Flashpoints | Security

Wargames: Losing Is Learning, Learning Is Winning

It is imperative the U.S. military learns from wargame losses.

By Jeffrey T. Vanak for
Wargames: Losing Is Learning, Learning Is Winning
Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaimar Carson Bondurant

The following is a summary of after-action reports describing a Navy wargame. 

Over a decade, the U.S. Navy experienced a series of defeats in wargames which pitted the Fleet against its primary adversary in the Pacific. The most recent of these wargames resulted in unacceptable losses that, if real, would put the future role of the United States in Asia at risk. 

Strategically, there is “a growing disparity between American commitments in the Far East and the ability to defend those commitments.” While our rival’s political and economic ambitions have grown, “across-the-board cuts in [America’s] defense establishment” have weakened our military and provided our competitor a numerical advantage in critical areas. Accordingly, “Army analysts remained unalterably convinced that the military and diplomatic balance in the Far East” will continue to favor our opposition, “which enjoys local strategic superiority.” Some have “suggested it might be advisable to cut loose from the Far East altogether before the nation finds itself in a war it is unprepared materially or psychologically to fight.”

Operationally, the Joint Force assesses our adversary will have the initiative in any fight as it is more “liable to attack American interests in the Far East rather than conform to America’s [policies].”  Experts believe our enemy will “concentrate the bulk of [its] naval and military strength in a defensive perimeter anchored on the island chains of the… Western Pacific.” Estimates of the situation call for a conflict to be fought out on what could be considered an enemy “lake.” The onus, then, is on the U.S. Navy to take an offensive approach to break through our opponent’s defensive perimeter. These difficult conditions served as the backdrop for the wargame.  

“At the outset of the wargame, U.S. forces were insufficient” to meet the Fleet’s task of racing across the Pacific to rescue defenders within the estimated two weeks they could be expected to hold off our adversary’s onslaught. While transiting, the Fleet came under long-range fires resulting in the loss of numerous ships and airplanes. The after-action reports were grim. When discussing the ability of the Fleet to achieve victory, the wargame’s enemy commander declared, “it is pretty well established it could not be done.”  A Navy captain accused any officer arguing optimistically about a Pacific offensive of being guilty of “giving a very false impression of what we could actually do.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Given the current geo-strategic environment in Asia defined by an increasingly aggressive and capable China, it’s understandable to assume the wargame described above occurred over the past few years. In actuality, the wargame occurred in 1933 as part of the Naval War College’s (NWC) series of interwar games focused on War Plan Orange, the U.S. Army’s and Navy’s plan to counter Japan’s expansion. Despite the wargame occurring 87 years ago, the strategic and operational issues which plagued the U.S. prior to World War II are strikingly similar to its current competition with China. So too have been wargame results with headlines over the last year declaring “The U.S. has been getting ‘its ass handed to it’ in wargames simulating a fight against China” and “The Scary Wargame Over Taiwan That the U.S. Loses Again and Again.” 

However, wargame losses during the interwar period did not guarantee U.S. defeat in the Pacific during World War II. Nor do recent wargame defeats ensure the same result in a potential conflict with China. Rather, the 1933 wargame stands out as a turning point for pre-World War II planning. The game resulted in unacceptable losses that forced the United States to reassess its view of its adversary and the means by which it could achieve victory. The subsequent changes enabled U.S. victory in the Pacific Theater. None of this could have been achieved if learning had not been prioritized over winning in wargames. Correspondingly, the U.S. military has and must continue to learn from recent wargame losses to drive the improvements required to win a modern fight in the Pacific. 

Similar to the sentiment following the 1933 wargame, there is growing trepidation within some national security circles that today’s wargame losses foreshadow real-world defeat. However, wargames are not intended to determine the victors in combat but rather to test concepts, plans, and people in the most demanding scenarios the military may face. It is in these synthetic environments the U.S. military must be willing to push itself to the point of failure. After all, “failure is an invitation to learn,” and without it the U.S. military will be less prepared for future conflicts. Viewed in this context, the NWC interwar games provide a guideline for how to utilize wargame setbacks to learn, innovate, and improve. There are three primary areas where the lessons learned from the 1930’s parallel the lessons the military is beginning to learn in current wargames. They identified the enemy as a peer-adversary, improved plan objectives and operational concepts, and, finally, spurred greater international partnerships. 

The interwar games forced the U.S. military to recognize the strength of Japanese forces and the tactics they would use to counter the American fleet. Following World War I, the U.S. navy assumed the Japanese Navy was an inferior force. Subsequently, “in the early interwar games, U.S. forces emerged victorious, a direct result of American belief the Japanese fleet would wait until the superior U.S. forces established in theater before attacking.” As the officers playing the role of the enemy became more adept at assuming the mindset of Japanese commanders, the tide of the wargames turned. They used airpower from Pacific Islands and nighttime torpedo attacks to strike the U.S. fleet before it could regroup after its ocean transit. According to one author, “Astute American naval officers ascertained the Japanese path to victory without even knowing they had done so.” In a span of 10 years, the U.S. navy shifted from believing it was a superior force to, following the catastrophic 1933 wargame, understanding the severity of the challenge it faced. This realization proved to be a catalyst for change. 

Similarly, while some analysts identified the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a peer a decade ago, it has taken the broader Department of Defense (DoD) much longer to arrive at that conclusion. Only recently has the term “peer adversary” become common-place when referring to China, most notably at Indo-Pacific Command. Gone are the days when opposing forces are asked, “why do you make China out to be a 10-foot monster?” Wargames can be credited, at least in part, with the DoD coming to grips with the true capabilities of its competitor. 

Second, the interwar games forced the United States to reexamine its objectives and operational design. War Plan Orange called for the fleet to transit across the Pacific to defend the Philippines. Experts were divided as to the best solution to accomplish this task: race across the Pacific as fast as possible or take a more deliberate approach. Early versions of War Plan Orange favored the quicker approach based on the limited time U.S. forces in the Philippines could withstand a Japanese attack. As such, the NWC utilized this approach during the early interwar games. In the 1933 game, “the U.S. Fleet began with 15 battleships, 24 cruisers, and four aircraft carriers sailing from Honolulu toward the Philippines. By game’s end, only seven battleships, all heavily damaged, and six cruisers arrived in Manila. Meanwhile, all four aircraft carriers were lost or damaged to the point of uselessness.” The sobering wargame defeat played a large role in recognizing war with Japan would be a protracted conflict. Analysts began to favor the more deliberate approach of island-hopping which called for the elimination of Japanese airfields on Pacific Islands. Additionally, the losses spurred the development of concepts on how to use fleet airpower in a more offensive manner to attack Japanese holdings rather than in solely a reconnaissance role. 

In modern wargames, PLA long-range missiles have played a pivotal role in defeating U.S. forces. China’s ability to strike U.S. bases in the region, to include Okinawa and Guam, convinced many of the obsolescence of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which prevented the U.S. from developing Intermediate-Range weapons but placed no such restriction on China. The defeats also played a role in the development of new operating concepts. Over the past few years, the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment, the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations, and the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concepts have been devised as solutions to problems identified in wargames. 

Finally, the interwar games proved a war in the Pacific could not be won unilaterally. In a 1933 post-game report, Naval War College President Admiral McNamee opined “fighting Japan alone would result in losses entirely out of proportion to any possible gain.” Instead, he believed the “British and U.S. navies combined could enforce restrictions on Japanese policies.” This wargame finding played at least a small role in the improvement of naval relations between the United States and Great Britain. Despite a somewhat contentious relationship in the 1920s and early 1930s, President Roosevelt sent the Navy’s director of plans to London for talks with the Royal Navy in 1938. At the meeting, the British proposed a “joint show of strength in the Far East,” something that would have seemed impossible a few years prior. While the improved U.S.-British relationship came too late to deter Japan, it offers another example to follow today. 

The strain of recent wargames has reaffirmed the need to strengthen alliances to counter China. It is no coincidence the same think tanks conducting wargames are also calling for the expansion of partnerships in Asia. Since the publication of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, there has been a concerted effort to expand U.S. military relationships with countries throughout the region, including with non-traditional partners such as Vietnam and India. This effort has the potential to play the role of deterrence which the U.S.-British interwar partnership could not achieve. 

The interwar games were not a panacea for the challenges faced by the U.S. prior to World War II. The games misrepresented Japanese nighttime tactics, failed to effectively employ submarines, and did not test amphibious landings, amongst other missteps. However, the concepts and people tested during those games played a crucial role in future success against Japan. Admiral Nimitz encapsulated this idea when he famously stated, “The war with Japan had been enacted in the game rooms at the War College by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise… except the kamikaze tactics.” The interwar games serve as proof that learning from wargame adversity can lead to victory on the battlefield. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Based on the ominous headlines from wargames over the past two years, the U.S. military finds itself in a situation analogous to the late 1930s. However, unlike the interwar period, the military faces the prospect of reduced operating budgets, placing more burden on wargames to test the military’s concepts and personnel. Additionally, given the advancement of technology, the nation may not be afforded the time to correct for wargaming missteps as was the case during World War II. Therefore, it is imperative the U.S. military learns from wargame losses to develop innovative solutions to overcome the myriad of challenges it faces. Achieving this will require a culture that is willing to risk failure in a synthetic environment to achieve victory in the real-world. 

Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Wargames provide a venue to identify the 10,000 concepts and plans that won’t work in future conflicts. Ultimately, this ensures the United States develops the 10,001st concept that will lead to success when it truly matters.

Jeffrey T. Vanak, U.S. Navy commander, is a national security affairs fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is a naval intelligence officer and operational planner. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.