TDGs Return

by Col Thomas X. Hammes, USMC(Ret)

I was very happy to see the return of tactical decision games (TDGs) to the pages of the Gazette. Throughout my career I found TDGs to be an effective training tool – if used correctly. Unfortunately, like most Marines, I didn’t use them well at first. I simply followed the instructions with predictable results. Often the Marine who offered a solution was immediately subjected to 10 to 20 minutes of criticism from his fellow Marines about why his solution wouldn’t work. What many learned was to not volunteer to provide the answer.

Fortunately, Mike McNamara, a former Marine captain, took the time to show me a much better way to conduct a TDG. He started with the premise that TDGs are not just about teaching tactics but are really about teaching Marines how to analyze the fight they are in and, through lots of different games, learn how their fellow Marines think. The games are designed to provide the basis of the meeting of the minds essential to maneuver warfare.

Thus the first step of the solution is not to provide a five-paragraph order but to explain how you see the battlefield. The designated leader starts by giving the commander’s intent two levels up. Since intent drives mission orders, it is essential that the plan start with a clear articulation of the intent. Next, he states what he believes to be the enemy’s mission. (Given that the focus of maneuver is on the enemy rather than friendly forces, we should have our Marines consider the enemy’s outlook every time.) What does he think the enemy’s center of gravity is, and what are his vulnerabilities? What does he see as the friendly strengths, and how does he plan to use them against the enemy’s weaknesses? In particular, what dilemma does he plan to present to the enemy?

Once these steps are completed, all of the personnel involved in the game understand how the designated leader sees the battlefield. This is critical. In the current TDG discussions, it is often apparent that different people have different understandings of the problem. Thus the game devolves into a discussion of minor tactics without a common understanding of the tactical situation. Taking the time to explain how the leader sees the batde reveals a great deal about how he listens, interprets, and thinks. Both his seniors and subordinates gain a much greater understanding of his tactical thought. And of course, one of the primary requirements for success in maneuver warfare is an understanding of how the other leaders in your organization will react to changing situations.

Once he has articulated how he sees the fight, the leader issues his five-paragraph order using a visual aid like a basic terrain model or a white board. The TDG moderator then allows a very brief series of questions about the tactics involved. After no more than 5 minutes of questions, you begin to play out the problem. To start, the moderator flips a coin. If it comes up heads, the first step is successful. If tails, something bad happens. (It is obvious that the moderator’s role becomes critical to both playing out the scenario and guiding the discussion.) In either case, the moderator asks if the changed situation changes the leader’s evaluation of the situation and if he wants to change his plan. Again a brief discussion is allowed.

The moderator then flips the coin again and repeats the process. But rather than asking the leader what to do, the leader is declared a casualty. If nothing bad has happened he can simply be a heat casualty. The moderator then appoints one of the other participants as the new unit leader. That individual has to give a quick brief of his understanding of the situation and what he proposes to do from here. This leads to the problem of executing someone else’s plan. Do you continue with that plan, even if you don’t agree with it, or do you try to change the plan midexecution? Why or why not? The game can then continue using the coin flip until the moderator determines to terminate the problem.

Obviously this method demands greater preparation and training for the TDG moderator. However, my experience was that this develops fairly quickly and goes all the way down to squad and even fire team leader level. But most important, the games go to the heart of maneuver warfare – a clear understanding of intent, communication to ensure a common understanding of the battlefield, and execution by a team of leaders who understand how each member of the team thinks and reacts to a variety of situations. This most inexpensive of tools can and should be used every day so that no time is wasted in building a team capable of executing maneuver. I hope that passing along McNamara’s approach to TDGs will make them both more fun and more useful to todays Marines.