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CHIPS Articles: Low-Tech War Games Inform High-Tech Decisions

Low-Tech War Games Inform High-Tech Decisions
By Nathanael Miller, Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Keyport Public Affairs - November 12, 2019
KEYPORT, Wash. (NNS) -- Rolling dice and moving game pieces might not seem relevant to 21st century warfare, but Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) is finding this low-tech means of war gaming has the potential to provide increased agility in the high stakes competition of high technology.

War games have been used throughout history to help operational and logistical leaders develop critical thinking and planning skills, determine possible outcomes and keep warfighters proficient in the use of their weapons systems.

The current battle raging across the Pacific Ocean on the tabletop map set up at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division, Keyport is not being run by admirals. Instead, engineers, logisticians and even Navy Acquisition Development Program (NADP) entry-level employees are fighting the game in order to expose them to the operational and logistical requirements of the warfighters who will be on the front lines in a real conflict.

“Prior to World War II, war games were a big part of fleet planning that involved everyone and helped develop plans that were later used in conflict,” said Paul Vebber. Vebber, who is the game master, has come from NUWC Headquarters in Newport, Rhode Island, to oversee the second iteration of the tabletop war game this year.

“The Navy got away from involving non-operational players in war games, and that has left a gap in the ability to plan and anticipate what technologies might be needed or how logistics will affect the battle.”

Vebber said he is working to “light a fire” in NAVSEA to build momentum for getting these games going across the entire organization. NAVSEA’s Campaign Plan 2.0, a guiding document codifying its strategic vision, stresses the need to improve warfighting systems and capabilities. Vebber said that educating the engineers, scientists, and logisticians in the realities of operational planning will increase their ability to meet NAVSEA’s strategic goals. Vebber expects this to significantly expand NAVSEA’s advantage in meeting future challenges.

The current iteration of the war game is not only being played by NUWC Division, Keyport. Vebber said several other organizations inside and outside of NAVSEA are participating. Besides NUWC Division, Keyport, NAVSEA is represented by the Naval Surface Warfare Centers at Dahlgren, Crane, Corona and Philadelphia. The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and a representative from Commander, Pacific Fleet are engaged as well.

Michele Burk, Chief Logistician for NUWC Division, Keyport, said the tabletop game is an excellent way for her and her colleagues to develop a broader sense of scale in their planning.

“In this war game, we took what we think we’re doing with mobile logistics and embedded it so we can see conceptually where there may be weaknesses or good points to it. We’ve found there are some strengths to what we’ve done,” said Burk. “It’s not real, but it gives us an idea how a conflict might play out. There’s also a probabilistic nature to the game which gives us an idea of the fog of war, the unpredictability, and how it might work.”

This experience is exactly what Vebber wants to expose a broad swath of the NAVSEA workforce to, right down to the personal interactions that happen through using the low-tech game boards. Although Vebber is not opposed to computer-generated simulations, he finds value in the low-tech means of conducting the war game.

“The low-tech gaming gets people into a situation where they have to think in a team. They have to interact differently,” Vebber said.

Matthew Solle, an NADP employee at NUWC Division, Keyport, holds a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Montana State University. Solle is currently working in unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) research, and said his view of the “big picture” had been limited until he had the chance to participate in the war game.

“I never think in a strategic or operational context. It just doesn’t make it into my day-to-day job,” said Solle. “Thinking about that operational picture is such an expansion of my usual work that I do. Just seeing the scale of when the fight actually happens — it’s not just a few battleships or a few planes.”

Solle said this perspective is something he had never considered as necessary for his work until now.

“I hadn’t really thought of all the ways you could have a UUV help out a group in battle. Maybe it’s just moving a few extra missiles to a ship that didn’t have them before, and now that ship can defend itself,” said Solle. "This is my first exposure to a big operational context and thinking strategically. If I could control the entire Navy and I could control a battle, where would I put UUVs so they could help out my ships?”

This kind of enlightenment is what Vebber hopes will expand NAVSEA’s advantage. Allowing engineers and logisticians to develop and hone operational planning skills is expected to help drive NAVSEA research and development into productive, efficient and effective directions Vebber said.

“This helps our people ask the right questions. Are we building the right technology the right way? Is the technology we’re building actually the technology the sailors need in the fleet? It does no good if we build some great piece of technology, but it’s of no use to the sailors who have to use it,” said Vebber.

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For more news from Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Keyport, visit www.navy.mil/local/nuwcd/.

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