By Robert C. Engen and LtCol Scott Jenkinson
The 2019-20 Academic Year (AY19-20) in Canada was interrupted by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The academic year was about two-thirds finished when the faculty, staff, and students at the Canadian Forces College (CFC), Canada’s joint service staff college, were forced to disperse because of the pandemic. The final one-third of the AY19-20 program was transited online in what we called Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT), distinct from traditional distance learning in part because of the crash efforts to redevelop face-to-face courses for virtual delivery on very little notice.
Much of the richness of face-to-face professional military education (PME) would potentially be lost to the crisis, as many seminars and activities had to be replaced by online threaded discussions. The authors, in their academic and directing staff capacities at CFC, sought to use their experience with wargaming to create a virtually-delivered, team-based wargame that could substitute and supplement discussions of planned subject matter through threaded discussions. The result was the development of Exercises GOSSAMER and RUNTIME in April 2020 as part of the joint warfighting stream in CFC’s Joint Command and Staff Program (JCSP), for delivery and execution in May of 2020. GOSSAMER and RUNTIME were custom-built wargames designed to simultaneously engage all 48 stream participants. It was executed in its entirety using only Zoom, Moodle, PowerPoint, and, to a lesser degree, Slack and WhatsApp. This article is an overview of how GOSSAMER and RUNTIME were put together and run under pandemic circumstances.
Exercise GOSSAMER was held virtually at Canadian Forces College on 8-15 May 2020 and was the delivery mechanism for the Targeting and Campaign Assessment modules in JCSP’s Advanced Topics in Campaign Design class. The aim of these modules was: “To introduce key concepts and theory relevant to targeting, and to examine restraints on targeting, targeting in irregular warfare, and targeting in coalitions,” through the execution of a role-based wargame. The game mechanics were custom built for Ex GOSSAMER by the authors, but were inspired by elements and mechanics of tabletop and matrix wargames such as Bitter Victory, They Shall Not Pass, Baltic Challenge, and a RAND report on “Gaming Grey Zone Tactics.” The intention was to create a game that represented and drew out the complexity and problems of modern targeting in an abstract, fast, playable way. It was not intended to be a re-creation of the targeting cycle, nor was it intended or sanctioned as a training instrument for the targeting process (this is not CFC’s remit). Rather, the intention was to spark thoughtful discussion and reflection about targeting among student participants, just as any seminar or threaded discussion on the topic would. The wargame was to be the vehicle for these discussions. The students were all majors or lieutenant commanders (OF-3).
The four JCSP stream syndicates were split into two, to create eight separate Teams, each of which would play in one big wargame supported by syndicate academics and directing staff, and overseen by a White Cell. The teams portrayed two sides of a conflict in the fictional NATO member state of “Baltika,” which faced growing unrest and an insurgency backed by a hostile neighbouring state, the Federation (by policy, Canada does not engage in strategic messaging by explicitly naming real-world adversarial entities in its exercises and wargames). Several cities within Baltika contained a majority of ethnically Federation citizens, and their alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Baltikan government was the catalyst for the scenario. Each of the eight Teams (of five or six students apiece) would role play either Field Forces (units on the map) or Command Teams representing high-level guidance and targeting policy. Teams represented Baltika and the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in the country (collectively “Blue” Force), versus the Federation and the pro-Federation insurgents within Baltika (collectively “Red” Force). Canada, as the lead country and primary donor of troops to the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in Baltika, was specially represented.
Teams were expected to coordinate among themselves and used online platforms such as Zoom, Slack, and WhatsApp for communication. The game was conducted asynchronously over the space of one week, with a fixed turn order (of the UGOIGO type), and the teams free to meet synchronously among themselves typically once or twice per 24 hour period (sometimes much more). Teams had to submit orders for their units once per day, at a designated time (noon for Federation forces, 20:00 for NATO forces). The game was conducted double-blind in the manner of a classic Kriegsspiel; forces that were attempting to conceal their presence would not be revealed on an enemy’s map unless detected, making proper intelligence gathering a vital part of the game, especially for the NATO side. White Cell would process and post the results of that turn’s action. This placed many demands on White Cell. Red and Blue could not communicate with “enemy” teams.
The intention behind Ex GOSSAMER was to combine a structured wargame ruleset with a free-play approach and a codified system for orders submission that built student reflection into the process of constructing orders. The game allowed entirely non-kinetic information operations, gray zone “hybrid” warfare tactics, full-on conventional warfighting, and any combination thereof. Nuclear weapons were also on the map as a consideration, though their use would have ended gameplay immediately (the players were not made aware of this). The way to “win” the game, however, was primarily non-kinetic. Each Command Team possessed a Condition Track representing public opinion. Non-kinetic operations directly targeted this Condition Track for erosion, and a number of in-game events could and did affect it as well. If one Team reached “Collapse” on their Condition Track, then public opinion or regime stability for that side deteriorated and they immediately withdrew from the conflict.
Taking actions that would erode the enemy’s Condition Track was therefore the key to this game. GOSSAMER employed an Opposed Results Table (ORT) where the degree of overmatch (4:1, 5:1, etc.) was cross-referenced against “damage” rolled by White Cell on a single six-sided dice. The mechanics were designed so that both Kinetic and Non-Kinetic actions used the same ORT. Strategic Guidance and Objectives (SGOs) were chosen by the Command Teams at the beginning of the game as policy; achieving alignment between the tactical actions of the Field Forces and the SGOs issued by the Command Teams was extremely important.
We will not give a recap of the game here (a full After-Action Report is available upon request to the authors). However, the outcome – a decisive Federation/Red Force victory – surprised everyone. The game was “won” at the end of the third turn when the Canadian Government’s Condition Track reached Collapse, triggering a major political crisis and the immediate withdrawal of all Canadian troops from Baltika. The Federation teams grasped where the game’s centre of gravity lay, but the outcome was also facilitated by a series of ‘own-goals’ on the coalition side. Public Opinion became a disastrous vulnerability when Canadian and NATO forces moved in to engage the insurgents directly. They undertook (with no coordination with the Command Teams on that day) a series of game actions that had been established in advance as being toxic to Public Opinion, including NATO troops assaulting insurgent forces in a major populated area. All these actions caused severe damage to the Canadian Public Opinion Condition Track, and it required only a very modest Federation information warfare “push” to turn this into a killing blow for Canada’s mission. Realizing that they had shot themselves in the foot, these actions also caused mission paralysis on the Blue Force side in the final turn.
The Federation teams did a superb job of placing coalition forces in a position where they had to harm their own interests no matter which action they pursued. The NATO teams were unable to align their tactical actions with the strategic guidance given them at the start of the game, and were subsequently frustrated at seeing the kinetic actions they took undermine their own ability to achieve victory conditions. In a targeting sense, the Federation aligned capabilities against targets to generate effects to achieve specific objectives, both kinetically and non-kinetically. They were aided by a coalition side that struggled to do the same. Guidance from higher Command Teams was at some points absent on the coalition side, which caused, in the memorable words of the NATO Field Force Team leader, the infantry battle group to go “Leeroy Jenkins” – charging in alongside their Baltikan allies when time was short and they lacked good guidance from their own Command. While they achieved conspicuous tactical success, this was to the serious detriment of their own strategic narrative.
At the end of the exercise, participants were required to write an unstructured reflection post to explore their experience. Throughout the week they also had to write “deep-dive analyses” on scholarly works related to Targeting which were provided ahead of time; these were assessed separately from the exercise but were connected to it thematically. Following the exercise there was also a “hot wash” synchronous Zoom session that started with a short plenary in which instructors and directing staff offered their thoughts, and then broke out into syndicates to wrap up and tie the exercise into larger discussions in the JCSP stream. The aspect of the game that most surprised the participants was that we had “allowed” Blue to fail.
Exercise RUNTIME was held virtually at CFC from 17-22 May 2020, the academic week following Ex GOSSAMER. Ex RUNTIME was the delivery mechanism for the Cyber Domain module of JCSP’s Advanced Topics in Campaign Design class, the aim of which was: “To explore the scope of potential responses of states, acting either individually or in coalition, to malicious activities in the cyber domain with specific focus on those involving the use of military power.” Compromises were made because of the time constraints placed upon the design and development of the wargames. Ex RUNTIME was a “reset” of the scenario from Ex GOSSAMER, with Teams switching sides and roles so that all Teams previously playing Field Forces would play Command teams this time. Most teams that were previously playing Red were also now playing Blue, and vice versa.
In its major features and broad parameters, Ex RUNTIME was identical to Ex GOSSAMER. Where RUNTIME differed was in its introduction of a new layer of more nuanced rules governing the application of the Cyber domain to the situation. Important concepts such as Unit Connectivity, Zero-Day Vulnerabilities, and the interplay between Cyber Defence, DDoS Attack, and Cyber Intelligence were incorporated. We developed the cyber “layer” of rules in close consultation with an accomplished CAF cyber operator and represented effects rather than processes. There were a few other significant changes as well, including:
More hidden information. Information about unit capabilities was kept hidden from the opposing side until they specifically investigated it with intelligence operations. The role of intelligence was therefore magnified, as was the amount of work required from White Cell to track what the two sides “knew” about one another, as the game remained double-blind.
- Maritime units, under the control of the respective Command Teams instead of the Field Forces, were included for both sides – a NATO maritime force and a Federation submarine force.
- Cyber-enabled units, both on the map under the control of the Field Forces and off-the-map under the control of the Command Teams, were now written into the game. They had options to launch cyber attacks (which could paralyze high-connectivity units temporarily), deploy cyber weapons (one-time use programs with potentially far-reaching effects), and use cyber defence to bolster their own and other friendly units’ network defences.
- Cyber weapons employed a complex behind-the-scenes system whereby they could only be used to exploit certain weaknesses. Every unit in the game had their weaknesses randomly assigned, modified by their amount of network connectivity (the more connected the unit was, the more vulnerabilities it would potentially have). Pairing the right cyber weapon with the right vulnerability required intelligence, savvy, and no small amount of luck.
The intention was to create a game that represented, in an abstract way, some of the effects that can be generated within the cyber domain, without detailing specifics for how these effects are achieved. Emphasis was kept on teaching the complexity and limitations of cyber operations in an abstract, fast, and playable way. It was intended to spark thoughtful discussion and reflection among the student participants.
Ex RUNTIME still allowed the same conventional, unconventional, non-kinetic, and even nuclear options that Ex GOSSAMER did. Cyber operations were layered on top of these, and the scenario was the same as in Ex GOSSAMER, although additional units were placed for each side. Mechanically, execution of the game was identical to Ex GOSSAMER.
We will not give a recap of the game here (again, a full After-Action Report is available upon request). Ex RUNTIME drew out some important insights and lessons about the cyber domain during a crisis. However, this wargame also featured participants who fully remembered the mistakes and lessons of Ex GOSSAMER. From the opening moments, Ex RUNTIME saw a much more aggressive, kinetic approach to the scenario than had occurred in Ex GOSSAMER, partly due to the personalities of those in leadership positions on key teams. Rather than spread confusion and operate in the gray zone, where the cyber domain is arguably strongest, the Federation teams opted to make direct pushes on key objective cities in the hope of collapsing coalition public opinion before their own regime destabilized completely.
Coalition responses were calculated to maximize intelligence, keep the Federation guessing, and avoid the “own-goal” mistakes that had been made in Ex GOSSAMER. This meant careful attention to targeting, avoidance of direct confrontation between NATO and insurgent forces, and the positioning of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence as a “tripwire” against the Federation blitz. They almost succeeded in collapsing Federation Regime Stability entirely on Turn 2 of the game. However, the Federation was likely to escalate further, and the most likely outcome of this playthrough of Ex RUNTIME was a Third World War. Saying that anybody “won” is therefore disingenuous.
In some ways this was unfortunate, because the cyber element of the game was better suited to non-kinetic and gray zone confrontations rather than for a hot conventional war. Cyber operations in Ex RUNTIME were designed to be intelligence- and time-intensive to do properly: a great deal of muckraking, network hygiene, and good fortune had to be sunk into it. All of these were in short supply once the Federation heavy armour crossed the Baltikan border. It did show some important points. Cyber operations require patience and time. Our representation of what would happen in an unprepared cyber battlefield that suddenly became a hot war was probably quite accurate: cyber might be able to support in some peripheral ways, but it would be a secondary consideration. There was one moment where, by complete coincidence, Blue Force cyber operators located a chain of identical zero-day vulnerabilities in Federation units. This could have been a “Cyber Pearl Harbor” moment that changed the nature of the situation fundamentally, but conditions in the game fell just short of this vulnerability being exploitable, and nothing resulted from the discovery.
If pre-game cyber intelligence had been available to both sides (pre-existing illumination of some enemy networks), then more could have been done with cyber operations during actual play, though the fundamental point about their utility during a sudden crisis stands. This has been noted as a lesson for future iterations. A specialist Canadian Armed Forces cyber operator was brought into the White Cell to help design the cyber operation rules for Ex RUNTIME, and to help track the complex cyber components of the game during play. Another student leader in a different stream of study was also brought into White Cell to track and simulate media play within Ex RUNTIME, carried out as a series of targeted posts by the Teams on Moodle.
We learned plenty from developing and running Exercises GOSSAMER and RUNTIME. Here are some of the key takeaways:
- Time put into discussion, reflection, hot-washes, and after-action reports is never wasted. Ex GOSSAMER ended one day ahead of schedule, and EX RUNTIME ended two days ahead of schedule, in part to better facilitate discussions and a “hot wash” after the games’ culminating points had been reached.
- There is great value in repetition, but also some risks. Iterating on the game meant that everyone had the basic idea by the time we started RUNTIME, and gave excellent points of comparison for the debriefs. But there were also instances in RUNTIME of participants playing the game rather than playing the scenario, since they were better acquainted with the rules.
- The value of a free-to-fail environment. The people most surprised at the end of Ex GOSSAMER were the Red teams, who had not been expecting to win – they were certain that the scenario had to be rigged for a Blue victory. Ex GOSSAMER and RUNTIME had strict rules and procedures, but there were no scripted events after the initial scenario setup, and participants’ decisions drove all events. Perhaps most importantly, assessment of student work during the wargame was not based upon who won or lost.
- The strength of online platforms. Over the course of two weeks we ran two complete custom-made wargames geared to fulfil specific curriculum objectives. 48 students, four DS, and four civilian academics were involved, plus a small White Cell. The games were run double-blind and asynchronously. These wargames originated as stand-ins for traditional activities because of the pandemic, but we learned that there was a great deal that we could do in terms of wargaming in the online environment that would have been extremely difficult to do face-to-face. While iterations of these exercises in the immediate future will be online due to the rampancy of covid-19 in Canada, some of them will likely be run online permanently due to the convenience and the power of the tools available, and our new familiarity with them.
- Games bring us together. AY19-20 was broken by covid-19. We could not give the students back the rich mess life, activities, and face-to-face contact and networking opportunities that the pandemic took away from their experience at CFC. We could, however, ensure that academically their year did not end with posting replies onto threaded discussions. Most definitions of games and wargames involve the concept of “play”: elements of pretend, of joy, of tension, and of consciousness that is different from ordinary life. For two weeks, our students had the opportunity to play together. It was both serious and not serious, a learning opportunity and a chance to spend time with friends and colleagues playing. The value of this in the middle of a pandemic that has isolated us all cannot be overstated.
- The main casualties were the White Cell. By the time Ex RUNTIME was over, the White Cell was completely burned out and not good for much for another week or so afterwards. Many of the students, having participated in two weeks’ worth of exercises, devoted a great deal more thought, effort, and time to playing the wargame than they strictly had to, so there was a good amount of fatigue all around by the close of Ex RUNTIME. Executing these games in the middle of a stressful pandemic was no help. It would be wise to take this into better account in future!
We are presently using those lessons to develop and expand CFC’s in-house wargaming capacity. We are running a “Wargaming for PME” course during CFC’s autumn semester, which includes an Ex GOSSAMER II. We intend for Ex RUNTIME II and GOSSAMER III to be conducted later in the year. We have also planned a JOINTEX wargame as the culminating event for the JCSP Component Capabilities course. All of these will be done with almost no budget and using existing technology platforms: the main expenditure is in staff effort and time, which is considerable on the front-end but worthwhile for the learning experience created. CFC is beginning to devote significant attention to wargaming as a pedagogical/andragogical tool for professional military education, and the exigencies of the pandemic have taught us a great deal about what is actually required to make immersive, educational, and effective wargames work in a virtual environment. As CFC’s director of academics is fond of saying these days, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Robert C. Engen, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College. In November 2020 he received a Canadian Defence Academy Commander’s Commendation for his work on incorporating virtual wargames into the CFC curriculum during the pandemic.
LtCol Scott Jenkinson is an Australian Army exchange instructor at the Canadian Forces College.