As I’ve noted in a couple of reviews (here and here), the game/rules engine in Persian Incursion provides a powerful combat model of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear or oil facilities. As a manual, “cardboard” wargame it is also very easy to tweak. With that in mind, I’ll be running a version of the game this Friday at McGill University with some political science graduate students, plus an Iran analyst colleague. Although game-playing is part of the reason for doing so, I also want to use the session to explore some of the issues involved in any possible Iranian military action, and then collect some feedback on how useful participants found the process.
The game will be set in the here and now of 2013. This means that the initial opinion settings will mirror the current diplomatic environment, and the upgrades available to the players will be restricted to those that Israel and Iran might plausibly have obtained by March 2013.
Moreover, as detailed below, the Syrian civil war raises the possibility of an Israeli strike overflying Syrian airspace, rather than having to use the northern (Turkish), central (Jordanian), or southern (Saudi) route. The Syrian route would be risky, exploiting the relative weakness in Syrian SAM defences between Damascus and Homs as well as the severe degradation of Syria’s air force and integrated air defence system caused by two years of civil war. On the other hand, it would not depend on the political acquiescence of the country being overflown, an aspect which otherwise constrains potential Israeli use of other possible routes.
Above: Syrian SAM defences, in 2010, with long-ranged S-200 (SA-5) ranges shown in purple and the Damascus-Homs gap in medium-range systems readily apparent. Source: Sean O’Connor, Strategic SAM Deployment in Syria (click picture for link). Video below: Syrian rebels overrun a S-200 SAM site. Several early-warning sites may also have been destroyed.
The following initial political opinion settings are used at the start of the game:
- Iran -8
- Israel +10
- China -6
- Jordan 0
- Russia -3
- Saudi Arabia/GCC 0
- Turkey -1
- UN/rest of world -2
- USA +2
The “ally actions” listed in the rules (p. 11) include some rather unlikely possibilities. Consequently, they are replaced with the following:
- China: If Iranian ally, Iran may purchase the GPS jammer or laser dazzlers upgrades for its nuclear facilities at a cost of 1 MP.
- Russia: If Iranian ally, Iran may purchase up to three S-300 batteries at 1 military point (MP) each; R27ER1 AAM upgrade for 1 MP.
- Jordan: If Israeli ally, Iran suffers -10% penalty to terrorist attacks.
- Saudi Arabia: If Israeli ally, provides covert support for Israeli strikes. Israel adds 10% to SAM suppression and +1 to CGI fighter rolls when using southern route.
- UN/rest of world: Use rules as written.
- US: If Israeli ally and Iran has attempted to close Strait of Hormuz, roll for US airstrike against Iran each turn (p. 11). If Iranian ally, game ends immediately as US diplomatic pressure forces Israel to halt its air campaign.
In the latter case, being an Iranian “ally” doesn’t, of course, mean that the US is actually allied with (or even friendly with) Iran—rather, it just signifies that the US is deeply opposed to Israeli actions.
Most of the “arms sales” rules are not used because, even if China or Russia were to sell Iran additional military hardware, they could not be fielded effectively in the timeframe covered by the game.
Other ally effects listed elsewhere (p. 27) still take effect.
Player Upgrades and Reinforcements
These are set as follows to reflect current real-world conditions, but with some potential for “unknown unknowns”:
- The Iranian player may purchase any and all air defence systems upgrades, countermeasures/EW defences, additional Tor-M1 batteries, and up to one battalion of Sejil-2 MRBMs. Iran may also purchase EM-55 naval mines, although these do not represent any particular weapons system but rather an increased Iranian investment in combat systems for use in the Straits of Hormuz. Iran may not purchase Pantsyr S1E SAM/AAA batteries, S-300, Buk-M1, or HQ-9 SAM batteries, or any air-to-air missile upgrades.
- The Israeli player may purchase all upgrades except AIM-120D AMRAAMs.
- Neither player may gain extra-national reinforcements, although Israel can still benefit from ballistic missile defence assistance from US Aegis class cruisers under appropriate circumstances
In the Persian Incursion rules, Jordan is assumed to be unwilling to intercept any IAF strike transiting its airspace. Instead, the US attitude is what counts—especially given (then) US control of Iraqi airspace.
By 2013, things have changed. The US no longer controls Iraqi airspace, and Iraq itself lacks the capability to effectively control or even monitor it. On the other hand, the “Arab Spring” has rendered the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan more sensitive to public criticism. Repeated Israeli overflights of Jordan could create serious domestic political problems for the regime. Israeli destabilization of Jordan, in turn, wouldn’t go over very well in Washington.
Indeed, under some extreme circumstances one can even imagine some limited Jordanian military response to Israeli actions. (If this seems farfetched, consider how Jordan entered the 1967 Arab-Israeli war—a war it knew it would lose—when it became clear that failure to do so would severely undermine the monarchy’s political position.)
Consequently, the following modified rule will be used:
Israel may overfly Jordan at any time if political opinion there is 0 (neutral) or better. However, whenever it does, Iran rolls 3 dice on the Jordanian opinion track, and one on the US track.
Syria Route Special Rules
Use the following procedure should the IAF choose to use the Syrian route, reflecting the need to deal with whatever functioning Syrian air defences are encountered en route.
The Syria route counts the same as the Central route for the purposes of tanker support and targets that can be struck.
- First, Israel may conduct a Suter EW/cyber attack against Syrian air defences.
- Next, roll a D100 for each of the five Syrian SA-200 long-range SAM batteries that cover the Israeli route. These have a 33% chance of being able engage in-bound Israeli aircraft, and 66% chance of engage out-bound (return) aircraft. A failure to obtain a sufficient result indicates that these batteries have been overrun by Syrian opposition forces, redeployed to other areas or duties, or are otherwise incapable of responding.
- The IAF may conduct SAM suppression missions as usual, or target them with airstrikes.
- Surviving Syrian SAM batteries may then engage Israeli aircraft.
- After this, dice on the GCI Fighter Table to see whether any Syrian aircraft are able to intercept, subtracting 3 from the result. The IAF may conduct fighter suppression missions. The Iranian player may not spend MP to augment Syrian air defences. The Israeli player gains +1 for every one (not two) MP spent on suppression of Syrian air defences.
- Roll D100 to determine the type of intercepting aircraft: 01-50 MiG 23MLD, 51-85 MiG-29, 86-100 MiG 25. The Iranian MiG 29 aircraft data card is also used for Syrian MiG 29s. (Jeff Dougherty kindly generated Syrian MiG 23 and MiG 25 weapons data for the scenario, which I’ve incorporated into these modified aircraft cards at right—click the image to download).
Use of the Syrian route by the IAF would likely give Iran around 60-90 minutes of advance warning of the inbound strike packages. Subtract 5% from the effectiveness of IAF SAM suppression missions in Iran, and add 1 to the GCI Fighter Table when determining Iranian fighter interceptions.
Each time the Syrian route is used the Iranian player may roll 1 die against either the Russian, Chinese, or UN/rest of world opinion tracks.
One small (but non-zero) risk of using the Syrian route is that Damascus might launch its own retaliation against Israel, and that the situation could then escalate out of control.
If at any time the Israeli players rolls a natural 12 while conducting a SAM suppression, SAM strike, fighter suppression, or air-to-air engagement, Syria responds. Roll a d6:
- Syria vociferously condemns Israeli actions. Iran gains 1 PP (political point).
- Syria lends support to Iranian retaliation. Iran gains 1 MP (military point).
- Syria lends support to Iranian retaliation. Iran gains 1 IP (intelligence point).
- Syria organizes hasty terrorist attack against Israel next turn, 50% chance of success.
- Syria organizes major terrorist attack against Israel next turn, 80% chance of success.
- Syria launches limited missile strike next turn (treat as 6 ballistic missiles). If any of these hit with a die roll of natural 12, further escalation takes place. The game ends immediately as the IAF is retasked with striking Syrian chemical weapon facilities.
While Persian Incursion includes rules for Iranian-backed terrorism against Israel, this seems to represent small-scale bombings, infiltrations, international terrorism, or perhaps Palestinian Islamic Jihad being encouraged to fire a few rockets from Gaza. It certainly doesn’t address Hizbullah’s potential involvement in the conflict, with its arsenal of an estimated 30,000 rockets.
I don’t think it is inevitable, or even particularly likely, that Hizbullah would become overtly involved is Israeli-Iranian hostilities through large-scale attacks from Lebanon—doing so would be deeply unpopular in Lebanon, even among its Shiite constituency, and also leave the organization open to a major Israeli riposte. The slow collapse of the Asad regime in Syria has likely rendered Hizbullah even more risk-averse. However, if the Iranian regime were feeling especially vulnerable it could pressure Hizbullah to act, especially in the context of an extended Israeli military campaign.
Modelling this in the game is tricky, because a major Israeli-Hizbullah war would, in many ways, be an even bigger military operation than an Israeli attack on Iran.
If the Iranian political opinion track is at 7 or higher, or Israel has attacked this turn for a third or subsequent time during the game, Tehran may spend 2 PP and press Hizbullah to attack Israel in a substantial and direct way. The base chance of success of convincing Hizbullah is 50%, plus 10% for each additional 1 PP spent.
Once Hizbullah has entered the war, a “Lebanon War Phase” is added after the Strategic Events Phase in each morning turn for the duration of the game. Israel must commit at least 1 MP and 1 aircraft squadron to the war effort. It may allocate additional MP/IP and additional aircraft squadrons. After it has done so, roll 2D6.
- Add 1 to the total for every 2 MP/IP allocated to the Lebanon campaign.
- Add 1 each additional aircraft squadron.
- Add 1 if Israel purchased an expanded Iron Dome system.
Because of the Syrian civil war Iran has little capability to assist or resupply Hizbullah during the fighting.
Consult the following table to ascertain the effects of the war that day:
- 2: Hizbullah rockets rain down on northern Israel and points further south. Iran gains 3 PP, and may roll 4 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8).
- 3-4: Iran gains 2 PP, and may roll 3 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8).
- 5-6: Iran gains 1PP, and may roll 2 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8).
- 7-10: Iran may roll 1 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8).
- 9-10: The war generates greater Western support for Israel. Israel may roll one die on the US or UN/rest of world opinion track.
- 11-12: Hizbullah casualties mount. Israel gains +1 to all future rolls on this table (this effect is cumulative).
- 13+ : Hizbullah suffers severe damage. Iran loses 2 points (PP, MP, and/or IP—Iranian player’s choice), and Israel may roll 1 die on the Iranian opinion track.
Israeli aircraft allocated to Lebanon are assumed to be engaging in airstrikes during the morning and afternoon phases, and test for breakdowns at the end of the latter.
Other Rule Modifications
In general, we’ll be using the full rule set. However, use of simplified target profiles makes mission planning much quicker, and also allows more effective use of the quick strike chart that the game designers have made available. Resolving aircraft breakdowns/repairs will speeded by using the additional charts for this developed for this.
Rather than treating SAM suppression missions from planned airstrikes at SAM sites as different things, any suppression mission that exceeds its necessary roll by 30% or more is assumed to have permanently destroyed the battery (in the case of older SAMs relying on a single radar system) or half the battery (with more modern SAMs with multiple radars). Players may still attack airfields.