Small Wars Journal

Game of Drones: Center for a New American Security Wargame Report

Fri, 07/01/2016 - 1:09pm

Game of Drones: Center for a New American Security Wargame Report


The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) yesterday released the report from its “Game of Drones” wargame. In the report, CNAS Technology and National Security Program Research Associate Alexandra Sander presents CNAS’ findings from the two-day wargame, which brought together a diverse group of experts from U.S. and allied militaries, academia, think tanks, media, and international organizations to explore how the proliferation of drones will change conflict.
The full Game of Drones report can be found on CNAS’ Proliferated Drones website at:
Proliferated Drones, at, is designed to serve as a one-stop resource for policymakers who want to gain a better understanding of how drones affect warfare, how they work, what nations around the world think of them, and how nations use them. On the Proliferated Drones site, you can also fill out a survey and provide your opinions on drones:


Drones are rapidly proliferating around the globe. Not only has the commercial market for drones dramatically expanded, but arms transfers of unarmed and armed drones between states are also steadily rising.1 The United States and its allies must consider how the widespread availability of drones will change conflict, particularly in ambiguous engagements that remain below the threshold of conventional war. They also must anticipate how actors will use drones and how others will respond to those uses.

In October 2015, the Center for a New American Security held a two-day wargame entitled Game of Drones at the National Defense University to explore the implications of a world of proliferated drones.2 The wargame brought together a diverse group of experts from the U.S. and allied militaries, academia, think tanks, media, and international organizations. Participants represented a range of actors, from major nation-states to non-state groups, across a dozen multi-turn scenarios.

The wargame found that although existing drone technology is relatively simple, the availability of drones can have important tactical, strategic, and political implications across the spectrum of conflict. Drones increase the options available to state and non-state actors to apply military force where they might not have had the resources or will to act without access to uninhabited (“unmanned”) technology. This increased optionality is particularly impactful in so-called “hybrid” and “gray zone” conflicts, the types of ambiguous interactions short of full-scale war that are typical in today’s security environment.

Already, more than 90 countries and non-state actors operate drones.3 The use of drones by increasing numbers of states and non-state actors will have a growing impact on strategy and policy as they expand and complicate the spectrum of conflict. The optionality provided by drones has started to change behavior within the international system with initial, observed effects on crisis stability, escalation dynamics, and norms regarding sovereignty violation.4

Drones increase the options available to state and non-state actors to apply military force where they might not have…without access to uninhabited (“unmanned”) technology.

Furthermore, the sophistication of uninhabited aircraft and the number of countries employing them is likely only to increase as the commercial market for drones expands, states build more robust indigenous industries, and technology advances. More operators of more capable and, increasingly, weaponized drones will heighten the ambiguity that already characterizes drone use and increase the severity of consequences from misinterpretation and miscalculation.5

Limiting the spread of this technology is neither practical nor probable with the growth of commercial drones, international sales by drones exporters such as Israel, China, and even the United States, and increases in indigenous production.6 Given these conditions, understanding how various actors will choose to employ drones and respond to their use is a critical step in preparing for the challenges of a drone-saturated world. Considering how to adapt strategically and politically to this new reality early on will mitigate the dangers of decisionmaking in the midst of crises and create an opportunity to shape the long-term evolution of drone use.

About Gameplay

Over the course of two days, four teams representing fictitious actors played through 12 multi-turn scenarios. Game of Drones included two major power teams, a minor power team, a non-state actor team, and representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) charged with observing gameplay. Each team consisted of the same six to eight participants throughout the wargame. While each team’s role (such as major power) remained constant, the fictitious actor it represented varied from one scenario to the next to introduce a wide variety of strategic and political variables. Game design pitted teams against each other in one-on-one match-ups such that every team played two scenarios against each of the other teams.

Teams played up to four moves within each scenario. Moves lasted for 30 minutes with 20 minutes allotted to teams for deliberation of actions and 10 minutes to control officers for adjudication of the move. During adjudication, control officers compared teams’ actions and determined the most realistic outcome. At the end of each move, control officers communicated their conclusions to each team. This cycle repeated for all subsequent moves within a scenario. Shorter one- to two-move scenarios often required teams to take action quickly, anticipating the actions of their adversary, whereas longer gameplay allowed teams to test the responses of their adversary or set up capabilities for future use.

While fictional, the scenarios emulated modern security settings ranging from low-intensity conflict and irregular warfare to conventional military engagements. The wargame challenged teams to conduct stand-off attacks against more powerful adversaries, make shows of strength supporting claims in contested geographic environments, intervene in foreign wars to hasten regime change, employ information operations to gain control over the narrative, and even carry out deniable attacks in sovereign territory. Teams responded to the conditions of each scenario according to current norms of state behavior and employed only military assets based on existing technologies. Controlling these variables allowed CNAS to focus gameplay on operational concepts and the thinking behind them across a broad range of contingencies.

Each day of play concluded with a plenary session during which participants reflected on whether access to drones significantly impacted the concepts of operation their teams employed or their ability to achieve political or military objectives. ICRC participants also presented their observations on how teams used drones throughout gameplay within the context of evolving norms of drone use and international humanitarian law. The final plenary session focused the discussion on comparing the utility of drones among different actors and contexts, identifying game-changing technological developments, and predicting likely trajectories of future drone use.

Read the Full Report & Findings



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