Being “Red”: The Challenge of Taking the Soviet Side in War Games at the Naval War College, Pt. 1

The following article originally appeared in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. It will be republished in two parts. Read it in its original form here.

By David Alan Rosenberg

Over four decades have passed since the U.S. Navy was last locked in combat at sea with a determined and capable oceangoing enemy. During those years, more than two generations of American naval technology have come and gone, as have the two generations of U.S. naval officers trained to operate and command that technology in combat. During those same four decades, the once minor Soviet Navy has emerged in both quality and quantity as a formidable seagoing force.

In the absence of actual hostilities between the United States and the U.S.S.R., an eventuality the United States has actively sought to deter, there has been no opportunity for the Navy to test its officers and its technology against the Soviet threat under wartime conditions. As the World War II reality of sustained combat at sea fades into distant memory, alternative means of measuring the U.S. Navy’s strategic and tactical readiness to fight a full-scale naval war have taken on increasing importance in the development of sound American maritime strategy.

Following the approaches established in the U.S. Navy of the 1920s and 1930s, two complementary techniques for measuring strategic readiness have emerged over these past 40 years. The first of these is a massive program of both regularly scheduled and special fleet exercises involving both U.S. and allied navies. Such exercises have their antecedents in the twenty-one fleet problems conducted on a more or less annual basis by the concentrated U.S. Fleet between 1922 and 1940. As mounted today, these exercises are designed to test interoperability, tactics, and operational capability in various regions, in all types of seasons and weather, against a wide range of possible combat scenarios. More than 100 major exercises involving actual forces afloat took place in 1985 and another 90 in 1986.1

The second approach is that of war gaming. The War Gaming Department of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island has emerged as the major institution where the U.S. Navy can test its strategic concepts and tactical and operational doctrine in a dynamic atmosphere of simulated battles and campaigns. Whereas during exercises commanders are restricted from firing a shot in anger against the U.S. and allied forces simulating the enemy, at Sims Hall in Newport, a full range of ordnance may be employed through the use of computer models of combat engagements and logistics generation. Experienced and prospective naval commanders are given the opportunity to make combat decisions and observe outcomes, and subsequently review their choices, explore alternatives, analyze the results, and draw lessons from the experience.

War gaming was introduced at the Naval War College a century ago. In the fall of 1886, two years after the War College opened, Lieutenant William McCarty Little, U.S. Navy (Retired) presented a lecture on “Colomb’s Naval Duel Game”—a simulation of two-ship combat. By 1894, gaming was a standard part of the course of instruction. It was conducted at three levels— single ship combat, tactical fleet formations and actions, and a strategic game simulating an entire war—as a means of teaching students to apply broad principles to specific situations. It was also useful in preparing plans and tactical formations for the fleet’s annual war problem.”2

Gaming became increasingly important in succeeding decades. In the interwar years, as the battles and campaigns of World War I were studied and the future shape of naval warfare examined, war gaming became a central element of the War College curriculum. An inexpensive (if imperfect) alternative to full-scale fleet exercises—an important consideration given the 1920s economy and 1930s austerity—the games were fought with increasing frequency in Luce Hall and, after 1934, on the checkerboard floor of Pringle Hall. In 1932, a standard game schedule was established which called for 304 of the 326 days in the academic year to be devoted to tactical and strategic exercises, tactical operations and quick decisions problems, critiques of gaming experiences, and a Battle of Jutland Board Maneuver.

Gaming played an important role in shaping the Navy’s strategic thinking and planning during the interwar period. While the Battle of Jutland exercise was used primarily as a training tool for gaining familiarity with gaming procedures and infusing the gamers with enthusiasm by offering the opportunity to refight the famous but inconclusive 1916 battle, the war games that pitted the U.S. Navy against the Japanese Navy, code-named “‘Orange,” served a more specific purpose. They cast doubt on the assumption that the U.S. Navy could easily defeat the Japanese in the Pacific by virtue of numerical superiority. By the early 1930s, as intelligence improved, awareness of logistical problems increased, and as the games grew more sophisticated, it became apparent that the U.S. Navy might well lose. During the rest of the decade, war gaming helped shape U.S. naval strategy, particularly by preparing those who would become the high command, to meet the challenges that lay ahead.3

One important element of gaming, even during the interwar years, was intelligence. Beginning in 1929, the War College maintained an intelligence department as an integral part of its institutional structure. The actual work of the department remains something of a mystery. An examination of the college staff rosters from 1929 through Pearl Harbor reveals that at least one captain and two to five commanders or lieutenant commanders, and even an occasional Army and Marine lieutenant colonel were assigned to the department along with the college’s professor of international law, G.G. Wilson, who was also on the faculty of Harvard University. Unlike the Department(s) of Operations, Strategy, and Tactics (actual departmental organization varied from year to year), which prepared the college curriculum and set the standards for gaming, the Intelligence Department appears to have been the research arm of the college, providing information on U.S. and foreign navies to support the curriculum, including gaming.

The kind and amount of information the Intelligence Department provided to students and faculty is not clear from War College archives. Three things are known, however. First, modern intelligence gathering was a factor in establishing the tactical situation for the game: mock radio intelligence intercepts were provided to ‘“Blue” and “Orange” teams as they prepared for combat. Second, there was no dedicated “Orange” team: students played both sides of the conflict. Finally, the absence of a dedicated ‘‘Orange”’ team, with its own unique approach to warfighting, reflected an assumption that the opposing navies were not only similar in force structure and weapons systems, but would rely on similar tactics. The theory of naval warfare at the time centered on the decisive fleet action, primarily involving battleships in a battleline engagement. Within this context, there appeared to be only a finite number of possible permutations in tactics or variations in military philosophy.

The U.S. Navy was in fact “reading the Japanese mail” during the 1920s and 1930s through radio intelligence code breaking, and used information gleaned from broken naval codes to ascertain the size and readiness of the Japanese Fleet. The full story of that intelligence effort has yet to be declassified, much less written, but based on information that is currently available, intelligence on the Japanese tactical and operational approach to war does not appear to have been a major concern of those in the Navy’s leadership who directed the collection and use of the “secrets from the ether” as such intercepts were called. It is possible that such information was collected and analyzed but was considered too sensitive for dissemination, In any event, it was not made available to either the fleet or to the War College.4

During the interwar years, the Naval War College was the pinnacle of the Navy’s professional education. As of 7 December 1941, every active duty flag officer qualified to command at sea, save one, was a War College graduate. That leadership, shaped by a curriculum centered on war gaming, had already anticipated, through gaming experience, most of the strategic challenges that World War II in the Pacific would present. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’ comment that the courses and war games at Newport in the 1920s were so thorough that “nothing that happened in the Pacific [during World War II] was strange or unexpected’’ has been widely quoted. But Nimitz was referring to overall strategy and the “fantastic logistic efforts required to support the operations of the war.’’5 The inattention to enemy tactics and operational practices in the interwar war games contributed to the startling and devastating tactical surprises the Japanese were able to inflict on the U.S. Navy in a series of battles from Pearl Harbor through the Guadalcanal Campaign in 1941-1943. The lesson of this experience—not to assume that an enemy’s tactics and strategy will mirror one’s own—was paid for dearly.

War gaming suffered something of a decline at the Naval War College after World War II. The Navy perceived its mission in the 1950s in terms of readiness to conduct forward defense, power projection ashore, and sea control—concepts that did not lend themselves readily to then existing techniques of manual war gaming. The most likely enemy of the United States—the U.S.S.R.—was not nearly so formidable a seagoing power as the Japanese had been in the interwar period. In the absence of a real naval opponent who could be cast in the “Orange” role, it was difficult to generate scenarios that were as credible or compelling as those of the 1930s. In 1958, the old game board in Pringle Hall, where warship models had been maneuvered by hand, was replaced by the Navy’s first war gaming computer, the Navy Electronic Warfare Simulator (NEWS), which had been under development since 1945. The following year a separate war gaming department was established in Sims Hall. In contrast to the interwar period, however, the NEWS was used for only 63 days of war gaming in 1965, including War College games, and Atlantic Fleet and Destroyer School training exercises.6

In the late 1960s, plans were laid for replacing the NEWS with a new and updated computerized war gaming center. In 1972, War College President Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner introduced a variety of reforms in the college curriculum. Among his many ideas, Turner disapproved of the way in which naval war games had been played at the college up to that time. He felt that in the past they had overemphasized the writing of complex operation orders and should be used more effectively as a teaching tool in educating students in the decision making process. Turner ordered extensive modifications in the new computer equipment for this purpose. He wanted every student, not just the select few, to have the opportunity to play an admiral’s role in a war game. While modifying the computer equipment for this purpose, Turner also encouraged the development of tabletop games created by Professor Jacques Naar, the first occupant of the McCarty Little Chair of Gaming and Research Technique.

It was the emergence of the Soviet Navy as a serious oceangoing challenge, however, which was primarily responsible for a resurgence of war gaming at the Naval War College. By the mid-1970s it had become apparent that the Soviet Navy would be a formidable opponent. War gaming would be a valuable tool for testing U.S. strategy, tactics, and capabilities against this potential threat, but only if the opposition were portrayed in the games as realistically as possible. Just as detailed intelligence about Japanese capabilities had been a critical component of the interwar games, so detailed intelligence about the Soviet Union had become a critical element in the 1970s. This time, however, it was apparent that knowledge of capabilities was not enough. The Soviet approach to naval warfare was known to be fundamentally different from that of the United States. To achieve a degree of realism, it was necessary to use the best possible information on Soviet strategy, decision making, and tactical doctrine in designing and implementing the games.

To meet this need, the Naval War College called on the Navy Field Operational Intelligence Office (NFOIO). In April 1976 the NFOIO (which became the Navy Operational Intelligence Center in 1984) sent a detachment to Newport to provide a “more comprehensive and informed intelligence input, particularly in the area of Soviet naval tactics, force structure, and capabilities.” A ‘‘dedicated intelligence team,’’ composed initially of one captain with an intelligence specialty, one commander or lieutenant commander line officer with a warfare specialty and intelligence subspecialty, one civilian intelligence analyst, and a civilian secretary, was attached to the Center for War Gaming.

Their mission, as established by an agreement between the President of the Naval War College and the Director of Naval Intelligence, was to act as “‘a permanent, in-residence ‘Opposition Team’ in appropriate war games,” with responsibility for directing opposition play or supporting a designated opposition force commander. The unit would provide opposition force intelligence data for operational units played in the game; simulate play of appropriate opposition political echelons and military commands; and “provide intelligence support to the Center for War Gaming on all matters pertaining to Soviet naval operations and tactical doctrine,’’ including all source briefings on the “‘capabilities, limitations, historical trends, and current developments in the Soviet Navy.” In addition, the detachment would conduct independent research on the Soviet Navy, assist in the preparation of intelligence publications, and assist NFOIO in preparing tactical analyses.7

The establishment of the intelligence detachment at the Center for War Gaming reflected growing concern about the expansion of Soviet military power, the same concern that prompted other U.S. intelligence innovations such as the creation of a permanent Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during James Schlesinger’s tour as Secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975, and the 1976 Team B reassessment of National Intelligence Estimates. It was part of a broad national effort to become more vigorous and professional in assessing and confronting Soviet military capability. Not since the interwar period had the Navy treated war gaming and simulation so seriously.

The creation of a dedicated opposition team also marked an important change in the Navy’s philosophy of war gaming, For one thing, it was a giant swing of the pendulum away from a long-standing institutional bias toward “mirror imaging” the enemy during war games. Equally important, it was designed to counter the kind of personal competition fostered by older approaches to war gaming. Under the old system, the games often became merely tests of skill between Navy commanders assigned to the two opposing sides. It was a personal contest between real-life competitors in which the main objective was not to play the ‘‘Red” or “Blue” side realistically or even to explore tactical and strategic lessons, but simply to beat the opposition. The question of who won and who lost overshadowed everything else. By taking the “Red” side out of the hands of the students or visiting admirals who were utilizing the war-gaming facility, the emphasis was shifted to the learning experience offered by simulated strategic interaction and tactical exchange.

By the late 1970s, war gaming at Newport had become much more than a means of training students in decision making and tactics. The revised operations course created by retired Vice Admiral Thomas Weschler in 1977-1981 changed the focus of the games from the level of individual ships or small units to the fleet and task force level. The multi-week Global War Game was begun in the summer of 1979 to examine changing strategic, logistic, and tactical options for U.S. worldwide military operations. Originally intended primarily to occupy War College students who stayed in Newport over the summer break, this innovative, broad-ranging game soon took on a life of its own. In recent years, sizeable contingents of flag officers and civilian decision makers from Washington have come to Newport every summer to play in the most extensive simulation of general war staged in the United States.8

David Alan Rosenberg is a Naval Reserve officer assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations Intelligence Analysis 0166 Reserve unit based at Naval Air Facility, Washington, D.C. As a civilian, he is a professor in the Strategy Department at the Naval War College.


1. On current exercises, see Christopher C. Wright, “U.S. Naval Operations in 1985,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Review, May 1986, pp. 34-40ff; and “U.S. Naval Operations in 1986,” U.S, Naval Institute Proceedings, Naval Review, May 1987, pp. 30-43ff. Interwar fleet problems are documented in the National Archives and Records Service microfilm publication M496, U.S. Fleet Problems, 1922-1941; their importance is discussed most recently in Thomas C, Hone and Mark David Mandeles, ‘Managerial Style of the Interwar Navy: A Reappraisal,” Naval War College Review, September-October 1980, pp. 88-101.

2. John B. Hattendorfet al., Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the U.S, Naval War College (Newport, R.1: Naval War College Press, 1984), pp. 24-25, 40-41; see also Francis J. McHugh, Fundamentals of Naval War Gaming (Newport, R.L: Naval War College, 1966), chap. 2.

3. Hattendorfet al., pp. 137-161; Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1949 (Newport, R.L: Naval War College Press, 1980), pp. 131-156; see also Michael Vlahos, “Wargaming, an Enforcer of Strategic Realism, 1919-1942,” Naval War College Review, March-April 1986, pp. 7-22; and Edward Miller’s forthcoming study of War Plan Orange for the Naval Institute Press.

4. The evolution of organization and personnel of the intelligence department is documented in U.S. Naval War College, Register of Officers, 1884-1977, Naval War College Archives, Newport, R.I., pp. 37-62; on radio intelligence code breaking and the work of the Office of Naval Intelligence in the interwar period, see the declassified Top Secret Ultra history by Laurence Safford, “A Brief History of Communications Intelligence in the United States,” SRH 149, Record Group 457, Modern Military Headquarters Branch, National Archives, Washington, D.C. This 22-page paper contains more detail on what was being read, when, and how it was used before World War II than any published source. On using simulated radio intercept messages, see Vlahos, The Blue Sword, pp. 136-139. The failure to consider Japanese tactics and training in war games is discussed by T.J. McKearney, “The Solomons Naval Campaign: A Paradigm for Surface Warships in Maritime Strategy,” Unpublished Student Research Paper, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.: September 1985, pp. 105-138.

5. E.B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1976), p. 136, contains the quote from Nimitz” letter to Vice Admiral Charles Melson. The quote also hangs in the lobby of the Naval War College War Gaming Center at Sims Hall.

6. Hattendorfet al., pp. 237-238; on NEWS, see McHugh, chap. 5.

7. Memorandum of Understanding between Rear Admiral B.R. Inman, U.S. Navy, Director of Naval Intelligence, and Vice Admiral J.J. LeBourgeois, U.S. Navy, President, Naval War College, Subject: NAVINTCOM Element at War Gaming Center, April 1976, from the files of the NAVOPINCEN Detachment, Naval War College, Newport, R.I.; on the Turner reforms, see Hattendorf et al., chap. 11, especially pp. 286-287.

8. Hattendorf et al., pp. 312-315.

Featured Image: Sailors on an American warship observe a Soviet Tarantul III class missile corvette underway. (U.S. National Archives/Scene Camera Operator: PH1 Scott Allen, USN)

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