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Developing Better Decision Makers through Wargaming
4 Nov 2022

In the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps Planning Guidance, the Commandant writes, “wargaming needs to be used more broadly to fill what is arguably our greatest deficiency in the training and education of leaders: practice in decision making against a thinking enemy.” Recently, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) attempted to do just this by incorporating history based wargaming into the unit’s already existing reading and PME program.

For the past several months 22nd MEU staff has been reading and discussing the book “Guadalcanal” by Richard Frank. The purpose of this particular PME was to improve the MEU staff’s understanding and appreciation for multi-domain operations, and the single naval battle concept. Guadalcanal was seen as an ideal case study in both of these areas while also providing an opportunity to study a critical chapter in Marine Corps history. While the reading and discussion portion of this PME was in progress, the unit decided to try and incorporate wargaming into the learning continuum. The 22nd MEU Commanding Officer, Colonel Paul Merida, had seen this done well by one of his professors at the Marine Corps War College, and wanted to try and duplicate the experience within the unit’s PME program. He stated, “I thought this form of instruction worked well at the War College in Quantico and perhaps, if we could find the right wargame, maybe we could provide the staff a change of pace regarding how we went about learning.”

A brief period of web-based research led to what appeared to be the right game to achieve the applicable learning objectives. “Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal” was chosen and was subsequently integrated into the Guadalcanal PME. Merida said, “believe it or not there’s a couple dozen different Guadalcanal wargames out there. We settled on this one because it looked like it got at the multi-domain aspect of the campaign. Plus the Axis & Allies family of games is somewhat familiar to many so it likely wasn’t going to be too difficult or time consuming to learn how to play.”

Over the course of the next few months during two of the MEU’s pre-deployment training “at-sea” periods the MEU staff went through several nights of wargaming. The “Axis & Allies” wargame incorporates air, land, and naval forces with the objective of achieving victory within a single naval campaign across several domains. The game required the players to make dozens of decisions regarding the employment of forces, the timing and sequencing of operations, as well as how to logistically sustain those operations. Most importantly none of this was done in a vacuum – players were operating against a “thinking enemy” who was just as committed as they were to winning.

As one member of the MEU staff relayed, “when I was a Marine Officer Instructor at UCLA and USC I quickly realized how wargames offered super high-fidelity learning opportunities that simply could not be achieved in a traditional reading and lecture alone,” explained Capt. Nicholas Patitsas, 22nd MEU Adjutant. “When you play a wargame, you make decisions in a span of hours that might take weeks in a formal exercise. Commanders and staff can test their ideas and decisions-making skills using an off-the-shelf commercial wargame that cost less than a day of per diem.” Patistas also noted the importance of the games in regards to the MEU’s upcoming deployment. He explained how wargaming is allowing the 22nd MEU leadership to practice their critical thinking skills and how they can practice observing situations they may encounter in the future. He said when facilitated well, wargames can provide a deep experiential learning opportunity. “Knowledge retention from wargaming is probably just below that of physical force-on-force training. Much of that boils down to the fun factor. The fear you have to go out on a limb, fall flat on your face, and then laugh about it...the more understanding and perspective you gain,” explained Patitsas while talking about the importance of making the learning experience something memorable so the information sticks.

Colonel Merida believes the exposure to wargaming is developing his leaders to respond to situations more efficiently and concluded with, “this type of wargaming provides reps and sets,” Merida said. “To 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 just make the first decision; you need to develop the ability to assess and update your estimate of the situation, then formulate another decision and then repeat the process again and again. You also need the ability to recognize when your plans aren’t working and ask yourself, ‘Okay, now how do I fix this? Adapt, and keep moving forward. We need to assume that the enemy is always adjusting during the fight and we need to do the same but only faster and more efficiently.”