Today is, of course, National Sea Monkey Day—yes it really is. In honour of that most important occasion, we at PAXsims have collected together a number of items that, while having nothing at all to do with Sea Monkeys™, do concern conflict simulation and serious (and not-so-serious) games.
Ryan Kuhns and James Sterrett contributed material for this latest edition.
A few months back we posted an item regarding RAND’s wargame-based analysis of a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic republics. Those games, designed and conducted by David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, found that NATO was unable to defend its Baltic members, and that doing so would require investment in at least additional seven brigades that were either forward deployed or could be deployed to the area on short notice.
At War on the Rocks, Michael Kofman disagrees:
In RAND’s wargames, Russia rolled through the Baltics even with NATO airpower to contend with, but so what? The structure of such scenarios can lead to radically different conclusions about what the U.S. should do in response. RAND’s wargame is fraught with problems, starting with its assumptions and its reading of Russian strategy and military. The results have been hyped up like so much hot air filling a balloon.
First, he argues that the game scenario of a hasty Russian attack on the Baltics was unrealistic, since any direct attack on NATO would involve far great mobilization of effort and risk.
If Russia was planning a full-scale invasion of the Baltic states, it would also have to plan to take on all of NATO and defend against a counter-attack. Great powers typically don’t attack superpowers with cobbled-together forces and hope for the best. Moscow would likely bring to bear a force several times larger than that assumed in the wargame and maintain the logistics to deploy additional units from other military districts. Opinions will vary among Russian military experts about the size of force Russia could muster in a hurry, but one estimate I suspect you will not hear is 27 battalions thrown together for what could be World War III. Think much bigger and not within an arbitrary 10-day time limit. It is unclear where the 10-day invasion rule came from. It was also referenced in a recent Atlantic Council report. Has NATO coordinated this preferred time table with the Russians?
Second, he is critical of what he sees as their attachment to a 1980s conception of Air-Land Battle, and their decision to focus solely on operations in the Baltic republics and not the broader Baltic Sea and surrounding countries.
If we are to have this surreal Dr. Strangelove discussion, then let’s play out a high-end fight between Russia and NATO. Imagine it is the future: NATO has done as told and forward-stationed several American brigades in the Baltics. Russia also repositions forces in the Western Military District in response, and realizes previously announced plans for new unit formations. One day, Russia decides to roll the dice on the fate of humanity and challenge NATO through a conventional invasion. Except the Russian General Staff looks at the map and realizes that there’s no need to seize Baltic cities since they can simply walk through Belarus and link up with Kaliningrad, thereby severing NATO’s “Army of Deterrence” in the Baltics from the rest of its forces in Poland. Russia’s Baltic Fleet is not much of a naval force, but it can blockade Baltic ports for a while, mine them, and effect sea denial. Of course, the other problem is that all of U.S. forces will be within the arcs of Russia’s long-range air defense, operating at the mercy of Russian cruise missiles, artillery, and an initial air attack.
One thing AirLand Battle didn’t have to deal with is S-400 air defense systems with 250 kilometer ranges, 350 kilometer-range Iskander-M tactical missiles, or 300 kilometer-range Bastion-P coastal missile defenses. Of course, everything can be overcome in time, except that there’s no obvious way to reinforce U.S. units in the Baltics or to keep their supplies and fuel from being destroyed in the opening hours of the fight. This entire scenario starts within Russian kill zones and electronic warfare zones. Russian units can come from Belarus, Kaliningrad, Russia itself, or by sea in preparation for an assault. The ability of Moscow to compel Minsk’s cooperation plays a key role, because the railroads run right through Belarus and to the Suwalki Gap or by Vilnius. Author and retired Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor’s brief to the Senate Armed Services Committee was no less alarmist than RAND’s, but he recognized the more important problem of Russian forces attacking from Belarus to Kaliningrad.
Why would Russia make a dash for Baltic capitals, as in RAND’s wargame, when the battle is decided by whether or not NATO can successfully reinforce from Poland? Instead of fighting NATO forces in the Baltics, the best way forward is to turn that deterrent into a military hostage. What if, in the time it takes NATO to generate forces sufficient to break through a Russian defensive position across Kaliningrad, the alliance collapses politically, especially given the concern over losing its units behind enemy lines in the Baltics?
Lurking behind all this is the issue of nuclear deterrence, or even nuclear weapons use.
When we understand the nuclear ramifications of this entire discussion, it becomes clear how mad much of the argumentation over conventional deterrence in the Baltics truly is. There is not even a meager attempt to explain how deterrence has failed or why Russia would attack NATO, despite the fact that through most of the Cold War and into the present, deterrence has rested more on the threat of punishment. The U.S.-Russia relationship always enjoyed deterrence by punishment aplenty (no offense to AirLand warriors), through nuclear and subsequently conventional retaliation. Despite the current tensions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there’s little to indicate that this equilibrium has been lost.
The questions raised about the broader context of such a war are important ones—indeed, we briefly mentioned some of them in our discussion of a Baltic crisis game conducted by the Center for a New American Security.
Kofman is critical of RAND’s use of a hex-based wargame, and their consequent focus on assets in the immediate area:
One of the challenges with wargaming and the hex-square approach (a tactical grid dividing the map terrain into hexagonal squares) is that it can lend you to structure advice not in service of a real-world problem, but in the service of fixing the wargame. Looking at the board, no doubt Russia’s hex squares are filled with powerful red unit pieces and NATO’s are disappointingly empty. The logical conclusion is to fill NATO’s side with blue pieces — problem solved.
I don’t think the problem here is necessarily hex maps. Indeed, part of Kofman’s argument (although he doesn’t state this) is, in effect, that the map was too small and the wrong assets were considered. However, he does point to an issue in all wargame design, whether hex-based or using any other mechanic: a design can skew outcomes, and hence conclusions.
The debate over Russia, NATO, and Baltic security continues.
In The National Interest, Michael Peck discusses “Why the Pentagon Loves War Games Again.”
It’s a great time to be a Pentagon game nerd.
Long dismissed as the geekier side of the military, war gaming is suddenly in demand, after the Department of Defense realized that if it wants to devise a strategy to beat China and Russia, it needs to play games.
Last year, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work issued a startling directive demanding the military conduct more wargaming. Work’s eye is on an important prize: a new “offset strategy” for the twenty-first century. The First Offset Strategy, in the 1950s, relied on nuclear weapons to stop massive Soviet ground forces, while the second strategy of the 1970s emphasized smart weapons to stop the Red Army. Now the focus is on a Third Offset Strategy to discover technologies and tactics to neutralize an imposing spectrum of new threats, such as ship-killing hypersonic missiles, cyberwarfare and terrorism (for my deeper analysis of the Pentagon directive, go here).
War games and the military go back a long way. Chess was invented in India almost two thousand years ago as a game of military strategy, and the Germans used Kriegsspiel to train their elite General Staff officers. More relevant to the current U.S. strategic dilemma is how the U.S. Naval War College used wargames in the 1930s—including model ships maneuvered on the floor—to develop the war plans that eventually defeated Japan in 1945.
Yet as Work said in his directive, “I am concerned that the Department’s ability to test concepts, capabilities, and plans using simulation and other techniques—otherwise known as wargaming—has atrophied.” To fix the problem, the Department of Defense has requested $55 million for war gaming in fiscal year 2017, which is still a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly $600 billion the Pentagon spends now.
Peck worries whether the money will be well-spent:
Whether that money will be spent wisely remains to be seen. Commercial war games, designed and played by hobbyists (in the interests of full disclosure, I’m one of them), are a cheaper and quicker alternative to the Pentagon’s habit of awarding contracts to the big defense firms. Some commercial war game designers, for example, have produced remarkably sophisticated simulations of counterinsurgency conflicts such as Vietnam. Networking technologies should make it easier to bring together diverse and geographically distant decisionmakers and experts for gaming.
But what ultimately counts is the human dimension of war gaming. What games and war have in common—and what makes war gaming so valuable—is that they are a competition of wits in which the participants use every last bit of cunning to beat their opponent. Mathematical models may be fine for estimating how many F-35s or aircraft carriers America needs. However, a conflict in the South China Sea or eastern Europe will be instigated by humans and waged by humans, and therefore should be gamed by humans too.
He’s absolutely right, of course, about the centrality of human factors as both an element of and a reason for wargaming. His fear of defence contractors hijacking the initiative with big-budget digital wargames that deliver little is one that others have expressed, notably Peter Perla in an article last year at Wargaming Connection. Peter adds to this the equally great risk of things being relabelled “wargames” so as to seem consistent with current senior-level interest, or low-quality games being conducted just to show compliance with the new directives.
But I fear some hidden “others,” most of which are lurking in one word: “systematize.” There are far too many organizations new to or unfamiliar with wargaming that see an opportunity in claiming to have a new and improved “system” for doing wargaming. Most of these sudden converts are either purveyors or patrons of big (and expensive) computer simulations at one extreme, or the practitioners and participants of bogsattery at the other.
We have already seen the signs of bureaucratic antibodies rising to fight against new application of real wargaming as seminars, workshops, and facilitated discussions are suddenly re-characterized as wargames. And what I like to call CSWPs—pronounced caz-whips, for computer simulations without players—are touted as precisely the sort of “systematized” and high-tech solutions needed.
I would add two other caveats.
First, I’m not sure that commercial/hobby wargames necessarily hold the silver bullet of a low-cost alternative. Certainly there are many, many excellent designs available, and absolutely there is a great deal to be learned in terms of design approaches and mechanics. However hobby games are often a poor fit for the analytical purposes and practical constraints of national security gaming, and I’ve attended too many wargame discussions which seem to have difficulty breaking away from the traditions of hobby games that participants grew up with or have stockpiled in their basements.
Second, the danger in positioning quantitative OR analysis and qualitative, human factor wargaming as opposites is that it obscures the many potential synergies between the two. After all, we don’t want a (Captain America) wargamers vs (Tony Stark) operations researchers civil war, do we?
The US Naval War College recently wargamed the battle of Jutland, using modified rules from the 1930s. According to the NWC press release:
This reenactment pitted Howe, acting as commodore of the German fleet, against Samuel Cox, director Naval History and Heritage Command, who led the British forces.
The reenactment used wargame techniques from that time to include staging the game on a large floor space and physically maneuvering game pieces representing ships. All movement calculations were completed using period technology.
Recreating the Jutland wargame required some digging and good luck to find out how the original game was played by students almost a century ago.
While looking for information on the original wargame, NWC archivist Dara Baker happened on a historic find in the archives.
“The reenactment all started with the idea of putting together an exhibition to acknowledge it has been 100 years since the Battle of Jutland,” said Baker. “To do that, my staff and I started looking through all of the material we have in our collection on the battle. When we were looking, I found this box titled, “War Game Outfit,” and I was like, ‘Huh, I wonder what that is.’ I pulled the box out and opened it up and there were all these pieces, it was just fantastic.”
Baker had discovered that the archives’ collection contained much of the original game from almost a century ago.
“We unpacked the whole thing and realized we had all the [game] pieces created in the 1930s for the Jutland game,” Baker added. “By knowing what the pieces looked like, it allowed us to recreate those and actually put on this event.”
The game pieces used for the reenactment were recreated for the event and modeled after the older pieces from the archives.
The archives staff also uncovered the instructions used for the original game. The instructions were used to develop the reenactment instructions.
A video of the wargame will be posted to the NWC Facebook page on May 31, the centenary of the actual naval confrontation during WWI. In the meantime, you can watch this excellent documentary video from the Jutland 1916 website explaining the battle:
The Wall Street Journal features an interesting piece on the value of extremely difficult (video)games:
Today’s most challenging games are dubbed “masocore,” a combination of “masochist” and “hard-core.” Masocore games are nearly devoid of instructions, kill new players within seconds, and require repeated trial and error to succeed.
But it’s not all pointless vexation. These games reinforce a character-building truism: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” And they also inculcate some practical virtues. All of that losing, it turns out, teaches you how to win, and not just in videogames.
You can read the full article here.
Many wargames, especially commercial/hobby wargames, grant players a gods-eye view of the battlefield, allow them to be everywhere, and provide them with absolute control over the behaviour of their forces. In a thoughtful article at GrogHeads earlier this month, Derek Croxton addresses this issue of “Perspective in Wargames: Who Exactly Are You?”
This article investigates the problems of trying to put players in historical roles: first of identifying proper historical figures to simulate, and second of creating the possibilities and limitations that those figures historically faced. I contend that a game is usually more fun and more realistic where a designer has given thought to these issues.
The problem of perspective is especially acute at the tactical level. The smoke, noise, and confusion of battlefields are legendary; friction and fog of war are as important as planning, and psychology sometimes dominates doctrine in deciding the victor. These sorts of problems are very difficult to simulate. ASL,probably the greatest tactical system ever, does not even make much of an attempt. The concept of morale and broken units was and remains a brilliant innovation, but it only covers a small part of the problems experienced by a leader. Though it purports to deal with “the ultimate stress situation” in which decisions “could be warped by the unpredictable dictates of fate,” in fact players have absolute vision of the battlefield and total control of any squads not actually shot at, and broken, by the enemy. I once debated with a friend for an hour on the lack of reluctant sergeants, botched communications, and inaccurate maps that one might actually have to deal with. His initial reaction was disbelief: of course there are no reluctant sergeants, you are the sergeant. This is what the name of the game would lead you to believe – you are, after all, playing Squad Leader – but in fact you are more like a company leader (if you were a squad leader, they should give you only one squad)….
Also at GrogHeads, Brant Guillory reviews Pat Harrigan and Matthew Kirschenbaum, eds., Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (The MIT Press, 2016).
The beauty of Zones of Control is that there’s so much in here that the likelihood is that the reader is going to find more to his or her liking than not. Bond discussing the creation of Persian Incursion is a fascinating look the process of building one of the odder game systems to emerge in recent wargaming. Racier talking about Paths of Glory is of comparable quality and insight. Zones of Control gives equal time to aesthetic creators (Mahaffey), professional practitioners (Bartels), academics (MacCallum-Stewart), legends (Costikyan), and journalists-turned-creators (Goodfellow). Even those chapters whose contents you don’t agree with (like my critique of Schulzke’s chapter above) serve as jumping-off points for very serious conversations about wargaming as a whole.
“Do you need to buy this book?” is the ultimate question. Unless you’re a single-track wargamer, who eats, sleeps, breathes, and lives & dies with one type of game – tabletop hex & counter, or digital FPS – there’s going to be more than enough reading to keep your interest. Moreover, if you work in wargaming at all, whether as a hobby designer, or a defense contractor, or an educator using wargames in the classroom, this is a must-buy. And if you can manage to bill it to an expense account, buy two!
You’ll find the review here, the book here, and its table of contents here.
The latest in EA’s Battlefield series of multiplayer first-person shooter videogames, Battlefield 1, will be set in World War I—and that has sparked some interesting commentary about the appropriateness of that setting for the gaming genre.As Jake Muncy notes at Wired:
PEOPLE TEND TO grow reverential when talking about the First World War. Many see it as the epitome of wanton cruelty, a brutal and pointless stalemate that killed some 16 million people and gave rise to the worst excesses of modern warfare. This war to end all wars, more than almost any other modern conflict, is difficult to separate from the horrors it inflicted.
That’s a big reason why you don’t see World War I as a setting for a mainstream first-person shooter. But Electronic Arts wants to give it a try with Battlefield 1. This might sound like an exciting new frontier for the genre, but there’s a reason WW1 has long been no-man’s land for developers: It was a quagmire of death and disease that turned strategy into slaughter, with no handy narrative of heroism to layer gameplay atop.
Certainly WW I was generally characterized on the Western Front by the dehumanizing slog of trench warfare, where individual actions and heroism were dwarfed by mass industrial slaughter. However, it is noteworthy that in the trailer above much of the gameplay seems to focus on aspects and theatres of the war where individuals appeared to have greater freedom of action and where battles of maneuver were possible: combat in the air, in the deserts of the Middle East, and possibly the breakthrough battles of 1918.
The debate is also taken up by Alex Hern in The Guardian:
The first world war may not be the most obvious time period in which to set a team-based first-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on vehicular combat.
The pointless slaughter of trench warfare, with lines of enlisted men marching slowly towards machine guns that mowed them down by the thousands, all to gain or lose mere feet of frontline, isn’t exactly a “fun” scenario.
And while the Great War was the first time tanks, planes and zeppelins were used in combat, their deployment was often small-scale and of minimal strategic importance.
Nonetheless, Battlefield developer EA Dice has committed to tackling the period with latest game in the series, Battlefield 1. The definitive name comes from the studio’s desire “to portray the dawn of all out war… the genesis of modern warfare”.
It may also be accurate to suggest that the series has come to the 1914-18 conflict because it has run out of alternatives. Since the arrival of original game Battlefield 1942 in 2002, Battlefield has toured the second world war (multiple times), Vietnam, the present, the future, and even the battles between organised crime and militarised police forces in the cities of America.
Despite being the most removed from the present day, however, the first world war retains a unique position in the public psyche. Perceived as a shamefully wasteful contest between sabre-rattling empires, leading to the unnecessary deaths of millions, it has largely been exempt from interactive portrayals – apart from biplane flight combat sims and hexagon-based war games. Call of Duty briefly took players to an alternative, zombie-infested version of the conflict, but that’s about it.
This leads him to the broader question of how we remember wars:
But asking whether the first world war is an appropriate topic for a first-person shooter may reveal a more pressing question: why do we think any war is?
A game set in the Great War will necessarily whitewash the horrors of trench warfare. Even when games do tenderly address these subjects, they rarely do so through the medium of 64-player class-based combat. The beautiful Ubisoft title Valiant Hearts, about four characters attempting to help a German soldier, is a puzzle adventure that told human stories. It did not encourage players to excitedly recreate the battle of the Somme.
But games set in the second world war – which has been deemed acceptable as a backdrop to gung-ho shooters like Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms – tend not to address the disgrace of civilian bombardment, let alone the horrors of the atomic bombings or the holocaust.
Fundamentally, there are two second world wars. There’s the complex, messy one of history. The one where Britain entered a war not to fight an evil dictator, but to protect its allies and interests on the continent; where America sat out for two years as fascism grew popular within its own borders, only joining when Japan forced its hand; where the horror of the holocaust was known to Allied leadership, but not acted on, long before Russia liberated Auschwitz.
And then there’s the WWII of Boy’s Own, Eagle and Commando: Where Britain and America joined forces with the goal of taking on an evil empire, and liberating the people of Europe. It’s a reshaping of history, but one which enabled the horrors of the war to be understood and processed by a new generation.
By contrast, the first world war has only really had one portrayal. Starting with shellshocked war poets writing, and dying, on the front line, the horror and wastefulness of the Great War has never been far from its popular perception. Stories of (the fictional) Biggles, the (real) Red Baron and the flying aces of world war one are able to exist alongside the horror of the trenches, but never obscure them.
Maybe Battlefield 1 can enter that canon too, and slowly build its own version of the first world war to go alongside the cartoon retelling of the second. But if you think it shouldn’t be allowed to try, it may be worth first asking why you are happy with war games at all.
The game is set for release in October.
On the subject of videogames, the Russian Embassy in the UK posted accusations that Syrian opposition groups had obtained truckloads of chemical weapons, and attached photographic evidence. Well, sort of—the pictures were actually screenshoots from the game Command & Conquer: Generals.
The caveat “image used for illustration purposes only” was later added, but the tweet was not taken down.
Kelsey Atherton has the story at Popular Science.