Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

DIRE STRAITS at McGill University

On Sunday, some one hundred participants took part in DIRE STRAITS, a megagame exploring crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia.

McGill University’s third annual megagame, DIRE STRAITS, is set in the year 2020. It explores crisis stability in East and Southeast Asia in the context of an unpredictable Trump Administration, growing Chinese strategic power, and multiple regional crises.

How will the region and the world deal with the challenge of North Korean nuclear weapons? Will China consolidate its hold over the South China Sea? How might relations between Beijing and Taiwan develop if the latter decides to adopt a more independent path? And how will the White House—beset by scandal, factional infighting, and an angry, unpredictable President—respond?

This is the second time Jim Wallman and I have run the game—the first time was at the Connections UK wargaming conference at King’s College London back in September, which prompted this BBC News report. So, how did it go this time around? Very well, I think.

In contrast to the KCL game, at McGill the various ASEAN countries started to push back quite hard against Chinese territorial claims and illegal fishing in the South China Sea. Vietnam at one point dropped practice depth charges to warn of a Chinese sub, and Indonesia and the Phillipines both arrested Chinese fishing vessels or tangled with Chinese naval and coast guard vessels—with aggressive maneuvering by both sides causing several collisions.


Military forces in and around the Korean peninsula.

North Korea tested a multiple reentry-vehicle (MRV) warhead on its Hwasong-15 ICBM, lobbing it over Japan to a splash-down in the Pacific. (A Japanese effort to intercept the test with an Aegis BMD was unsuccessful.) Thereafter, however, diplomacy prevailed, with the two Koreas and Japan signing an agreement that called for advance warning of tests and military exercises, and which also resolved a number of outstanding fishing issues. Hedging their bets, both South Korea and Japan took some preliminary steps that would facilitate the launch of a future nuclear weapons programme.

Part of the reason for this was the unpredictability of US policy, which seemed to oscillate wildly as different factions in the White House fought for influence. (Such was the level of political turmoil in Washington DC that at one point the White House Chief of Staff sought to have the Secretary of State fired—only for the maneuver to backfire, and the Chief of Staff be fired by President Trump instead.) Ultimately the US did fire on one North Korean sub that was shadowing a US carrier too closely, but fortunately this did not spark North Korean retaliation.

India proved very successful at advancing it’s interest in disputed border regions, using covert information operations and diplomacy to deepen defence cooperation with both Bhutan and Nepal. In this they were aided by the other demnds on China’s attentions, with Beijing facing multiple crises.

The most important of these was Taiwan, where revelations of Chinese election hacking had caused a massive backlash against Beijing. China continued to conduct cyberwarfare against Taiwan, and even funded some opposition groups, but this only seemed to increase Taiwan’s resolve to seek greater independence from the mainland. The extent to which ASEAN countries were pushing back against China was undoubtedly a factor in China’s growing strategic frustration too.


Nationalist fervour in Taiwan. Shortly thereafter sirens would sound, indicating incoming PLA missiles and aircraft.

Finally, as the crisis grew, aggressive maneuvering by the two sides in the Strait of Taiwan escalated into open military clashes. Ships and aircraft from a US carrier task force supported Taiwan. This led the Chinese to mount a full-scale invasion of the island—and to put their nuclear forces on full alert to deter any more outside intervention as they sought to repress their “rebellious province.”

The game thus ended with Chinese troops having secured a bloody foothold on the island, as the outnumbered and outgunned Taiwanese armed forces fought back resolutely.

The game was essentially the same as the KCK version, with only a few small tweaks: less form-filling, a system of intelligence cards, and a simplified system for indicating commitment and military orders.  Once again, our media team did a terrific job of keeping everyone informed of what was happening.

We’ll be doing another McGill megagame in February 2019, so watch this space!

4 responses to “DIRE STRAITS at McGill University

  1. Rex Brynen 02/03/2018 at 3:30 pm

    Excellent feedback—keep it coming!

  2. Rex Brynen 02/03/2018 at 3:29 pm

    On bases—yes, the game didn’t model this (but then again it wasn’t intended to be a wargame—there was no military action at all in the KCL run of the game). India’s (eventual, long-term) improved defence position in Nepal and Bhutan is something that would have only become relevant in a much longer time frame than the two months or so covered by DIRE STRAITS).

  3. Rex Brynen 02/03/2018 at 3:26 pm

    It was certainly the case that some players shortcut the mobilization period, and that the capability card system was a bit much for some players to handle. Interestingly, neither situation arose during the previous play of the game at KCL because (1) very few ever mobilized, and (2) professional defence analysts were a little more rigorous than university students in allocating the cards. Regards combat, only actions at Commitment 5 were really combat operations—everything else was aggressive maneuvering, collisions/ramming, warning shots, etc. The model here was the UK-Icelandic Cod wars of the 1970s, in which 16 UK frigates and a half dozen Icelandic patrol vessels were damaged (with one of the RN vessels effectively put out of action permanently, and several more laid up for a year or more while being repaired), or the Hainan Island incident of 2001 (when a PLAN J8 fighter collided with a USN P3 Orion). Currently there is an average of one excessive/illegal use of maritime force incident per month (ramming, shots fired, etc) per month in the South China Sea, most of those conducted by China.

  4. TStubbs 01/03/2018 at 2:46 am

    Thinking on Dire Straits²

    Division granularity: When I was playing the war, in couldn’t help but notice how many more loss boxes the Chinese divisions had than the Taiwanese. Some of this is obviously a reflection of how much larger the ground forces of Mainland China are than Taiwan. However, both sides have just as many pre-mobilization units as each other, 2 divisions, which seriously hamstrings pre-mobilization China, who may need to commit ground forces to 4 theatres. My advice would be to make everyone’s divisions all the same size, and giving more divisions to nations with larger militaries.
    Mobilization: The one turn wait for mobilization was ignored. This is obviously unsatisfactory (but compensates for the missing turn 9). It might be better to more clearly show the mobilization timeline with the counters. For example, have a timeline that shows how many turns until the unit is ready and have the units start moving towards ready once mobilization begins. You could even have partial mobilization of the military then.
    Capabilities: This was a nice touch. However, with a dozen naval units, it quickly became unwieldy to manage which units with what capabilities were where (sometimes this caused tensions, for example when China swapped carrier groups A and B). While the latter is good, the prior is not. Besides giving the Chinese more generals, it could simply save time to just give ships default capabilities and just attach special naval capabilities directly to units like the ground capabilities (i.e. Give subs hunter killer mode by default and cruise missile strike and SLBM by capability card.)
    Relatively bloodless combat: Combat came off as relatively endurable (at least before the invasion of Taiwan). Only one step losses were inflicted at a time. When two anti-submarine battle groups confronted a coastal defence submarine group, both sides suffered limited losses (admittedly both sides were at limited engagement, but I’d expect that the coastal submarines would come off worse for wear). When two large fleets clashed in the Strait of Taiwan, again limited losses. Losses should be percentages or something to emphasize how bloody modern warfare can be (The heavy losses in the invasion of Taiwan were because of Control fiat more than anything else.)
    Making minor countries more reactive: Singapore deployed their naval assets and Nepal let Indian advisors in. Pakistan didn’t even give a peep in response to India going to Defcon 1. Admittedly, they are mostly pieces for players to use, and making the minors do anything would strain control, but they aren’t puppets and should respond to aggression on their borders.
    Nukes: This is a bit of a difficult one. Placing ICBMs in a region gives an obvious deterrent right on the map. However, nuclear missile silos are a costly investment in time and money that has already been made by most of the nuclear powers at this point. ICBMs shouldn’t be on the map at all. Second strike capability through submarines could be modelled by letting players set certain submarines to have nukes on board (as a sort of an exception to the no capabilities change). Tactical nuclear weapons on the other hand, should probably be included in capability cards.
    Bases: A big deal was made about establishing military bases along the Sino-Indian border. What difference in game would they make when they were completed? Nothing. Air wings were based all over the region and troops were airlifted out with no problems. Where bases are matters. It should be clear that the Chinese can’t move half their airforce to the South China Sea. It should be clear that bases near Nepal are key.

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