Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 15/04/2015

Gaming air operations with the US Air Force ROTC

William Van Horn of the US Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (AFROTC) at Montana State University has contributed the following piece on how they have integrated wargaming into the program.

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Readers of PAXSims might be interested in something we’ve been doing at Montana State University for the past ten years. When I started working with Air Force ROTC in 2005, they were offering a two credit course called “Aerospace Weapons Systems.” At that time it was basically an aircraft and systems recognition class, but there was a small section grafted onto the last three days of class called “operational integration.” It was a very simple wargame which divided the class into four country teams and allowed them to conduct air operations against each other. This initial framework was flawed (the countries all used top of the line USAF aircraft in a very limited map space), but it did allow the students to experience some of the strengths and limitations of airpower.

Soon after I started, our then department head learned I had some gaming experience (I’ve wargamed for years and authored a rules supplement and some articles for various role-playing games) and asked me if I’d like to run the simulation part of the class. I agreed, provided we could revise the simulation. He agreed, and we started making some changes to the basic framework. Over time it’s grown from a two credit course into a three credit offering, with the bulk of the class being the conflict simulation. We’ve also revised the instructional material so it focuses less on the “latest and greatest” Air Force stuff and more on general airpower theory and application, with an overview of most current airframes in operational use. We’ve also added ground forces into the mix, and they are also controlled by the students.

MAS 260. USAF Aerospace Weapons. 3 Credits. (3 Lec) S

The study of the weapons systems employed by the United States Air Forces. It also presents the basics of their integration and employment at the operations level.

The whole premise of our simulation is focused on joint warfare at the operational level. We break the class into four country teams, which are then combined into two alliance teams. We even have a smaller scenario focusing on three countries in case we have low enrollment. In any case, the teams have to work together to try to achieve their nation’s political and military goals. There are also differences between the alliance team goals, and the players experience some of the stress involved with coalition warfare when the goals of the various nations don’t necessarily match up exactly. The exercise is map-based, with students having to conduct reconnaissance to determine the location of air and ground assets they aren’t in immediate contact with (another change from the early days of omniscient intelligence), requiring them to plan daily reconnaissance patterns if they want to have a clear picture of their opponents’ military positions and strength.


By expanding the simulation to include ground forces, we’ve also added the complexity of coordinating joint operations to the mix. Our students find that they must balance the demands of deep strike missions with providing air cover for their ground units as well as close air support. They also find that at times they have to ask their ally for help, and planning combined missions is always interesting. And since the class is open enrollment, we have Air Force cadets working with both Army ROTC cadets and students with no ROTC ties who happen to be interested in the subject. Over the years these have ranged from freshmen to graduate students, and interestingly they tend to do better in the class than their ROTC counterparts.

The final rub is that they have to make these plans and issue their written orders in a standard class period (originally 50 minutes but expanded to about 80 when we took the course to three credits). This creates a level of stress which we’ve noticed is a good predictor for how they perform at Air Force ROTC’s summer training program (where they have to work with strangers in a series of time-sensitive situations).

In terms of resolution, I run a White Cell resolution team composed of from two to three students who have taken the main 260 course before. They receive independent study credit for serving on White Cell, and we work between classes to determine how their air and ground orders interact with each other. If there’s contact, we resolve it using standard wargame methods (although we use a spreadsheet to manage the calculations). Results, including a general geopolitical briefing, are written up before each class. We also factor in outside political events – arms embargos and even outside intervention by military powers (the U.S. and Russia have been the most common) have all taken place inside the exercise…usually toward the end.

Air Force ROTC has experimented with an electronic air campaign platform (a module from the Air Warfare computer game) in recent years, but as far as we are aware our program is unique. We have also had to create a manual modification to the computer simulation to overcome its limitations in our environment. Interestingly, we had students asking “why don’t you use 260 instead?”

William Van Horn

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