Students Participate in a Crisis Simulation: Instability in South Asia

On Nov. 19, 2016, Princeton University's Center for International Security Studies (CISS) hosted more than 100 students at its annual fall crisis simulation. In addition to nearly 60 total undergraduate and graduate Princeton students, participants came from West Point, the Naval Academy, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University to grapple with an imagined scenario in which political instability in Pakistan created regional unrest and raised the specter of a conflagration in South Asia.

This year’s “game,” part of a broad range of events run by CISS, was designed to expose students to the process of formulating, implementing and adjusting national security strategies under real-world conditions of time constraint and uncertainty.

“Each year, we focus on bringing together future civilian and military leaders and teaching them about the complexity of policy making,” said Katherine (Kaki) Elgin, a Ph.D. student in security studies and co-director of the center’s Strategic Education Initiative. “This year's simulation included nearly three dozen military academy and ROTC cadets working alongside civilians interested in strategic studies.”

Students were divided into five teams: China, India, Iran, Pakistan and the United States. Each team was further divided into military and executive cells, and assigned an expert adviser. Additionally, representatives from the U.S. Department of State provided their expertise to help inject realism as the teams grappled with a series of disasters and terrorist incidents designed to escalate regional tensions.

At the start of the simulation, civilian and military cells from each country met to formulate strategies that connected ways and means with desired objectives. Team cells were then divided into separate rooms and permitted to meet only in public spaces during subsequent simulation rounds. These rules replicated the problems that inhere from bureaucracy and the “fog of war,” in which information becomes distorted or lost. 

In the student-led team debriefs at the end of the simulation, participants raised communication failures as a key challenge they had to work to overcome.

Cadet Mackenzie Williams, a foreign area studies major at West Point, found that the experience “modeled the world of civ-mil relations extremely well. The struggle for each side to communicate effectively to one another when it came to knowledge sharing, decision-making and analysis was the toughest to overcome.” 

Most notable, however, was the participants’ optimism and drive to resolve disputes peacefully. Despite the fact that the simulation was designed to escalate tension, time and again the players opted to resolve their differences peacefully, rather than by military means.

Osman Tat, a senior official at the U.S. Department of State, concluded, “This glimpse of the world’s next generation of national security leadership offers hope for the future.”