Thursday 17 August 2023

Academic Distain for Wargaming


Academic disdain for using wargaming as a tool is a classic example of legacy skills being allowed to override innovation in the academic world. This attitude also explains the near complete absence of academics from professional wargaming; one would expect that military historians would be embedded in professional wargaming, bringing their extensive knowledge to bear. As I wander around the strange world professional wargaming I do not encounter many academic historians, especially after Phil Sabin went to South America.

Stating the obvious, the military and supporting civilian services use wargames for training, education, force development, and practising war fighting. The computer industry uses cyber wargames continually to test business continuity. Education uses games as there is a huge track record of application and value. Emergency planning uses exercises; these use many of the techniques from wargaming. Many disciplines use the tools of wargaming and would think anyone challenging their professional use to be very strange indeed. There are parallels in other disciplines where new tools have been resisted by academics for decades.

I remember GIS (geographical information systems, huge digitised maps linked to spatially referenced databases). The established geographers and planners were anti-GIS as they largely did not have the skills to use it. A planning conference had an academic paper by an established academic guru where the latter looked at one case study and demonstrated Green Belts (an area of protected land in the UK) were shrinking rapidly. Along came the PhD student who used a GIS with the maps of all 14 of England's Green Belts to demonstrate that as a whole, Green Belts were growing.  Obviously, the student was failed. It took perhaps 5 years for GIS to become mainstream and 10 years for the planning world to accept Green Belts were not shrinking.

The computer industry of the 1980’s was a complete shambles, but the tool modelling introduced by the new discipline of systems analysis revolutionised the delivery of IT. I remember saying at my leaving speech from the electricity supply industry that there was no point in me trying to communicate with developers who had not been trained in the new tools. Half of the existing staff then failed the training courses in systems analysis introduced after my departure, so left the industry or were redeployed. Some people could not make the transition and academic consultancy to the IT industry went off a cliff edge as the academics did not initially embrace systems analysis

I could give further examples, such as the arrival of UML modelling in computing, the use of big data to replace tiny case studies, etc. All of these initially struggled for acceptance in the academic world, despite mainstream applications of the new technology.

I regularly talk to academic military historians, but I am often sceptical of the views on anything to do with operational history. They are proficient at narrating key events of an individual soldier’s life, but not when it comes to campaigns and battles. When I talk to a serious wargamer I know they have looked at the military geography, the human terrain, ORBATs, weapon ranges, time, space, the weather etc. A wargame is a model that integrates all these elements, subject to abstraction and generalisation. Unless the academic historian has wargamed the topic, I have no evidence they have evaluated all these different elements of war in their narrative. In the computer industry, it would be inconceivable for someone to talk about a new system without their having used the industry modelling standard tools such as UML. I am perplexed how military historians are tolerated who do not model war.

Over the last 12 months I have looked at the academic literature on Operation Sealion (1940, German non-invasion of England) and found gapping errors in it. The issue is the historians do not seem to have a concept of operational and tactical warfare. One example will suffice to illustrate this. A number of academics suggest that all Hitler had to do was bomb the fixed and mobile radar stations to blind the RAF. This sounds plausible, unless you have an understanding of the operational level of war. Bombers missed their targets routinely by many kilometres. Stukas dive-bombers would then be the best option. They actually stood a 1% of a hit per aircraft. Of course, the Stuka attack pattern makes it very vulnerable to even a fixed Bren gun sited to defend the radar station. The nature of the attack, Stukas stacked up in the sky waiting for their turn to dive, makes them very vulnerable to enemy fighters. A Stuka squadron attack v radar might stand a 10% of getting a single hit, but would loose perhaps 4 Stukas and more damaged. If the Germans had started an all-out dive-bombing campaign on a Sunday, by the end of Tuesday, they would have had almost no Stukas left, and most of the radar stations would still have been working. Serious wargamers understand the constraints of the operational, but from my experience few academic historians do.  

So why are academics reluctant to embed wargaming in their curriculum and academic writing? Judging by innovations in other disciplines, many academics would not be able to make the leap. A lot of the existing military narratives in the academic literature would be now judged inadequate when evaluated through the prism of wargaming. University military history courses that used wargaming would be far more engaging and popular with those that did not. There would be staffing changes as a result of academia embracing wargames.

The academic reluctance to use wargaming has been around a long a time. Paddy Griffith encountered the prejudice of fellow academics against wargamers whilst he was at Sandhurst (1973-1989). Perhaps Paddy’s combination of wargames and military history explains why of all the military history lecturers at Sandhurst from that era, he was the one to influence NATO operational policy. There are real opportunities for academics who can use wargaming; research bids, professional wargaming and student recruitment/ engagement. On a personal note, I am quite happy with the current dearth of academic wargamers; ‘in the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’.