across NUWC. These tours were structured to encourage discussion – the small groups and time available allowed for the CRIC to be easily shift between topics or delve into deeper detailed discussions based on a potential concept’s applicability. The visit was augmented for CRIC participants with visits to other NWC and NUWC groups: the Halsey Groups, Gravely Group, and Wylie Group, which helped to establish strategic context in which new ideas would be applied.

Brainstorming Results

Over the course of the event, there were a number of ideas (methods and technology solutions) that drew interest, but most intriguing were the differences in how the CRIC members and NUWC employees approached the same problem – in some ways a variation on the truism that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” CRIC members (principally junior officers and enlisted) tended to view the elementary fighting unit in the Navy as the sailor and tended to focus on solutions that centered on or leveraged human elements. They tended to seek ways to create change among people, but favored solutions that implied they had less power to create change in technical systems. On the other hand, NUWC employees tended to view the elemental fighting unit as the platform itself and tended to focus on solutions that employed systems to address problems at a higher level of warfare. From this perspective, NUWC participants’ ideas presumed an ability to easily change systems, but had little control in how these systems were used by people.

Most of the solutions identified by the CRIC focused on bio-inspired systems, autonomous systems, or systems to assist the individual operator. NUWC, on the other hand, focused on solutions for the ship or technical networking solutions (to create more of an operational-level effect). Brainstorming across these two perspectives provided a variety of responses, and also helped each group of participants better understand the perspective and strengths of the other.

Also noteworthy, when asked to vote on the ideas generated during the ideation session, CRIC and NUWC participants all tended to more heavily favor technology-based solutions.

Big Takeaways

The problems identified in the brainstorming session tended to fall into three categories: survivability, cognitive loading, and deckplate experimentation. Survivability problems dealt with improving the fleet’s performance against a capable adversary. Cognitive loading issues looked at how to increase the operator’s bandwidth to process and understand information, along with using technology to decrease the drain on the operators from stress or tasking. Deckplate experimentation problems focused on the desire to provide more opportunity for technical as well as operational experimentation onboard ships. Several times the idea of sailor-led innovation or experimentation was brought up, and that these innovations need not be material-based. Participants broadly agreed that any time a sailor tries a new way of accomplishing a task, it creates a potential for innovation. Both groups showed great interest in finding more ways to enable sailor-led innovation (with the understanding that this task is much easier said than done).

The event’s greatest benefit was the opportunity to close the gap between the warfighter and technologist, if even only a little. It is not always easy to completely understand the problems facing the warfighter or the solutions offered by the technologist. The lists of requirements and priorities are only as helpful as the understanding of their own problem. (An adage in systems analysis says the customer never understands his own problem.) The CRIC and NUWC Newport demonstrated that there is no substitute for a face-to-face exchange to help better understanding of the realm of the possible.

Christopher Kona is a warfare analyst at Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, RI. He is a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), and a former submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. He was project lead for the CRIC’s Fleet Battle School wargame project.

If You Give an Engineer a Toy: Building a Better Command Center

Virginia-class layout in CAFÉ laboratory, NUWC Newport
        Virginia-class layout in CAFÉ laboratory, NUWC Newport

Guest Post by Matt Puterio

At Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Newport we recently began an internal investment project—the Seamless and Intuitive Warfare Workforce Development Project—to develop the next generation of “system of systems” engineers. These engineers will ideally be trained to view problems and develop solutions in a holistic manner, breaking from the stove-piped designs of legacy systems.  As an underlying theme for the effort, NUWC Newport focused on the “One System” vision for submarine tactical systems.  This idea was originally conceptualized at the Tactical Advancements for Next Generation (TANG) forum and further advocated by the submarine fleet.  In pursuit of this vision, the team explored potential improvements for submarine combat system interfaces and for the control room as a way to improve the information flow and the effectiveness of the control room’s contact management team.

Our Approach:

  1. Team formation: We recruited and selected a cross-departmental team of 10 young engineers, typically with 3-7 years experience, from the Sensors and Sonar Systems, Combat Systems and Electromagnetic Systems Departments at NUWC Division Newport.
  2. Baselining on current combat systems: We cross-trained the team using military personnel in the Combat Systems Collaboration And Fleet Experimentation (CAFÉ) laboratory on an end-to-end layout of a Virginia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) control room, driven by a Submarine Multi Mission Team Trainer (SMMTT) system with sonar and combat control watch teams. An imaging simulator was even used to populate the periscope view with surface contacts when operating at periscope depth.
  3. Innovation process:  The team brainstormed initial concepts for next-gen integrated tactical systems, generating around 40-50 ideas, from which about 8 concepts were selected by the team for early prototyping with mock-ups.  These mock-ups were cut-out model representations using basic materials such as foam-core, cardboard and coloring sheets; and served to focus the team’s attention on details of scale and placement that would not have otherwise occurred.

Today’s Sailors are accustomed to immersive video games, advanced smart phones and tablets, intuitive multi-touch applications and can easily navigate the highly networked and always-connected world in which we now live in (so-called ‘digital natives’). Our project aims to leverage this natural affinity coupled with advanced technologies such as high resolution multi-touch displays, and mobile computing devices, and new software concepts such as cloud computing and virtualization and apply them to the demanding needs of the tactical warfighter. Sailors should be able to seamlessly adapt their high-tech civilian skills to the world of Undersea Warfare with minimal re-training and Seamless and Intuitive USW is focused on making this goal a reality.

The innovation process we followed was modeled after one developed by design and innovation consulting firm IDEO; the same process used by the TANG workshop. Generating a series of “How might we…” questions (called HMWs), the group brainstormed ideas for what improvements could be created. The members of the brainstorming group then came up with ideas to answer the questions (e.g. “redesign the layout of the control center!”) and wrote their ideas along with descriptive pictures to better explain the idea on sticky notes; one idea per sticky. Emphasis was on rapid and not necessarily well thought-out ideation along with quick sketches for each idea. The fast-paced nature of this exercise kept team members excited and stimulated creativity.

Figure 3

After investigating each idea, the group voted on the ideas they found most interesting, most powerful, or most disruptive.  Sub-groups of 2-5 team members were formed, and each sub-group picked a high scoring response to a HMW question that they would like to prototype.  This stage of prototyping was very basic; 4-K displays, iPads, iPhones, Android tablets, cloud computing, and multi-touch monitors took a back seat to foamcore, construction paper, hot glue, whiteboards, Sharpies, and dry erase markers.  The immediate goal wasn’t to get an actual product out to the fleet—rather to build a better mental model of the top ideas before laying the groundwork for an actual system.  Some of our prototypes at this stage included an operator workstation stack built out of foamcore, models of how we envisioned the layout of futuristic control rooms built from construction paper and foamcore (complete with popsicle stick sailors), and a 3D-display made from transparency sheets and foamcore.

Building rough prototypes literally turns words on paper into tangible objects.  Tangible objects are easier to work with since they do not require the imagination of onlookers and fellow team members.  A 3D-display may seem unnecessary until a fellow team member shows a physical model with a clay “ownship” submarine at the center and contacts of interest at various ranges and bearings on the display, directly modeling the actual tactical picture in the current environment.

Figure 5

From here our Seamless & Intuitive USW group branched out in two directions; software application development and virtual worlds (VW) modeling. The “App Team” focused on taking the most promising and realistic rough prototypes (in terms of team skills and project timeframe) and prototyped them in an actual software environment. This year we had access to a Perceptive Pixel multi-touch workstation with the Qt development environment that enabled us to quickly put together a few simple applications to interactively demonstrate the same concepts we prototyped using the arts & crafts materials. One example was a “Multi-touch App Manager” which allowed a user to pull open a menu of “available apps” similar to the app icons on Android or iOS, and resize and drag individual “apps”—simply static tactical screenshots in our prototype—around the workspace. Other examples included a demo of three different ways to select a trace on a display and a “Five Finger” multi-touch menu that enables users to pull open an intuitive menu simply by placing their right or left hand on the display surface.

Some of the ideas we brainstormed couldn’t adequately be represented in software. Rather than build a full-sized model submarine control room, the other branch of our group, the “Tiger Team,” employed their modeling skills with Second Life, a virtual world simulator. The Tiger Team worked with the “Virtual Worlds” group at NUWC, a team with expertise in creating realistic virtual models of Navy ships, submarines, and facilities in Second Life. The Virtual Worlds group assisted the Tiger Team in building realistic models of concepts such as new control room layouts, next-generation displays (such as the previously mentioned 3D-display), and even interactive displays by utilizing Second Life’s VNC capability (see below for an inward-facing command center configuration).

Figure 6
“But now they can all see when I’m updating my fantasy football team!”  Futuristic Command Center conceptual layout in Virtual Worlds.

The next step from here is implementing these prototypes on live data-streams, and integrating them as advanced engineering modules into a tactical system. So far we have given various demonstrations of our concepts, and have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our colleagues, internal NUWC management, and fleet representatives from Submarine Development Squadron TWELVE at the annual DEVRON12-NUWC Tech Exchange. The simplicity of the design-thinking process allowed our small team of engineers to go from ideas on sticky notes to working software prototypes and virtual models in several weeks.

We are eager to continue our work on Seamless and Intuitive USW. In addition to being an excellent platform for idea formation, this project was fun, exciting, and served as a vehicle to achieve our objective of developing the next generation of “system of systems” engineers. Working with next-generation technology is always a pleasure, and the expectation that our ideas will make it onto a shipboard system and help sailors perform their functions better makes our work even more worthwhile.

Contact Information:
Project Lead: 401-832-3887
Co-Lead: 401-832-8207

Matt Puterio is an engineer in the Sensors & Sonar Department and has been with NUWC Newport since June 2012 after graduating with a degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Delaware. His work includes test and analysis on the SQQ-89/ACB-13 surface ship sonar program and also works with Ray Rowland on the Seamless & Intuitive USW program.