The $50.00 Cognitive Swiss Army Knife

Manual Simulation Systems – Versatility Trumps All

By Colonel

By Col



, GE


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2008-2014)

 September 2014


If asked: ‘Are there temporal similarities between simu­lation systems and aerial photographs?’ Most people would answer: ‘Yes. They were both achievements of the 20th century.’

They couldn’t be more wrong. On 13 October 1860, James Wallace Black took the first successful aerial photographs from a hot air balloon at 1,200 feet. By chance, one of those pictures survived until today and constitutes the oldest aerial picture we know about. It shows Boston, ‘as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See it’, in the words of J. W. Black himself.

The story about simulation systems reaches further back into history. Indeed, it is directly linked with civilizations. Time and again, archaeologists found evidence that the rulers of their times provided and used instruments to learn and impart the profession and art of deploying, employing and leading armed forces.

What constitutes a simulation system?

[1] The purpose. The aim of a simulation is to imitate the activities of situations and / or processes of a ­selected object within a model in such a way that it sufficiently approaches an assumed reality.

[2] The structure. A simulation system consists of the object (what is to be simulated; e.g. a battle, a campaign, a war); the model (the mechanism used to generate, represent and proceed events, actions and results; the inevitable component of this mechanism is the effigy of Time); and the involvement of the users of the system (from following strict rules how to interact with the system to the identification of the users with the content and element of the simulation).

[3] The principles. Simulation systems yield to the basic principles of abstraction, reduction, substitution and consecutiveness. The last principle allows simultaneous events to be modelled.

[4] The quality. The simulation system must be cap­able of imaging all significant real object related events (in specified characteristics). Every result produced by the simulation model must represent an event pos­sible in reality.

The basic procedure of all simulation systems deals with the creation of consequences of events or actions. By assigning deliberate ranges of numbers to the occurrence probabilities to each set of consequences, the system is enabled to determine single results. The key is a random number generator that appoints unique numbers which fall into exactly one range of numbers assigned to each consequence.

Most people will immediately assume a computer must be used for such a task. In fact, this is not necessary at all. A simulation system not using computer capabilities for any of its model components is called a Manual Simulation System.

The use of dice is actually nothing more or less than a random number generator and is likely to be the most palpable reason for refusal when it comes to convince newcomers about the potential and value of Manual Simulation Systems (MSS). Quite often, the visual random number generator is disdain­fully treated as an inappropriate element of chance. This perception is nothing but a pathetic ignorance ­towards friction, or, as Clausewitz titled it, the ‘fog of war’.

Historically, the best-known MSS might be the Kriegs­spiel which revolutionized the approach to military operations in the 19th century. Moltke the Elder used this tool for education and training of military leaders leaving other nations’ military flabbergasted about its effect on the operational efficiency of the Prussian armed forces.

Computer-based simulation systems might appear more fashionable than those unadorned MSS. A wall of flats screens, impressive graphics, flashing data ­displays, and daunting ‘artificial intelligence’ indubit­ably engender thoughts of precision, agility, and the scientific method.

But …

First of all, they always apply the same basic procedure as any MSS, use a (more or less efficient but well-hidden) random number generator, and refuse the user any real insight into the ‘black box’.

Secondly, as sophisticated they might be, computer-based simulation systems require a horrendous effort to modify them and validate the resulting changes.

MSS are not perfect either. Using them requires a formidable effort to run the system directly by the users, as no machine shoulders the task to make the model work. A numerically high run through a MSS is plain absurd if possible at all.

MSS have two resounding traits: they are incredibly inexpensive to produce and maintain (especially when using commercial ones); and their game mechanisms are completely transparent to the user. The main effect of this: modifications, expansions, merging of the systems are no noteworthy effort of time and money, but only a question of intellect and creative capabilities.

Taking all this into consideration, MSS offer an unmatched combination of versatility for application in combination with a negligible investment in procurement and maintenance.

The following four examples illustrate this versatility.

Learning About a Phenomenon

During the last 20+ years, the scope of requests and challenges for Western military forces witnessed an unparalleled increase in depth and breadth. The classic types of operation (attack, defence, delaying) and the hard as bone nine principles of war no longer cover the needs, or ensures success if applied and adhered to, respectively.

From asymmetric warfare to operations to counter hyper threat, a multitude of doctrine, mission strategies, and demands regarding the exertion of military violence conducted by weapon systems and military units, came crushing down on all levels of military leaders, thinkers and especially ‘the guys in the line of fire’.

Worse, is the fact that most of all those resounding alterations remain elusive as the amount of scenarios, de facto courses of action, and lessons learned defy a timely and exhaustive analysis to form the base for a comprehensive adjustment of existing structures and processes to face the next challenge with a higher probability for success of the own forces.

MSS provide one modus operandi (mainly as a tool, never as a solution generator) to better grasp selected realms (singularly or in any desired combination) where alterations recently happened (and were already felt) or are still ongoing.

Applying the MSS inherent advantages as mentioned above, especially its short development loops, the military could compile and use dedicated interactive models for Education & Training (E&T) purposes to prepare and syntonise its personnel more efficiently for ‘things to come’ once they are to run real operations.

As an example, the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL), the gaming center at the National Defense University in Washington D.C., developed such an MSS called COIN OF THE REALM in 2012, to expose users to, and have them experience, processes and strategies re­lated to Counter Insurgency Operations (COIN). This sys­tem, arranged as a board game, does not aim to train the one and only path for success (which obviously does not exist), but provides users a better chance to understand COIN related concepts. The design of this MSS, as is true for all others serving this purpose, inherently expedites continuous modification based on requirements for change and adaptations as derived from the real world.

Analysing Future Alternatives

Resources provided for Western military forces are always facing the threat and suffer the practice of being treated as a quarry when times and circumstances reduce the military to solely an expensive and idle instrument of a nation’s executive authority.

During the JAPCC 2012 Conference, an animated discussion took place when it came to the point ‘How many further reduction of a nation’s air power could be tolerated before it turns into a totally ineffective conglomerate of material, systems and personnel?’

An answer to ‘What is the “critical mass”?’ could not reasonably be provided.

It is also of great importance to have at least an indi­cation, if a military force earmarked to run a specific oper­ation, has any chance to succeed the way it was prepared, arrayed, supplied, tasked, etc.

The first victims of a discrepancy between the expectations and the unfolding reality are always the soldiers at the execution level.

MSS provide a resource-effective tool to generate dynamic, interactive models for running specified operations using and applying pre-set force contingents, ROE, political framework requirements, budget restraints, and whatever could be thought about.

Such a MSS was developed by Cranfield University at the UK’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory in 2012 / 2013, named the ‘Rapid Campaign Assessment Tool’ (RCAT). RCAT allows to set-up whatever scenario is asked for by high level military and / or political ­re­presentatives in order to demonstrate and have the participants (exactly those representatives) ex­perience directly what the fate of the deliberately ­designed force package could be once kicked into the operation.

The aim is not to convince the target audience with glossy presentations et al, but to get the decision-makers involved and concerned as closely as possible.

The Cranfield University experience proves the value of this concept and the applied MSS. The direct ‘play’ of the target audience combined with a zero time lag when it comes to modify the scenario and / or the forces, parameter settings, overarching conditions, etc. turned RCAT into a universally accepted approach to analyse possible alternatives for the future before it is too late.

Fostering the Understanding of History

Nobody doubts the value of history, or more precisely: The knowledge about history.

This noble statement is evidently not in line with the plain truth that too many people do not have the foggiest notion about history.

Whom to blame? The ignorant people or the reasons why and how they became ignorant?

A one-dimensional approach to history (from BC to AD to today), coupled with the focussing on historical dates per se, are indeed the perfect method to generate those unlucky know-nothings. They never got a chance to grasp the fascination of things and events that happened yesterday and beyond but continue influencing the world of today.

MSS offer a chance to avoid this pitfall by swapping the voluntary (or not quite so voluntary) history student’s role of a lackadaisical observer with that of an active participant.

This turns the probably anticipated dry and dusty topic into a lively understanding about what happened in the past and why.

Using MSS for this purpose does not replace the classic study of History, but complements it tremendously, fostering both ways of learning about history.

The challenge for the design of MSS for this field of application lies in the precision of its elements to survive the critical assessment of the historian. On the other hand, the MSS must remain usable for the ­intended purpose to provide the history student a manageable tool.

For example, at King’s College, London, a whole set of MSS is used (based on the book ‘Simulating War: Study­ing Conflict through Simulation Games’, Philip ­Sabin), where those conflicting objectives (historical accuracy and playability) are kept in balance thus achieving the original aim: a deeper understanding of history.

Improving Competence

All activities that take place during military oper­ations result from decisions made by those in charge regardless of the Command & Control level. There is no ‘No decision’.

This makes the competence of decision-makers regarding their profession as military key to success or failure.

Western military puts a lot of effort into the E&T of their ‘human factor’. The nagging question was and remains: ‘Is all this effective and lasting?’

When it comes to the ‘Command & Control and Leader­ship’ competence, the main challenge is not ‘What to teach the students’, but how to turn the students into capable and effective decision-makers.

As was mentioned during the JAPCC Conference 2012: ‘NATO is great regarding Control, but we have lost the indispensable capability to exercise Command.’

Starting 2010, the JAPCC developed an E&T model contributing to the task of advancing the endeavour of improving the C&C / Leadership competence. The essential idea of this model is ‘NOT to tell the students WHAT to think, but invite them to experience ways HOW to think’.

The tool to make this possible and happen is the use of commercial MSS. They provide the starting point and the interactive environment to have the students experience the challenge of leadership. The available broad spectrum of commercial MSS, also called Conflict Simulation (CoSim) Games, allows to focus on any selected set of competence areas, e.g. holistic thinking, motivation, effective planning and acting, conflict solving within the team, and so on and so forth.

The use of MSS forces the students into a comprehensive micro-cosmos where all phases of the OODA loop actually take place and affect the flow of actions and events once the simulated operation was set in motion. There is no escape for the students, as MSS do not offer the excuse of an obscure black box. The students are permanently confronted with the con­sequences of the decisions they made. Accepting this fact already provides the first improvement step of their C&C / Leadership competence.

Just having the students running a MSS would be nonsense. A MSS should be thoroughly embedded in the learning cycle for the students, using a competent cadre of instructors and observers who stay in contact with the students and offer them feedback throughout the E&T event. The key here is not to ask ‘Why did you make this mistake?’ but to insist on getting an answer to ‘What led you to make the decision?’.

There is no right or wrong. There is only the appeal to the students to self-reflect on what they did and why. This starting point leads to effective discussions, evaluations about the contents, rational, and art of C&C / Leader­ship, and ultimately, improved competence.

Based on their inherent versatility, the four fields of ­application for MSS presented here provide only a portion of the options to use those systems; imagi­nation is the only limiter.

In a time where austerity seems to impact everything and everyone, it is more than appropriate to broaden the use of effective low-cost solutions and strategies like Manual Simulation Systems.

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Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2008-2014)

Col Uwe L. Heilmann is the Head of the C4ISTAR Branch of the JAPCC in Kalkar, Germany. Col Heilmann joined the Luftwaffe in 1977. His military career saw primarily appointments in the functional staff area 6, dealing with C2 from a technical as well as a leadership perspective. He graduated from the General Staff Officer Course at the Academy in Hamburg in 1992.

Information provided is current as of September 2014

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