The 'Game of Drones' Is a Live War Game Every Politician Should Pay Attention To

The “Game of Drones” was designed to explore the different ways that drones could be used for tactical and strategic effect in a conflict.

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Nov 2 2015, 12:00pm

Photo: Unknown/Pixabay

The Haderach militants were in a tight spot. They were dispersed throughout towns in southern Caprica and were under assault by the powerful Caprican military.

The Haderach leaders, who were based out of neighboring city of Kobol, ordered the militant cells to maintain pressure on the Caprican government and safeguard the towns that sympathized with the rebels. They deployed their large stockpile of unguided rockets to tie up Caprican air defenses and launched medium-range Ababil and Mohajer drones to identify vulnerable targets within Caprican cities, followed by guided rockets.

Having made their move, the members of the Haderach team sat back in the stark classroom at the National Defense University, and waited to hear the results from the game officials.

The Caprican-Haderach contest was not in fact taking place in a distant land or on one of Frank Herbert's planets in Dune, as the names of the actors might suggest. It was one scenario in a two-day war game organized by the Center for a New American Security, a national security think tank in Washington, DC.

The "Game of Drones" was designed to explore the different ways that drones could be used for tactical and strategic effect in a conflict.

The summit sought to address whether shooting down a drone might escalate tensions between countries or whether drones changed the character of a conflict by giving actors capabilities they didn't have before. As more and more state and non-state actors acquire drones, the war game illustrated how drones could be used in creative ways to further political or military objectives.

"One of the things that we see with new technologies like drones, is that the marginal utility for that platform is much higher for weaker actors than strong actors," Ben Fitzgerald, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and one of the organizers of the war game, said afterward. "For non-state actors, they get much more value in relative terms, because all of sudden they have airpower."

The advantages conveyed to an actor by drones were not always obvious and could depend on contextual factors

In the military, war games are used to model near-term or future conflict scenarios in order to maximize the effect of certain weapons or to anticipate the actions of a potential adversary. Several American staff colleges, including the National Defense University and the Naval Postgraduate School, have war gaming centers that design exercises and curriculum for officers.

At "Game of Drones," participants joined four teams of six players that were pitted against each other. After each round, the moves of the teams were adjudicated by three officials, whose decisions set the terms for the next round in the scenario. A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross also roamed among the teams and recorded instances in which proposed actions could constitute a violation of international law.

While the Caprican-Haderach scenario might have borrowed names from planet Arrakis, the context of the game was grounded in real-world events. The drones operated by the Haderach—the Ababils and Mohajers—are the names of actual Iranian-made unmanned aircraft that have been flown by Hezbollah and Hamas into Israel on several occasions and were spotted in Syria in 2012.

A scenario in which a drone was piloted over a chain of islands that were at the center of a territorial dispute, tacked closely to an incident in 2013 between Japan and China. Another scenario mimicked close encounters between the aircraft of two powerful state actors, such as that which took place between a Russian fighter and an American MQ-9 Reaper drone on October 20.

Over the two days of gameplay, participants engaged in twelve different scenarios. They debated the efficacy of using drones as airborne improvised explosive devices, or as a way to harass an adversary's air force.

"What we were looking to understand was 'how do drones make these situations different, or not,'" Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at CNAS and another of the organizers of the war game, explained. "These are situations that countries are already in, and already use military force in different ways to solve these problems."

Participants found that the advantages conveyed to an actor by drones were not always obvious and could depend on contextual factors such as political and military goals, geography, and force structure.

In some cases, the use of drones instead of manned aircraft helped to prevent a conflict from escalating because the risk that a pilot could die or be captured was removed from the equation.

Alternatively, when drones are considered to be valuable assets, losing one could accelerate a conflict and lead to poor decision making.

In other scenarios, drones proved more useful in signalling capabilities or intent to an adversary than on the battlefield. Additional factors such as the susceptibility of drone communications to jamming and the potential to swarm drones on a target were also considered.

With drones of all sizes and ability popping up in numerous conflicts from the East China Sea to Ukraine, military and political decision makers will need to be prepared to understand the role that drones are playing in these complex and dynamic environments.

"The thing that we're seeing is that with all these future concepts about drones, many of them are actually happening today," Ben Fitzgerald told me. "This is not a 20-year in the future problem, this is a next week, next year, next five year problem."

Disclosure: As part of his role as co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone, Dan Gettinger has collaborated with Center for a New American Security in the past.