It isn’t every day that a room full of young women in their teens and early 20s are plunged into preparations for nuclear war with North Korea, yet that is the scenario Alexis Visser and others found themselves in while sitting in an Arlington, Virginia, conference room.
Visser, a 19-year-old student and Army reservist, was one of 14 women from across the country selected to participate in a RAND war game designed to groom women for a career path in the Department of Defense, where women currently comprise less than one-fifth of the senior official population, according to the RAND Review.
Joining Visser was 18-year-old Rose Kelly, a nuclear security enthusiast who called the experience “super transformative,” and one that breaks from the traditional mold of male-dominated defense strategists.
“Tradition can afford to be shaken up,” Kelly told the RAND Review. “Ignorance must be shaken off.”
RAND analysts were first approached with the idea of shaking up tradition and bringing war gaming to cohorts of women students by Lauren Buitta, a former national security specialist who founded Girl Security as a means of advancing future generations of women in the industry.
The proposition could not have been better received by RAND’s Center for Gaming, where directors and top analysts like Becca Wasser have long observed, to their dismay, the dearth of women invited to use war simulation to develop strategies.
“There are times when I’m running a war game, and I’m the only woman in the room,” Wasser told the RAND Review.
“That’s what we are trying to address here, to build a pipeline for young women to join us so that a woman analyst leading a war game is no longer a novelty.”
The war game itself, coined “Tangling with Tigers,” drops participants into a nightmarish scenario that takes place on a map of the Korean Peninsula, bringing to mind other military strategy games like “Risk.”
The threat of war is imminent, and no singular perfect solution exists.
The ultimate goal is to achieve the best — what amounts to least devastating — outcome in an all-around tumultuous conflict, a dose of grim reality designed to prepare the national security enthusiasts for real-world situations that never reveal a clear-cut solution.
As nations teeter on the edge of nuclear destruction, the gamers must act.
“There were no good solutions,” Meaghan Burnes, a 19-year-old history major, told the RAND Review, after she witnessed retreating North Korean forces resort to launching chemical weapons.
This, just before invading allied tanks triggered a nuclear land mine, a mushroom cloud game piece signifying the utter mayhem that had transpired.
“The cons always seemed to outweigh the pros," Burnes added. "It was just, what situation can you figure out that would have the most pros?”
One pro, in terms of participant takeaways from the experience, was that Wasser confirmed that the majority of the young women employed strategies being used by top military officials today.
Buitta told the RAND Review, however, that these strategies and skills learned during the gaming process extend far beyond the scope of national security.
“These are life skills,” she said.
“I want these girls to feel empowered. When they confront issues where they’re feeling marginalized, they will have had this experience.”
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.