Michael Gardiner is completing a Masters in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University. He is also a co-founder of the Victoria University of Wellington Wargaming Society which designs, implements, and teaches wargaming to students and other stakeholders within New Zealand. He can be found on Twitter @Mikey_Gardiner_. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing Wargaming in New Zealand
Date Originally Written: May 19, 2021.
Date Originally Published: May 31, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a co-founder of the Victoria University of Wellington Wargaming Society. The author believes that New Zealand’s national security community, businesses and other organisations can benefit from using wargaming as an educational and analytical tool.
Summary: While New Zealand has a strong wargaming history, the country has a heavy reliance on tactical-level wargames that limits the scope of wargame utility to hobbyist and defence force practitioners. Contemporary practitioners such as the VUW Wargaming Society can plug the gap by providing strategic level thinking to policymakers and other actors. Wargaming will grow in popularity as New Zealand’s threat environment changes.
Text: New Zealand’s wargaming history is primarily one at the hobbyist level. ‘Miniature wargaming’ which focuses on assembling, painting, and playing with figurine armies became increasingly popular from the early 20th Century. Wargaming societies and suppliers soon established themselves across the country from Auckland to Dunedin. Founded in 1972 as the Wellington Wargames Section, the Wellington Warlords is one of New Zealand’s oldest wargaming societies and still attracts hundreds of members with an interest in miniature wargaming. While the focus remains entrenched in building, painting, and playing with miniature armies, the philosophies of hobbyist wargames in New Zealand’s wargaming culture remain relevant to wider applications. Writing in the 1980s, Wellington wargamer Andrew Hatt notes “the charm of wargaming lies in its infinite adaptability.” This practicality stemming from the country’s population of “do it yourselfers” suggests New Zealand has a foundational hobbyist culture that would lend itself well to more professional wargaming ventures.
New Zealand’s Defence Force also has experience participating in wargames. Computer wargames are important for simulating battlefield developments at the operational and tactical levels, particularly in training contexts. The New Zealand Army uses video games, such as those run by Bohemia Interactive’s Arma 3 engine for tactical training. Inspired by the United States Marine Corps, the New Zealand Army’s Wargaming Battlelab in 2017 involved a series of tactical-level decision-making wargames that would culminate in the creation of a New Zealand specific module. In terms of joint exercises, the New Zealand Army has significant experience wargaming with the United States military, such as in the 1978 exercise ‘First Foray.’ Meanwhile, the New Zealand Navy has participated in numerous joint exercises such as a humanitarian focused operation with Vanuatu and more large-scale exercises such as RIMPAC. International exercises to improve interoperability in space such as through the Schriever wargame, have also included New Zealand.
Outside of the tactical level, wargaming in New Zealand has failed to take off. A kaleidoscope of stakeholders can stand to reap the benefits of strategic level wargames. Providing the predictive capabilities of wargaming are not overestimated, the advantages of strategic level wargames include:
- Strategic level wargames embrace the messiness of reality. The immersive nature of wargames allows participants to gain insights into situational complexities. These complexities are particularly useful for crisis simulations.
- Strategic level wargames enable interactions within a wargaming environment that promotes robust discussions and debates over key variables, information, and insights. Wargame disagreements, when handled effectively, lead to stronger policy and strategic recommendations.
- Strategic level wargames can bring to light previously missed weak signals and whispers from the ‘grey zone.’
The newly created VUW Wargaming Society (VUWWS) seeks to fill the gap at the strategic level. Specialising in futures-casting and strategic tradecraft, VUWWS recognises the importance for wargaming as an analytical and educational tool. In its nascent form, VUWWS could soon occupy an important position within New Zealand’s small national security apparatus. Works such as the soon-to-be-published Emperor Penguin report – which focuses on great power competition in the Antarctic region – will add important insights to New Zealand’s foreign policy and future strategic planning. Given the revived debate over New Zealand’s relationships with the United States and China, testing New Zealand’s strategy within the safe container of a strategic level wargame has never been more valuable. As such, VUWWS could become a significant force given its competitive advantage, the emerging confluence of strategic threats, and a return of national security concerns to New Zealand discourse.
Naturally, wargaming does not have to focus explicitly on traditional threats and military power. New Zealand’s security is becoming increasingly challenged from a wide variety of sources, particularly from non-conventional threats. Consistent with New Zealand’s “all hazards – all risks” approach to national security, wargaming’s adaptability means it can be a useful tool for assessing national responses to issues like climate change, cyber-security, trans-national crime, natural disasters, etc. For example, while New Zealand has mitigated the threat from Covid-19, wargaming could have been used to identify blind spots in the response strategy to prevent more lockdowns and community transmission. As “trade is not just about trade,” New Zealand’s geographic reality as a small island reliant on trade would significantly benefit from wargaming issues such as the impacts of policy decisions on supply chain resilience, especially given recent initiatives to diversify away from dependence on China. Businesses, non-governmental organisations, think tanks and other actors can also leverage the power of wargaming to test strategies, draw insights and act with more confidence despite future uncertainty.
The accessibility of wargaming knowledge and practice also improves the transparency of national security issues. Keeping constituencies and stakeholders in the dark around strategic issues and threat landscapes gives national security apparatuses ‘shadowy’ reputations. While some information must remain classified for security reasons, more public debates around national security issues are valuable. New Zealand’s national security ecosystem and general public would stand to benefit from more enriching conversations about New Zealand’s place in the world, supported by publicly accessible wargaming tools and information created from it’s use. A student-oriented club like VUWWS uses open-source information, and as a result could find itself contributing to more national discussions.
Finally, a thriving wargaming community within New Zealand offers the potential for greater security cooperation. A well-established and supported wargaming community within New Zealand’s national security apparatus signals a willingness to engage seriously regarding security concerns, particularly within the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, working together with regional partners on joint-exercises and sharing wargaming best practice can become an important facet of Track II discussions. Relationships and cooperative outcomes can be developed through wargaming, with improved ties across governments, defence forces, academia, and wider society.
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