Small Wars Journal

Back to the Basics: Chess, Poker & the Future of Warfare

Mon, 06/03/2013 - 3:30am

This two part article reviews the opportunity senior U.S. military leadership has over the next few years to address current and future challenges the U.S. military faces.  Part one will identify these challenges which includes the current state of Professional Military Education (PME) programs, how to transfer the knowledge of lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, preparing for irregular warfare of the future, improving low college graduation rates of veterans, and reducing veterans’ higher than U.S. average unemployment rates.  In part two, solutions will be offered and will discuss how the U.S. military can implement them, and the corresponding benefits that can be realized.  Finally, the solutions offered will relate back to the aforementioned challenges and how they can be concurrently addressed.

Looming budget cuts, sequestration, and the current drawdown means significant change is coming at all levels in the U.S. military.  There is always resistance to change; however, change should not be feared, but embraced and viewed as an opportunity to concurrently address multiple issues.  When cutbacks hit corporations, management leadership might implement down-sizing whereby they may drastically reduce spending, cut dead weight and lay-off personnel, or if the CEO is paternalistic, share the burden and reduce everyone’s pay and hours so that no family is individually burdened.  This shared sacrifice often leads to innovative ways to find solutions that make the current operations more efficient.   This requires opening the channel of communications from the bottom up.  Corporate America has demonstrated that when cutbacks are made, a stronger more efficient and effective company will prevail and succeed.  Look to Apple and Starbucks that had their respective founder start the company, leave the company, only to return to the helm and reinstitute a program to return the company Back to the Basics, all of which made them more successful the second time around. 

Corporate America has recognized that what gives one company an advantage over another is the intellectual capital of their workforce.  Whether in business or the military, in order to succeed in the future, leadership must always be prepared for the unexpected, new challenges, and must continue to train and develop their workforce to differentiate them from their competition or adversaries.  The intellectual capital and the leadership skills of those that serve in the military are a force multiplier.

The U.S. Armed Forces and those that serve face many challenges in the remainder of this decade.  The national security strategy needs to take into account not only the current threats, but also future threats and adapt past war doctrines to meet those threats.  That requires adapting some PME programs and developing other new ones that can transfer knowledge to train and prepare for new strategic threats.  The decisions of U.S. military policy makers will dictate not only how the U.S. Armed Forces are prepared to do battle, but also how active duty personnel and veterans transition out of their military careers and into college classrooms and the American workforce. 

All of these aforementioned issues can be addressed concurrently with a renewed focus of going Back to the Basics.  Thus, current top U.S. military leaders should pushback against cutting training programs and find new inventive ways to deliver a challenging curriculum.  A continued investment in education and a renewed focus on the basics, where PME programs seek to develop, instill, and impart basic informed decision-making skill sets, critical thinking, and related transferable skills to current active duty personnel at every grade and rank in the U.S. military needs to be reinforced.  The following article will discuss how the pending changes can be embraced and used as an opportunity to turn the focus Back to the Basics and how doing so will serve current and future U.S. military policy makers, active duty personnel, future veterans, and Corporate America.   


Current State of PME Programs

At the Joint Warfighting Conference in May of 2012, General Dempsey spoke of the future of warfare and how leadership and training are just as important as the technological advantages that are needed to address future combat operations.[1]  Evaluating whether current PME programs are dynamic and challenging to meet the future needs of the U.S. military will address General Dempsey’s position.  This also requires a review to determine whether PME programs are treated as a means to an end, which is to reach the next grade or rank, in direct contravention to General Gray’s position that “[i]n all officer education particularly, schools should focus on developing a talent for military judgment, not on imparting knowledge through rote learning.”[2]  While ongoing military education for advanced degrees prepares Officers to take on additional command and administrative responsibilities, these programs are distinguishable from the issue at hand, as they are used to prepare individuals for specific roles.  Similarly, PME programs can be used to ignite the minds of the students so they are intellectually challenged, engaged, and prepared to fulfill their duties while they serve, but also for them to be prepared when they transition out of the military.

U.S. military leadership should be cognizant that there is a difference between studying and learning.  For everyone who has had to memorize certain facts for a test, only to regurgitate them soon thereafter and shortly forget that information can attest that mere studying is a means to an end.  However, to invest the time to actual learn and understand the concepts requires a higher level of instruction and commitment.  Indeed, Navy Corpsman Lucas Velaquez stated “[i]n the military classes (we had taken), they spoon fed you everything because they didn’t want you to fail.”[3]  An opportunity exists to make improvements in PME programs to fully realize the intellectual potential that is currently in their arsenal.  Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Armed Services reported that professional military education was deficient in critical thinking.[4]  Harnessing the intellectual capital of those that serve with broad skill sets puts the U.S. Armed Forces in a better position to meet future unknown challenges. 

Transferring the Knowledge of Lessons Learned to the Next Generation

Transferring the intellectual capital of current military personnel to those without battlefield experience is a challenge, but an opportunity that cannot be squandered.  Those with experience are able to perform the same tasks more efficiently than someone who has no experience.  More importantly, U.S. military professionals have honed and perfected a skill set to succeed in battle through first hand direct experiences.  The key in the transfer of knowledge is to teach someone new through indirect experiences so that the steep learning curve is substantially reduced.  However, this transfer of knowledge cannot take place just through internet programs or online social media websites, but requires mentoring and instruction in small class sizes.  This means more than going through debriefing as one exits the theater and compiling notes on what worked and what did not.  The best practices that worked should be delivered to new personnel in multiple formats and in person, not just in a theory based doctrinal publication.  

Preparing for Irregular Warfare of the Future

The future of warfare includes remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), which are not just limited to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as predator and reaper drones, but encompasses all vehicles.  The future of warfare and the intelligence gathering is going to continue to rely heavily on UAV’s and RPVs.  Indeed, “in the case of RPVs – robots with no autonomy – the tactical decision-maker will not be on the battlefield, or even necessarily in the theater.  He or she will be in a secure control center half a world away, far removed from combat both geographically and psychologically.”[5]  At the Joint Warfighting Conference in May of 2012, General Dempsey said what is needed is a different joint force “one poised to deter, deny and defeat threats at every point along the spectrum of conflict.”[6]  In fact, Gunnery Sgt. Hector Vegacigarroa of Camp Pendleton who was training on the virtual simulators that provided information on insurgents said “[i]t’s like the game of chess, when they make a move, you counter it.  Knowing both sides of the board gives us the advantage.”[7]   

The U.S. military dominates the airspace in combat; however, as enemies attempt to reverse-engineer UAV’s and create their own drones, an air drone war with two sides battling one another while the operators sit hundreds or thousands of miles away is not that dissimilar to chess.  Similarly, cyber-warfare requires tactical and strategic planning that is benefited by abstract thinking.  The United States is at the beginning of a cyber-weapons arms race; however, the speed at which technology moves and can be replicated requires continuous breakthroughs, developments and innovation.  The advantage the U.S. has on the cyber-military front is a precarious one, which can be quickly lost given the disparities between U.S. students and other countries when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math curriculums in schools.[8]  Whichever side is more prepared to develop tactical and strategic plans is going to win future UAV and RPV battles, and cyber-warfare engagements.  The United States has already acknowledged China, Russia, and now Iran engaged in cyber acts against U.S. interests.  Therefore, the parallels that can be drawn to chess are good examples of how strategy will be decisively used to win future battles.  General Gray spoke to this point that exercises should “introduce friction in the form of uncertainty, stress, disorder, and opposing wills.”[9]  Conventional warfare called for conventional thinking.  Conversely, to prepare for a future unconventional war, the military needs to promote abstract thinking and creative problem solving in training.     

The French army under the command of Napoleon was able to win decisive battles for a decade, because his enemies failed to adapt to the changes of war at the time.[10]  Thus, to prepare for the irregular warfare of the future, we must learn from the present irregular war.  Australia’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilcullen’s contributions towards a counterinsurgency doctrine was developed around the same time Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation was conducting research on chess as a model of modern warfare.  Therefore, this review should serve as a reminder that sometimes the military command structure in a traditional organization that has served the U.S. very well for so long, needs to be more adaptive to different challenges the U.S. will encounter in the future.  The U.S. military is on average smarter than the U.S. population as a whole; however, the more compelling comparison is whether they will be smarter than their future adversaries.[11]  There are limitations to problem solving when groupthink sets in and quells the creative process.  Senior military policy makers that allow PME programs to become static will put a creative chokehold on the thinking process of the entire U.S. military.    

Improving the Low College Graduation Rate of Veterans

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor and Pensions report in the fall of 2011, revealed that of approximately 800,000 veterans enrolled in college, only three (3) percent graduate and about 88% drop out in the first year.[12]  Indeed, the University of Iowa’s Veteran’s Task Force Report bluntly called veterans an “excellent revenue source.”[13]  Part of the issue is for-profit colleges acting as predators similar to a used car dealer located just off of base.  Those percentages can be partially explained away in that U.S. military personnel have been required to deploy multiple times and might not have had the opportunity to commit the time needed to complete the degrees.  In fact, “[t]he average military person only takes three courses a year.”[14]

While the percentages sound alarming, the full picture reveals more information.  Specifically, a better statistic and one that should still be of concern is that the University Iowa reports that student-veterans have a 15% lower graduation rate than other students.[15]  That being said, there is an opportunity for leadership to address this issue proactively before those in uniform leave the military.  If the PME programs in the military were dynamic and challenging while also providing core transferable skill sets, it would not only be of benefit to the military, but also the individual who is using the military as a foundation in their careers and better prepare them for wherever they pursue secondary education endeavors.  If PME programs can instill and require students to learn valuable transferable skills, then the transition to college will be met with more veterans with degrees, reaching their full potential allowing them to meet their goals.  The Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Act of 2008 provides great benefits and opportunities, but more needs to be done throughout a person’s time in the military to prepare them for their next step.  Otherwise, veterans are not going to be able to maximize the full value of those benefits, and it is in the interest of all parties to maximize the return on investment of those benefits.

Reducing Veterans Higher than U.S. Average Unemployment Rate

At the end of 2012, there was a 10.8% unemployment rate of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.[16] In comparison, the national unemployment rate was 7.8%.[17]  For all the corporations’ advertisement and self-promoting of supporting military veterans who are serving or served, they are simply not stepping up and doing their fair share throughout the last decade.  Some of the difference can be explained away from corporations sitting on record levels of cash given the tightening of the credit markets since 2008.  This unfortunately is to the detriment of the country, shareholders, employees of the companies, and their consumers, because what veterans have to offer are leadership skills and a proven track record of getting things done.  The groupthink that holds back corporations from succeeding can be combated with hiring more veterans who have experience in implementing and carrying out successful missions.  Incentives and other programs can help assuage those higher unemployment numbers, but the opportunity exists for the current military leadership to instill in the current force additional skill sets that are not only going to serve the needs of the U.S. military, the individual, but also the future needs of a workforce that can meet the challenges American companies are going to be facing in the ever dependent global marketplace. 

There is currently a decline in institutional trust.  The trust gap in society is seen at all levels of government, the private and public sectors, and financial institutions; however, in comparison, the military has the highest level of trust from the public.  The U.S. military has an opportunity to capitalize on that trust if they can find an effective way to transfer that trust to the benefit of veterans.  There are some very successful programs the military currently has in place which include Operation Boots to Business, and Congress has passed legislation to provide incentives to hire veterans under The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.  Consequently, using PME programs to establish core transferable skill sets allows the military gets the immediate benefit, while consistently preparing the student for their next career move after their service in the military is completed.

Given the current levels of national debt, pending cutbacks, innovative enemies, and how technology will change future warfare means the old approach to education does not provide the flexibility to address future concerns.  With China’s rise to power, the dramatic changes from the Arab Spring movement, unknown enemies, and how quickly technology changes, no longer means the U.S. can rest on past advantages and will require a renewed focus on transferable basic core skill sets that can be built upon when new threats emerge.  Therefore, thinking a few moves ahead and knowing how future battles will be fought will require abstract thinking and critical decision making skills to meet those challenges.  The AFCEA/U.S.N.I. WEST 2013 conference held in San Diego in January 2013 continuously hit on the point that with budget constraints and sequestration, the U.S. military is no longer going to have the luxury to just outspend our adversaries, but will have to out think them in the future to gain the advantage.  The branches of the U.S. military that can recognize these challenges can begin to address them now through a transformation of changing the traditional military organization to one that will focus on a learning military organization.

[1] General Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Warfighting Conference (Washington D.C., May 16, 2012) (copy on file at

[2] Warfighting, United States Marine Corps, MCDP-1 pg. 63 (BN Publishing edition, 1997).

[3] Bill Briggs, Thousands of veterans failing in latest battlefield: college (July 3, 2012).

[4] Nicholas Murray, Officer Education: What Lessons Does the French Defeat in 1871 Have for the US Army Today? (January 14, 2013).

[5] James E. Drennan, How To Fight An Unmanned War, U.S. Naval Inst. Proc. 58Vol 136, Issue 11, (Nov. 1, 2010) (2010 WLNR 23167121).

[6] General Dempsey,  Speech, Joint Warfighting Conference.

[7] 1/23 Trains to Counter IED’s, January 10, 2011, Cpl. Lucas Vega, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.

[8] Douglas Rushkoff, Teach U.S. Kids to Write Computer Code, (Dec. 10, 2012), (last accessed Dec. 12, 2012).

[9] Warfighting, at 60.

[10] Thomas G. Mahnken, A Corps for Tomorrow,  Marine Corps Gazette, (Nov. 2000; 84, 11).

[11] Fact Of The Day #44: U.S. Military Better Educated Than Populace It Protects (infographic), http;//, (last accessed Sept. 22, 2012).

[12] Briggs, Veterans Failing, supra .

[13] David Wallis, Coming Home From War to Hit the Books, (Feb. 29, 2012), (last accessed Sept. 22, 2012).

[14] A word on the for-profits, (Oct. 31, 2011), (last accessed Sept. 22, 2012).

[15] Wallis, Coming Home, supra.

[16] Ben Popken, Wal-Mart plans to hire 100,000 veterans,  (January 16, 2013).

[17] Ibid.


About the Author(s)

Brian T. Dolk holds a B.B.A. (Bachelor’s in Business Administration) in Accounting from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a M.B.A. in Entrepreneurship, Marketing, and Technology from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and completed his J.D. and LL.M. (Master of Laws) in Information Technology & Privacy Law from The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois in May 2013.


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