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Bring back execution! ← Back to Blog index

Execution is what differentiates a wargame from a mere planning exercise.  It is where plans are enacted and players face the consequences of their – and their opponents’ – decisions.  Lessons are internalised and thought experiments take place.  Novel outcomes emerge and ‘what if’ questions are asked.  Command – as far as it can be outside real operations – is experienced, adverse outcomes overcome and agile attitudes develop.  It is the epicentre of wargaming

It is relatively easy to deliver a planning exercise; all you need is a scenario and some participants. Execution requires more resources and is more challenging for all concerned: participants, organisers and control staff. Maybe this accounts for the predominance of planning exercises over wargames with an execution phase. Planning alone might suffice for some educational exercises (for example if learning the planning process) but execution – actually enacting the plan – is required when teaching points need to be confirmed and during most training.

The benefits of execution during educational and training wargames are significant. They are summarised below; some pertain to commanders, some to staff and some to both:

  • Developing agile attitudes and procedures. The necessity to adapt a plan to a complex dynamic situation is a timeless lesson, and one that is particularly pertinent in today’s and tomorrow’s Contemporary Operating Environment (COE). The agility of a commander’s mind and his or her ability to overcome both an adaptive adversary and Clausewitzian friction is key to success on operations. So, too, are the procedures of his or her staff. Executing a plan (and associated CONPLANs) enhances this mental and procedural agility; planning on its own does not, irrespective of how many CONPLANs and branches are developed.
  • Experiencing command decisions and operations management. The COE is becoming increasingly congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained (UK DCDC Future Character of Conflict publication). The only way to experience making command decisions and managing operations in such a dynamic (read chaotic) and complex environment is by execution in a setting that simulates the COE. Planning alone does not deliver the necessary command and staff pressures that execution demands.
  • Practising simultaneous planning and execution. Every HQ has to be able to plan and execute simultaneously. The higher the level of HQ the more demanding the requirement, with additional staff braches and officers dedicated to both roles. Clearly, the ability to plan and execute simultaneously can only be practised when executing.
    • A good example is the production of a plan by J5, which is then passed to J35 (who might add CONPLANs) and then to J3 to execute. How is this best done? Does a staff officer stay with the plan, moving from J5 to J35 to J3? Is the plan COA Wargamed as a handover from branch to branch? Or is it just tossed over the partition to the next branch? This is but one example of the processes required in a HQ simultaneously planning and executing; training in it can only occur during execution.
    • HQ battle rhythm is another. Learning to coordinate the various boards and meetings that constitute the HQ battle rhythm is a challenge that can only be fully experienced and addressed during execution.
  • Experimenting with tactics, doctrine and staff procedures. Wargames provide a low risk place to do high risk things. An execution phase allows participants to experiment with anything they like (or are allowed to); doctrine, tactics and HQ procedures are obvious – but enormous – examples of areas that can be taken apart and played with. Where else can you do this?
  • Assessing personnel. The British Army, for one, seems unwilling to test peoples’ tactical skill. This seems incredible but is true. Maybe we are just too gentlemanly! Planning can never validate a plan beyond an adjudicator putting a ‘wet finger in the air’ and, Caesar like, decreeing success or failure. Execution can. However, following on from the point about experimentation, it should be noted that the mindset of the exercise director in an experimental wargame should be that failure is accepted as a step towards later success; this must be communicated to participants at the outset.
  • Reinforcing teaching points by constructing a narrative. Refer to Why Wargaming Works by Peter Perla and ED McGrady (download from the Resources page). They make the important point that lessons are better internalised when participants develop and experience their own ‘constructed narrative’ (as opposed to a ‘presented narrative’). While developing a plan does constitute a degree of ‘constructed narrative’, actually executing their own plan, warts and all, is a powerful experience that better reinforces learning objectives in participants.
  • Enhancing specific training. Many training lessons will be better assimilated during execution. Examples include: media training; Measurement of Effectiveness; making ethical choices etc.

Much of this is summed up by Peter Perla in a June 2011 blog post:

“… what wargames can do for those who play them (at least when they are designed by insightful, knowledgeable and skilful designers) is give them that dull grey shadow of what a black future might look like and feel like. And getting as much practice as possible at making decisions in those sorts of environments can be very helpful to some of those decision makers (the best ones, I contend), especially if knowledgeable, talented, and skilful mentors and analysts help them understand and profit from those experiences.”

This is best achieved during execution; it cannot be achieved by just planning.

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