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Playing Panetta

Think it's tough for Pentagon planners to figure out what the military will look like ten years after $600 billion in budget cuts? Try playing this game.

By , a defense writer.

"There’s a soldier in all of us," promises the advertising for this season’s smash hit video game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. But of course, real modern warfare usually entails less laying waste to hyper-realistic urban environments, than figuring out how to field an effective fighting force under budget constraints. Let’s face it: Endless supplies of ammo only exist online.

But for the aspiring Pentagon bureaucrat in all of us, there’s now Future Force, a new game that lets you experiment with the defense budget.

The game couldn’t have been released at a better time. Congress’s supercommittee has failed to agree on budget cuts, thus triggering $600 million in automatic defense reductions. The post-9/11 Pentagon gravy train is wheezing to a stop at Austerity Station. The U.S. military will have to restructure itself to cope with a changing world and less money. So I decided to try my hand at a virtual version of the doing-less-with-more scenarios that military planners are now facing.

Originally designed for the U.S. Army’s Command & General Staff College (CGSC) and now available to any civilian who wants to play military futurist for an hour, Future Force looks like the kind of spreadsheet game your college accounting teacher would have given you if he’d been teaching Defense Budget 101. The game was designed by retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Lunsford, president of Decisive-Point Games, former CGSC instructor, and a pioneer in designing serious games for the military. (He even turned the task of schlepping fuel convoys across to the battlefield into an Army training game.)

Future Force is a fairly simple game; you can play it in an hour on your home computer. It puts you in command of the freedom-loving nation of Blueland, which just happens to resemble the United States, as it battles its evil-doing, computer-controlled rival Orangeland, an amorphous enemy that seems to be the Soviet Union, China, and the Taliban rolled into one. The two supercolors fight over five theaters, known as Areas of Operations, resembling Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, and so forth. Each area is distinguished by its political value to Blue and Orange, and by its type of conflict, which include major combat operations, irregular warfare, and peacetime military engagement. Each area is also rated for how likely that state of conflict is to change, say from irregular warfare to major combat. Like in real life, today’s insurgency can descend into tomorrow’s major war.

Future Force is played in yearly turns, beginning in 2016. Each turn begins with deploying troops, then a very abstract combat phase, and finally budget management where the player can tailor his force structure.

Seeing as this is supposed to be a real simulation, I’m going to use a bit of real doctrine to guide my choices. As a strategy-guide for my game, I’m cribbing from "Hard Choices," a recent study of various defense options by retired Army general David Barno and the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In my game, I incorporate CNAS’s recommendations for prioritizing development of drones And, more importantly, its advice to cut Army ground forces by 10 to 15 percent. I’ll also beef up special operations forces. To reflect the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, I’ll only carry out major force restructuring every four years. I decide to play the game for eight years; I might not have the institutional longevity of former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, but I figure I should be able to last through two administrations before I get canned.

Future Force is a game of choices and priorities. The first choice is where to fight.

The game begins with some 33 American — I mean, Bluelandian — forces spread across the five theaters. One theater is a major ground war, one is a counterinsurgency, and the other three are peacetime commitments. I quickly discover that Blueland only has enough resources to win perhaps two theaters at most, and, at best, fight Orangeland to a draw in another two. At least one theater is definitely going to be lost to the Orange hordes. That’s why Future Force puts a lot of emphasis on intelligence. Depending on the level of intel funding, there is a chance that Blue can see which theaters have the most political value for Orangeland, and thus will likely attract the bulk of Orangeland’s forces (Blue can also allocate funds for counterintelligence so the sneaky Orangelanders can’t do the same).

Then there’s the choice of what you fight with. Future Force has six types of combat brigades, each of which has different combat value depending on the type of conflict. For example, heavy brigades kick butt in a major war, but their tanks and artillery are almost useless in counterinsurgency. Special Forces are the COIN pros, but their impact is negligible in a conventional war. Theaters can also switch unexpectedly into a different type of combat operation midway through the engagement, leaving your forces ill-equipped to carry out their mission. Future Force brigades take three to five years to build, so you just can’t suddenly pick up new tanks or commandos at Wal-Mart. In one game I played, all five theaters were in a state of insurgency or peacetime military commitment in 2018. So, in line with the CNAS recommendations, I disbanded several brigades, but I only cut heavy mechanized forces. Naturally, in 2019, one of the theaters erupted into major combat operations, meaning my lightly armed infantry and Stryker brigades had to take on Orange tank divisions. Not a pretty outcome.

There’s also the question of how you get the troops where they need to be. As in real warfare, there’s a limited amount of strategic transport capacity to move troops, and heavy brigades consume the most capacity. When I sat down to play Future Force, my plan was a flexible, high-tech, fire-brigade military that I could jump from hotspot to hotspot — not unlike the force envisioned by Marine Corps planners. Nice concept, except that you’ve got to have the transport planes and ships to move them all. As I discovered when I confronted the Orangeland baddies, if you can only move part of your army part of the time, what you’ll have is a weak presence that invites piecemeal destruction.

Which brings us to the crux of Future Force: Where does one allocate those increasingly tight defense dollars? Blueland starts with an annual budget of BL$140 billion (with the Pentagon’s budget at approximately $680 billion, I figure the Blueland buck is worth about U.S. $5 dollars, at current exchange rates. Check with your local financial institution). About two-thirds of that will automatically be deducted for current expenses, though you can save money by cutting troop strength. So you’re left with about BL$40 billion to BL$50 billion for acquisitions each year. But how to split the pie? You can enhance your intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities. You can also invest in research, and hope that Blueland Advanced Research Projects Agency (BLARPA) comes up with a breakthrough that boosts the combat value of your troops. You can raise new brigades, or bolster the strategic transport capability to move them. But you can’t do it all. This is a truism that Pentagon planners know well.

Future Force is a simple game designed for quick analysis and experiment — and, of course, there are many aspects of defense planning, budgeting, and combat operations that it does not and cannot simulate. But as food for thought, it offers a tantalizing buffet. For example, I quickly realized the importance of intelligence; it’s hard to plan your force structure unless you have some idea of what forces the enemy has and where he’s likely to send them. I also realized that for a power like Blueland (or the United States) that fights its wars abroad, the size of its army may not be as important as its ability to transport troops to where they need to be, thus projecting power to change the nature of future conflict.

But the most striking lesson of playing Future Force is the realization that when it comes to designing a future military, planners are always behind the curve, struggling to adapt to circumstances that they did not and perhaps could not anticipate. As the Pentagon enters a new era of lean budgets, and Congress grapples with how to cover the bill, there will be practical constraints on U.S. power and foreign policy. There will be places we would like to intervene, but won’t have enough troops of the right type or in the right place to do it. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the politics of the beholder. But ready or not, that’s what coming.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. He is a contributor to Forbes Defense, editor of Uncommon Defense, and senior analyst for Wikistrat. Twitter: @Mipeck1

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