Should the President Be Playing War Games?

By Guy Higgins

Okay, first, this is NOT a political blog, and I’m not going there, but on March 25th, I was watching Greta Van Susteren’s On the Record.  I normally enjoy watching Greta because she is pretty polite (by the standards of radio and TV talk shows, she is incredibly and unfailingly polite) but she doesn’t let guests get away with not answering questions.  They dodge and she presses.  Then she lets her guests actually answer – she doesn’t pontificate to them.

Anyway, on the 25th, she reported that President Obama, at the G-7 summit in Brussels, was engaging with the other G-7 heads of state in a war game aimed at possible Russian actions in Eastern Europe.  Greta appeared to be incensed that the President would be wasting his time (and our money) playing games!!  She asked her audience if we thought that the president should be playing games.  Well, I was incensed.

You’re darned right the president should be playing war games and the other heads of state should not be upset that this was sprung on them unannounced (which evidently was the case – both unannounced and upsetting to the other members of the G-7).  Heads of state (and organizational leaders) don’t like to be shown to be less than in total command of the situation and this war game apparently exposed some un-readiness.  The details are irrelevant – but these folks were doing some of the most important work they can do.

Organization leaders (and heads of state) have only one job that is theirs and theirs alone – to solve problems that are so incredibly messy, risky and difficult that none of their people can solve them.  That is not a job description that most people would apply to assume.  It is, nonetheless what “da boss” is supposed to do.

War games, or command post exercises, or tabletop exercises are important.  I don’t want my leader to be facing a serious problem, like say Russia invading Estonia or a devastating fire in the plant that produces 75% of my company’s products without having practiced that or similar emergencies in an environment where it was safe to fail and learn.  Unannounced exercise/war games are even better.  Real emergencies and disasters don’t get scheduled (apologies to Dr. Kissinger who complained that he couldn’t have an emergency because his calendar was full).

In my first squadron, one of my peers, we’ll call him Rob, was the squadron Communications Officer.  The Comm Officer had lots of jobs, but one of them was to make sure that the Squadron Duty Officer (SDO) was prepared to respond to any emergency and notify the chain of command by sending out an OpRep-3 (Operation Report).  That is a very high priority, formatted message that is supposed to be sent within (I think) five minutes.  No time to mess around and look for the format, figure out who it has to go to and write the message.  Well, Rob supplied blank forms with all the standard “stuff” already in place.  All the SDO had to do was supply the details.  That was good, but Rob, knowing people, would stroll into the duty office unannounced about three times a week and announce to the SDO that XYZ emergency or accident or somesuch had just occurred and he would start a clock.  The SDO had five minutes.  We all hated seeing Rob walk into the duty office.  The “war game” just started.  It wasn’t fun, but we became good at it.

That’s the purpose – getting good at it.  Emergencies, wars, accidents, tornadoes aren’t fun, but, as leaders, we need to be, must be, good at responding to the disruptions and disasters resulting from those kinds of events.  Sports teams “war game” all the time (they call it practicing against their next opponent’s style).  No college or pro team would dare venture onto the field without that practice.  And those are games (apologies to Tank McNamara who observed, “This isn’t a matter of life and death.  It much more important – it’s football.”).  If preparing for those games is important, then shouldn’t the ability of our organization or company or country to respond quickly and effectively to dirty rotten, impossibly difficult problems be just as important?  Should we (and the president) be “playing war games” to learn, practice and “get good at it”?

So, Ms. Van Susteren, yes, President Obama and his G-7 colleagues should be playing war games – perhaps even more frequently than they play golf.  After all, the real world doesn’t offer handicaps in dealing with disasters, emergencies and crises.


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