Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cyber Storm

In September 2006, the Department of Homeland Security ran an exercise named Cyber Storm to consider the U.S. response to a significant cyber attack. A wide variety of public and private sector agencies and entities were involved, leading to a better understanding of how the patchwork of responses by these groups could be better coordinated in the event of such an attack. The game report is available here.

Apparently, the game referees had to stop (overzealous?) participants from trying to hack the system the exercise was being run on:

In the middle of the war game, someone quietly attacked the very computers used to conduct the exercise. Perplexed organizers traced the incident to overzealous players and sent everyone an urgent e-mail marked "IMPORTANT!" reminding them not to probe or attack the game computers.

"Any time you get a group of (information technology) experts together, there's always a desire, 'Let's show them what we can do,'" said George Foresman, a former senior Homeland Security official who oversaw Cyber Storm. "Whether its intent was embarrassment or a prank, we had to temper the enthusiasm of the players."

The comments on this page have an interesting discussion of this incident, with some back and forth about whether this type of action should be allowable in the context of a game/exercise. A wargame called Millennium Challenge 2002 is referenced early in the discussion. Millennium Challenge '02 was a large-scale wargame conducted in 2002, pitting the U.S. against an unnamed Middle Eastern military. It achieved an unusual degree of notoriety for a wargame because the commander of the "Red" forces used several unconventional tactics to exploit weaknesses, which resulted in massive damage to the "Blue" fleet as it entered the Persian Gulf. The exercise was halted, and the Blue losses were "re-floated," causing some to cry foul. The Red commander himself said that the game was "fixed." The game has been in the news again lately after Iranian speedboats approaching U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf recalled the tactics used in the game to devastate the Blue fleet (though the success of the tactic in the wargame was apparently predicated on a massive number of speedboats, cruise missiles, and other attack vectors making a simultaneous assault to overwhelm the capacities of the warships to track them and respond).

This comment (in the aforementioned discussion of the Cyber Storm exercise) in particular seems to get right at the issue:

My point is just that a particular wargame has a purpose. It's usually not run to find out who's the best or cleverest solider/commander/unit/force, even if that's what some of the participants want it to be. If the real purpose is damaged by people trying to figure out how to change the intended parameters of the game in order to "win", then players shouldn't be doing that.

In particular, I'd say that you shouldn't be trying to exploit the limits of the simulation. Hypothetically, suppose that you're supposed to be learning (among other things) how to deal with poor communications, so your radios have been jiggered to make them unreliable, or else the enemy can listen in, or something. I have no idea whether that's a plausible wargame, but just suppose.

Now, suppose you decide to adapt to your comms problems by using couriers. Fair enough, you'd think, but if the people designing the game didn't think of that, then their wargame might well not account for snipers either. Then all you've achieved, other than "winning", is to show that couriers are great if your opponent can't do anything about them.

That doesn't prepare you for a real war - obviously modern forces do have snipers, and your couriers would have a great deal more difficulty operating in a warzone than they did in the simulation. You've made the scenario be about couriers and snipers, when it was designed to be about something else (strategies that are robust against broken communications, maybe).

I agree that couriers should be considered in future planning, but if the consideration is, "they wouldn't last five minutes out there", then there's not much point allowing them in the simulation.

Of course for the Millennium Wargame, one accusation was that the envisaged scenario was a sweeping Blue victory no matter what Red did, with no intention to discover anything about real war. But such a "politically motivated" ruling, if that's what it was, doesn't detract from the fact that in general, wargames might have a reasonable purpose, and might need to use "unrealistic" restrictions to achieve that purpose.

I had initially intended for this post to go further into the whys and wherefores of things like "refloating" in the midst of a wargame, but so much has been written about Millennium Challenge 2002 over the years that I haven't finished going through it, much less finished thinking about the issues it presents. There have been a few blog posts this year that have been especially good at identifying the underlying issues. Yet another thing I'll have to come back to in a future post....

Terminological issues in a related field

As I have noted before here and here, political-military gaming of the type I try to talk about in this blog suffers from serious terminological issues. Meaningful keywords for searches can be hard to come by, and the different vocabularies used by various groups mean that it can be tough to find the right way to describe a particular exercise or discuss a specific aspect of gaming. This post on the Learning Circuits Blog has a nice discussion of the similar problem faced by the "serious games" field.

UPDATE: This topic was the subject of the keynote address to the recent Serious Games Summit:
As a specific concept, serious games have been drifting around the design sphere since at least the turn of the millennium. Yet for all the hype, and all of the yearly GDC conferences on the subject, the theory has had some trouble gaining traction as more than an academic or industrial curiosity.

According to Ben Sawyer of Digitalmill and Peter Smith of the University of Central Florida, some of the problem in the serious games movement is a general haziness as to exactly what serious games are, and are for.

Sawyer and Smith observe that the traditional view of serious games is vague exactly because of its specificity. “Often when we see people talk about serious games, we see them talking about them in a sort of narrow way,” Peter Smith mused.

Yet, at the same time, “Everyone has their own name for what serious games should be called. When they’re using these terms, they’re still talking about serious games… It’s not that these words are wrong. It’s just, they’re trying to categorize things. And there’s nothing categorical about any of these names.”
See also here, which has a link to the slides Sawyer and Smith presented (here). None of this directly addresses political-military gaming, free-form gaming, or any non-computer-based gaming at all, but the questions and problems raised are relevant.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Pentagon, global warming, and the problem with reporting on gaming and scenario-based planning

A leaked report from the Pentagon on the subject of global warming has caused a stir recently. The article in the Guardian/Observer is headlined:

Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us

· Secret report warns of rioting and nuclear war
· Britain will be 'Siberian' in less than 20 years
· Threat to the world is greater than terrorism

Pretty scary sounding stuff. And coming from the Pentagon? That seems to give it even more credibility. But this incident is a pretty good example of a real problem that can affect gaming and other scenario-based forms of strategic planning. From the text of the article:

Climate change 'should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern', say the authors, Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.

An imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change is 'plausible and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately', they conclude. As early as next year widespread flooding by a rise in sea levels will create major upheaval for millions.

I haven't read the report itself. It does not appear to be available beyond the snippets contained in press coverage. But several points about the above quote should stand out, and have been completely lost in the coverage. First, Peter Schwartz is best known for his work on scenario-based planning, as I mentioned here when discussing his book, The Art of the Long View. I don't know anything about Doug Randall, but I believe the Global Business Network where he works was started by Schwartz after he left Royal Dutch/Shell. That, and the language in the next paragraph about the "imminent scenario of catastrophic climate change" suggest that the report itself was written as a form of scenario-based planning document, probably along similar lines to the sort of thing found in Schwartz's book.

If that is the case, the press is getting the story very wrong. A scenario, in this process, is a tool for considering possible futures and open planners' eyes to potential shifts away from their main-line analysis, not for predicting specific events. By considering multiple plausible scenarios, the planning organization can work to be prepared for any one of them, and can get a better understanding of how certain actions that seem desirable in one scenario might prove problematic in another. These scenarios are researched and detailed, but are not scientific documents or predictions, and it is wrong to present them as such. They are, in the words of the book's introduction, "designed (one hopes) to bring forward surprises and unexpected leaps of understanding." They are also generally presented in groups, so that the planning organization can look across different plausible futures.

So, what does that mean for this report? It sounds like the events picked up on by the Guardian/Observer were part of one particular scenario within a broader document. Certainly, the point of the report might have been that there needs to be some serious consideration given to the potential for disasters like the ones in the scenario, but that's a far cry from saying that these specific things will happen. Things like them could happen, and it behooves any huge organization engaged in long-term planning (such as the Pentagon) to consider what the actions they take today would look like in a variety of futures, including one in which climate change effects dramatic shifts on world security concerns. That seems like a reasonable statement. But that's not the story the press told in this case.

This highlights a concern that could arise in the context of gaming out possible futures, or in other efforts to use scenario-based planning. It can be important to consider the extreme case, and looking for radical discontinuities and unexpected shifts is difficult work, so a process involving scenario-based planning could produce plenty of dire-sounding projections that might be reported as forecasts rather than what they really are: parts of a larger project of strategic planning. This lack of context is a problem, because it might inhibit the use of these helpful planning tools for fear of leaks or bad press. It's important for the Pentagon and the rest of the national security community to be open to multiple possibilities about the future, and this is an effort that should be encouraged. This is not to say that I think there's a simple fix here; it's natural for the press to jump on things that seem controversial or explosive, but it might be just that kind of controversial scenario that is necessary to promote a better understanding of the deep uncertainty that surrounds the future. This seems like a genuine problem for this kind of planning effort.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Global War Game at the Naval War College

From 1979-2001, the Naval War College sponsored an annual exercise they called the Global War Game. I've already mentioned John Hanley's excellent summaries of the 1979-1990 games in his dissertation, but there are some other, more easily accessible descriptions of these games as well. Bud Hay and Bob Gile put together a review of the first five years of the game, and Gile returned to the subject later to write up the second five years. Both summaries were published in the Newport Papers series at the Naval War College, but only the second appears to be available online, here. The second of these provides more information about the way the games were structured, and includes a brief summary section on the first five years, so I would recommend starting with that one anyway. Both of these papers are available at some university libraries.

Beyond these summaries of the early games, few articles or other accounts have been published dealing with the Global War Games, particularly the later games. One of the few I have seen so far is Kenneth Watman's article on Global 2000. Watman was the head of war gaming at the Naval War College.

This post from an arms control blog last year is an indication that potentially useful insights might still be available from these games, which is why it is fascinating to me that no one has written a systematic review of the later years. The review of the second five years, mentioned above, was published in 2004, which suggested a new interest in studying the games, but nothing more has been forthcoming.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Thesis: Decision-Making and Gaming

Here is my Fletcher thesis, looking at how decision-making theories from political science and psychology can be used to better understand free-form games. I can't help but think of this as a work in progress, which is why it has taken me a while to get comfortable with the idea of posting it in its present form. The bibliography (which I may revise and post separately) might be the most useful part of the paper for people interested in this sort of thing.

The Application of Decision-Making Theories to Free-Form Gaming

Comments and questions are very welcome.

(Google Documents seems to have done something strange to the footnotes. Anyone who is interested can email me or leave a comment and I'll send a file in .pdf or .doc format directly.)