Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Wargaming at Think Tanks Picks Up Speed Amid US-China Tensions

Think tanks have been holding war games for years, but the number and variety of war games has recently exploded, with several influential think tanks focusing their efforts on a possible US-China war.

Here is one example from a new Bloomberg piece:

As China waged extensive military exercises off of Taiwan last week, a group of American defense experts in Washington was focused on their own simulation of an eventual — but for now entirely hypothetical — US-China war over the island.

The unofficial what-if game is being conducted on the fifth floor of an office building not far from the White House, and it posits a US military response to a Chinese invasion in 2026. Even though the participants bring an American perspective, they are finding that a US-Taiwan victory, if there is one, could come at a huge cost.

“The results are showing that under most — though not all — scenarios, Taiwan can repel an invasion,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where the war games are being held. “However, the cost will be very high to the Taiwanese infrastructure and economy and to US forces in the Pacific.”

In sessions that will run through September, retired US generals and Navy officers and former Pentagon officials hunch like chess players over tabletops along with analysts from the CSIS think tank. They move forces depicted as blue and red boxes and small wooden squares over maps of the Western Pacific and Taiwan. The results will be released to the public in December.

In 18 of the 22 rounds of the game played to this point, Chinese missiles sink a large part of the US and Japanese surface fleet and destroy “hundreds of aircraft on the ground,” according to Cancian, a former White House defense budget analyst and retired US Marine. 


Here is a Wall Street Journal description of the wargame, which includes pictures of some participants.  [Benjamin Norton describes it as "a bunch of neoconservative hawks...sitting around drinking coffee and playing board games to plan how they can wage war on China and colonize Taiwan."]

Through its Executive Education courses the think tank offers, CSIS will be holding a course entitled "Wargaming: Constructing Simulations and Competitive Strategy Exercises" from September 26-28.  Tuition for the three-day course is $3,500.

Among those teaching the course will be Dr. Benjamin Jensen, Senior Fellow for Future War, Gaming and Strategy in the International Security Program at CSIS.  Dr. Jensen is also a professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfighting, and has helped develop wargames for places such as the US Army, DARPA, and NATO.

Relatedly, CSIS's ChinaPower program recently launched a page to track China's activities in the "Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis."

In a recent wargame run by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) simulating a 2027 invasion of Taiwan by China, neither side achieved air superiority and both sides took heavy losses.  [Parts of the wargame were aired on MSNBC.]

Recent wargames at other think tanks, including the RAND Corporation, have shown the US "losing" to China.  RAND has conducted tabletop wargames with policymakers since the 1950s.  RAND has worked with various government agencies on wargames, including the US Air Force's Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) office.

Here is a new RAND report that breaks down China's gray zone tactics, and here is another one on the implications of a coercive quarantine on Taiwan by China.  Here is another recent RAND report on determining the military capabilities most needed to counter China and Russia.  And here is the think tank's assessment of US and Chinese industrial bases in quantum technology.

In a piece on software that helps militaries predict the outcomes of conflicts, The Economist recently noted that RAND is working to develop a model to help forecast the will to fight.  Equations developed by RAND have already been included in a few Defense Department combat simulators, including OneSAF and IWARS.

Polygon notes that RAND's wargame history led to a series of educational games.

It has also been reported that think tanks and universities in Japan and the US have been conducting wargames more frequently on a Taiwan contingency.

Here is a previous Think Tank Watch post on the variety of war games taking place at think tanks. 

Update: Here is a thread from Christopher Dougherty of CNAS, who took part in the CSIS wargames, describing his experience.

Here is a pic from Sebastian Bae, a research analyst at CNA, showing some wargaming at CSIS that took place in July.  He ran his wargame "Littoral Commander" with the think tank's International Security Program's (ISP) Wargaming Working Group.