The following article has been contributed to PAXsims by Major Cole Petersen. Major Petersen is an infantry officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He is currently a student at the United States Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting.
Training for conflict and developing professional expertise does not have to be exquisite, costly affairs. Using a commercial, off-the-shelf wargame, Marine Corps University was able to create an engaging challenge that was both entertaining and instructive to the participants.
The Marine Corps University runs an annual planning/wargaming competition called Sea Dragon between teams fielded by its Schools – the Expeditionary Warfare School, Command and Staff College, School of Advanced Warfighting, and Marine Corps War College. This year, for the third iteration, the University tried a different approach. The exercise director, Dr. Ben Jensen, used an off-the-shelf computer wargame, Flashpoint Campaigns, which was modified for modern day scenarios. Using the wargame, the University ran a “bracket challenge” featuring eight teams from the schools. Four of the teams were Blue (US Marines) while the other four were Red (Russians).
The scenario examined a flashpoint in the Baltics, with Latvia devolving into another Ukraine-like problem, and both NATO and Russia coming to conflict as the situation escalated. These scenarios were developed by Colonel Tim Barrick and Dr. Jensen and looked at current capabilities as well as anticipated in the 2025 timeframe. What follows is a synopsis of one of the bracket rounds to provide readers with an understanding of how using the computer wargame was useful as a training tool.
The scenario featured the Marines putting a Regimental Landing Team ashore and air assaulting an augmented battalion in ahead of time to hold a river crossing that leads to their beachhead. Our team played the lead elements of the Russian Brigade Group. We had a Motorized Infantry Battalion that was making its way to the battle area and was set to arrive two hours after the scenario started. Our principle force until this time was a “Spetsnaz Battalion” – 10 platoons of volunteers operating in the area. This represented a capability Russia has used in many of its recent conflicts. Also present on our side were a dozen T-80 tanks manned by volunteers that had infiltrated the area, along with a few short range anti-aircraft systems.
A key asset for our side was the rocket forces attached to the Brigade. Our forces had access to a battalion of BM-27 Uragan (220mm rockets) and a battery of 2S7 203mm howitzers. These range 40+ kilometers, and were outside of the range of any of Blue’s systems.
Attached below is a screenshot of the area of operations. The red boxes represented our starting “deployment areas,” with the box at the top centre of the map being the assembly area for the Motorized Battalion when it arrived. The little hexes are 500m each, so the AO is about 25km x 25km. Our task was to hold the bridges for the main body of the Brigade coming down from the north so it can attack into the Marine beachhead.
Prior to the simulation, student teams were responsible to provide a concept of operations. This was the primary method of inputting actions that the computer would play. The challenging part was framing the opponent’s possible/probable courses of action, as all we were told was “he can land in this area and bring about a battalion’s worth of stuff.” We assessed his three possible courses of action were to (1) land in the middle and try to “box out” the area between the forest in the north and the bridges in the south (this we saw as his most likely) (2) land in the north and own the defiles between us and the bridges (this we saw as his most dangerous), or (3) land in the south and try to concentrate on a single crossing site.
We planned for the first possibility but had backup plans to deal with the other two. Our operational approach was to have the Spetsnaz teams hold key terrain, identify enemy units, and call in fires. The tanks would mass in the west and lead a deception effort to draw the enemy there so the Motorized Battalion could push south through the defile and smash whatever was left and take the crossing sites. Our bid for success, as described, was the Motorized Battalion as the hammer to the Spetsnaz anvil.
Of note, we were given 2 “Decision Points”. The first one was identified on the map. If that point was triggered, we were allowed to tell the umpires to change our plan if we so choose. The second Decision Point was the “Commander’s Moment” and we could use at any time to redirect our forces. This was a creative way of forcing teams to plan and anticipate when their course of action would need adjustment within the game play.
Our first round “bracket” was played out over a couple of hours. Our team did quite well, beating our opponent in Victory Points by a score of 6500 to 2500. The tipping point was our “Spetsnaz Battalion”, which we positioned well off the start. They were not expecting these teams to be so deep, and as a result, we shot up much of the Blue team’s depth elements in the first part of the battle. The Blue team put almost its entire battalion along the wooded ridgeline in the north, focused on the outer defiles. They covered the highway to the north with a UAV and aviation. As a result, our Tank Company died a quick death, and the motorized battalion got hit hard coming out of its assembly area and was only able to get about a third of its forces into the eastern defiles, and no farther. But, in the end, the mission for both sides was the bridges – the other team ignored the bridges and focused on fighting in the defiles, so our Spetsnaz teams never really had to fight to retain them and we got maximum victory points for achieving our assigned task of holding the crossing sites.
Some observations from the simulation became apparent:
- A force moving on a road or in the open is likely going to get hit. AH-1 and F/A-18 strikes wrecked us. The one time Blue sallied out on the road, we smashed a company with a BM-27 MLRS strike. The better we can get forces hunkered down to observe, the better off we are. The tank company is better hunkered down, hitting from a city zone. The game demonstrated how vulnerable modern combatants are to a capable sensor-shooter system.
- Our deception effort worked somewhat by the fact that the smoke and the wrecked tank company meant his AH-1s were floating around the west too long. While not cost effective, our team figured out how to take advantage of this circumstance on the battlefield to aid with success. The adversarial nature of the wargame gave teams battlefield circumstances to anticipate and manage.
- Our killer was our fires, which is kind of a no brainer. When we picked up the adversary’s HQ and 120mm mortars in a forest, we smashed them with rockets. When we ran into ambushes trying to clear the defiles, we smashed them with rockets. When he made a last grab for the bridge, we fired a dispersed minefield to slow him up, and then followed up with rockets, destroying a company in the open. There is a reason the Russians are going from a ratio of 3 gun units:1 rocket unit to 1 gun unit:3 rocket units – they appear to be highly effective and the wargame was a poignant reminder.
This approach to understanding modern conflict was both instructional and entertaining. The use of a commercial, off-the-shelf platform, when combined with a well-structured competition, provided a useful model for participants to develop their professional abilities and understanding of modern conflict. The adversarial nature of the game, along with the free-play aspect of each scenario, provided an engaging environment at low-cost in time, money, and manpower.