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A Putin nuclear strike on Ukraine? A Chinese attack against Taiwan? How the US prepares for global nightmares.
A former CIA leader on war games, “red teams” and other ways the U.S. prepares for worst-case scenarios.
December 12, 2022
The potential for global surprises has rarely been greater. And surprise is the enemy of any nation’s foreign policy.
The challenge for U.S. policymakers is to prepare for all these traumas and game out how the U.S. would respond — not just in the moment, but in prolonged and escalating circumstances. For example, not just whether Russia would go nuclear in Ukraine, but what the U.S. would do and what next steps Russia might take. All this to avoid relying on improvisation and potentially chaotic responses, if and when the moment comes.
The good news? Such planning is happening now when it comes to the Taiwan and Russian situations. The bad news? Those are as complex and dangerous as any scenarios in recent memory.
How does the scenario-planning work? Who does this work? My experience in government taught me that there are many ways to prepare for such uncertainties and entire teams of people whose job descriptions might best be described as “preparing for nightmares.”
The concept dates to the early 19th century and a Prussian army officer who took actual games to his superiors and suggested that they be used to simulate conditions on the battlefield. Today, war gaming in the U.S. happens inside government agencies and private think tanks, and it takes many forms.
There is the geopolitical war game — a kind of chess match of diplomatic moves and countermoves — and then there is the more kinetic variety, with U.S. military officers simulating teams and playing through a series of military “moves” in which the battlefield is constantly changing.
For years, the U.S. has used war games to simulate a U.S. war with China over Taiwan. As Grid’s Joshua Keating has reported, in classified Air Force war games held since 2018, “blue” teams representing the U.S. have repeatedly lost to Chinese “red” teams. That’s partly by design — these games are designed to highlight vulnerabilities — but the simulations have also highlighted specific issues involving China’s geographic advantages and its rapid development of certain weapons (in particular anti-ship ballistic missiles, capable of precision strikes on U.S. ships at a range of more than 900 miles).
The 2021 Air Force game reportedly showed improvement for the U.S. side, though the Air Force game commander highlighted the fact that many of the necessary U.S. military assets were not yet in development or production. His conclusion: “If we change, we can win.” More broadly, these war games have shown the grave damage China could inflict against Taiwan in the early days of a conflict, but also the likelihood of a long and drawn-out war once the U.S. was involved — a war that could be devastating to the U.S. and China both.
Other war games take into consideration both military capabilities and political factors, sometimes using a team that mixes government players with outside experts. This was the case in a war game in March run by West Point’s Modern War Institute, which simulated a Russia-Ukraine war just weeks after the actual Russian invasion.
That game opened with the U.S. players overestimating Russian capabilities but quickly coming to the prescient view that over time Russia could not sustain the combat power necessary to take and hold a major city. The game also foresaw the eventual need for a Russian mobilization, resulting political tensions in Russia and a long-lasting stalemate on the battlefield.
What’s gained in these games? In the Ukraine case, those conclusions helped underline some of Ukraine’s underlying strengths and, more importantly, to expose weaknesses in Russia’s position.
More broadly, the games help the U.S. “team” take the measure of itself, expose resource and coordination problems among U.S. agencies and with allies, and test how a range of responses might work under the pressure of time and surprise.
“Red teaming,” which also originated with the 19th century Prussian military, is an invaluable variation on this — and one that I’ve seen work effectively. Call it war gaming with a twist.
A team of experts is asked to “become” the country or group whose actions you are trying to anticipate. And “experts” is the key word. The team must consist of people with two qualities: deep expertise on the adversary, and an ability to challenge conventional wisdom and avoid “mirror imaging” (the tendency to assume the adversary will behave as Americans would). The team members must be expert enough to enter the enemy’s social, cultural and ideological milieus and think as they would.
Red teaming differs from war gaming in that there is no opposing side; you don’t want this group reacting to others — you just want them to replicate and channel the thinking, logic and planning of your adversary. In colloquial terms, to get in their heads.
So in my Taiwan example, this team would consist of people schooled in Chinese and Taiwanese culture and history, and ideally with fluency in Mandarin. They might be given two kinds of tasks: playing Chinese policymakers to game out how Beijing would pursue its aims on Taiwan, or playing Chinese officials reacting to setbacks in their strategy. In the Putin-nukes scenario, the same idea — but with the expertise focused on Russia, nuclear weapons and Putin himself.
I know red teaming can work, based on the CIA’s use of the technique after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when the agency felt acutely responsible for ensuring that another attack did not take place. We took our most adventurous and unconventional thinkers and formed a red team with a very specific task: We told them to “become” the terrorists — to imagine how and where they might plot their next attacks. Combined with raw intelligence we collected, the red team’s work guided many of the steps the administration took to harden vulnerable targets in the U.S. and abroad.
This proved important because, in my experience, the U.S. tendency even after 9/11 was to rely almost passively on intelligence to warn policymakers; in other words, wait for a CIA warning and then react. Our message was that we would do our best but — against an enemy that played by no rules — there would always be a chance something might be missed and someone would get through. Better to augment intelligence warnings with proactive protection of potential targets that we could identify.