2. War Gaming at the Naval War College
Jon Scott Logel
Associate Professor, War Gaming
U.S. Naval War College
Since its founding in 1884, the United States Naval War College has led the practice of war gaming in the American military. Beginning with Lieutenant, later Captain, William McCarty Little in 1887, the College embraced the practice of gaming to teach and understand the challenges of war at sea. What began with small single ship-on-ship dueling games evolved, in the decade prior to World War I, into full-scale strategic and tactical games. In the lecture, “The Strategic Naval War Game or Chart Maneuver,” published in 1912, McCarty Little equated success in the games with the students’ ability to do “(a)—the right thing, (b)—rightly applied, [and] (c)—in time.” To that end, after WWI, NWC President Rear Admiral William S. Sims created a new college curriculum where the practical outweighed the theoretical. For the students, war gaming served as the way to apply theory in practice; experiential learning where they employed ideas learned and insights gained during the course, on the game floor, and through research papers that applied directly to their service at sea.
The Research, Intelligence, and Publications Departments of the Naval War College produced and constantly improved the documents being used to educate Naval War College students through war games. Beginning with the first "duel" adapted by William McCarty Little into the first set of Rules for the conduct of the war game used at NWC in the early 1900s, and up through the video war games and simulators of the modern era, NWC faculty and staff worked hard to keep up with the industrial and technological changes that affect the way modern navy personnel learn.
Staff and students had access to all the latest information and technology for gaming from the early days, including Fred T. Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships. The Naval War College's publications included new instructions, new tactical methodologies, and ways to speed up mathematical calculations, long before high-tech calculators and computers. One of the greatest contributions to military education evolved from war gaming. The "Estimate of the Situation," first introduced at the War College in 1910 as a teaching tool for naval planning, and in use at the College throughout the 1920s and 1930s, gave rise to Sound Military Decision, published in 1936, a key document for training members in the profession of arms.
From 1919 to 1941, the Naval War College’s war games explored the tactical engagements that the creators of the color-coded war plans, BLUE (U.S.), ORANGE (Japan), and RED (Britain), imagined could occur between the U.S. Navy and naval forces of different size, strength, and geographic distribution. The best known of these, War Plan ORANGE, pitted the U.S. Navy (BLUE) against Japan’s Imperial Navy (ORANGE). The primary issue studied during these games asked students how to gain command of the “commons,” or in today’s terminology, gaining and maintaining sea control by overcoming adversarial “anti-access and area denial” (A2AD). Additionally, NWC students played historical “demonstrations” of the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Jutland every year until 1941. Historical battles enabled NWC faculty to illustrate past realities of battle to students who likely never faced an enemy at sea.
While the majority of the 318 games played in the interwar years had a tactical focus, students also played operational, scouting, and quick decision games that created a framework of understanding, particularly with the BLUE-ORANGE games, of how to fight a war across the Pacific. The games modeled and simulated the interactions of the American and foreign fleets at the tactical level, using screens to mask each move until the umpires determined that each side would be detected and a melee could ensue. Players communicated moves to the pucks (ship models) via mimeographed “move sheets.” These “move sheets” proved to be the practical experience for the officers who wrote the orders during WWII in the Pacific.
The main purpose of interwar gaming at the College, naval historian John Hattendorf argues, “was to provide mental exercise so as to develop sound judgment” using these problems to familiarize students with “the composition and capabilities of foreign fleets” and, NWC faculty hoped, with the broader maritime world. Players used Mahan’s concept of fleet concentration as the way to defeat the enemy fleet at sea and often played to have the game culminate in a large naval battle. At issue for students was how each side’s fleet would endure the fight from each engagement, then be able to conduct further naval operations against the enemy, and ultimately achieve victory.
In the process of gaming against ORANGE and RED, Naval War College faculty, staff, and students informed the development of war plans and the emergence of new warfare capabilities, particularly in naval aviation, amphibious warfare, and logistics. Often, observations from Newport became part of the Navy’s annual fleet problems conducted during the interwar period. War gaming, both the tactical BLUE-ORANGE games and the historic “demonstrations,” significantly contributed to the interwar innovations achieved by the U.S. Navy.
Naval War College graduates departed Newport with a common understanding of how the U.S. Navy should operate and fight. These men, many of whom went on to be four and five star admirals, shared the experience of being Jellicoe or Scheer at Jutland, of seeing the danger of overconfidence or under-preparedness, of the fickle nature of the sun in the open ocean. The Naval War College embedded in Navy leaders an approach to solving the questions of naval warfare and an understanding of the challenges of fighting across the Pacific Ocean. Arguably, this shared educational experience created a generation of naval officers who could effectively act on commander’s intent, best exemplified by Nimitz, Halsey, and Spruance in the Pacific.
John B. Hattendorf, B. Mitchell Simpson III, and John R, Wadleigh, Sailors and Scholars: The Centennial History of the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1984).
William McCarty Little, “The Strategic Naval War Game or Chart Maneuver,” reprinted from the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 38, No. 4, No. 144 (1912).
Michael A. Palmer, Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control Since the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Milan N. Vego, Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College, 2007).
Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1941 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1984).