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Understanding the context of staff college wargames ← Back to Blog index

Having been involved for 20 years designing, delivering and participating in wargames at various staff colleges around the world it is apparent that key aspects of the context of such establishments should be better understood.

First, and of critical importance, the educational nature of staff courses must be uppermost in everyone’s mind. Irrespective of the level (junior, intermediate, advanced or higher) and whether they are single-service, joint or multinational, the nature of most staff college courses is educational. This as opposed to training. While education and training are but different points on the same spectrum, the distinction is crucial. The Commandant of the UK Joint Services Command and Staff Courses explained it as follows: ‘Your 14 year old daughter comes home from school and tells you that she was being taught about sex in class. Your question to her: was that sex education or sex training?’ It is a critical difference.

Stemming from this education/training distinction the following points have to be understood and then hammered home time and again to directing staff responsible for wargames at staff colleges:

Keep it simple, stupid! Just coming to terms with whatever military decision making process is being taught is usually enough to stretch the capacity of most students. If the decision making process is then applied within a simulated HQ then the complexities of the HQ battle rhythm, with its various boards, processes and information flows, is enough to test even the best student. If the educational objective is to familiarise the student with an operational planning process and/or the workings of a HQ then the complexity of the setting, scenario and any events and injects must be carefully pre-considered to control the required level of pressure on the participants. Too much pressure and they will not understand the basics, let alone cope with any additional educational objectives. There is a tendency for staff college tutors and augmenting SMEs to insist that students are taught their particular specialism ‘because they must know it when they go on real operations.’ This incremental knowledge will be of no use if the student has already been lost in the basics of learning the decision making process because they will assimilate little else.

Student friction. Never underestimate the ability of students in a new environment – such as a simulated HQ – to generate their own friction! There is often little requirement for exercise control staff to inject any events or incidents to stress the students; they will tie themselves in knots just getting to grips with aspects such as information management and the coordination of staff branch efforts. The efficiency of ‘player’ HQs must be monitored, and mentors constantly available to ensure that students are helped through the process of understanding HQ functions and how battle rhythm supports this. If left alone they will flounder.

‘A War’ rather than ‘The War’. There is an almost overwhelming desire to set the context of staff college exercises in ‘The War’; a setting and scenario that reflects the current Contemporary Operating Environment (COE) with all its complexities. Why? If the objective of a staff college exercise is to teach students the basics of military decision making, staff procedures and HQ functions then why does this need to be done in the context of a massively complicated COE? Assuredly, we should ‘Train as we fight’ as NATO demands – but staff college students are not being trained; they are being educated. All too often the demands of trying to consider all aspects of the COE stretch the student too far and he or she fails to grasps the basic educational objectives. The US School of Advanced Military studies used to teach decision making, various HQ staff processes and the basics of joint operations by using three commercial off the shelf wargames. These were Gettysburg (1863), Tannenburg (1914) and Midway (1942). These are good examples of using ‘A War’ (read ‘Any War’) where it suffices to meet the educational objectives. Another problem with setting staff college exercises in the context of the COE is that students, directing staff and SMEs bring their own, very personal, baggage with them to the wargame. These personal experiences and perceptions often serve to skew the wargame away from the desired educational objectives.

The second key characteristic of the staff college environment is pressure on the time of the directing staff. These competing pressures on directing staff must be alleviated for the same of the wargame. For whatever reason, directing staff supporting staff college wargames seldom devote themselves to the exercise. Writing reports, preparing course work or just taking it easy during someone else’s exercise too often lead to a dearth of staff, even when they have been assigned to exercise control positions. This apparently accepted ‘fact of life’ leads to an undermanned and overstretched exercise control that cannot provide the students the level of support required.

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