Wargames Can’t Tell Us How to Deter a Chinese Attack on Taiwan—But Different Games Might

By Timothy R. Heath
Thursday, January 5, 2023, 8:30 AM

Wargames that simulate combat between the United States and China near Taiwan can provide useful insight about potential military challenges. However, analysts should be wary of repurposing the same games to explore political questions such as those related to deterrence, escalation control, alliance politics, and war prevention or termination. Asymmetries in the information requirements for political versus military topics make it exceedingly difficult to design games to explore both in a rigorous manner. Paradoxically, the deliberate falsification of facts in peacetime offers the best hope of painting a more vivid and convincing portrait of a situation that would actually confront policymakers in wartime.

Wargames featuring conflict between China, the U.S., and Taiwan have taken the Washington, D.C., area by storm in the past two years. The U.S. military has held classified wargames on the topic. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) held 22 iterations of such a scenario, and other think tanks such as the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), CNA, and RAND have held their own wargames on the topic as well. The appeal of wargames is not hard to figure out: They provide a vivid and dynamic simulation of armed conflict. The China-Taiwan war scenario is especially appealing because the U.S. and China are locked in a rivalry and are also equipped with large, advanced, and powerful militaries. What would happen if the two fought is an inherently fascinating question. The U.S. military advantage is fading, and China’s military is growing stronger. But how the two might fare against each other in combat is unclear. Wargames offer the possibility of exploring such critically important topics, whether as part of a research design or as critical context for creative discussion.

The results of the games have generated several key findings. The most obvious and compelling lesson is that combat between U.S. and Chinese military forces would probably be immensely destructive. In the CSIS game, the U.S. lost 200 aircraft, 20 warships, and two aircraft carriers. Attacks on cyber and space infrastructure are not uncommon. U.S. missiles may strike China’s homeland. Both sides might escalate to the threat, or even use, of nuclear missiles, as happened in at least one CNAS game. Analysts have also noted the military implications for operational topics such as the importance of massing forces, adequate munition stores, and the vulnerability of surface ships on the modern battlefield.

But for many, these lessons are not enough. The frightening results of such simulations naturally raise deeper questions of a fundamentally political nature, such as: How can such a war be avoided? If it can’t be avoided, how can escalation in such a war be controlled? What can the U.S. do to deter China from attacking Taiwan? How long can Taiwan successfully hold out against such an attack? Which allies will support the U.S. in such a war? These political considerations permeate the news accounts of the wargames. In the CSIS event, for example, participants debated whether the pre-positioning of marines on Taiwan prior to war would be “too provocative” or not. Players also debated whether China should attack Japan or not. Military decisions regarding escalation also carried significant political considerations, which may or may not have been debated at the game. In one game, for example, players for the U.S. side authorized missile strikes on Chinese ports.

Political decisions on the initiation or escalation of war are immensely important. Yet they are also extremely difficult to answer owing in part to the dearth of reliable data. After all, a U.S.-China war remains, thankfully, completely hypothetical. That leaves virtually no firsthand information with which one can answer such questions. Wargames, and the scenarios that underpin them, have sometimes been used to explore such questions. Since they incorporate many facts about relevant combatants, wargames offer the possibility of exploring political as well as military dimensions of war through a structured, analytic method.

Yet analysts should be wary of trying to use wargames designed for military questions to analyze political questions. The analysis of political topics has fundamentally different information requirements than those for military ones. Wargames that support analysis of military decisions do not necessarily support analysis of political decisions in the same situation, and vice versa.

It has generally been relatively easy to design a wargame to analyze military topics—a point underscored by the availability of innumerable high-quality board and computer wargames. Games that explore political topics in wartime have proved much more difficult to carry out in a convincing manner due to the asymmetry of information requirements for the two different topics. Of course, wargames are not the only technique available to analyze political topics for wartime situations. The questions are of such high importance that many resources have been committed to their study. Other techniques include “red teaming,” which provides “contrarian analysis” from an adversary perspective, and research papers that attempt to explore such topics. Yet all of these efforts face the same problem of information asymmetry between military and political topics.

As Karl von Clausewitz observed, war is as much a political phenomenon as it is a military phenomenon. In war, leaders must frequently make judgments of either a political or military nature as a matter of course. Although their access to relevant information may be imperfect owing to the “fog of war,” wartime leaders, in theory, have available all the facts they need to make both kinds of decisions. In a completely hypothetical situation, however, such as a scenario for a wargame, all relevant facts must be presented in the form of assumptions. In part, this is by design, since wargames are meant to be highly abstracted, simplified representations of enormously complex phenomena. But while the simplification of relevant facts poses little problem for the analysis of military topics, it poses a tremendous challenge for those who seek to explore political topics. To understand why requires a brief review of why the information requirements for military and political decisions differ so much.

Military vs. Political Decisions

Military decisions are judgments that evaluate and resolve issues related primarily to program development; modernization of forces; and the employment of military forces at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Examples of military decisions include decisions to develop defense budgets; to develop weapons and platforms; to train and equip forces; to mobilize assets; and to execute operations, actions, and activities in peacetime or combat. Military decisions rely primarily on information about militaries.

Political decisions, by contrast, are judgments that evaluate and resolve issues in a crisis or conflict that are primarily driven as much by economic, political, and other factors as by military factors. Individuals making political decisions are concerned with how to realize goals while also managing the risks and consequences to other interests. In political decisions, military means may or may not be prioritized, depending on the goal. Among the most important types of defense-related political decisions are those to initiate, deter, escalate, deescalate, or terminate conflict. Questions about whether to support an ally or grant access to a military base in a war also fall into the category of political questions. In deciding whether to commit the nation to conflict, for example, the decision-maker must weigh the cost and risk of military action, the potential impact on the economy, and the potential impact on domestic politics or diplomacy. Similarly, an ally’s decision to provide military assistance will depend in part on assessments of the legitimacy of the war, the stakes involved, and the potential benefits and risks of involvement.

It should be clear from this overview that the information requirements for political decisions are far broader and deeper than those for military decisions. Political decision-making must consider all relevant political, economic, military, and other factors. These factors cannot be omitted because they could prove decisive in a political leader’s deliberation. This means that political-focused wargames require far more detailed assumptions than military-focused games. But that is not all. The assumptions not only must be detailed but also must be realistic in the sense that they should accurately replicate the weight and measure of all incentives that a decision-maker might reasonably consider. In short, the details or assumptions of a wargame scenario focused on political topics are of supreme importance.

By contrast, military decisions rely almost exclusively on data about military forces. The real focus is on the interplay of military forces as represented in the game. For such games, scenarios exist mainly as a backdrop. The details of the political and economic situation matter far less. Indeed, strictly speaking, the casus belli or specifics of a leader’s war termination criteria may not matter in a wargame focused on learning about a regional military balance or new technology. As one wargame designer at CNA put it, “For a war game to be useful, it’s largely irrelevant which potential conflict is played out …. The real takeaways aren’t so much about victory or defeat in a particular conflict but about what’s exposed along the way.”

The Problem of “Realistic” Hypothetical Scenarios 

Designers of wargames focused on political topics thus face the formidable challenge of creating “realistic” scenario assumptions for situations that are not real. For a political judgment in any game to have any rigor, it must be based on reasonable incentives appropriate for a wartime situation. A scenario built on nothing more than unsubstantiated assumptions inherently lacks credibility. So, how can a game designer build scenarios and assumptions that accurately capture the various and contrasting incentives for a fictional situation?

One way to get around this problem is to incorporate as much of the current world situation as possible into the game scenario and make only those changes needed to introduce conflict. A game designer could create a scenario that depicts U.S.-China relations largely as they exist today and then inject some crisis near Taiwan to begin the war. This is, in fact, the most commonly used method to build “realistic” scenarios for wargames. But a scenario set in wartime that hews to facts as they exist in peacetime introduces a serious analytic error.

The problem is that, by definition, many factors in a peacetime situation favor peace—factors that can be numerous and diffuse. A scenario based on a contemporary, nonhostile relationship between two countries implies many incentives to avoid hostilities. A main reason why the U.S. and China have not gone to war over Taiwan, after all, is because they have many compelling reasons to favor peace. What exactly about the current situation favors peace remains in debate, but candidates include mutual economic interdependence, the presence of nuclear weapons, relatively modest threat perceptions, and involvement in shared multilateral institutions. Injecting a “trigger event” such as a crisis related to Taiwan does not resolve the structural incentives for peace. Instead, it merely creates an artificial and unconvincing driver of war. Scenarios that aim to explore political topics in wartime but share considerable continuity with peacetime situations are thus inherently contradictory—they depict a situation with as many structural incentives for peace as one that favors war. This contradiction helps explain why so many wargame scenarios strike participants as implausible and unbelievable.

How to Improve Wargames for Political Analysis 

A better approach to wargames would be to model the political assumptions for a hypothetical wargame on the experiences of countries that have actually gone to war. As mentioned earlier in this piece, the deliberate falsification of facts in peacetime offers a good model for what might actually happen in wartime and how policymakers would likely react. After all, the most realistic and relevant facts that confront decision-makers in a war are not those that typify situations in peacetime, but those that typify situations in wartime. The very act of envisioning a war situation that does not exist requires the imaginative visualization of a world radically different from a peacetime status quo.

For such historical data to be useful, it should be as rigorous and scientifically derived as possible. The best resource for scenario designers that aim to replicate realistic and relevant facts and incentives for political decisions lies in the historical experience of countries in analogous situations. Academic research on the phenomena of war has made tentative but promising findings that could be useful for such an endeavor. Research findings regarding the causes for war initiation, escalation, and termination can form the basis of imaginative scenarios that paint a vivid picture of the political dynamics of war. By incorporating findings from such research, the scenarios can present a more convincing picture of the types of facts and incentives that leaders could face in war.

This point can be illustrated more fully by critically examining some flawed assumptions that appear in the U.S.-China wargames cited earlier in the piece regarding Taiwan and how these could be improved. Many of these assumptions are perfectly fine for games focused on military topics but problematic when applied to political topics (as such games almost invariably try to do). A common assumption of these specific games is that U.S.-China relations are fundamentally ambivalent or nonhostile. War comes about mainly over some combination of issues related to Taiwan’s status, Beijing’s policy regarding unification, and U.S. security obligations. The CSIS game is typical in its assumption that “China has committed to invading Taiwan and the US has decided to intervene in the island’s defense.” China’s motive is usually depicted as focused almost exclusively on reconquering Taiwan, with little regard to any other issues. China is accordingly depicted as willing to bear any cost to complete reunification. While partly necessary to enable war, the assumption is also based on the observation that Chinese leaders regularly make such uncompromising statements. Absent the Taiwan issue, the U.S. and China are assumed to have no reason to fight each other. Again, this reflects the peacetime situation in which the two countries regard Taiwan as the most dangerous flashpoint but otherwise do not appear to have any reason to go to war against one another. Also typical of many wargames are the small number of involved parties. The two contending sides usually consist of the U.S. and Taiwan (and maybe Japan or Australia) on one side, and China on the other. Games—such as the CSIS one—often also frequently assume that Japan will make minimal efforts to assist the U.S. in such a war, owing to legal constraints. This is clearly based on Japan’s current situation in peacetime. And when war begins, it usually is envisioned as a primarily regional affair that concludes once the battle for Taiwan is resolved.

Each flawed assumption mentioned above is based on facts drawn from the current peacetime situation, but this makes them of doubtful validity for wartime. They present a misleading and inaccurate representation of the facts and incentives that would likely confront decision-makers in an actual wartime situation. For starters, the notion that the U.S. and China would wage war solely over the issue of Taiwan’s status is overly simplistic and unfounded. The analogous experience of countries like the U.S. and China are those of great powers. And when great powers go to war, the causes are myriad, overlapping, and complex. Great powers fight wars over issues of status and leadership as much as over disputes about obligations to allies and partners. Entire books are written on the causes of great power wars. The causes of any U.S.-China war would probably be just as complex as those of preceding great power wars. The specific issues that might lead to war cannot be predicted, but we can be confident that they would involve a similar mix of motives spanning issues of leadership, influence, position, and specific disputes including the status of allies like Taiwan.

U.S.-China war will never solely be “about Taiwan” and accordingly it will almost certainly neither be geographically focused just around Taiwan nor is it likely to end once an initial clash around the island concludes. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe a U.S.-China war as “beginning near Taiwan” in the same way that World War II could be described as a major war that “began near Poland” but, of course, became a much larger conflict. Similarly, we cannot predict the exact sequence of events that might lead the U.S. and China to war. We can, however, estimate the likely types of behavior between states that would dramatically increase the risk of war based on the experiences of past warring great powers. The U.S. and China would not have peaceful, ambivalent relations in the lead-up to war, but would probably experience a bitterly acrimonious and hostile relationship. This view of each other as mutual enemies and implacable obstacles to national goals is a critical ingredient in great power wars and would develop through a long period of destabilized relations, the multiplication and intensification of disputes, the hardening of threat perceptions, the onset of acutely hostile relations, and a series of militarized crises.

The assumption that war would mainly involve just the U.S., China, and Taiwan is also unjustified. Great power rivalries and wars historically have been multilateral affairs featuring many participants in opposing coalitions. The phenomenon of “war joining” is exceedingly common in great power wars. Thus, it is highly likely that war between China and the U.S. would involve many countries on one side or the other. Accordingly, it is not unreasonable to expect that Japan’s restrictions on the use of force could change significantly if it viewed a great power war between the U.S. and China as carrying enormous stakes for Tokyo’s future, which it likely would. Historical examples of great power wars also cast doubt on the common assumption of wargames and research papers based on military analysis that the conflict would be confined to the region or be of short duration. Nothing is more common in the history of warfare, after all, than the erroneous expectation of military experts of the time that a looming war will be limited in scale and short lived. Past great power wars suggest that a U.S.-China war would extend around the world and could last months or years.

Drawing scenarios that depict a U.S.-China war in such terms will inevitably invite criticisms from experts struck by the depiction of a world so starkly at odds with our own. The strength of criticisms will depend not on their consistency with peacetime facts, but on their grounding on analogous wartime situations. Past episodes of great power wars provide a valuable resource for more accurately assessing what might happen in wartime, but no data source is perfect. The relevance of past examples will invariably have some limitations for future wars, but that does not make them unimportant. Criticism and debate over the relevance of phenomena from the past is welcome and necessary. But this should not obscure the fundamental point that the most useful and relevant reference point for analyzing what might happen to U.S.-China relations in a hypothetical war rests in the wartime experiences of other countries, not in the peacetime experiences of the U.S. and China.

Games used to support military analysis will continue to remain critical for defense planning, as they always have. They continue to play a valuable role for defense analysts who study operational problems related to modern war. Participants in games simulating a U.S.-China war near Taiwan, however, often become interested in political questions because the same events quickly demonstrate that the U.S. cannot “win” such a war at an acceptable price any more than China could. Naturally, this encourages analysts of the China-Taiwan situation to explore ways to avoid such a war through games that test the effectiveness of deterrent options or that attempt to manage the risks of escalations.

However, the asymmetry in information requirements for wargames focused on military vice political topics is so sharp that it is generally unhelpful and probably counterproductive to attempt to use a single wargame or scenario to serve both purposes. Scenarios and assumptions that are perfectly reasonable for games designed to analyze military topics will be unreasonable and misleading when applied to political topics, and vice versa. What is needed for wargames that explore political topics in war are scenarios modeled on patterns of interstate behavior that commonly appeared in actual wars. The best resource for facts and assumptions for building such scenarios are the analogous experiences of other countries in wartime situations. Scholarly and scientific findings regarding such patterns provide a valuable resource for such efforts. Preliminary efforts have been made to translate academic research on war into defense work, but much can be done to systematize and render such findings more useful and rigorous for game designers. Even with such improvements, however, humility about what we can achieve is required. Re-creating hypothetical war situations based on the experiences of past wars will be imperfect at best and carry their own flawed assumptions. Carrying out different iterations with slightly different assumptions could help mitigate some of these limitations. Yet even in the most optimal case, we can at best aspire to craft a crude simulacra of the incentives and factors leaders might confront in a hypothetical situation that will carry all sorts of unimaginable complexities. Given the stakes involved, even an imperfect and partial approach offers a potentially significant improvement over current methodologies for defense planners, analysts, and decision-makers alike who seek to explore political questions in wartime.