On August 17, Alaskan officials reported 81 cases of an unidentified hemorrhagic fever, similar to but more contagious than the Ebola or Marburg viruses, on the Alaskan island of St. Paul in the Bering Strait. Within a day, 24 infected people had died. The outbreak occurred two weeks after the United States was accused of sinking the Russian ship Ulana. Americans had attempted to search Ulana because they suspected it of carrying biological warfare materials to Russia’s recently solidified ally North Korea. Four U.S. Marines died in the skirmish, as well as almost all of the Russian ship’s crew. In addition, a group of South Korean tourists—one of whom had North Korean ties—visited St. Paul three days before the first infection was discovered. These combined events have led to an increasingly volatile situation between the United States, Russia, and multiple countries in the Asian-Pacific.
If you’re thinking you missed some major breaking news, you can breathe a sigh of relief. This all takes place in a fictional version of 2039; it’s a scenario that was played out in a tabletop exercise (TTX)—a mini-wargame— titled St. Paul Syndrome II, in March of 2021.
Pieces on a board
A wargame, according to deceased wargaming expert Francis J. McHugh of the United States Naval War College, “is a simulation, in accordance with predetermined rules, data, and procedures, of selected aspects of a conflict situation.” It’s essentially a pretend war.
Wargaming has been around for hundreds of years. “John Clerk, a landsman with no actual experience in the ways of the sea, revolutionized British 18th-century naval tactics by using a tabletop for an ocean and wooden blocks to represent ships,” McHugh explained in Fundamentals of War Gaming, which was published in 1960. The United States has used similar techniques for a long time. According to a 2015 article by then Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva, during the 1920s and 1930s, “militaries the world over struggled to adapt to new inventions such as radar and sonar, as well as rapid improvements in wireless communications, mechanization, aviation, aircraft carriers, submarines, and a host of other militarily relevant technologies.” During this time, the United States military began to lean heavily on wargaming to play out the possibilities of these new developments and their impact on warfare.
“Wargaming is strategic analysis,” says Rich Castro, the retired director of the Strategic Analyses and Assessments Office at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “The Lab’s participation is important because wargaming is an analytical tool that brings together many different thoughts, combining the expertise of the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and the national laboratories.”
Wargames help leaders consider different scenarios and think about how they might play out so they can prepare to make quick decisions in the event that a similar scenario actually takes place. “Things are moving so fast, technology moves so fast, you have to think faster,” Castro says. “We don’t have the luxury of thinking about these problems in the long-term. There are a lot of changes in our adversaries—cyber, space, nuclear, conventional—that didn’t exist during the Cold War. They all come together now in an escalation ladder. You have to play this out or you’re caught completely off guard.”
“Wargaming is strategic analysis.”
Full-scale wargames are played at different locations in the United States, often at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, with hundreds of participants present from all across the country. The basic structure is that a group of analysts from the organization running the game write a scenario— usually focused on a particular region, technology, or situation that is pertinent to current concerns—to be played out over the course of one or two weeks. Preparation for the game usually takes several months.
Players are assigned to teams that represent countries; a control group determines the outcome of team decisions, actions, and interactions with other country teams. The control group also represents countries that do not have assigned teams. More than 30 large-scale wargames are held annually across the nation, and players from Los Alamos are invited for a particularly important reason—their nuclear expertise.
The nuclear niche
According to Tim Goorley, Los Alamos’ lead wargaming consultant for nuclear effects, Los Alamos provides expertise on what happens to people, aircraft, sea vessels, and satellites, for example, in the event of a nuclear detonation. That information is then fed into the game to help the players on both sides understand what possible actions they could take next.
Laboratory personnel provide expertise in person at wargames, and they’re consulted ahead of the games during the long, complicated process of scenario creation. For example, one game incorporated whether it was possible to have a new weapon, and, if such a weapon existed, how many the United States might own. Goorley called some Los Alamos engineers to see whether such a weapon could be produced in the timeframe required by the game and whether it could be deployed and used in the way the game planners wanted.
The Los Alamos scrimmage
Another way in which wargames are useful is that they help debunk commonly believed myths about nuclear weapons. Many wargames end with the detonation of a nuclear weapon, assuming that’s a game-over event. But, according to Goorley, that’s not true at all; things are just getting started. “People don’t realize how much you can still do just a few miles or days out from ground zero,” he says. “You need to keep going through the game for about a week or two after the detonation to fully understand the effects.” Although many films show city blocks being instantly vaporized by a nuclear weapon, or show an electromagnetic pulse sending a huge part of the country back to the dark ages, those scenarios are not realistic, and realism is vital to productive wargames. As Goorley puts it, the Laboratory “takes the falling sky and puts it back up.”Experts from Los Alamos are also able to give particular insight into adversaries’ policy and technical capabilities. “It takes a nuclear weapons designer to catch a nuclear weapons designer,” Goorley explains.
Although full-scale wargames are the longest and most detailed versions, smaller versions referred to as tabletop exercises exist, in which fewer people play out a scenario in a shorter timeframe. Los Alamos has been conducting tabletop exercises for several years, the most recent being the St. Paul Syndrome II scenario.
St. Paul Syndrome II was a collaboration between the Laboratory’s Office of National Security and International Studies (NSIS) and the Center for Strategies and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C., think tank with whom the Lab has partnered. In fact, the most recent TTX was a replay of a scenario (St. Paul Syndrome I) that different participants played out in the summer of 2020. By keeping that scenario secret, Los Alamos and CSIS were able to use it again with new players who, through their different decisions, revealed entirely new options and pathways for the unfolding events. “I have learned never to expect particular outcomes,” says Ian Williams, an International Security Program fellow and deputy director for the CSIS Missile Defense Project. “Even when running the same scenario with participants of similar professional backgrounds, we see teams take a wide variety of strategies and actions.”
St. Paul Syndrome I and II were developed “to explore how decision makers respond to a multi-domain national security conflict,” says Paula Knepper, an NSIS program manager. “In this case, we have nuclear and bioweapons as well as an issue related to the Arctic.”
The scenario was “the most complex one that we have done so far,” Williams says. “Rather than have one major crisis that all the teams were focused on, the scenario had each team facing a different issue that overlapped with the vital interests of the other country teams. This dramatically increased the potential friction points between countries.”
NSIS is in charge of choosing Laboratory participants and filling each team roster. An invitation is quite desirable at Los Alamos; for St. Paul Syndrome II, the rosters were filled in less than 24 hours. “One of our objectives is staff development,” Knepper says. “We keep in mind creating opportunities for Laboratory staff to extend their professional networks. We also look for team diversity—experiences, organizations, technical backgrounds, etc. We find that diverse teams have the most insightful and creative outcomes.”
Wargames are as realistic as possible and are based on current intelligence, so most are conducted at top secret levels so real intelligence agents can attend and contribute what they know. The recent TTX between Los Alamos and CSIS, however, was not classified, so the lessons learned from it can be put to broader use. TTXs can be unclassified because they focus on scenarios that take place years in the future, in a world that is only a possibility.
Los Alamos is a particularly useful ecosystem for wargames and small-scale exercises alike because of the close proximity and working relationships of people from many areas of expertise, including engineers, infrastructure experts, policy experts, and scientists from myriad fields. “The Laboratory is a unique place,” Castro says, “in that it can pull together a team to quickly address multi-domain issues, and everyone can be sequestered in an area just to concentrate on one problem. I don’t know other places that you can do that.”
The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into that unique capability in that teams were not able to sequester in person for the past two TTXs, but CSIS and NSIS quickly adapted to build a virtual game space. Personnel from CSIS ran the game and were assigned to help the country teams, but all of the players were Lab employees. Some were scientists from fields including nuclear engineering, astrophysics, geophysics, and biosecurity and public health. Others were from intelligence systems, international studies, and international threat reduction.
Most Los Alamos players had never participated in a wargame before. “It was really neat hearing how people with different academic and professional backgrounds approached problems,” says Caleb Schelle, a shock and vibration testing engineer. “I was one of the younger members on the team, and I appreciated learning how more experienced scientists and engineers chose their words and actions thoughtfully.”
Amanda Evans, a scientist in chemical and biological threats, also valued the insight of her colleagues during the TTX. “Building our team’s interactions was a very positive experience,” she says, “as was learning from more experienced colleagues.”
Before the TTX began, participants were divided into teams, each team representing a country—the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. Team members prepared by reading historical background information that was available to all teams plus some country-specific information provided by their countries’ intelligence services. Teams also received information about their own countries’ military capabilities and strategic positions, along with information about that of other countries—to the best of their intelligence agencies’ knowledge. They then began to make decisions to play out the scenario, all over the course of just four days.
On the first day of the TTX, after meeting all together, the country teams broke into separate groups and got to work examining the current state of the scenario and determining their main objectives. At the end of each day, each team must submit its “turn,” which includes its objectives and actions—both public and covert. The time spent in groups is used to discuss how to make those decisions, to read and discuss new information as it comes in throughout the day from the control group, and, at times, to communicate with other countries.
Early in the day, the United States team learned from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the St. Paul virus was a form of Marburg virus that had been developed in a Soviet laboratory in the 1980s, meaning that the outbreak was a bio-attack made by either Russia or Russian-aided North Korea. The American team’s response to this news was much more peaceful than many might have guessed. “It was interesting to see how the U.S. team did not really view it as an attack,” observes NSIS Director John Scott. “They appeared to be most concerned about containing the outbreak on the island.”
“It takes a nuclear weapons designer to catch a nuclear weapons designer.” —Tim Goorley
Meanwhile, the Russian team began to launch misinformation campaigns to place blame on the United States for the Ulana sinking, China worked to disrupt American power in the Pacific, and Japan, faced with growing anti-American sentiment among its citizens, strategized the best ways to restore peace to both the region and its own people.
Over the next four days, teams worked to destabilize relationships between other countries, solidify their allies, secure military positions, avoid war, gather and decipher intelligence, get their political parties re-elected, and stop an outbreak of a disease with a 99 percent fatality rate. They moved their military ships around, demanded that each other remove ships from certain areas, and communicated with each other via confidential channels. They issued public statements to each other and to their own citizens.
Teams also received a great deal of information that threw them for loops. For example, uncovered intelligence determined that the Russians had scuttled the Ulana (sunk their own ship) and blamed it on the Americans. Information was also revealed that the Ulana was carrying equipment for bioweapons, yet it seemed that Russia was not directly involved in releasing Marburg on St. Paul Island.
“Truth, justice, and apple pie”
Wargames are played under the Chatham House Rule, which means that information, quotes, decisions, and ideas from the game cannot be attributed to any individual player.
The dynamics of the TTX were complex. At one point, for example, the Russian team considered bombing one of its own islands and blaming it on the United States as a ploy to gain global sympathy. In contrast, during a discussion of attempting to separate China’s alliance with Russia, a player argued that the concept of ethical responsibility would not sway the Chinese. “Whether truth, justice, and apple pie are on our side, China is going to side with Russia,” the player said.
Some of the Laboratory participants noted the chance to consider the real-life implications of nuclear weapons—to think of them in more than a conceptual way. Jason Haynes, a global security analyst at Los Alamos, is a Naval War College graduate who has participated in wargames through the Navy and the Department of Defense, but St. Paul Syndrome II was his first TTX at the Laboratory. “The Lab has many smart people who are experts in their respective fields,” he says. “These kinds of exercises give them the ability to see how their work plays into strategic decision making, and to think about the kinds of pressures decision makers face.”
Lawrence Daugherty, an executive advisor in the Lab’s Weapons Production directorate, agrees. “Exposing staff to the bigger picture of why we do what we do here” was, he says, the most valuable part of the TTX. Karen Schultz Paige, a program manager in weapons survivability, says, “I learned a lot about international relations that I never knew before. I am more concerned about and aware of the international problems that affect the U.S.”
And Schelle notes that “being forced to think about how nuclear weapons are used as diplomatic tools and the implications of ‘flexing’ them” was the most valuable part of the exercise. “Many people at the Lab are familiar with nuclear weapons,” he continues, “but the TTX provided unique insight into how effective the weapons can be without ever actually detonating.”
Joshua Carmichael, a scientist specializing in Arctic and Antarctic geophysics, notes that the techniques used in the TTX would also be valuable for non-conflict scenarios. “My own team at Los Alamos could use an exercise like this to better strategize how to detect, attribute, locate, and identify an underground nuclear explosion in a hypothetical scenario in the future,” he says.
The final whistle
Most TTXs have a predetermined number of turns that the teams take, usually one at the end of each day. In this case, the TTX ended with a fourth turn, after which the control team introduced a surprise fifth turn, giving the players a mere half hour to decide their next course of action. After that, the game was over.
The outbreak on St. Paul was contained, although the devastation of the attack left a lasting impact on international relations. Things were more tumultuous in the United States, where the withdrawal of naval forces from areas near Japan, Taiwan, and Alaska was met with resistance from the American public, and the policies for dealing with North Korea resulted in the resignation of the United States’ defense secretary.In the end of St. Paul Syndrome II, no shots were fired and the outlook was fairly hopeful, with the announcement of a historic Pacific peace summit to take place in the near future. Scott notes that Los Alamos personnel are particularly interested in resolving TTXs without military conflict—especially without any nuclear component. “On average,” he says, “I find that Los Alamos staff want to find peaceful outcomes to conflict. So, I was not surprised in this TTX that even though the scenario provided many opportunities for military conflict, there was basically none.”
“The TTX provided unique insight into how effective the weapons can be without ever actually detonating.”
But this fictional scenario could have played out in myriad ways, from completely peaceful negotiations to nuclear war. Williams notes that, although St. Paul Syndrome I and II were identical TTX scenarios, the results were quite different because of the different players. “Some teams of St. Paul Syndrome II played more aggressively, others more cautiously” than the country teams in St. Paul Syndrome I, he says, which is because of “different personalities and different risk tolerances. Different people can receive the same set of facts yet come to different conclusions on how to act. It just again shows that deterrence is much more complex than many think it is, and no outcome is inevitable.”
Scott agrees, noting that the timing of the TTXs affected the outcomes; St. Paul Syndrome I was held early in the pandemic, while St. Paul Syndrome II was a year later. “You can see in the response of the teams how the pandemic impacted how they approached the TTX scenario and its biowarfare component,” he says. “I found it fascinating how real-life events were reflected in the actions of the teams.”
When the games are over, the results are compiled, analyzed, and used in various ways. For NSIS, the TTX provides an opportunity to examine the role of Los Alamos staff in these types of scenarios. “Part of the NSIS portfolio involves understanding the implications of policy choices, including weapons of mass destruction and, in particular, nuclear weapons,” Scott explains. “Exercises like these demonstrate how bright people like those who work at the Lab choose to use these instruments of force in particular scenarios. The kinds of choices that are made and how these scenarios play out can help guide how we should view the use of these weapons and what role they play in escalating a conflict or avoiding conflict.”
At CSIS, the results will be considered as part of the large collection of wargames that have been played over time. “TTXs are experiential learning tools,” says Williams, “and they have limited ability in predicting how states might behave in a given situation. That being said, they often shake out new questions and possibilities that have not been previously considered, which can serve as a starting point for future research.”
Wargames enable decision makers to consider multiple possibilities, because although they might think they know the most likely outcome of any scenario, no outcome is guaranteed, and a lot could happen to change the path of events. And, in the words of many a sports fan, that’s why you play the game.