In the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps Planning Guidance, the Commandant writes, “Wargaming must be used more broadly to address what is arguably our greatest gap in leadership training and education: training to make decisions against a thinking enemy”. Recently, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit attempted to do just that by incorporating story-based war games into the unit’s already existing reading and PME curriculum.
For the past several months, 22nd MEU personnel have read and discussed the book “Guadalcanal” by Richard Frank. The purpose of this particular PME was to enhance the MEU staff’s understanding and appreciation of multi-domain operations and the single naval battle concept. Guadalcanal was seen as an ideal case study in both of these areas while providing an opportunity to study a critical chapter in Marine Corps history. While the reading and discussion portion of this PME was underway, the unit decided to try to incorporate wargaming into the learning continuum.
The 22nd MEU commander, Col. Paul Merida, had seen this done well by one of his professors at the Marine Corps War College, and wanted to try to duplicate the experience within the unit’s PME program. He said: “I thought that form of teaching was working well at War College at Quantico and maybe if we could find the right wargame we might be able to give the staff a change of pace regarding how from which we learned.
Photo taken by Cpl. Yvonna Guyette
A brief period of web searching led to what appeared to be the correct game to meet the applicable learning objectives. “Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal” was chosen and later incorporated into the Guadalcanal SME. Merida said, “Believe it or not, there are about 20 different wargames in Guadalcanal. We opted for this one as it seemed to relate to the multi-domain aspect of the campaign. Also, the Axis & Allies family of games is somewhat familiar to many, so it probably wasn’t going to be too hard or too long to learn how to play.
Over the next few months, during two of the MEU’s pre-deployment “at sea” training periods, MEU personnel went through several nights of war games. The “Axis & Allies” war game integrates air, ground and naval forces with the aim of achieving victory in a single naval campaign across multiple domains. The game required players to make dozens of decisions regarding the employment of forces, the timing and sequencing of operations, and how to logistically support those operations. More importantly, none of this was done in a vacuum – players were operating against a “thinking enemy” who was just as determined to win as they were.
As one MEU staff member recounted, “When I was an instructor for naval officers at UCLA and USC, I quickly realized how much war games offered opportunities for very high fidelity learning that simply couldn’t be achieved in traditional reading and lecture,” the captain explained. Nicholas Patitsas, 22nd MEU warrant officer.
“When you play a wargame, you make decisions in hours that can take weeks in a formal exercise.”Captain Nicholas Patitsas, 22nd MEU Adjutant
Commanders and staff can test their ideas and decision-making skills with an out-of-the-box commercial war game that costs less than a day’s per diem. Patistas also noted the importance of the games in regards to the upcoming MEU deployment. He explained how wargaming allows 22nd MEU leaders to practice critical thinking and how they can practice observing situations they might encounter in the future. He said that when facilitated well, war games can provide an opportunity for deep experiential learning.
“The knowledge retention of wargaming is probably just lower than that of strength-on-strength physical training. A lot of it comes down to the fun factor. The fear you have of going out on a branch, falling flat on your stomach, and then laughing about it… the more understanding and perspective you gain,” Patitsas explained while talking about the importance of making something memorable learning experience so the information sticks.
Col. Merida believes that exposure to wargaming develops its leaders to react more effectively to situations and concluded with, “this type of wargaming provides repetition and sets,” Merida said. “For me, spending a few hours on critical thinking and decision making is time well spent. These types of games force us to make tough decisions and it’s not enough to make the first decision; you must develop the ability to evaluate and update your assessment of the situation, then formulate another decision, then repeat the process over and over again. You also need to be able to recognize when your plans aren’t working and ask yourself, “Ok, now how can I fix this?” Adapt and keep moving forward. We have to assume that the enemy always adapts during combat and we have to do the same, only faster and more efficiently.