Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming an Israeli strike against Iran

Over the past couple of years at PAXsims we’ve highlighted several crisis simulations that have explored a possible Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In recent weeks the world has seen renewed speculation about such an attack, in part because of press reports from Israel and in part because of the release of the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program.

In that context, Michael Peck has just written a couple of interesting articles examining the boardgame Persian Incursion, designed by Larry Bond (of Harpoon fame), Chris Carlson, and Jeff Dougherty. Larry and Chris did a presentation on the design of the game at the Connections 2011 conference, which I’ve uploaded here.

In his first piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Michael offers a description of the game, a little play-by-play, and some overall impressions of its value as a simulation:

So is Persian Incursion actually useful for understanding how an Israeli strike on Iran might unfold? No and yes. My first reaction is that it’s a lovely game set in an alternate universe where Turkey is still an Israeli ally and the Arab Spring is still winter. But to be fair, we are talking about the Middle East; any game would be obsolete three months after it hit the shelves.

Militarily, the game demonstrates that Iran has as much chance of stopping an Israeli strike as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does of becoming an ayatollah, but then again, Iran doesn’t need to shoot down many Israeli planes. Every F-16 burning in the desert reaps Tehran a rich political harvest. Think Gilad Shalit multiplied by nine or 10 captured Israeli airmen.

The game does allow for some surprise events, such as a “press leak” or “anti-war riots,” that influence the political tracks. And there are unpleasant surprises, like an “industrial accident” in Iran that damages a nuclear site or an “intifada” against Israel.

But there’s also the glaring omission of Iran’s proxy force, Hezbollah. Bond, the game’s creator, told me that the Lebanese organization would not have time to react to an Israeli air campaign. This seems a bizarre oversight: Clearly, Hezbollah would have military as well as political roles in the conflict. Ten minutes after the first bombs fell on Iran and well before Israel launched any follow-up strikes, southern Lebanese skies would be milky with Katyusha rocket trails, and the swarm of Israeli Air Force drones on the border would fill the air with the buzz of propellers.

Additionally, the game doesn’t allow for an Iranian military response on any country but Israel. If Saudi Arabia allows Israeli jets to transit its airspace, might not Iran respond with military action against it (which in turn could drag in the United States)? Persian Incursion cries out for some rule updates. But that’s the beauty of an old-fashioned board game versus a video game. No need to wait months for a software patch. With just a few strokes of a pen, you can add your own rules to simulate the effects of Hezbollah or the Arab Spring.

Despite its flaws, I learned a lot from this game. It managed to capture the essence of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, which is that both sides would wage war by very different means. I focused on the nuts and bolts of conducting a complex and difficult Israeli air campaign, while Colonel Noob had to be more patient and subtle, compensating for Israeli military superiority by judiciously striking at public opinion with missiles and terrorist attacks, seeking to politically isolate Israel and deny it allies.

The real question of this exercise, however, is whether an Israeli strike on Iran is a good or bad idea. Persian Incursion’s answer is an unqualified “maybe.” Israel can’t stop Iran from retaliating with missile attacks and terrorism. But it also can’t guarantee complete destruction of Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps most importantly, the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war.

So was it fun? Sure, but let’s just hope it stays a game.

In his second piece, in Wired’s Danger Room, he offers some briefer lessons drawn from the game:

1. Bombing Iran is complicated. There’s a lot of prep work that needs to done. Persian Incursionassumes that an Israeli air campaign is only feasible if one of Iran’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iraq — overtly or covertly agrees to Israeli passage through its airspace.

2. Iran can’t do jack about being bombed. The Persians in Persian Incursion have a snowball’s chance in hell of militarily stopping the Israeli onslaught. The Iranian player has to roll dice every turn just to see if his maintenance-starved air force can even get off the ground, while Israeli jammers and decoys keep things hopping for Iranian radars and anti-aircraft missiles. But Iran doesn’t have to shoot down every plane to win. Parading a dozen captured Israeli pilots before the cameras would be a political victory.

3. Israel can’t do jack about Iranian retaliation. The Israeli Air Force is going to be too busy bombing nuclear sites to go after Iranian missiles. The game assumes that Israel’s Arrow anti-missiles will knock down some Iranian rockets (I’m not so sure, given the less-than-sterling record of ballistic missile defense). But regardless, some Iranian weapons will get through. Israel has military superiority, but not invulnerability.

4. Iran’s nuclear hydra has many heads.Persian Incursion’s target folder lists dozens of Iranian nuclear facilities (along with their exact dimensions and defenses — the game is a reference library in a box). Some of them are hardened against all but the biggest bunker-busters. I don’t know how many would have to be destroyed to ruin Iran’s nuclear program, but the Israelis will have spread their limited resources over many targets.

5. Israel can’t do it all in one shot. Unlike the 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, Israel can’t pull this off in a single raid. Persian Incursion assumes Israel will need to conduct a one-week air campaign. Besides the diplomatic ramifications of a sustained assault, combat losses and maintenance downtime means the Israeli effort will only weaken over time.

6. Planning an air offensive is hard work. I have a lot of respect for U.S. Air Force planners after seeing what the Israeli player has to go through in Persian Incursion. Juggling the right mix of ordnance versus fuel tanks, and then calculating the right mix of bunker-busters versus air-to-air and anti-radar defensive missiles, is a brain teaser.

Leaving aside the issue of Hizbullah (unlike the game designers, I think they could retaliate very quickly—but I’m less convinced they would do so, given the costs in Lebanon of appearing to be solely Iranian proxies), the impact of the Arab Spring (where Michael is right: a boardgame allows easy modding for current circumstances), and Iranian retaliatory options (which are fairly broad, especially over a time frame of weeks and months after an attack), I’m not entirely convinced that the “the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war” as Michael suggests. Certainly part of the tangible cost to Israel is the extent to which an attack has negative political effects internationally and regionally. Domestically, however, the costs of an attack would like vary substantially over time, with an immediate rally-around-the-flag effect in Israel, coupled with possible longer term political damage to the government if an attack proves to be ineffectual, or actually spurred a substantial acceleration of Iran’s somewhat slow-motion path to some sort of nuclear capacity. In this context, a critical question is one of capability and damage inflicted—which is why the game’s victory conditions (which you can read here) do place substantial weight on how successful Israel strikes actually are at destroying their intended targets.

In any case, I’ve had a copy of Persian Incursion sitting on my game shelf for many months now, awaiting enough time to play it. When I get a chance, I’ll certainly post a review here to PAXsims.

UPDATE: Michael has also given an interview on the game on National Public Radio.




One response to “Gaming an Israeli strike against Iran

  1. Jeffrey Dougherty 11/11/2011 at 1:19 pm

    Thanks for the mention, and I’m looking forward to your review.

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