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Article – Experimenting with a Commercial Off-the-Shelf Wargame as a PME Tool via the New Zealand Army

The following is an outline of a project the NZ Army’s Innovation Programme is considering for implementation as part of their 2017 / 2018 experimentation programme. During the scoping of this project, the opportunity has been identified to use it as a tool to reinforce tactical interoperability between the Australian and New Zealand Armies.

Photo courtesy of ASPI

Tactical Decision Making

Decision-making remains a cornerstone for tactical success. Junior commanders are now able to access a wider range of capabilities and assets, and the growing digitisation of land forces increases the quantity and scope of information available. This places even greater weight on tactical decision making, both as a force multiplier and as a decisive factor in determining tactical success.

Junior commanders need to understand and employ a range of joint and multinational effects, originating from a wide range of platforms, sensors and weapon systems in future operations. The nature and principles of warfare and combined arms combat is unlikely to change, but the tools available and the character of each battle will continue to adapt and evolve.

Decision-making requires both training, education and practical experience. Formal training/education is provided in Army schools and on courses, with on-the-job training occurring in units. Experience is gained as part of the Army’s training system through the age-old ‘crawl-walk-run’ methodology, where academic or theoretical education progressively gives way to practical training that helps build experience.

Benefits of Wargaming

Wargames are not able to replace or even replicate formal training or physical field exercises. They can, however, reinforce teachings and provide a framework for experimentation. Above all, wargaming allows a commander to practice decision making (and receive feedback on his or her decisions) thousands of times, increasing their level and range of experiences in certain areas. Commercial off-the-Shelf (COTS) wargaming software in particular provides a range of options and benefits that can be leveraged as a PME tool to support formal Army training and education. These include:

Accessibility. Tactical scenarios are easily available to anyone with a basic PC, allowing frequent and self-paced access to a range of scenarios. This enables self-teaching, where progression and the shifting of focus is at one’s own pace.

Repetition. While narrow in experience and artificial in nature, software provides commanders with the opportunity to wargame the same scenario multiple times, with or without variable elements. This allows for the accumulation of experience in certain areas which can not be replicated in a field exercise.

Access to capabilities. Commanders can be exposed to a range of expensive, high-end capabilities such as offensive support, close air support, remote and autonomous systems (such as UAVs) and Main Battle Tanks that are rarely exposed to all commanders in training.

Rapid, tangible feedback and arbitration. Software provides clear, neutral arbitration on engagements and tactical tasks, and as a result can provide rapid and tangible feedback on planning and decision making.

Platform for innovation and experimentation. The nature of wargaming software encourages repeat attempts and frequent restarts against a common scenario with rapid feedback loops. This allows for individualised experimentation without the consequences or pressures inherent to other Army training activities (such as course TEWTs or unit exercises). Learning and training outside the classroom engenders greater creativity in tactical decision making and experimenting with less conventional options and approaches. In addition, COTS wargaming software can help mitigate existing capability gaps and training shortfalls.

Weapons Effect Demonstration. Weapon Effects Demonstrations used to be conducted on a regular basis, however, due to the expense of operating many modern weapons systems and competing pressures, outputs and tempo,  less personnel are being regularly exposed. While not a substitute for physically observing weapon systems and their effects in action, being exposed within a simulated environment does ‘bring to life’ in other ways the various employment considerations, constraints and strengths of military capabilities, especially when the simulated environment incorporates specific capabilities as part of the combined arms battle.

Exposure to combined arms capabilities. Participating in a combined-arms environment and experiencing all capabilities in the modern land force is increasingly difficult given the trend towards increasingly dispersed manoeuvre. Like with weapons effects demonstrations, wargaming software allows commanders the opportunity to observe, assess and experiment with a wide range of simulated combined-arms tactics and capabilities that they would otherwise not be exposed to in routine training.

Exercise Chong Ju – image courtesy of the Australian Army

Proposal for COTS Wargaming Software

Historically, the NZ Army distributed  ‘TACOPS’ as wargaming software for students on staff-and-tactics courses to use for tactical experimentation on personal computers (TACOPs was still being distributed / made available as late as 2004). Designed in 1994, TACOPS was a basic symbols-based wargaming tool modelling sections and vehicles including weapon ranges, weapons effects and movement with basic ‘actions on’ orders. COTS wargaming software has undergone significant advancements since TACOPS was created and offers substantial benefits to developing tactical appreciation and decision making.

Existing software systems used within the NZ Army include VBS2 and Steel Beasts (both are more ‘experience focused’ simulators rather than wargames, and feature steep learning curves to utilise in a wargaming capacity) and SWORD and JANUS (constructive simulators facilitating wargaming of forces and engagements, but are complex and do not have accessible COTS versions).

The US Army’s Command and General Staff College has previously used the COTS wargame ‘Combat Mission: Shock Force’ (CMSF) to provide tactical experience to staff college students, noting that ‘CMSF provides an inexpensive, easy-to-use method of teaching basic tactical fundamentals. It has filled a gap in students’ experience of basic combat operations, permitting faculty and students to progress resolutely to higher levels of tactical operations with a strong visualisation of what their units can and cannot do’ Spurlin & Sholtz 2013.

The latest version of CMSF is known as ‘Black Sea’, and incorporates modern US Army and Russian equipment in a fictional Ukrainian war scenario. Black Sea incorporates all elements of small-unit combined arms warfare in a contemporary environment, including close-air support, UAVs, active-protection systems on armour, networked force considerations, mounted / dismounted manoeuvre, morale and suppression, offensive support and ammunition consumption. It is marketed as leaning towards the realistic-side of the wargaming spectrum, but remains a commercial product intended to be accessible to the general market, and as a result is designed around a reasonably intuitive interface.

Click on the image to access ‘Combat Mission Black Sea’

Based off initial experimentation, Black Sea meets all requirements for a wargaming system with sufficiently believable detail and accuracy in modelled systems. It seemed to reward proper tactics, with concentration of force and synchronisation of effects and manoeuvre rewarded. As an example, as part of a combined-arms engagement scenario playing as a reinforced US Mech Combat Team, an initial play-through seeing the dispersal (“penny-packeting”) of armour and combat support assets across a wide frontage resulted in widespread losses, with many key systems and vehicles disabled or destroyed in a series of minor engagements. On another attempt, with the scheme of manoeuvre changed to prioritise the concentration of the Combat Team’s forces on a single axis supported by a light screening force on a flank, the main effort advance was able to seize the objective faster, with minimal losses. Actual tactical manoeuvre was clumsy and haphazard, but the overall concepts and feedback appeared sound.

The limitations of Black Sea include:

  •  Lack of mission-command style orders. Units require substantial micro-management and intent-based orders (such as ‘secure’, ‘deny’ or ‘delay’) are not possible. Instead, orders work on units or groups given movement locations and actions-on (advance bounding, at speed or advance-to-contact, for example).
  • The commercial scenarios are not balanced according to military doctrine. They are weighted more as ‘problems’ than as balanced engagements. For example, enemy assets always seem substantially larger than doctrine would support  such as a US dismounted company attack set up against multiple enemy platoons. More aligned engagements (FF Coy vs OPFOR Pl) are easily set up as part of the software’s ‘quick engagement’ mode, but the campaign battles are not balanced. Black Sea seems to be strongest when used to simulate small-unit to sub-unit (Platoon to Company) tactics.

Proposal for NZ Army Wargaming Battle-Lab

COTS wargaming is proposed as a PME tool for personnel to use in their own time on personal computers, supporting and reinforcing formal training and education. Providing COTS wargaming as an after-hours pursuit is more likely to create the mental space and contribute to a cultural shift enabling a mind-set of experimentation, tactical innovation and aggressive adaptation within junior commanders.

After some analysis of various options, the course of action for the NZ Army Wargaming Battle Lab is proposed as follows:

  • Black Sea is used as an indicative COTS wargaming solution for trial and evaluation over a 12 month period, focussed on the 2LT-CAPT rank brackets.
  • The NZ Army looks to use existing intranet and / or internet infrastructure to set up a ‘home-page’ for individuals to access a software license and a forum encouraging discussion and debate around Black Sea, wargaming and tactics.
  • A unit-level command in the NZ Army TRADOC has been identified to oversee and manage the battle-lab, including monitoring usage and benefits observed as part of formal coursing as well as identifying options for utilising observations or the COTS wargame as part of training opportunities.
  • The COTS wargame is used as a platform to promote wargaming and tactical decision making, including scenarios and discussion of outcomes / solutions in the NZ Army News in the same way the USMC Gazette conducts ‘Tactical Decision Exercises’.
  • Robust evaluation and assessments of the cost / benefits of a PME tool take place, identifying future utility and value COTS software may offer the NZ Army, as well as the effectiveness of integrating COTS software as a PME tool for personal use after-hours.

NZ – Australian Innovation

Following from NZ Army’s attendance at the Defence Entrepreneur’s Forum Australia (DEF Aus) conference in December 2016, there is an obvious desire to leverage ideas and benefits across both armies. There is also an enduring requirement for interoperability between NZ and Australian Army tactical elements.

It is recommended that this concept be socialised with the Australian Army’s innovation community, to see if they see similar utility in the concept and approach for their land force. There is the potential to pursue this as a joint project.

Interaction between NZ and Australian service personnel on a common network as part of a wargaming hub has the potential to enhanced interoperability, contributing to better understanding of contemporary capabilities and allowing for shared perspectives and conversations on tactics.

Conclusion

Tactical decision making is becoming even more important for junior commanders. COTS wargames like Combat Mission Shock Force: Black Sea allow our personnel to gain greater awareness and experience in specific tactical aspects. Use of COTS wargames would mitigate the vulnerabilities our land force currently has in generating tactically aware and experienced commanders, including a lack of firepower demonstrations and limited access to high-tech and combined arms capabilities.

It is assessed that there is sufficient utility and value in COTS wargaming as a PME tool, and that further experimentation is justified. As such, the NZ Army Innovation Programme is looking to run a Wargaming Battle-Lab (experiment) in the 2017 / 18 Financial Year, aiming to inform Army on the costs vs benefits of COTS wargaming and confirm whether further investment in this area is justified.


The NZ Army Innovation Programme was established in 2012 by the Chief of Army in order to collect innovative ideas from all levels of the organisation and assess them for potential implementation. Army Innovation serves as a conduit to turn ‘good ideas’ into practical innovations that allows the NZ Army to work ‘simpler and better’. The innovations range from the development of new equipment, improvements to training, process improvement and organisational change. The programme aims to rapidly deliver innovation that will contribute to current and future mission success.

One thought on “Article – Experimenting with a Commercial Off-the-Shelf Wargame as a PME Tool via the New Zealand Army

  1. There are many issues with these CM games that experienced users would recognize as being non-realistic. This includes firepower modeling, cover/concealment issues, two different types of ‘play’ (realtime/turns), modern weapons effectiveness ‘guesses’, lack of actual fog of war and too much intel and time to abuse it. It would be better if the company had actual military experience and could relate to real world issues better. The game also has been stagnating at a old CPU level and can be thought of as near-end-life. It can best be said to be a company commander game with unrealistic amounts of information processed by the CO, and a unreaistic on-the-fly ability to change things. It is ‘attack-happy’ in its intent for the fun-gamer, and not a limiting simulation like a real dedicated software product for defense would be. The developers consider it a simulation first, which is odd, but they claim its portraying fun-packed scenarios.

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