How the U.S. Army is teaching tough-to-simulate COIN and irregular warfare
By Michael Peck
October 01, 2011
Counterinsurgency, vast and nebulous, has long been intellectual quicksand for the defense modeling and simulation community. But the sands may be firming up.
“Frankly, the best modelers in the Army were uncertain what could be accomplished and at what pace, in the face of many new and different challenges to the modeling of military operations in [irregular warfare],” said Garry Lambert, director of the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command Analysis Center (TRAC) at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
Steve Goodwin, director of the strategy and operations division of National Defense University’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning, echoes Lambert’s assessment.
“The exercise community has not generally been successful in developing COIN models and simulations that can predict outcomes with a reasonable degree of confidence,” he said. “This is particularly true of games looking at complex contingencies, where psychological and social lines of operation, such as information operations and political negotiation, are hard to capture in mathematical models.”
But in just the past few years, the mood has changed. Don’t call it optimism. Call it realism, a sense of what is possible and what isn’t. Irregular warfare models and simulations are coming. But if you’re hoping for a computer program to tell you how to beat the Taliban, don’t hold your breath.
Forget the kinetic boom-boom models from the Cold War that offered the illusion of precise predictions that an F-22 fighter or an Abrams tank would kill a certain number of Soviets. The future is computer models that will detect trends in Afghan public opinion, analyze the effectiveness of various counterinsurgency methods or assist in a tabletop counterinsurgency exercise for senior leaders. One expert predicts new COIN models might be able to conclude that 60 percent of possible outcomes for Strategy A are positive, which is better than the 40 percent probability of positive outcomes for Strategy B.
Some of the new irregular warfare simulations will focus on analysis, like TRAC’s Irregular Warfare Tactical Wargame. Developed for $6 million and first tested in 2009, it analyzes the effect tactical operations have upon the attitude of the civilian population.
That’s a change for an organization that has traditionally focused on kinetic combat models.
“By focusing on a lower level of warfare, we have taken a bite of the elephant, but not tried to eat the whole,” Lambert said.
Designed with the Center for Naval Analyses and the Naval Postgraduate School, the game analyzes different courses of action regarding material, organization and operations in irregular warfare. Lambert said it could also be useful for training or planning operations.
The computer game is played in weekly turns, with each turn taking about two hours of real time. Set in Afghanistan, it allows players to step into the shoes of company, battalion and brigade commanders; Afghan army and police; non-government organizations; or the Taliban.
Those playing commanders conduct tasks such as performing dismounted patrols and cordon and search, engaging with local leaders, and building infrastructure. Missions assigned by the players are evaluated by a planning and adjudication tool, which in turns feeds the results into a cultural geography model that adjusts the population’s attitude and provides feedback. The game also incorporates events to disrupt best-laid plans, such as the assassination of a key local leader.
Last year, the game was used to conduct an exercise to analyze the effects of adding extra civil affairs teams to a brigade.
“We were able to show when there were additional civil affairs teams, the presence of those teams changed what tasks the company commander chose to conduct,” Lambert said. “Company commanders did less kinetic events. It wasn’t how they were thinking in the beginning, but they changed because the civil affairs teams were talking to them, and convinced them to use a softer approach. This changed the number of kinetic actions that took place. And those that did take place, they were getting better information, more pinpoint targeting, and less collateral damage.”
Another exercise is planned this year to test the effects of adding company intelligence support teams.
A training gem
The new wave of irregular warfare simulations will also focus on training.
“We’ve gotten to a point where we realize we can’t shoot our way out of counterinsurgencies, so people are looking at different ways to train their guys,” said Brant Guillory, a senior consultant at Cary, N.C.-based Harnessed Electrons, which has designed irregular warfare simulations for National Defense University.
The Games for Training program, under the Army’s Combined Arms Center-Training, now includes Urbansim, which puts the player in the role of a battalion commander conducting COIN and stability operations. Developed by the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, a center funded by the Army and with deep ties to Hollywood, Urbansim has a sociocultural behavioral model that governs the interaction between the numerous tribal groups, leaders and government forces. It also includes a social network diagram that indicates which local politicians, commanders and businesses are friendly or hostile toward each other.
Urbansim allows players to choose what they wish to emphasize. Is it better to focus on civil security or providing essential services? Should U.S. forces move aggressively or tread softly? Depending on a player’s actions and various events initiated by the game, such as improvised explosive device attacks, a population support meter measures the player’s performance.
Another example is Gemstone, a strategic simulation for senior leaders that was developed at the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University (NDU).
“Most COIN sims and games have existed at the operational level and lower,” said Guillory, who co-designed Gemstone. “Their focus was on the guys in the field. How does the grunt talk to people? How does he avoid pissing people off? We have also done OK with battalion and brigade staffs. What we haven’t done is look at the strategic-level thinkers that are putting out policy, allocating resources, money and time over the course of two, three, 10 years. If I’m going to put a lot of budget into governance, or infrastructure, or military development, will it pay off for me in five years? We don’t game those things very well, if at all.”
Gemstone is essentially a BOGSAT (bunch of guys sitting around a table) seminar-style game, backed up by computer adjudication. Originally designed to orient new students at NCU’s College of International Security Affairs, the game puts players in senior central government roles in a nation beset by insurgency. Last year, the game was set in Colombia, and Colombian officials participated. A subsequent exercise in September centered on the Philippines.
Gemstone divides a country into provinces or states. Players allocate resources such as troops, police and economic funding. Their decisions are fed into the computerized adjudication model, and the results are displayed as color-coded outcomes on a scale of red to green. The simulation is expressly designed to incorporate Field Manual 3-24, the Army’s COIN doctrine.
“Elements of the doctrine include the game’s focus on lines of operation, including service provision, governance, perceived security, information operations and economic development,” said NDU’s Goodwin. “There is a lot of emphasis on gaining an understanding of how the parts feed into the whole in 3-24.”
Goodwin said computer adjudication allows for more consistency over human subjectivity. Professors liked having the chance to observe and work with students rather than adjudicate the game. The limitation of Gemstone is that it simulates a government fighting an internal struggle against an insurgency, rather than a government aided by external powers fighting an insurgency.
“Gemstone was not designed to include foreign military interventions, because while there are many simulations intended to support intervention games, games intended to teach about how countries can solve their own problems are rarer,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin said Gemstone could also be useful for civilian and military leaders.
“Understanding the impact of strategic decisions in a holistic way is incredibly difficult, and Gemstone shows not only non-kinetic interactions, but also the ripple effects of decisions over time and space,” he said.
The center plans to develop Gemstone as a Web-based tool for a variety of programs within the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program, and possibly for other DoD customers.
COIN simulations rely on models, the invisible algorithms that determine the outcomes of player actions. The Army has made incremental improvements to the Joint Non-Kinetic Effects Model (JNEM), which is the irregular warfare component for constructive simulations such as Warsim. JNEM is “simply a scorecard” for how populations feel about issues such as security, religion and the presence of foreign forces, said Michael Wright, associate chief systems engineer for computer-generated forces at the U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation.
“It’s just a metric, a number that says, ‘I feel good, I feel bad,’ from zero to 100,” Wright said.
JNEM, first deployed in 2006, tracks four concerns of civilian populations that are applicable to all parts of the world.
“The only really Middle Eastern-centric part of JNEM is the mosque situation that comes about when a mosque is damaged in the ground game. Naturally, if there are no mosques in the scenario, then that will never occur,” Wright said.
Wright said Korea-centric modifications are in the works, a response to some Army officials who want to use JNEM more extensively in Korean exercises.
Wright would like to see less abstraction in JNEM. For example, while it can model population attitudes toward problems with infrastructure such as sewer and electricity, it lacks the ability to track infrastructure by block and neighborhood. So if a commander in the exercise allocates his resources toward fixing the electrical grid in one neighborhood but not another, JNEM can’t break down attitudes by neighborhood.
While there has been progress in modeling irregular warfare, the obstacles remain daunting. At the top of the list is a lack of social science theory. Put 10 political scientists in a room, and you’ll have 10 theories of what causes insurgencies or why people support certain political parties. If political scientists, economists and sociologists can’t agree, then the theoretical foundations of COIN models will always be shaky. But the defense modeling community is adapting.
“We haven’t in the past reached out to social scientists, and we need to do so,” said Jeff Appleget, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the former head of TRAC’s effort to improve irregular warfare analysis. “Think of us analysts as kinetic guys. We understand the physics behind shooting a tank round. We don’t need social scientists to understand that. If we’re talking about how a foot patrol in Baghdad affects how the populations view their government and the insurgents, I’ve got no idea how to model that.”
Then there is the goal of predicting consequences. The holy grail of irregular warfare simulation is modeling second- and third-order effects, Appleget said.
“You build a school, and you don’t make sure it’s staffed properly, and the staff that is there is teaching extremism, so you’ve actually had a negative effect instead of a positive effect,” he said.
Appleget hasn’t seen any models that demonstrate this well, but there has been improvement. “In the past, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Now we know what we don’t know.”
As a result, there is now special attention paid to collecting data. The Naval Postgraduate School, U.S. Africa Command and the State Department are collecting data on Africa.
“As we get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and start looking toward Africa, what we would love to do is to prevent any sort of armed intervention from being necessary, by understanding the way those populations are reacting and maybe getting in on the ground floor to help them be more stable,” Appleget said. “We are not going to forecast irregular wars happening in Africa. But what we understand from [irregular warfare] is that it’s all about the population. We’ll get a sense of those populations, how they change over time, and how they react to different stimuli.”
In the end, modeling and simulation can only make a difference if users trust it. Much will depend on whether the military accepts the new wave of irregular warfare simulations.
“Most interesting to me is how this will play out with senior leaders,” Lambert said.
“They are used to the kind of results we portrayed in the past, the combat simulations where you get X percent of goodness via metrics like the number of threats killed. It will be interesting to see how they respond to these softer assertions where we say, ‘If you put five more civil affairs teams in, it changes how company commanders conduct operations.’”
Appleget agrees. “Our senior leaders were spoiled by the way we did combat modeling. We came up with numbers that they could use to support acquisition decisions. Then we became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and DoD said, ‘OK, where are my models? You’ve been at this for six months. What’s taking you so long?’ Ignoring the fact that our physics-based combat models took years and years to develop, and if you look under the hood, they’re not perfect, either.”
Perfection is the last word Appleget would use to describe COIN simulations.
“In irregular warfare, we’re never going to get there,” he said.
“The best you’re going to do is get insights and give senior leaders a kind of probability space of different outcomes if they do this or that.”