You have been working a lot on conflict simulations. What are the main difficulties in designing a wargame and how can they help us understand conflicts and strategy?
The difficulty of designing a wargame is a developed version of the difficulties encountered in any academic study. Any academic study tries to simplify the enormous complexity of the world to highlight particular aspects, which we can grasp. The problem with designing wargames is that you try to create an abstract model of the real world, and in order to have that model to work, you need to strike a very difficult balance between capturing the complexity of the world (accuracy) and still making it simple enough to play.
How they can help is the other side of the coin. If we can get conflict simulations that cover a number of inter-related aspects, you have an almost ideal tool for studying real events. Counterfactual historians, for example, write books looking at one particular “what if?” question. Conflict simulation gives you a laboratory within which you can compute a whole range of factors in the analysis. If it works, it is an incredible opportunity to refight conflicts and focus on whichever aspect you are interested in.
You have been studying ancient warfare. How does your own research on conflict simulation fits into more traditional historical methods and how can it help improve our historical knowledge about ancient battles?
My book Lost Battles uses conflict simulation to try to cast more lights on the very little known subject of ancient battles. We have very little information, and the information we have is contradictory and unreliable. I use a technique, which I call comparative dynamic modelling, which has two parts. The comparative part allows identifying patterns in warfare and stop considering battles in isolation. The dynamic part forces to ask the question: does it make sense? Often, we have contradictory accounts of the events, and if in the simulation people playing the commanders consistently behave in a certain way because this is what makes more sense, we could assume that this is what happened. This technique sheds new light on our historical understanding of events but, unfortunately, wargames are stigmatized. Historians in particular are very dubious about it and while I think I have made a contribution, many scholars do not accept this recreation of history and stick to traditional approaches.
You have also been working on air power. What are the main defining features of airpower today?
The key development is asymmetry. It used to be the case that battles in the air were as bloody as the battles on the ground. Now, battles tend to be decided very quickly in a one-sided way. The impact of the asymmetry is interesting. It does not mean that the side using airpower will win the war, instead it created a revolution in rising expectations: a single loss has become unacceptable. The rise of drones is in part a reflection of an unwillingness to put pilots at risk at all in this period when a single plane shot down is seen as a tragedy. Also, because airpower has become so dominant, it is now expected to be perfect in its application to the surface. So your airpower is actually extremely limited by your intelligence: if you are not absolutely sure of the target, it can be counter-productive to use airpower.