Military Exercises: Wargamers explore ‘forbidden options’

By Douglas A. Samuelson and Russell R. Vane III

Troubled waters: The game scenario was a Russian attempt to seize Gotland Island off the east coast of Sweden.

Troubled waters: The game scenario was a Russian attempt to seize Gotland Island off the east coast of Sweden.

Last October, The Military Conflict Institute (TMCI) – a small, independent think tank – conducted a wargame that produced interesting insights into potential conflicts in the Baltic area and illustrated, in general, how such exercises could be more widely employed, with substantial benefits.

Wargaming, military exercises and models of simulated conflict are common to the world’s militaries. Such activities are valuable to support training, test concepts, improve methods and procedures, and evaluate performance. One challenge for military exercise planners is that once the event is underway there is usually little opportunity for deviation from the exercise scenario because it is designed for specific goals and objectives of the military command. It would be useful, on occasion, to allow deviation from the script, to explore alternative decisions in a freer game environment. TMCI has called these deviations “forbidden options.”

Combatant commands in the United States regularly conduct exercises with allies or as U.S.-only events to train and evaluate senior commanders and staff officers using command post exercises (CPX) assisted by computer-driven simulations. A full-scale CPX can involve hundreds of support personnel serving a training audience of thousands.

On occasion the commander will find it useful to minimize the breadth of an exercise, to narrow its scope to focus on specific issues relevant to the top tier of leadership in the command. These “table top exercises” (TTX) can involve as few as a dozen participants with a like number of exercise support personnel. Such an exercise is a good way to examine “what if” situations; it is also an excellent, low-threat way to air issues and elicit dissenting opinions in closed session with the boss.

TMCI members have considerable depth and extent of knowledge and experience in military affairs and related matters. Therefore, TMCI decided that conducting its own TTXs during semi-annual general working meetings would make a contribution to the analytical community by exploring scenarios and decisions not normally addressed in official channels. The result is TMCI’s Forbidden Options series of table-top exercises conducted at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), Institute for Littoral Warfare in Monterey, Calif., each April and at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in Alexandria, Va., each October.

Russia’s Gotland Gambit

Forbidden Options II: Russia’s Gotland Gambit was held at IDA in October 2014. Charles “Chuck” Hawkins designed the scenario based on a conceptual framework from Steve Benson; Russell R. Vane III moderated the game. The TTX setup was a large conference room with three breakout rooms for private negotiations. The game consisted of about six hours of mostly continuous play, representing eight days of actual elapsed time and events.

The game was set in late October 2016, just before the U.S. presidential elections. Players represented Russia, the United States, European Command, Sweden, NATO, Germany, the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and France, plus a “gray cell” comprising the U.N. and miscellaneous other parties. The “white cell” (umpire/controller) adjudicated results of moves and inserted unpredictable elements, ensuring that no party’s plans ever got executed flawlessly and that no party ever had complete, accurate and current information about the situation.

The scenario was a Russian attempt to seize Gotland Island, off the east coast of Sweden, to give Russia a better all-weather Baltic port and ostensibly to reassert longstanding Russian claims to the island. With the U.S. preoccupied with its elections and many potential reinforcements too far away to have quick effect, this Russian move posed a serious threat to the current balance in the region. Sweden’s non-aligned stance adds another complication. This scenario reportedly reflects serious deliberations that have been taking place in other, much more influential settings.

Russia initiated the game by demanding shared access to Gotland Island, including building a Russian naval port there. Sweden refused. The U.S. and several European nations joined in Sweden’s objections, with varying degrees of apparent intent to respond if the Russians insisted. The U.S., in particular, took a relatively soft approach, urging calm and negotiations, and NATO deliberated with little obvious effect, while Norway and the Baltic states deployed military forces to make support for Sweden available quickly.

Russia claimed a Russian fishing boat and crew had disappeared on the island and demanded access to search for them. Sweden refused this access as well, but offered its own search efforts. Russia then claimed to have detected radio signals from a U.S. special forces unit on the island, which led Sweden to deny that any such unit existed while the U.S. claimed the radio equipment had been stolen somewhere else in the world by unknown parties. Tensions escalated.

Meanwhile, in the back rooms, Russia quietly pushed the Baltic states to support what the Russian team saw as a better option: greatly improved Russian access to the port of Kaliningrad. This port and a small chunk of surrounding territory are part of Russia, southwest of Lithuania and north of Poland. It has been isolated from the rest of Russia by the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, which are between the Kaliningrad area and the rest of Russia. Russia proposed that a secure rail line to the port, preferably through a tunnel so that it would be difficult to interdict either by bad weather or by adverse military action, would meet Russia’s needs for a better Baltic naval base. The proposed tunnel would run through the northernmost part of Belarus and the southernmost part of Lithuania, affecting no important population centers or industrial facilities in either country.

The Europeans, pushed by the Baltic states, pretty much accepted the Russian proposal. Germany agreed to finance the construction through Lithuania from a Belarus railhead, provided that German firms would have the lead in the engineering. The Baltic states agreed but asked for a major new development effort in their area, coordinated through a new exchange bank in Latvia; the other European countries agreed to this. Russia asserted that it had no claims to territory in the region and wanted only peace and cooperation – never mind Russia’s quiet but menacing mention of what misfortunes could occur if Russia halted oil and gas shipments to the rest of Europe, particularly Germany.

It should be noted that Russia saw no need to discuss the task force that was, in fact, steaming toward Gotland Island, under cover of an announced naval exercise, when the deal was reached. The Baltic states, in turn, saw no reason to mention until afterward that they had wired explosives all over the conference facility in Riga, where they had generously offered to have the various countries’ foreign ministers meet to resolve the crisis, and were prepared to blow up most of the foreign ministers in Europe, plus the U.S. secretary of state if negotiations failed.

Near the conclusion of the negotiations, an interesting disagreement surfaced within the Russian team. One of the players argued strongly that, while the situation seemed favorable, Russia should push to replace the dollar with the ruble as the international exchange currency for oil. The other two Russia players demurred because they feared – correctly, as it turned out – that adding a new condition right then would scuttle the whole deal. Also, in the view of one of the other Russia players, such a substitution might benefit Russia as a whole but would harm the interests of the ruling elite: If they control the oil assets, receiving dollars for oil and then being able to use those dollars to buy assets denominated in a declining ruble environment would, in fact, increase their buying power within Russia.

The Final Treaty

The game concluded with the players agreeing to the following treaty (note that the United States was not a party):

The Baltic Safety and Prosperity Treaty of 2016 (signatories: Russia, Sweden, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland and Norway).

  1. All signatories agree that the Baltic is an international waterway which should be used cooperatively and safely for the economic benefit of all adjoining nations, to wit: Russia, Sweden, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland, Denmark and Norway.
  2. To address key security and access issues of Russia, there is a material agreement to construct an underground tunnel that connects Kaliningrad to Belarus.
  3. Russia will design, finance and develop the segment that starts in western Russia and traverses Belarus up to the designated Lithuanian entry point.
  4. Germany will finance the portion that goes from the border in Belarus through an agreed upon route in Lithuania to the Russian province which contains Kaliningrad. Germany will be given the engineering design and quality assurance contract for the entire effort; individual countries will provide construction subcontractors.
  5. Russia is responsible for funding and delivering the Kaliningrad and Belarus sections.
  6. Germany finances the portion in Lithuania.
  7. Germany will receive $10 billion in preferential business in Russia, plus rights to compete for $100 billion in additional Russian business.
  8. Germany will also be permitted to purchase assets in Russia used in connection with conducting business at normal business rates.
  9. Financial amounts expended in connection with such transactions will be handled in a German-owned bank in the Baltic states at the city of Riga.
  10. Germany may establish a bank in Russia.
  11. A free trade zone is to be established in the Baltics supporting the energy and transportation transactions.
  12. Joint ventures formed by Germany and Russia in connection with this agreement will be established as Baltic companies.
  13. Russia agrees to respect the sovereignty of Gotland Island as Swedish.
  14. Sweden agrees to share ISR information equitably with Russia and NATO.
  15. Sweden is free to continue to cooperate with NATO but will strive to engage in an equitable amount of cooperation with Russia.
  16. Sweden and Russia will establish a high-level forum where both nations can raise issues regarding Sweden’s actual non-alignment policies.
  17. Sweden retains complete control of Gotland.
The wargame involved several Baltic states, along with Russia, Poland, the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

The wargame involved several Baltic states, along with Russia, Poland, the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.


This scenario explored the edge of Russian brinksmanship to advance Russia’s agendas and goals in an age of reduced European will and economic clout. NATO’s role was minimized by the players as they rushed to represent their own needs as well as they could, with the exception of Norway, which played a pivotal role in de-escalating the situation by threatening to sacrifice three or four of its vessels in a blocking action. The Russian team demonstrated considerable potential for gaining an important advantage by menacing multiple vulnerable points, then “settling” for the one they deemed most valuable. The game highlighted potential difficulties for the U.S. and NATO in responding to distant crises when they are preoccupied by domestic matters, and when the crisis involves one or more nations not aligned with their alliances.

Several of the players, based on considerable expertise about the countries they portrayed, found the game remarkably realistic and thought provoking.

“I hope the actual Russians don’t come up with anything this good,” one of the Russia players said.

The U.S. players noted a number of ways in which U.S. actions, particularly well ahead of time, could improve the available options in such a scenario.

Interestingly, in April 2015, Sweden announced that it was substantially increasing its garrison on Gotland Island. We do not and cannot know whether this game and the other, more prominent analyses that inspired it had any influence on that decision, but at the very least the Swedes’ decision underscores the timeliness and relevance of the game.

After-Action Comments

In after-action review, the players noted that more and better maps would have been helpful, and that economic consequences were hard to predict. More and better information and expertise about economic factors would improve a game like this and might, in fact, form the basis of other games. Certainly the game highlighted the increasing importance of economic actions and incentives, as military options become more and more risky and costly.

The participants also agreed that this relatively simple, low-tech type of game, played by people with general expertise (with a good scenario and a few essential knowledgeable key players) could nevertheless be quite useful in identifying possible actions and focusing attention on potential challenges.

Douglas A. Samuelson ( is a senior operations research analyst with Group W, Inc., a research and consulting company in Fairfax, Va., and Triangle, Va. In addition, he is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc, a small research and development company in Annandale, Va., and a contributing editor of OR/MS Today.

Russell R. Vane III is an independent operations research consultant in Sterling, Va., with many years of experience in designing and running wargames.