Pentagon War Games Predict Future Threats

The military's big thinkers plan for future needs by predicting potential security threats.

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CARLISLE, PA.—By the Pentagon's reckoning, the world in 2018 will be a grim place, with a considerable array of tricky national security threats facing the U.S. military. Multinational corporations, employing increasingly thuggish private security forces, begin to undermine the traditional power of nation-states. Countries vie for scarce natural resources, leading to armed conflict. In the meantime, North Korea launches a southern invasion, disguising two Army corps as groups of refugees fleeing across the border.

At the pastoral Pennsylvania campus of the Army War College, an ominous voiceover lays out scenarios devised by the country's top war-gamers during a mock news show. And over the course of a week in May, some 390 of the military's big thinkers, along with university professors, retired generals, and officers from allied nations, tried to solve them. In so doing, war-gamers help the Pentagon pinpoint holes in its planning and preparation for future wars.

The scenarios take place in classrooms, without the electronic game boards that accompany many of the higher-tech war games. Known as Unified Quest, the game is played by teams, which chart out their moves and debate the consequences. "It is designed as an intellectual exercise," says Col. Skip Lewis, chief of the future warfare division at the Training and Doctrine Command in Norfolk, Va. That said, he adds, "it gets very intense."

Part of that intensity is the time frame; the game spans seven fictional years. It also includes challenges to homeland defense, one of the rare instances in this war game in which the Pentagon has faced threats on its home soil, according to U.S. officials. The scenario is menacing: Increasingly powerful gangs financed by Russia are arriving in Texas from training camps in Mexico. To the south, Venezuela continues to be a thorn in America's side, a nemesis, as the foreboding news narrator describes it, in a "historical ideological contest between left and right, funded by Venezuelan oil."

In the fictional situation, "Bolivia requested our help, and obviously Venezuela isn't happy with that scenario," explains Lt. Col. Paul Coyle, chief of the war-gaming branch for TRADOC in Norfolk. In retaliation, and "to make the U.S. government appear inept," Venezuela then launches a cyberattack on U.S. oil distribution networks, causing domestic gas prices to soar.

While U.S. officials stress that the scenarios are a purely fictional study in war, the goal is to "make a grounded projection into the future," says Col. H. R. McMaster, director of concept development and experimentation for the command. "Certainly, you could argue that they are all plausible scenarios," designed to determine "What are the implications for us?"

That was the question of the week, and the answer will help Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, figure out what the Pentagon needs to take on future threats. Peacekeeping skills will be crucial, U.S. officials say, to help mediate increased and ever-more-violent competition for resources. Better dexterity in repelling cyberwarfare attacks will also be key.

This year the games "really stressed us," says McMaster. The almost comical array of threats also gave rise to a running joke, he adds: "We were all asking, 'When does the asteroid hit?' "