Jim Harris wants to surprise you.
As director of the Center for Analytic Innovation at CENTRA Technology, a PAE company, Harris runs analytic wargames for the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, other government organizations and sometimes private companies.
"If we do a game and there are no surprises, I feel like we somehow didn't get it done," said Harris.
Why would the U.S. government want to be surprised? If there is anything that civilian and military officials hate, it is surprises, those unexpected events that wreck plans and tarnish reputations. An ideal world would be a deterministic one where actions lead to predictable outcomes.
But as events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 proved, the world is not a predictable place. Whether involving known flashpoints – the South China Sea, the Middle East, Eastern Europe – or those yet unknown, the unexpected is always a certainty.
Better to deal with surprises around the conference table during a simulation, than to be surprised by a real-life crisis that forces decision-makers to improvise a response. Just like the old military maxim that hard training before battle saves lives during battle, a good analytical game allows participants to explore options and consequences. Is military force the optimal response in a given situation, or it is better to rely political and economic pressure? What strategies might an adversary employ, and how might they respond to various U.S. strategies? CENTRA's simulations span a wide variety of issues, from space warfare and climate change to modeling the internal politics of U.S. allies and adversaries.
The emphasis on injecting the adversary's perspectives is often what separates CENTRA's games from others. For example, CENTRA has frequently assembled a Red Team to simulate Russian or Chinese political and military decision-making.
In entertainment wargames, the focus is on winning the game. In defense simulations, the emphasis is often quantitative or procedural, such as devising an optimum military force structure, or testing battle plans and tactics. CENTRA's analytical games are more cognitive, forcing participants not just to make decisions, but to consider the underlying factors that led them to those decisions. This encourages participants to think out of the box.
"Our games are very free-flowing," says CENTRA senior analyst Greg Brown. "We don't know the outcomes. Often, our sponsors will want to use an exercise to expose their own assumptions and where those might be wrong. Or they might use this to share with other people in their organization what blind spots they have."
It is possible to test a prospective US policy approach in a game so that any surprise occurs within the exercise rather than in real life when the policy is implemented. In one case, CENTRA simulated a negotiation that did not go well. The challenge for the policymaker in such a case is to decide whether to take the simulation result seriously enough to change their planned approach. Analysis of the simulation result has to be sophisticated enough to decide the issue.
Allowing for surprises does more than enable alternate possibilities to be explored in a wargame. At the cognitive level, it teaches participants to accept surprise not as a singular occurrence, but as an evolving stream of unexpected events.
"Particularly for the intelligence community, it's a rolling series of surprises," Brown said. "And an exercise is a nice way to introduce possibilities to people who might face something that is not the same problem, but something very similar."
How can analytical wargaming facilitate surprise? One way is to bring in people savvy enough to see unexpected possibilities. That's why CENTRA maintains a network of over 6,000 experts – available in-person or virtually – who are familiar with everything from international politics and military technology to economics, religion and data science. This helps generate the ability to simulate the internal decision-making processes of U.S. allies and adversaries.
"We have a very strong network of experts that can bring unique viewpoints outside of our client's usual stable of experts," says CENTRA analyst Michael Fernandez. "In a lot of Red Team games and exercises, they can translate this into gameplay initiated by an adversary perspective."
"A lot of experts come from the same educational background," Fernandez noted. "They worked for the same nonprofits and organizations. So when we populate a Red Team, it's important to diversify your pool of expertise."
It's also important to provide the proper tools. CENTRA uses PAE's patented social media, media analytics and research tool, Geospatial (SMARTGeo), which uses machine learning and big data analytics to mine news sources and social media for real-time information, injecting spatial factors into the game. Post-game analysis is also important to assess why and how surprises occurred in the game.
In the end, the most pleasant surprise for those running CENTRA's analytic games is discovering that they opened someone's mind. "It's how somebody's mindset may have shifted because they participated in exercise where they were confronted with a situation which was unfamiliar to them and where they had to question their own assumptions," Brown said.