War games: virtual warfare training for the military
To achieve their objectives, members of the armed forces must learn to take the right decisions in combat. But these decisions have an impact on people’s lives and their dignity, affecting both combatants and non-combatants. The Salvadorian army has developed a computer simulation system that helps train officers to take decisions that comply with international humanitarian law.
of the computer simulation system to help train officers - Interviews with participants and directing staff involved in the computer simulation, July 2005 in El Salvador:
Interview nº 1 "The ICRC firmly believes that proper training is essential if military personnel are to comply with IHL during armed conflict." Interview with Martin Lacourt, the ICRC’s “armed and security forces” delegate in Latin America. ( Audio in Spanish or French) Interview nº 2 "Training has to prepare us to apply international humanitarian law" Interview with Lt. Col. Juan José Juárez Ramos, a member of the Mexican team that took part in the second computer simulation to practice the application of IHL, organized by the Salvadoran army and the ICRC.
"Learning about the doctrine of other armed forces was a valuable experience" Interview nº 3 Interview with Capt. Walter Ricardo Rivera Alemán, head of the directing staff during the second computer simulation for the application of IHL, organized by the Salvadoran army and the ICRC.
More interviews in Spanish
A theoretical knowledge of the law of armed conflict is important. But theory alone is not enough to ensure that commanders will act in accordance with the law in a combat situation, when they have to take decisions under pressure.
Martin Lacourt, ICRC’s “armed and security forces” delegate in Latin America
The complexity of combat demands that commanders practice taking decisions that reflect what they have learned in the classroom. Obviously, organizing “war games” that cover every possible eventuality at the scale of an entire country is virtually impossible. So the Salvadoran army’s computerized tactical training centre has developed a program that simulates an international armed conflict involving the armies of two imaginary countries, one the invader, the other the defender.
The program provides participants with information on resources and the disposition of friendly and enemy forces, and requires them to chose a course of action, just like a commercial simulation game. The system generates virtual incidents involving casualties, prisoners, civilian victims and the destruction of property. As the game proceeds, the players have to deal with tactical situations in order to carry out their mission, which is to re-take the territory occupied by the enemy.
The Salvadoran army first tested computer tools for simulating combat situations back in 2000. At the time, 48 officers took part in a three-day exercise. They were divided into groups corresponding to military formations and were given a sitrep on the military situation. They had to achieve their objectives while complying with international humanitarian law at all times. This included the treatment of prisoners, respect for the civilian population and protected property, etc.
Each group played the role of a battalion headquarters and had a command structure. One member of the group was designated the computer operator, responsible for interaction between the group and the system. The groups were in contact with each other and the decisions taken by any one of them affected the game as a whole. At the end of the exercise, an evaluation team examined the decisions taken in the light of IHL.
On 18 July 2005, the Salvadoran army used the system again, this time including officers from the armed forces of Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and the Dominican Republic, as well as El Salvador.
The head of the directing staff issued an “order of battle” and the officers were divided up into national teams. They then spent the next five days carrying out a mission against the background of a simulated international armed conflict. The participants were required to apply the rules of IHL, specifically with regard to prisoners of war, the sick and injured, civilians and their property, cultural property, installations containing dangerous forces, medical and religious personnel, medical facilities and transportation and prisoner of war camps.
The ICRC has worked with the armed forces of El Salvador on a number of occasions, providing specialists in international humanitarian law. Article 47 of the First Geneva Convention requires States to promote IHL and, in particular, to include the subject in the training of their armed forces. The ICRC provides support through special programmes.
Interview 1 - Training is essential
Interview with Martin Lacourt, the ICRC’s “armed and security forces” delegate in Latin America.Original audio in Spanish
What went on during the exercise at the Salvadoran army’s computerized training centre?
To make sure everybody understands, I’ll avoid getting too heavily into military jargon and just describe the exercise as a simulation of a phase of an armed conflict.
The trainees consisted of eight groups, each representing a reduced battalion headquarters, made up of the battalion commander and three staff officers.
For this armed conflict between two fictitious countries, each group had been tasked with a specific mission by brigade headquarters, which is the next level up.
The groups were asked to analyse the mis sion they had received, and then to plan the military operations needed to carry it out. Their operations had to comply with international humanitarian law, the main purpose of which is to minimize all suffering and damage not essential to the carrying out of the mission.
International humanitarian law protects combatants not taking part in hostilities, non-combatants and certain types of property, such as cultural property.
The thing is to balance the military demands of the tactical situation and the mission on the one hand, with humanitarian imperatives on the other.
The simulation proper started when the units under the battalion commanders came into action in accordance with the orders they had received. This simulation involved carrying out an offensive to retake part of the country occupied by the enemy.
During the operations, the battalion commander and his staff were confronted with typical combat situations, such as resistance on the part of the enemy, sabotage, counter-attacks and shelling, all of which resulted in people being killed, wounded and taken prisoner.
To make the simulation as realistic as possible, all these operations took place in an area containing civilians and cultural property protected under international humanitarian law.
And therein lies the difficulty of this exercise – carrying out your mission while complying with international humanitarian law.
The participants were instructed to react to all these incidents by taking the action necessary to both achieve their mission and protect these people and objects.
What is the value of this type of exercise?
The exercise is intended to train military leaders. Military leaders are trained to take decisions at various levels – strategic, operational and tactical. This simulation has a dual role. It tr ains military personnel to take operational and tactical decisions that comply with international humanitarian law and it assesses the extent to which they have acquired the ability to take such decisions during their training.
Why does the ICRC support this type of exercise?
International humanitarian law requires countries to teach this area of law to their armed forces and to include it in their training programmes, so that they will be familiar with its principles and apply them in a combat situation. One of the roles of the International Committee of the Red Cross is to promote international humanitarian law, so whenever necessary and appropriate we do support activities aimed at integrating IHL into military doctrine and training. The ICRC firmly believes that proper training is essential if military personnel are to comply with IHL during armed conflict.
A theoretical knowledge of the law is not enough. Theory is needed, of course, but military personnel have to be trained to put theory into practice. They have to develop the skill of taking decisions whose consequences don’t infringe the law of armed conflict.
And that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do during the simulation.
Interview 2 - A preparation to apply IHL
Interview with Lt. Col. Juan José Juárez Ramos, a member of the Mexican team that took part in the second computer simulation to practice the application of IHL, organized by the Salvadoran army and the ICRC.
What is the role of this kind of command and control exercise in an officer’s training and preparation?
Every commander must learn how to apply IHL during training, because all parts of the armed forces have to be ready to defend their country and to take part in internal or international conflicts. Making war more human is important to us, because it enables us to respect the participants and place them in context. We only have to look back at history to see the injustices inflicted on civilians, prisoners of war and other non-combatants. So all of us with a command role must learn about international humanitarian law and include it in every phase of operational planning. That’s the only way to embed the basic concepts and laws of the Geneva Conventions right down to the level of the individual soldier, so he knows what to do in a conflict situation.
How do you view the application of IHL and this kind of technology to exercises like this?
This system has enabled us to improve the training of all commanders and their staffs. It allows us to economize on resources, while simulating events and battles; conflicts, wars, the context in which the whole planning process becomes real. We can design, develop and conduct operations using the system. And we can include all elements of international humanitarian law in an operation. The events the system generates provide opportunities to practice implementation of IHL.
What are your main conclusions from this IHL simulation exercise?
We commanders need to be familiar with IHL and the Geneva Conventions so we can train and prepare our troops to act in accordance with them. Soldiers at every level need to learn how to fight while respecting the safety of civilians and prisoners of war, and how to behave as they should. It’s important that we run this kind of exercise and that we pass on the lessons learned so that knowledge of IHL gets through to all levels.
Should other types of exercise include IHL-related incidents?
I believe so. We should expand this training to cover every level and every training centre. In Mexico, for instance, we are thinking of including IHL in our training programmes, to ensure that all this knowledge reaches every level, right down to the ordinary soldier. They go on exercises and get talks and lectures aimed at making sure they know all about the Geneva Conventions and can act in accordance with them at all times.
Interview 3 - Learning about the doctrine of other armed forces
Interview with Capt. Walter Ricardo Rivera Alemán, head of the directing staff during the second computer simulation for the application of IHL, organized by the Salvadoran army and the ICRC.
What were the participants’ main difficulties in implementing IHL during the simulation?
Initially, the main difficulty was the difference in doctrine between the various countries. But we overcame that after a few hours of coordination and an explanation of how the simulator worked. Other problems? The different expressions used in each country sometimes caused a problem, but nothing major.
What lessons can be learned from the exercise?
Learning about different doctrine was a valuable experience; it will be useful in future simulations involving these countries. That’s an asset for the computerized tactical training centre; we will be able to make use of everything we observed. The second conclusion is that the participants were pretty good at applying IHL. They gave the right answers to the problems posed by the simulator, even though they weren’t always easy. This kind of computer exercise allows all players in all teams to participate, which helps the person playing the role of commander to take the right decisions. And contact between the delegations created confidence, friendship and good relations between our respective armed forces.
From your point of view as head of the directing staff, do you think it is difficult for a commander to incorporate IHL into a military operation?
Definitely. In El Salvador, we started including IHL in our training programmes in 1997. All training facilities of all three services (army, navy and air force) now include the topic in their programmes. And that applies at all levels: soldiers, seamen, aircraft technicians, NCOs, officers, general staff, etc. It’s not so much a case of forcing officers to learn IHL as a subject. It’s more that it forms part of their training. In addition, we organize talks at unit level, including one on IHL. Not as a subject but as a seminar, with officers of various ranks participating. Currently, even if we’re not up to 100%, at least 90% or 92% of our soldiers and officers are familiar with IHL.
Could one say that applying IHL comes naturally to most military personnel in El Salvador?
Well, at the end of the conflict in the 1980s IHL wasn’t so well known. The high command decided to promote the subject. It started off at the level of the ministry of defence, then the general staff, which ordered that all training schools were to teach it. Then there were talks for senior officers and courses organized by the ICRC and other international organizations, or arranged through contacts with other Salvadoran organizations.