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Game Theory

Actually, military strategy is like Battleship.

In the final candidates' debate last week, President Obama delivered a telling, somewhat snarky zinger in response to Governor Romney's call for naval expansion: "This isn't ‘Battleship.'" He then went on to school Romney about how having some aircraft carriers and submarines means we don't need more ships. The governor had no adequate reply.

But the fact of the matter is that the old "Battleship" board game -- not the more recent movie flop that was somehow based on it -- offers exactly the right metaphor to describe strategic affairs in the information age. "Battleship" does so by capturing the distilled essence of naval operations today: the hider/finder dynamic.

No longer do fleets move against each other en masse, engaging in well-defined, line-against-line slugfests, such as dominated naval affairs from Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars to Jutland a century later.  Instead, sea wars have become far more cat-and-mouse matters, whose outcomes have become critically dependent on the need to see the enemy first, so as to be able to strike before being struck. Just like in "Battleship."

The Germans mounted an early hider/finder naval campaign with a relative handful of surface raiders and U-boats during World War I, and they followed a generation later with more raiders and a major submarine wolfpack offensive in World War II. They nearly won both times because of their ability to remain hidden until they pounced. It was only when means of detection improved -- with both advanced radars and code-breaking capabilities -- that these threats waned.

Subs and raiders aside, the larger fleet engagements of the Second World War, especially in the Pacific, were all about finding task forces before those doing the stalking could be detected and attacked first. Thus finding the enemy proved crucial to the U.S. Navy's great victories over the Imperial Japanese Fleet at Midway and -- later, and despite some near-fatal confusion -- at Leyte Gulf. Back in the Atlantic, the hunts for the German raider Graf Spee and the battleship Bismarck were clear examples of the hider/finder dynamic as well.

In its own abstract way, "Battleship" forces players to concentrate deeply on the business of "finding." Given his great confidence in aircraft carriers and submarines, President Obama should take careful note that the board game includes them, too, with the carrier being the game's largest and most vulnerable ship -- just as it is in the real world today, as the array of smart, high-speed weapons that have emerged in recent years pose mortal threats to these behemoths. The most valuable vessel in "Battleship" -- that is, the one that is hardest to find and hit -- is also the smallest combatant.

Indeed, if Romney had remembered ever playing the game with any of his five sons, he might have been able to rebut the president on the spot. He could have said: "Of course this is ‘Battleship.' That's why I want a lot of smaller, but still well-armed vessels for the U.S. Navy, not just a handful of extremely expensive, highly vulnerable aircraft carriers and a few dozen submarines. China has hundreds of lethal missile and torpedo boats. We need more small, swift ships of our own that pack a real punch."

Romney might also have quoted Senator John McCain's cri de coeur against the huge cost overruns on and problematic performance prospects of the new Ford-class carrier: "It's outrageous. It's a national disgrace."  

"Battleship" aside, there is another old-line board game, "Stratego," that also speaks to the hider/finder dynamic -- this time as it applies to land warfare. In "Stratego" the locations of enemy forces are clear; what remains hidden are the identities and relative strengths of the various units, minefield patterns, and the opposing commanders' headquarters. Thus victory in "Stratego" is completely dependent upon mastering the ability to "find" while keeping the identity and location of one's own key forces hidden. If we had the ability to find Taliban forces reliably, the Afghan war would end in a trice. "Stratego" is all about finding what is hidden in plain sight.

In addition to its value in thinking through the problems posed by irregular wars, the lessons of "Stratego" can be used to illuminate more conventional conflicts as well. In China, for example, soldiers of the People's Liberation Army train their minds using a hider/finder wargame, Lu Zhan Jun Qi ("Army Chess"), which bears a strong resemblance to "Stratego." However, "Army Chess" includes transport systems and missile weapons, adding layers of complexity that "Stratego" lacks. Still, it is a clear sign of the Chinese military's appreciation of the importance of "finding" the enemy.

On the theme of chess variants, I have created an offshoot of the old German game, kriegsspiel, a double-blind contest in which each side -- seated out of sight of the other and with a referee in between -- can see only its own chess pieces. The object is to learn how, over time, to infer the locations of the opposing forces -- in effect, "how to find" (and also how to keep hidden). Many graduates of the military school at which I teach have, over the years, confessed that the details of my lectures may have dimmed in their minds; but the lessons of kriegsspiel remain clear and have often helped to inform and guide their actions against our all-too-elusive enemies.

So, yes, this is "Battleship." "Stratego," too. And it is likely to remain so for decades to come.  

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