From Burning Sands to Baltic Gavel: Impressions from an Evolving Wargame

by , | Dec 17, 2021

Baltic Gavel photo

​As coalition forces fight to stop Russian invaders moving through Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, commercial drones fly over the battlespace and Russian fifth columns conduct sabotage operations against critical infrastructure and supply lines. The Joint Task Force commander seeks legal advice from the judge advocate—can she refuse permission to media outlets to fly drones in the area? Take counter action against drones in the air? On what basis could coalition forces detain ethnic Russians?

In this instance, however, the judge advocate is being role-played by Emory Law School students and West Point cadets as part of the inaugural running of Baltic Gavel, National Defense University’s (NDU) newest wargame, conducted in mid-November at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Written and designed by NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) and the National War College (NWC), the exercise is the latest version of Burning Sands, a counterinsurgency-focused wargame initially designed for future senior-level commanders in NWC’s War Crimes and Strategy Elective. For the past five years, NWC, CASL, and Emory Law School’s International Humanitarian Law Clinic have partnered closely on this project, developing versions for use with civilian law students, cadets, and junior and mid-level judge advocates, including in mixed civilian-military and diverse U.S.-international groups.

A New Scenario

As the U.S. defense focus pivoted from counterinsurgency (COIN) to preparing for great power competition, and in response to inputs from war colleges and the service JAG schools, the CASL/NWC/Emory team collaborated on designing a new version of the exercise. Baltic Gavel presents an entirely new scenario, set in the Baltics and pitting NATO forces again Russian invaders. Unlike Burning Sands, which was based on Israel’s 2014 experience in Gaza and involved coalition operations to retake cities in Iraq and Libya from ISIS, Baltic Gavel envisions a large-scale international armed conflict, the type of war that the United States and its partner forces have not experienced for seventy-five years.

During the exercise, three sets of injects present a cascade of operational issues that raise legal and policy questions. Students must assess those legal issues and provide recommendations to the commander in a highly time-constrained environment. The November event at West Point provided the first opportunity to test Baltic Gavel and revealed some valuable first impressions.

The Law Holds

Despite a dramatically different scenario, student participants in this year’s exercise applied the same law of war principles. Although Rules of Engagement (ROE) may look quite different in large-scale combat operations compared to counterinsurgency, the law of war does not change. Distinction, proportionality, and precautions govern attacks; the status of persons determines the authority and rules for detention; and the pursuit of military objectives while ensuring the humanitarian imperatives of humane treatment and the protection of civilians remains the core guiding tenet. The law of war also forms the common thread and shared language in coalition operations, particularly when coalition partners may have distinct domestic political constraints or motivations and different military capabilities.

This first lesson is that focusing on law of war basics is essential. The starting point for any analysis must be identification of the legal issue and the applicable legal rule — and the ability to communicate those legal rules effectively and efficiently.

The Hangover Endures

Earlier this year, then-Army Judge Advocate General Lieutenant General Charles Pede and Colonel Pete Hayden published an important warning about COIN’s lingering impact on the implementation of the law of war in a future near-peer battlespace. The move from Burning Sands to Baltic Gavel seeks, at least in part, to help address this problem. The good news is the students ably applied the law of war to major combat operations. Indeed, to an extent, Baltic Gavel prompts a more straightforward analysis of traditional law of war concepts. However, the exercise also revealed an enduring propensity to delay decisions pending guidance from higher headquarters, to buy time to seek additional or even complete information to enable “better” decision-making.

The second lesson is to assume reach-back is not an option. Train for decision-making based on incomplete information and uncertain (or no) access to higher command. The law of war—including the core principles of targeting—developed decades before “collateral damage estimate methodology,” “persistent ISR,” and other contemporary capabilities long taken for granted in discussions of law of war implementation. Such tools may not be available either due to contested airspace in peer competition or the speed of large-scale combat operations. Training for the law of war’s implementation without access to information is essential—and is akin to training to navigate with a sextant or a compass instead of assuming access to GPS and other modern tools. As in any other endeavor, it is essential to practice how we may have to operate.

Plan Beyond Phase III

During the hotwash, students noted their surprise at encountering issues related to post-conflict legal obligations and felt less prepared to address such concerns. In the scenario, NATO achieves some rapid successes, and U.S. forces find themselves in control of ungoverned or previously occupied territory.

When human security issues arise, the students must provide advice about obligations to the local civilian populations. Although the students did well—and felt confident—in tackling traditional Phase III legal matters (such as analyzing military objectives, direct participation, detention, precautionary measures and more), they struggled with Phase IV concerns both as a matter of law and the proper extent of the coalition forces’ role. Such uncertainties are not surprising given the United States’ historical propensity to focus on combat operations at the expense of winning the peace, but confirm again the need to treat Phase IV and post-conflict scenarios as part of preparing for conflict, rather than as an afterthought or another agency’s responsibility.

The final takeaway here is the need for more training and education on post-combat operations, from the substantive law to the understanding of history and context. Topics such as humanitarian assistance, occupation, and other obligations regarding law and order and the health and welfare of the local population routinely receive less attention in the law of war classroom and academic materials, and correspondingly insufficient emphasis in scenario-based training and exercises. These shortcomings risk producing legal advisors with insufficient substantive knowledge to provide the full range of nuanced and sophisticated advice. Equally important, these insufficiencies create specialists who feel less confident in the advice and analysis they do provide, merely compounding modern war’s uncertainties.

The Bottom Line

Beneath these key lessons lies a more foundational one: the role of legitimacy as a touchstone in military operations remains vital. In fact, the necessity of committing vast resources to a peer-on-peer fight suggests that legitimacy may play an even more outsized role. But the answer to the legitimacy challenge in large-scale combat operations will not be the same policy parameters applied in the COIN or counterterrorism fights, as the concerns about a “hangover” highlight. Legitimacy here will involve not only the actual and perceived legitimacy of specific operations, campaigns, and attacks, but will necessarily also include the legitimacy of the law of war itself. This challenge to the essence of the law will be especially consequential when the character of large-scale combat operations—in contrast to counterterrorism’s perceived surgical strikes and COIN’s winning hearts and minds—becomes apparent.


Professor Laurie Blank is a Clinical Professor of Law, the Director of the Center for International and Comparative Law, and the Director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law.

Col.(ret) Adam Oler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Security Studies at the National War College.