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.  

National Security

Fight Night

How Barack Obama and Mitt Romney measure up on the seven foreign policy issues that really matter.

National security and foreign policy finally come front-and-center Monday night. So it is high time to assess the candidates' relative strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Some small hints about where they stand were dropped in the Ryan-Biden undercard matchup -- and Libya was discussed, though clumsily, in Obama-Romney II -- but the real action is only now heating up.

Here are the seven most salient issues -- in rough order of public interest -- and how the candidates match up:

Defense spending

Obama: Features a solid left jab, aiming at incremental budget cuts. He also enjoys better footwork, intended to help make the military nimbler and more networked.

Romney: Has a strong "no cut" uppercut, and promises to sustain, even increase, the Pentagon budget. "I want America to be so strong no one will ever think of attacking us."

Analysis: Substantial advantage to Obama. Our current economic straits make reductions in defense spending mandatory. And a shift from the Powell Doctrine of "overwhelming force" to a more supple approach is long overdue.


Obama: Emphasizes a massive training regimen for Afghans who have little faith in their weak, corrupt central government.

Romney: Agrees with much of Obama's Afghan policy, but thinks that Obama's declaration of no mas in 2014 allows the Taliban to rope-a-dope us until we leave.

Analysis: Slight edge to Romney for realizing that we shouldn't telegraph our final punches. But neither candidate reflects an awareness of the futility of centralized nation-building in Afghanistan, a country where it's the "edges" that truly matter.


Obama: Has deftly avoided precipitate intervention in the fight, while at the same time making clear that Assad regime atrocities or use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

Romney: A bit too eager to mix it up by arming the insurgents. Wants to select the "right ones" to support, but there may be no Mr. Right in this conflict.

Analysis: Slight advantage to Obama. His cautious approach is laudable, but it is ever more difficult to watch the suffering of innocent Syrians.


Obama: Trying to prevent nuclear proliferation by employing a variety of tactics against Tehran. Relying on economic sanctions, (alleged) covert cyber attack, last-resort threats of the use of force -- and some diplomacy as well.

Romney: Seeks the same outcome as Obama, would employ much the same approach, but more likely to emphasize force, perhaps even allow Israel in as a "ringer."

Analysis: Edge to Obama, as he is more willing to keep trying for a diplomatic solution. Romney's posture is a bit too combative.

Al Qaeda

Obama: KO'd bin Laden with commandos, and has great "reach" with drone strikes, from Waziristan to Yemen, and beyond.

Romney: Effective counter-punching with observations that al Qaeda remains on its feet and fighting on several fronts.

Analysis: Even.


Obama: Helped promote rebel takedown of Qaddafi with an innovative, cost-effective approach to helping others be the principal agents of their own liberation. But after-the-bout chaos, including the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, is a serious blot on the record.

Romney: Missed with a roundhouse punch at consular security policy and White House confusion in Obama-Romney II, but might still connect by depicting the Benghazi debacle as a symptom of a larger American policy failure to follow through post-Qaddafi.

Analysis: Very slight edge to Romney, but exploitable into something bigger if he can jab more effectively at the administration's response to the 9/11/12 attack, and then call into question American inaction in the aftermath of regime change in Libya.


Obama: Ducked the possibility of a return bout with residual insurgent forces by removing all U.S. forces, leaving behind slow-simmering societal unrest that is bound to boil over.

Romney: Ever combative, wanted to keep punching, even with reduced U.S. presence.

Analysis: Significant advantage to Romney. There are both practical and ethical reasons for keeping Iraq from going up in flames again. Al Qaeda fighters have returned, make mischief there, and also filter into Syria from Iraq. As to the failure to negotiate an acceptable status-of-forces agreement that would have kept some American troops in country, this too hurts President Obama.

These are not the only foreign policy matters, but they matter most. North Korea is, for now, quiescent, and Pakistan remains a "frenemy." And don't expect much new ground to be broken on foreign trade, as each of the candidates wants it to be "free and fair," even though insisting on both makes neither possible. Also, President Obama may try to land a punch about Romney's description of Russia as our "No. 1 geopolitical foe." This would be a mistake, as Romney can point to Russia's great economic and military resources, and its steadily growing opposition to a range of American policies. Further, Romney could counterpunch by pointing out that Obama's "pivot to the Pacific" will neglect the current arc of conflict in the Middle East and alienate China, a major trading partner.

To summarize the strategic "tale of the tape," each candidate holds the edge in different issue areas, and their divergent views, while often subtle, still reflect considerable sharpness. Governor Romney is likely to do much better than expected of someone with so little foreign policy experience. Obama-Romney III has the potential to be a crackling debate from the outset to the finish.

The betting line: Even.

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