Using Fiction to Address the Challenges of Reality: Observations of Taiwan Naval Staff Training and the Value of War Games

Using Fiction to Address the Challenges of Reality: Observations of Taiwan Naval Staff Training and the Value of War Games

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Using Fiction to Address the Challenges of Reality: Observations of Taiwan Naval Staff Training and the Value of War Games

The Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) Navy faces a multitude of challenges reacting to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on a day-to-day basis, with the prospect of an invasion looming in the background (see discussions here and here). A war game with a fictional vignette can serve to improve the readiness of Taiwan’s navy to address the challenges of this reality. A fictional vignette, in the context of a war game, is a scenario in which the opposing sides are fictional and the conditions under which the conflict in the game occurs is also fictional. Because of its fictional nature the vignette can be created to the specific requirements of those using it.

Such vignettes can provide commanders and their staff with an environment to train and study aspects of existing plans without the biases associated with real world operations. This is the value proposition for such a vignette: removing existing biases can allow for clearer analysis on real world problems, and allow for greater focus on the skills of solving them. In order to demonstrate the value of war gaming with a fictional vignette, this article will discuss its use to the ROC Navy for educational, analytical, and experiential purposes, as well as the role of the ROC Naval Command and Staff College (NCSC, 海軍指揮參謀學院) in the execution and modification of these war games.

Enhanced Staff Training for ROC Navy Officers

As part of its efforts to prepare itself for a potential conflict with the PRC, the ROC Navy has sought to improve the planning abilities of its officer corps, particularly those assigned to an operational staff. The ROC Navy leadership has rightly identified a need to enhance the planning capability of its staff corps across all echelons of command. [1] Doing so will make the navy more robust in its ability to react to actions by the PRC—whether those be gray-zone activities, a blockade, or a full invasion. The ability to solve problems up and down the chain of command is a key enabler for commanders. Having staff officers capable of analyzing problems and providing solutions to commanders becomes even more crucial in times of war, where the ability of a centralized higher command to issue orders and directives may become restricted or denied entirely.

The annual training regimen for the ROC Navy at levels above a single unit are focused on a series of war games that culminate in large scale exercises—one of which is a broader-scale joint military exercise. All of these events are currently informed and modeled on real world events that Taiwan’s military must address, in large part regarding actions by the PRC. While this annual training regimen is robust in its integration of units at all echelons of command, it is recognized by the ROC Naval Command and Staff College as being aligned with present day operating conditions—and therefore too structured and rigid to foster the development of creative thinking. The ROC NCSC has therefore called for refinement to its training curriculum going forward, in order to “let students understand the planning process, develop critical thinking, and avoid falling into the inherent scenario or cross-strait situations.”

The ROC Naval Command and Staff College possesses such a war game using a fictional vignette to facilitate the teaching of operational level planning—therefore addressing the institution’s desired curriculum change. As part of a course developed to teach operational planning to NCSC instructors, this war game and its fictional vignette addressed the ability of the Taiwan navy’s staff corps to plan large-scale operations and provide viable recommendations to their commanders for solving complex and dynamic problems.

The established training schedule executed by Taiwanese naval forces over the course of a year is focused around the refinement and validation of existing plans through their execution in the Han Kuang (漢光) and Hai Qiang (海強) exercises. The use of war games and associated fictional vignettes provides benefits that might not be found in these annual exercises—namely, detachment from biases associated with the realities facing Taiwan’s naval forces. The primary value of this provided fictional vignette is the removal of biases associated with real world operations, providing a means for the analysis of existing concepts in an isolated environment. Furthermore, it is a tailorable vignette suitable for educational and experiential war games for Taiwan naval staffs at all levels of war. This is not to say that this game should be completely detached from reality; rather, a fictional vignette can allow for a more focused view of the challenges faced by the navy by placing them in a hypothetical environment. In doing so, preconceived perceptions about concepts of operation, force constructs and operational design associated with Taiwan’s naval operations can be viewed through the lens of this fictional scenario, which may open the door to new or different ways to solve existing problems.

Educating Officers in the Art of Planning 

The use of a fictional vignette as part of the NCSC curriculum was a conscious decision by the NCSC to remove biases associated with established plans, which could inhibit a student’s ability to effectively learn operational planning because of the established solutions associated with an existing plan. By developing the skill set to form plans independent of preexisting plans, the ROC Navy will increase the capability of its force to react to the threats facing it, without a reliance on decision-making made at the highest level of command. Use of mission command by senior Taiwan naval commanders, with subordinate commanders and staff able to take higher commander’s intent and turn it into action, will enhance the effectiveness of the navy. An additional output of the educational value from this fictional vignette is the ability of it to be modified by the NCSC or other staff entities for analysis of concepts being employed in current operational plans.

Use for the Evaluation of Existing Concepts

There has been reported debate within the ROC Navy regarding the operational design approach for the defense of Taiwan at sea. The nexus of this debate is whether to employee the “Overall Defense Concept” strategy championed by Admiral Lee Hsi-min (李喜明) (the former ROC Chief of Staff, now retired), which advocated for a more asymmetric approach in the maritime domain; or that of a more conventional naval approach oriented towards presenting a credible deterrent to “gray zone tactics and day-to-day pressure from the PRC.” Criticisms to both approaches have been reported, but the most current Taiwan Quadrennial Defense Review, published in 2021, reflects tenets of both approaches. (See discussion of the 2021 QDR here.)

At the Navy Headquarters level, the fictional war game could be modified to perform as an alternative futures game. Through this war game approach different vignettes would be developed, depicting future conditions associated with the operations design approaches being debated. The intended outcome for this approach would be for the participants to be able to evaluate the outcomes associated with the alternative futures depicted, in order to understand which is a more viable approach—or, whether both approaches should be used in some capacity. For example, a series of alternative futures war games could be conducted in which a force structure is modified to suit both an asymmetric or conventional approach, to evaluate different operational designs for the defense of Taiwan’s maritime domain.

A potential starting point for these war games could be the “four challenges” laid out in Admiral Lee’s white paper on the defense of Taiwan in the maritime domain. These “four challenges” are: “gray zone aggression,” “full-scale invasion,” “limited defense resources,” and “how much time we still have.” Each of these challenges presents a potential alternate future option, which could be explored using a fictional vignette. Applying this fictional vignette to these differing approaches affords both planners and commanders the opportunity to limit the influence of any existing bias they might have towards one approach or the other. Furthermore, an outcome of such games gives insights into the advantages and disadvantages of each approach—and whether any aspects of these approaches could be applied with one another to improve an overall defense design approach.

Experiential Value

A fictional vignette affords the operational staff of the ROC Navy the ability to build on strategic level war games by exploring force constructs, concepts of operations, and operational design considerations. Here there are experiential aspects that can benefit both commanders and staff by allowing them to go through development of operational plans, where the vignette can highlight certain aspects of the process. As an example, a commander could choose to have his or her staff develop an operational design approach to solving the problem in the vignette.

Such use of a vignette could afford commanders the ability to experiment with differing guidance to planning teams—which, as demonstrated from the example above, can yield potentially unexpected results providing solutions that might be outside of what commanders might be currently thinking about. Staff personnel can leverage the vignette to examine existing concepts of operations, with the potential for uncovering differing approaches for employment of flotillas in response to their specific tasking and geographic considerations.

The Role of the ROC Naval Command and Staff College

The staff at the NSCS is well suited to be the designer of refined scenarios for strategic and operational level use, as well as a resource with which tactical level flotillas can work in the design of tactical focused vignettes. Furthermore, the cataloging of developed plans from all levels of such war games could also be analyzed by staff at the NSCS to identify trends or new approaches for solving planning problems. However, such analysis is only of value if the findings are prepared in a manner that is of use to commanders and staffs at all levels—which is to say, actionable items that can be evaluated for incorporation in the real-world war games conducted by Taiwan naval forces throughout the year.

A Different Way to Look at a Problem

The use of war game vignettes cannot replace the current training curriculum of Taiwan’s naval forces, and their ability to address the emerging threats and environmental conditions associated with PRC aggression. However, the potential uses of war gaming in this paradigm can serve to enhance the readiness of Taiwan naval staffs, as well as that of the navy overall. At a time when the challenges of reality for the ROC Navy are growing more complex and dangerous, stepping back from this reality to examine these challenges with fictional scenarios may provide new solutions to old problems.

The main point: The ROC Navy and its Naval Command and Staff College are adopting the use of war games and associated vignettes that can improve the readiness of Taiwan’s naval forces, and potentially present new solutions to the challenges that ROC military forces are facing in dealing with aggressive PRC military operations on a day-to-day basis.

[1] Briefing titled “Introduction of ROC NPP,” presented by the ROC Naval Command and Staff College, June 2023.