Small Wars Journal

Transforming Crisis: An Exploration of a US Military Exercise

Thu, 07/07/2016 - 10:34am

Transforming Crisis: An Exploration of a US Military Exercise

Philip Y. Kao

Military Exercises as Disaster Exercises

Military exercises, experiments, and war games are training opportunities frequently designed to cope with future conflicts and crisis scenarios involving both natural and humanitarian disasters.  Although the distinction between exercises, war games, and experiments can be blurry, military exercises take active military units away from their daily missions to train for future scenarios.   Military exercises have evolved significantly especially with the onset of computing and increased intelligence operations and sophistication, but they are still used as a tool for planning and testing strategies.  Those participating in an exercise usually include members from across the armed forces, along with personnel from the interagency[1]. Exercises function as a checklist of capabilities and tasks to be performed, honed in on, measured, and certified.  Experiments, however, do not often train active units in theatre, yet they have become just as complex and international.  For example in recent years, experiments have offered the chance for militaries to work alongside think tanks and NGOs.

While experiments are more likely to test new technologies, communication systems, and equipment, war games have a much older and celebrated history. According to Glick and Charters, “Wargames have existed in a recognizable form for over a century and a half. Abstract wargames like chess and Go have existed for millennia. In its modern form, the wargame was invented by Prussian Army officers in the early nineteenth century” (Glick and Charters 1983: 568).  They go on to say, that the “[…] wargame has been an invaluable tool to assist in the preparation and testing of plans and methods and in the training of officers”(Glick and Charters 1983: 569).  Yet for all intents and purposes, war games are used synonymously with exercises, meaning that the training audience is not actually engaged in real combat.


This paper explores Unified Quest 06 in order to show how and under what circumstances civilian-military and interagency constructs struggle to serve as true interfaces.  What follows is a qualitative case study of an organizational proof of concept during a military exercise.  This case study demonstrates that concepts looking for development and critique as part of a larger exercise event may be compromised by existing real world allegiances, competing agendas and the influence of collective behaviour as produced by the military and its forms of communication and command rationale. Although Unified Quest 06 was billed as a war game, in reality it mirrored an exercise more than anything else.  To clarify again, exercises are training tools for the military, preparing commanders and their staff to develop skills such as decision-making, operational planning, communication, situational awareness, and information management.  According to a handbook on military exercises, Çayirci and Marincic argue that training should enhance operational capabilities and readiness, along with developing knowledge, procedures, plans, best practices, and ultimately doctrine (Çayirci and Marincic 2009: 8-9). Exercises instruct officers working at the operational level of warfare how to manage and make sense of incoming data from the ground, whilst taking into account the strategic and political ramifications of their battlefield decisions.  In this regard, exercises have become the premier training forum for the art of operational planning. Our attention to military exercises is important for thinking about disaster exercises, particularly in the way social interactions and cultural differences play out in reference to real world relationships.  Not only this, but dramaturgical aspects and effects of the players on the exercise and vice versa are “[…] signals that people send in social situations to establish both their identities and the overall social relationship (Perla and McGrady 2011: 199-120).  Even though their narratives are quite different, military and disaster exercises share commonalities which lead to particular conceptualizations of risk and insecurity that may or may not endure. Military exercises involve blueprints, demography, infrastructures, and models governing the ways operational research is imported as an epistemological tool.  Managing risk in the 21st century has also captured the attention of the financial industry, as the impacts of disasters take on new expressions and trajectories.  According to one large reinsurance company’s recent publication for investors, the concentration of people in cities around the world is the risk to be managed. For others, and in a similar fashion, “Globalization in all its dimensions and the increasingly interconnected nature of social infrastructures such as transportation networks, information systems, utility supply systems, etc., have an impact on the effect of modern disasters” (De Smet, et al. 2012: 140).  With the military struggling to innovate and jettison from the gravitational pull of existing policies and of standard operating procedures, disaster managers and exercise controllers could benefit from the mistakes and insights of their military comrades.  It must be noted, however, that crisis management and the nature of the risks and threats involved shape the culture of response. For David Alexander, the post 9/11 world witnessed an accelerated transition of civil defence against natural disasters to civil protection. Fragile states hit by natural disasters along sensitive political borders magnify the need for an emergency preparedness and a civil protection that could potentially erode particular forms of crisis management and institutional structures (Alexander 2002: 209).

What follows from here on out is an historical case study of an experimental civ-mil construct, called the Multinational Interagency Group (MNIG), as it played out during Unified Quest 06—a US Army sponsored unclassified military exercise. Attention will be paid to how members of the MNIG attempted but ultimately failed to foster greater interaction and communication between the military and the civilian interagency. The MNIG captures an instance whereby an organization was formed and staffed by civilian and military personnel in order to accomplish particular post-conflict and stabilization tasks.  Although civ-mil constructs are not microcosms or even approximations for how civil-military relations are actually structured and empowered in the real world, the MNIG illustrates the ontological challenge of such relations and the state-centric politics and policies that enable their existence in the first place (Forster 2002).  If “[n]etwork structures allow teams to exchange information quickly, monitor each other’s performance, and build up mutual trust”(Schraagen et al. 2010:126), the MNIG represents a special case whereby their network was limited to just the members themselves. They did not belong in the hierarchical teams of the military, nor did they have other teams to network and coordinate with.  The MNIG did not wither away, but they also did not enable the sharing of specialist knowledge across national and institutional lines.

I focus on the culture of crisis response and prevention, and analyse transformational attempts to integrate civilian and military planning processes during Unified Quest in order to show how civ-mil and interagency planning ran into institutional collisions. I offer a set of ‘lessons learned’ that should never be forgotten in the politics and business of military exercises. Additionally, this paper will show that institutional and bureaucratic crises within a planning cell or joint operations command centre also run parallel to the emerging and mutating crisis ‘out there’ in theatre.  By keeping ‘crisis’ front and centre, this analysis of Unified Quest 06 will also contribute to the crisis concept theorisation that Roux-Dufort and Lalonde point out has been lacking in the disaster management literature. For them, the concept of crisis “[…] usually serves too account for complex phenomenon and processes of radical and cumulative change and transformation. Could we imagine economics or even political science with no theory of crisis?”(Roux-Dufort and Lalondee 2013:1). 

By focusing on one such unclassified war game/exercise, which attracted national media attention at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA, I will provide an analysis of the culture of crisis planning, which involves looking at the transformational push for co-evolving 'institutional cultures', and in particular between the US military/NATO coalition partners and the greater civilian interagency world.  The US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and the U.S. Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) sponsored Unified Quest 06 under the theme “Exploiting Our Asymmetric Advantage”.  


My participation in the war game as a US defence liaison from the Joint Forces Command to the US State Department's S/CRS (Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization), and as a token member and analyst of the MNIG, provided me with a first-hand account of how civilian and military interactions occurred within a joint planning exercise cell.  As a representative from the sponsoring organizations, I acted as an embedded observer, taking notes and receiving briefing reports from the exercise control team. Although I did not speak during the plenary sessions, I assisted the MNIG members with their request for information (facilitating RFIs) and seeking clarification from subject matter experts and game control personnel during the course of the exercise. My role as a ‘participant observer’ was not in the typical field when one thinks of crisis, but rather in a sterile and seemingly innocuous space, where war games and experiments simulate crisis scenarios in order to train and prepare militaries to manage complex contingencies—especially those involving the dynamic interplay between humanitarian, economic, social and political concerns. Unlike the operational realism associated with major field exercises, Unified Quest 06 dealt with layers of abstraction, including the exploration of decision making and complex networks of knowledge and conflict that emerge in heterarchies such as the MNIG.

Theoretical Concerns

Speaking on the aims of theory regarding disaster and emergency management, Thomas Drabek asserts that the goal of constructing a general theory of emergency management should be a top priority (Drabek 2004:7-8). Whether or not this is possible or even feasible given the unique contingencies of each and every disaster event, offering particular guidelines and documenting ‘lessons learned’ via isomorphic exercises, war games and other simulations adds to an evolving knowledge base for constructing adaptable frameworks before, during and post-disaster events.  As a result, theories of and for disaster management can employ what Drabek refers to as the normative and substantive as well as the macro and micro perspectives (Drabek 2004: 8).

Turning to a recent study, Olof Ekman finds that in a multinational crisis management context civil-military integration does not automatically lead to insurmountable problems and incompatible views regarding problem solving (Ekman 2012: 74).  Eckman notes that given a shared set of objectives and values, there is little reason to suspect that integrated civil-military structures would fragment and underperform an all-military structure (Eckman 2012: 74).  In the case of the MNIG, Norman Long’s development theory of social interface is very useful for analysing the intersection between social organizations (and their members), in order to see how discrepancies in mission objectives and values attach to particular epistemological and political processes. In this way, the MNIG is the other side of the Eckman’s coin, showing that it is precisely coming up with the shared worldviews, timeframes, and objectives that is always the key site of dramaturgical performance and resistance—especially in face-to-face brokering and decision-making. Analysing the interactions of the MNIG from the standpoint of social interface theory also contributes to the literature on the social psychological perspective of crisis management cooperation.  By focusing on the touch points between individuals and with an awareness of their varying ‘identities’, we can see just how the normative nature of corporate identity unfolds, and accelerates crowd behaviour and consensus building (as leadership) within the armed forces (Ödlund 2010: 97).

Although my qualitative and observational case study does not test or evolve out of a particular theoretical base, in addition to social interface and Long’s related actor-network theory, it is paramount to mention that emergent norm theory (Turner and Killian 1993) goes only so far to explain the collective behaviour of MNIG participants and their military cohorts. The sheer number of military cells and participants during the exercise dwarfed the MNIG.  Nevertheless, the emergent norm perspective does not fully explain the perplexity of the MNIG. If people in a relatively normless situation work to form shared definitions of their predicament, as the emergent norm perspective suggests, then people figuring out their situation loops back to dictate and normalize subsequent behaviour.  The problem with Unified Quest 06 was that participants from the military and the various interagency and multinational units attended a series of training/planning workshops months in advance. The exercise, more than simulating chaos and the unknown, was already rehearsed and being normalized. In fact, exercise roles and organizational charts were solidified before the start of the exercise.  

Unified Quest: Setting the Stage

Transformation, once a popular buzzword, originally meant trimming the fat off of Cold War defence structures and budgets. Shortly after 9/11, transformation began to signify something new; the US Department of Defence (DoD) required operational and doctrinal changes required to win the long war against a new kind of enemy. Instead of dealing with identifiable nation-sates, the military faced an amorphous network of terrorists and the emergence of irregular warfare. Suicide bombers and the willingness of terrorists to forsake their lives announced a metaphysical crisis.

Additionally, post-conflict operations entailing reconstruction, economic development and stability operations forced the military to adopt a new outlook.  Decentralized, small, autonomous, and adaptable military units capable of carrying out both security and humanitarian-diplomatic operations demanded greater decision-making on the ground and flexibility.

Unified Quest was born with these transformational challenges, needs and geopolitical realities in mind. It consisted of workshops, seminars, planning exercises and war games that brought together international military personnel, retirees from the joint services, interagency civilian representatives, contractors, and recent OIF/OEF (Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom) veterans.  From a purely military and strategic point of view, the exercise’s objectives were to: 1) Test the decision making, priorities and resourcefulness of military commanders in a context where multiple levels of threats continue to unfold across a wide range of geographical areas 2) Identify and refine capabilities (e.g. streamlining organizational structures, creating issue-based partners/coalitions, and non-traditional assets) during irregular warfare 3) Promote the army as the ‘land power centre piece’  for enabling bottom-up joint military campaign plans 4) Explore how to work with ‘irregular’ partners such as the Red Crescent and Doctors without Borders and finally 5) Push the limits of past training models and current doctrine in order to create new opportunities not stymied by institutional biases.

The majority of the exercise took place on the campus of the US Army War College. Break-out rooms throughout various halls and buildings served as meeting locations and cells for the exercise participants and their networked laptops.  A series of (mini) planning exercises at the brigade, battalion, and division/corps-level served as the building blocks for the main event–referred to as Case A.  Running simultaneously and slightly connected were two war game scenarios, Case B and C.  Case B tested an eruption of several competing crises around the world, and the US military’s strategic agility and growing dependence on the international coalition. Case C involved a ‘loose nuke’ threatening homeland security, the outbreak of a catastrophic earthquake, and severe weather and fuel shortages.

Case A was certainly the larger and more complex scenario.   It focused on an irregular conflict in a fictional Islamic country on the Caucasian Sea—the result of a negotiated partition after UQ05’s game ended in a stalemate. A fictitious coalition force was put into place to support Redland’s newly established and fragile post-war puppet state.  In Case A, the training audience was tasked to coordinate and gather information in order to locate an unaccounted for nuclear weapon, combat an ever growing insurgency, while simultaneously conducting border-control and security training.  Case A also dealt with separatist movements, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and internally displaced persons as additional problems to think about and plan through.

Shortly after the exercise began (STARTEX), Case A trainers who played the role of the 'red team' were given millions of dollars enabling them to 1) disrupt coalition sanctioned elections, 2) promote insurgent attacks and 3) produce destabilizing propaganda.  As a result, the training audience was pressed to react and compelled to make quick decisions with incomplete information.  Even though it was clear that the commanders of the coalition had to reach out and engage the civilian interagency exercise participants to assess the situation and discuss strategic actions, the military was busy planning its own course of action without any real collaboration.  Instead of joint planning, or affecting what I will detail below as the MNIG interface, the military: broke out into various groups during Unified Quest; monopolized the planning and execution of the exercise; and organized themselves based on traditional military staff functions.

Preparing for crisis response under such scenario-driven permutations initiated the search for a new language and method of thinking that challenged conventional tactical planning and strategic assessment. Post-conflict operations, which focused on preventing a relapse of conflict and instantiating liberal democracy, became du jour problems for the US defence community at large. During Unified Quest, a high ranking US military officer said the following with respect to winning the peace:

“The reality is that there are cultural mechanisms at play that demand a more integrated plan. No longer is it acceptable to think sequentially through stability operations and support operations by believing that if you first establish the security environment, you can work sequentially toward establishing critical infrastructure and governmental legitimacy then drive toward economic independence”.

The need for devising an interagency and ‘whole of government’ approach to post-conflict and complex contingencies came to a head in the experimental formation of the MNIG. 

Operational and campaign HQs are susceptible to massive bureaucratic enlargement (oftentimes the result of America's global security praxis). The MNIG construct was modelled in part to satisfy the desire of the military to have its own chaperoned country team embedded within a combatant commander's staff.2   The recognition that the military needs “[...] key functions in counterinsurgency and other irregular operations, such as civil reconstruction and advising host-nation security forces, require specialized organization[s], training and preparation”(Nagl 2009: 25) is precisely turning out operational constructs like the MNIG as part of the bureaucratic and military toolkit for operational design and planning.

Unified Quest adopted a development perspective, echoing the immediate post-conflict situation in Iraq.   Given the US military's stabilization and reconstruction challenges in 2006, which involved fighting (and finding) insurgents in Iraq, Unified Quest presented a model opportunity for seeing how the US military forces 'on the ground' could conduct its planning missions with the help of civilian experts across a range of topics including economics, health, agriculture, domestic police force training, and population migration. In a real sense, Unified Quest was designed to facilitate and test complex interface situations.

The MNIG: A Closer Look

The MNIG, which was made up of a cadre of international military liaisons and development and humanitarian subject matter experts, attempted to influence military planning and decision-making at the strategic and operational levels. It was piloted to operate in the seams between the military's planning design, and the civilian interagency—who in these types of exercises create mock scenarios and provide political interpretations and reactions to the military's gaming moves and decisions. In essence, the MNIG was designed to be a special cell of brokers who could reach back and talk to various civilian organizations, providing the military commanders not only with factual and political information, but planning and strategic advice as well.

The MNIG served experimentally in Unified Quest as an operational model, theoretically situated in the field with reach-back capabilities to parent organizations and headquarters. The MNIG’s structure included the director, a deputy and a handful of core members. It also comprised of coalition civilian agency representatives and selected military liaison officers. The MNIG included country participation from the US, Canada, Great Britain, Sweden, Germany and France.  The group's primary function was to integrate civilian concerns and information into the overall strategic military campaign by providing coordinated advice to the Commander of the Coalition Joint Task Force.  Engaging in irregular warfare whilst conducting development operations simultaneously can cause a degree of cognitive dissonance to say the least, but what the MNIG was touted as bringing to this nerve-racking endeavour was an organization that could harmonize development and counterinsurgency affairs.  MNIG members strove to gain what Simmons describes thoroughly as unity of vision during the exercise (Simmons 2010).  They saw themselves as “connectors, mavens and salesmen” (Simmons 2010: 18), and also viewed their roles as identifying and coordinating with their counterparts (connectors, brokers, and subject matter experts) in various local communities.

In addition to reaching back to coalition governments and their respective agencies for additional support and advice, the MNIG members also coordinated with various NGOs. ‘Deconfliction’ among all the agents in the field was an objective held in high esteem. Many of the game’s observers said that if the MNIG was working successfully the coalition could see: 1) improved civilian interagency coordination in a military environment; 2) increased civilian input to the military planning process; 3) timely advice on the political ramifications and feasibilities surrounding military actions; 4) greater transparency across military and civilian initiatives and decision making; and 5) a seamless process for transitioning crisis states to peaceful ones. In fact some military officers went even as far as to say that, “What we need is to figure out how the military can support what is in the end a political and hence civilian led and determined problem.” Even though the MNIG was created as a flexible interface, the real challenge came from the organization’s lack of authority.

No one could order the MNIG to do anything, and likewise it could not task the NGOs or anyone else in the civilian world—much to the chagrin of the military planners. Nevertheless, during Unified Quest the MNIG re-appropriated this amorphous role with a sense of institutional hubris. The divisions between MNIG members focusing on separate albeit overlapping issues such as refugees/internally displaced persons, civil protection, and economic development became more pronounced.  It seemed that if the MNIG was to survive it too had to become more stratified and bureaucratic (Britan and Cohen 1980) in achieving what once began as a unified and egalitarian set of stabilization, transition and reconstruction practices.  The MNIG members viewed themselves as the fulcrum for executing the war on terrorism, and transitioning the post-conflict crisis from a defence posture to a development initiative.

One of the more frustrating things that kept the MNIG in theoretical and operational limbo was the fact that it was never developed with any concrete lines of authority. The MNIG was an apolitical body, and there was confusion regarding its tasking and political mechanisms. This led to long drawn out discussions in the late afternoon concerning the existential nature and purpose of the MNIG. Because of this, core members were left to complain throughout the game that ‘unity of effort’ did not entail or require ‘unity of command’. The MNIG left the closeted world of virtual networking rooms, and instead of going out into the operational world as a coordinated body, the MNIG proceeded in fragmentary fashion. Inserting itself as the broker between the military and the amorphous civilian world might have looked good on paper and in the briefing slides, but in reality, the MNIG was far more ad hoc and anaemic. The MNIG became subsumed by military planners and retired generals acting as game consultants and coaches. The MNIG was touted as an effective entry point for the military to engage local actors and civilians on the ground, and viewed its interactions with the MNIG as a way to “give order to the chaos”.

MNIG core members attempted to project their respective views on what the drivers of conflict were, and defined success as their ability to enrol task force commanders strategically into their issues and agendas. MNIG core members who also were members of other agencies and nations pursued their own agendas. For example, USAID gave advice on internally displaced persons to one task force, because it was an area of expertise and capability they wanted to champion. Meanwhile another MNIG member from CIDA (Canada’s development agency) gave economic and governance advice to another task force. In the end, the MNIG reaffirmed and reified the dichotomous split between the civilian and military world.  Instead of producing new organizational structures and processes, the MNIG reinforced institutional biases, and exacerbated civilian and military stereotypes of each other.

The MNIG and Crisis

“What does the MNIG really do? The Coalition Joint Task Force is not even considering the cultural differences between Anglo-law and Continental law. Who will determine how to reach a common understanding by what is meant when one invokes the rule of law?” Coming from ZIF (Zentrum für Internationale Friedenseinsätze) the German Center for International Peace Operations, one MNIG core member expressed his frustration during Unified Quest.  Several other remarks during Unified Quest exhibited additional frustrations. A Canadian Officer announced half way through the week that, “I don’t need to clear everything through the MNIG.  After all, I can conduit myself.”  The MNIG was born and refined from a series of experiments dating back to 2003 in Suffolk, Virginia at the US Joint Forces Command. As an experimental and organizational construct, the MNIG was created to integrate international civilian capabilities with military coalition planning and operational structures.  But even this seemingly benign organizational concept had its own ideological bent.  One MNIG core civilian member said during the first day of Case A, “We aren’t here to build the church…in fact we are here to raise the spirit of democracy”. 

As a result of the failures to instantiate the (economic) shock and (ideological) awe on the ground immediately following the invasion of Baghdad, coalition countries intervening in ISAF (International Security Assistance Force-Afghanistan) and Iraq began asking for out of the box solutions.  The wave of insurgency that folded back into the void signalled a shifting strategic centre of gravity. Military officers, social scientists and think tanks looked to harness the civilian interagency, which meant notionally collaborating with non-defence governmental agencies including Treasury, Justice, the US State Department, USAID, and several NGOs to the round table in planning current and future post-conflict operations. Growing dissatisfaction then with US Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld and criticisms calling on his one-sided approach to the war in Iraq, led people in Washington to conclude that failures in Iraq stemmed from neo-conservative naiveté, and even more so from the lack of any sincere-methodical post-war strategic plan. Proposals for creating new operating procedures aimed at deploying and sustaining a cadre of joint military service and subject matter interagency experts—capable of reaching across organizational ‘stove-pipes’—strove to enable integrated planning across: Security; justice and reconciliation; economic stability and infrastructure; humanitarian and social well-being; and governance and participation.

The crisis in Iraq, and the focus of US policymakers on: 1) post-war development; 2) winning the peace; 3) establishing legitimacy for a new Iraqi government; and 4) continued insurgency and irregular war led to a further crisis in the boardrooms of Washington DC. This other crisis was defined by bureaucratic power struggles between the US State and DoD as well as calls for making government more efficient, relevant and cost-effective. It is useful perhaps to think of crisis then as an intractable situation where the solution is either non-existent or beyond the reach of any given operating paradigm. Crisis represents a turning point—for better or worse; a situation that can no longer tolerate inaction. No matter the ensuing outcome, there is a pervading sentiment that things can no longer return to their original state. Crises are generative and can give birth to new opportunities, but more importantly they are harbingers of unpredictable social outcomes.

What is important about Unified Quest is not so much how the military training community interpreted and reified the concept of crisis, but rather how the government’s attempt to prevent and manage complex contingencies and geopolitical threats actually generated a whole complex of intractable organizational and methodological crises. The MNIG was created as an embodiment of an institutional(ised) interface, comprising of an entrusted body of individuals interacting with military staff, NGO representatives, foreign ministry role players, international organizations and other non-defence agents.

During Unified Quest, the MNIQ did not foster a true strategic partnership between the military and civilian agencies.  Not only did the interagency vision break down, but also the MNIG was never tested in any rigorous or analytic way. Even though the civilian agencies were invited and touted as necessary contributors, they were marginalized from the beginning. As Unified Quest unfolded, the military's institutional biases and impatience during the war game made it clear that dialogue regarding anything important about the historical and ontological nature of the crisis belonged solely to the military participants.

The ‘scientific method’, if it was ever present in the beginning phases of Unified Quest, was undermined by the overwhelming number of military objectives and stakeholders. Unified Quest’s gaming objectives represented specific interests ranging from private industry contractors to individuals posturing for career advancements. High order objectives were not even agreed upon until three-quarters of the way through, and even then, they were subject to significant changes. The political and programmatic push to validate the MNIG as a semi-working operational model turned Unified Quest into a political game, luring its core players and the entire gaming/exercise community into a series of future games, experiments, operating frameworks, ‘views of the world’ and other bureaucratic commitments. Perhaps one can say that Unified Quest was simultaneously an exercise in the science of politics as well as in the politics of science.3

War gamers and military academics promptly identified the problem of dovetailing the military’s ‘closed system’ planning structure to the context of ‘open systems’ and irregular warfare. Reconciling the closed/open system dichotomy generated new operational art design approaches. Systemic Operational Design secured centre stage at Unified Quest as a theoretical framework, and formed the military operational backbone of the game—especially for Case A. An Israeli retired General spoke during Unified Quest of the need for enabling the military to take on more risks.  According to the general, the military was better off spending more time and energy on understanding the problem versus solving an ill-defined one. He said, “The military should inject energy into the system, in order to collect and analyse the ‘smoke signals’. This feedback from the system would inform strategic direction, and provide a cognitive median to enable operational learning. The crisis was no longer ontological, or striving to keep up with the latest weapon systems; it was epistemological. Systemic Operational Design stipulated a new philosophy of operational art, which encouraged spending more time on problem definitions and identification.  As a result, Systemic Operational Design needed a way to evolve, interpret and share information quickly.  Unbeknownst to the MNIG players during Unified Quest4, the MNIG was recruited to play the role of information and intelligence gatherer. The MNIG was tasked to coordinate a bottom-up process that involved learning about complex situations as they emerged from events such as tribal meetings with NGOs.  In this way, the MNIG was a cog in the wheel of a much larger Army-led adaptive campaigning model, based on continuously sensing, deciding, adapting, and acting (Wass de Czege 2009). 

The gaming community pondered late into the working days how best to change operational thinking and the nature of crisis.  I heard the following in off-line discussions: “What does the military need to change in order to manage cultural crises? How can we as outsiders control local forces?” At other times I also heard in the hallways between planning sessions: “Is the solution really just working more closely with the civilian interagency? They have no money and don't know anything about planning or organizing”, [...] “What is the function that takes in military action as an input, and delivers change in cultural behaviour and counterinsurgency as an output?”   

Construing crisis as a military exercise and problem-set, and determining its characteristics led to the blossoming of a whole new industry as witnessed by the explosion of defence-initiated complexity science projects and complex adaptive systems research. A slew of contractors, including military engineers and operations researchers began modelling cultural behaviours and socio-political institutions for real world decision-making tools, and gaming purposes. They attempted to model the engagement space where ‘free floating radicals’, NGOs, IOs and other quasi-civic organizations interweave with traditional state actors, and international institutional structures. Keeping up with the pace of change, the desire for transforming the military-industrial complex, and fighting irregular warfare successfully entailed globalizing crisis by projecting local flash points onto a geopolitical canvas. Disturbances in the world system caused by localized fragile states led to a conceptual and military operationalization of crisis which demanded an international set of political and administrative set of eyes and hands.  Unfortunately, crisis prevention did not adequately address why political conflicts took on the dimensions they did to begin with.  Ultimately, crisis prevention was mired in reaching cost-effective and expedient crisis curtailment.

The MNIG as Failed Interface

Perceptions in an interface situation have to be reconstituted, then either reaffirmed or transformed.  This process acknowledges that people's sense-making and judgment filters are always in operation.  Development scholar Norman Long says poignantly, “This raises the question of how people's perceptions of the actions and agency of others shape their own behaviours.  For example, local farmers may have reified views about 'the state' or 'the market' as actors, which, irrespective of their dealings with individual government officials or market traders, may influence their expectations of the outcomes of particular interventions” (Long and Arce 2000: 190). The perceptions that the military and civilian participants have of each other and themselves, and the way the training audience and trainers become staunch defenders of their institutional dogmas came into sharp relief during Unified Quest.

Norman Long's actor-oriented approach and interface analysis is useful for exploring how agents of change manufacture and frame the problems of crisis as they socialize, reflect, and react to simulations, and interpretations of globalization, complexity science, and local communities.  Interface analysis points to how various institutional domains are represented in the minds of the war game participants, and how this in turn informs decision-making and approaches to post-conflict and crisis management. Unified Quest demonstrates that social interfaces can even arise from a community of experts who share more or less common epistemological, and cultural traditions, in contrast to contexts where western development experts clash with various local indigenous cultures.  Long tells us that the interface approach is, “[…] a heuristic device for identifying the sites of social discontinuity, ambiguity and cultural difference, and sensitizes the researcher and practitioner to the importance of exploring how discrepancies of social interest, cultural interpretation, knowledge and power are mediated and perpetuated or transformed at critical points of confrontation and linkage”(Long 2002:10).

Interface analysis attempts to deconstruct ‘forms of knowledge’ by investigating how sites of contestation throw interlocking agents and their various projects and agendas into theoretical and social relief. Actors negotiate, (re)interpret their commitments, and battle for representations along the contours of social interfaces.  Interfaces involve more than just two social domains; they involve an array of overlapping social domains and meta-domains. Looking at how knowledge arises out of interface encounters, an “encounter of horizons” moves the analysis away from the static and rudimentary conception of knowledge and power, as objects which are possessed, toward the theoretical context of ‘social constructionism’. In other words, “[k]nowledge emerges as a product of interaction, dialogue, reflexivity, and contests of meaning, and involves aspects of control, authority, and power” (Long 2002: 8).

The MNIG’s uncoordinated and fragmented posturing created several interfaces spreading out across the game’s context, reaching across various social domains. One-off interactions by ‘pro-democracy’ and governance-oriented core members influenced key operational task forces into viewing crisis as fundamentally political. Other core members who were less outgoing and hesitant to make overarching policy claims delivered piecemeal advice on how to provide security to refugees and deliver information to NGOs. In one instance, an operational task force’s obsession with transitional security was reconfirmed, and knowledge processes continued in the direction of galvanizing resources and information to try and establish an ideal ‘robust and legitimate’ civilian police force. Consequently, crisis came to be defined for this task force solely as the inability of the coalition military to train and ‘stand up’ a civilian police force, thus elongating the military occupation.

New knowledge, however, is also built on accumulated experience. Unified Quest was the second trial run for the MNIG. There was growing political pressure to treat Unified Quest as the final validation run for the MNIG concept. Because of this, the MNIG reverted to its old and scripted lanes of operations and inquiries, which were pre-determined by the concept’s usage in the previous experiment. Instead of generating new discourses on power, knowledge and institutional structures, the MNIG, which was supposed to represent a structural interface, re-endorsed the legitimacy of military-centric decision-making in crisis planning and response. Even though it was supposed to facilitate new interface situations, the MNIG was trapped in a practice of crisis management, wholly determined and structured by the military’s overwhelming presence and impenetrable discourse on the science and art of war. For one thing, military planners and gaming design engineers greatly outnumbered the civilian participants. MNIG core members barely weighed in on key decisions, and only rarely were they able to emphasize the humanitarian consequences of military actions. By the time MNIG members were able to rub shoulders with high-ranking military officials the dictates of the debates were already set and tied to the game’s overall expected outcomes.

The cultural and social accommodations that allowed the interfaces to even take shape were determined by the unshakable assumptions of US national security and a series of crises punctuated by globalization and the growing threat of terrorism from fragile states and ungoverned spaces. Despite the fact that they were able to reach out across the various levels of the military campaign planning task forces, MNIG members fell victim to the military’s planning process—which drowned out civilian input and concerns. Interface situations between the MNIG and the various military units were not instances of communication; they were sites of domination. While it is true that the concept of crisis was expanded to include security and economic crises during Unified Quest, there was nothing transformative about the MNIG. Rather, the MNIG became just another link in the communication chain through which the military planners sought to pass on their knowledge and strategic direction.  Another way to put this is the MNIG failed to participate in an adaptive planning with the military; Systemic Operational Design was no more than an idea and a set of abstract guiding principles that never took hold during Unified Quest.  The exercise reverted too eagerly to node-based operations, without any joint planning with the MNIG.

The Other Crisis

It is beyond the scope of this paper to address whether or not exercises and the testing of the MNIG during Unified Quest contributed to the refinement of interagency activities and organizations in the field like Human Terrain Systems.  Suffice it to say that in post-conflict and counterinsurgency operations the need for coordination and complementary decision-making processes is still in great demand.  For Çayirci and Marincic, complex emergency and crisis operations require an integration of all stakeholders.  They go on to say that, “An integrated approach can be facilitated by the establishment of permanent representation in each other's organization without losing its own identities and values and by respecting those of others”(Çayirci and Marincic 2009: 7).  My experience with Unified Quest, unfortunately, points toward another outcome. Instead of true collaboration and dialogue, transforming crisis became a buzzword and a shibboleth for the military exercise players. In reality, the various agencies and their experts became subsumed under the 'big army' during the exercise.  Unified Quest task force commanders treated the various interagency representatives and their reach-back capabilities as simply a Rolodex of resourceful informants to be called upon for various RFI’s (Request for Information).  The MNIG could have facilitated a merger between the military and civilian interagency, but what transpired was an acquisition, a hostile takeover.

Exercises are not something that happens before war.  They are part of it.  In other words, “[...] we can invert Clausewitz's proposition and say that politics is the continuation of war by other means” (Foucault 1997:15).  Exercises are not cut off from the battlefield; they are an essential political battlefield, where the Defence Department wages its war for the hearts and minds of the 'whole-of-the government'.  Zanetti's psychological description of the crowd may be useful here.  The military structure by nature of its sheer size and command structure seeks to increase its influence organizationally, geographically, ontologically, and epistemologically.  Exercises like Unified Quest have no room for whistle blowers. People cannot raise important questions, because they might actually threaten to bring the exercise to a meaningful halt.  In the attempt to manufacture consensus very early on during the exercise, Unified Quest task force commanders began planning without consulting members of the MNIG.  By the third day, MNIG members felt ostracized and useless, and instead of waiting for the odd request for information (RFI), they scattered out walking down the corridors seeking relevance and ‘employment’.  As a result, the MNIG disintegrated.


Exercises are a socially motivating force for establishing new relationships and views of the world as in the case of social life after a real crisis. Unified Quest, however, demonstrates that these transformations do not always have to occur. In his book on peacekeeping, Robert Rubinstein reminds us that expectations and definitions mean different things to different people.  Security in military jargon has a much different valence of meaning than security in development discourse (e.g. food security), and that civilian-led organizations have very different operating styles and formal and informal rules regarding rituals of communication.   The military may demand unity of command, but the civilian world is more attune to the on-going construction of a unity of camaraderie (Rubinstein 2010).

Beyond of all this, there are concrete lessons to be extracted and learned. First of all, the outcomes of military exercises/war games can significantly inform and improve disaster exercises. The scale of planning and the embeddedness of the human element in military exercises provide a valuable and large-scale opportunity for isomorphic learning. Military exercises like Unified Quest 06 have the resources to conduct large-scale simulations involving more than one kind and level of crisis at once.

Secondly, what the MNIG ordeal demonstrates is that seeking alternative channels of influence requires proactive communication. Most the of MNIG objectives were not met, and many were retuned to the pitch of the military.  Despite this, civilian, NGO and interagency workers in future disaster exercises can learn to remind the military of their own designs and exercise doctrines.  In other words, what the MNIG failed to do was remind the military of their own professed operational challenge and the need for maintaining a reflexive adaptive iterative perspective for structuring and identifying the ‘problem’.  The military during Unified Quest 06, grew impatient by the second day and abandoned their commitment to “find out honestly what they didn’t know and couldn’t see”. Additionally, what the MNIG also illustrated was how the confusion between group cohesion and task cohesion led to the take over and side-lining of the MNIG.  According to Guy Siebold, group cohesion deals with people’s relationships within a group and how they perceive their capacity for joint actions to achieve any particular mission. Meanwhile, and in his own words, “[…] task cohesion refers to whether a set of task components fit together to form a coherent whole” (Siebold 2013: 2).  Ambivalence over whether or not group cohesion is necessary for task cohesion is one of tautological errors the military committed in the name of ‘effective cooperation’.

Military participants expected that the exercise would run on time without any surprises or tough questions being posed.   This resulted, however, in depoliticizing the nature of the crisis, and ignoring time-consuming and complicated analyses.  The military ploughed through its mini campaign plans in a hurried fashion, taking titbits of information from the MNIG when it was convenient to do so. They treated the MNIG as a search engine and a call centre to fill their RFI’s.  The MNIG’s perceptions of the military as a large and rather homogeneous institution led them to separate into smaller teams of two to three persons. These teams ventured out seeking engagement with various military officers and their task forces. Three additional points can be made:

  1. The pervasive and pernicious influence of individual career and institutional goals distorted the game; assumptions were not challenged and perceptions of the roles and responsibilities of the military and the civilian interagency did not change.
  2. Ad hoc, informal, and semi-private conversations played a significant part in shaping the overall strategic and public discourse throughout the war game. The only conversations that mattered were those between high-ranking military officers.
  3. Instead of bridging the institutional gaps between the military and civilian organizations, the MNIG during Unified Quest exhibited a reinforcement of institutional biases and furthered civil/military polarization.

Furthermore, Unified Quest demonstrates the importance of analysing social actors in interface situations, especially in the arena of complex contingency military exercises, which shape forward-looking doctrine. Crisis opens up the social space with rupture, and generates a manifold of interfaces. Norman Long reminds us that, “[…] interface phenomena are often embedded in critical events that tie together a number of spatially distant, institutionally complex and culturally distinct activities” (Long 2001: 84). Even though exercises and the gaming of crisis fail to replicate reality significantly, they nevertheless reflect shape it to some degree.  In both instances, people and the interfaces they form and are a part of, are in constant dynamism and cultural negotiation over knowledge and scripts about the world.   Yet in some instances, negotiation may occur only nominally, transforming an external crisis into a larger crisis of mismanagement, fumbled execution, and even more harm on the ground.

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End Notes

[1] The civilian interagency is a term that has undergone some transformation.  In this context of this paper, the interagency refers to the working international collaboration and intelligence sharing between nonmilitary organizations such as various NGO's, International Organizations (eg. the UN), the US State, Treasury, Agriculture, Health and Human Services Departments, and their counterparts in other (coalition) countries.

2 Arsdale and Smith define country team as, “Rather, a country team, writ large in our lexicon, consists of all the government-affiliated deployed personnel—other than combat troops—in a foreign nation or territory”(Arsdale and Smith 2010:18).

3 I am reminded of what Bruno Latour once wrote on the dialectics between science and politics, for “[i]f it were possible to explain ‘science’ in terms of [mere] ‘politics’, there would be no sciences, since they are developed precisely in order to find allies, new resources, and fresh troops” (Latour 1998: 228).

4 No one bothered to mention to the MNIG on the second day of the exercise that there was going to be a large operational design and education meeting.  I was the only MNIG member to venture out of the cell, and sat with a 50+ military audience, listening to how the exercise's structure fits in with what was actually 'going on' and being tested from a wider perspective.


About the Author(s)

Philip Y. Kao holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of St Andrews. He is also an alumnus of the Presidential Management Fellows program.