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Course of Action Wargaming and Positive Risks

I was advising the new Captains’ Warfare Course (CWC) on Course of Action (COA) Wargaming recently. This involved a presentation and then floor-walking during their syndicate COA Wargames during a planning exercise. The latter was a relatively straight forward battlegroup deliberate attack to clear enemy up to a river and set the conditions for a subsequent crossing.

The first point is that the COA Wargame was good. This is noteworthy in itself as the majority I see are characterised by a lack of knowledge and poor execution. I was immensely heartened by the COA Wargaming I saw and hope that this is because the – indispensible – technique is being taught from Junior Officer level. I hope that the SOHB COA Wargaming sections wot I wrote are also helping (see Resources).

Beyond stating that the COA Wargaming was good, a number of ‘standard’ lessons were learned, which I have seen repeated in the 15+ years I have been writing and advising on COA Wargaming. The ‘Dos and don’ts’ table in the COA Wargaming article on the Resources page remains extant and captures these.

There was one ‘stand-out’ observation, which pertains to positive risks. Risks (‘an area of uncertainty’) identified during COA Wargaming are usually negative and require CONPLANS or similar mitigations. But they can also be positive, presenting opportunities (which might also require CONPLANS). In this instance the CWC students had COA Wargamed through their clearance of the enemy and had progressed up to the river, revealing the strong possibility that the attacking Blue battlegroup was still likely to be at a good state of Combat Effectiveness (CE). At which point the Red (enemy) Cell announced that their Reaction in one turn was to retreat whatever small remnants of their forces remained over the river, probably in disarray. The Blue Cell Counteraction, having achieved their given mission (clear enemy south of the river in order to set the conditions for a subsequent deliberate river crossing operation), was to let them go. Mission achieved; time for tea and medals.

Wrong answer. This is a good example of a positive risk being identified that could be exploited. The area of uncertainty was along the lines of ‘what if the enemy are in such disarray that we could pre-emptively seize a river crossing?’ But this didn’t occur to the Blue Cell, and no-one else suggested it – even though it was clear in the higher commander’s intent that a river crossing was to follow. Bearing in mind that the Blue battlegroup could well be at a high state of CE with, probably, an uncommitted reserve, how easy would it have been to identify this positive risk (opportunity) and add a ‘be prepared to’ task? This could have been given to the reserve or even the attacking echelons, to the effect of seizing a crossing if the opportunity presents. Think Guderian after Sedan in 1940 seizing the opportunity of pushing into the French rear.

As a career opportunity on actual operations, imagine the reaction to the message to the higher formation HQ : “Mission accomplished – oh, and we’ve just established a bridgehead across the river saving you 24 hours, getting right inside the enemy’s OODA loop and 16 Air Asslt Bde can now conduct a forward passage of lines rather than an opposed obstacle crossing.” That’s tea and medals territory.

As an addendum, this brought to mind the fact that British doctrine for the longest time included ‘Find – Fix – Strike’, but ‘Exploit’ was only added as an afterthought. I recall a sage superior reminding me of the historical doctrine of ‘Pin – Pivot – Pounce – Pursue’. Pursue was a fundamental element, but got – temporarily – lost along the way. Maybe it’s still not fully re-established.

None of which should detract from a good COA Wargaming experience, which is great news.