Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Lacey, Barrick, and Barrick: Wargaming a war in Ukraine

At War on the Rocks, James Lacey, Tim Barrick, and Nathan Barrick describe a wargame of a hypothetical Russian invasion of Ukraine, conducted at Marine Corps University two weeks before the actual invasion occurred:

In the two weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Marine Corps University ran a four-day wargame to simulate the first several days of just such an invasion. One of us ran the wargame while the others played the Ukrainian and Russian forces. Despite a few stark differences, the current Russian offensive is playing out in ways eerily similar to that simulation.

By the time the wargame ended, the overall situation appeared very much as it does on the ground in Ukraine, with only two major deviations. First, the Russians have pushed harder out of Belarus to the west of the Dneiper  north of Kyiv  to strike the city from the rear.  And secondly, the Russian assault in Kherson was temporarily  halted, as the axis of advance in the south for a time turned northeast toward Mariupol. Both of these actions were, however, discussed by the players in the wargame.

Another difference was in the impact of the Russian air and missile campaign. In the game, Russian operations began with a series of missile and airstrikes, aimed at eliminating Ukraine’s air force and destroying the country’s integrated air defense system. Thus, the Russian players’ primary focus, during the first few days of the campaign, was aimed at gaining freedom of maneuver in the skies  air dominance  along with destroying Ukraine’s coastal defense systems. So, although the number of actual strikes made by the Russians in the conflict’s first 24-hours tracked almost exactly to what was employed by the Russians in the wargame, the impact was substantially different. In the wargame, every strike was focused on eliminating Ukraine’s air force and air defense network. In real life, the Russian strikes appear to have been more widely spread over a range of targets. Thus, the Russians employed far fewer munitions than required to cripple Ukraine’s air defenses or to significantly degrade their ability to control forces in the field. In short, unlike in the game, the Russian attacks were damaging but insufficient to overwhelm Ukraine’s defenses.

Our Ukraine wargame is part of a series of operational level wargames designed by Marine Corps University to support professional military education and help students develop an understanding of the many operational challenges associated with all domain warfare and Great Power conflict. The hope is that students will develop insights from these wargames that help them better understand joint warfighting. In the case of this particular wargame, its near concurrent use with the actual start of the war presents an opportunity to make constructive comparisons and contrasts. Actual events also highlight the importance of the human domain and how difficult it is to effectively model or assess prior to conflict. While the game does make allowance for aspects of the human domain, it is hard to factor in things like the courageous leadership being demonstrated by Zelenskyy and its impact on the will of the fighting forces and the Ukrainian people.

One must be very careful when using a wargame for predictive purposes. But, on the other hand, no one involved in this wargame has been much surprised by anything unfolding on the ground. Almost all of it took place within the game or was discussed at length among the players. This is in contrast with nearly every expert and pundit on the airwaves, who are expressing astonishment at how this conflict is unfolding. If this wargame had been played at the Pentagon or the White House in the weeks leading up to the war, no strategist or policymaker would be shocked by any event so far seen in the war.

The heroic resistance of the Ukrainians inspires awe and admiration. Still, their forces are greatly outnumbered, particularly in the air. Moreover, Russia’s capacity to concentrate vast ground fires — artillery, rockets, and missiles  still allows the Russian army to overwhelm the Ukrainians at any chosen point. If history provides any glimpse into the future, the Russian army will eventually uncoil, absorb the war’s early lessons, and renew its advance with grim determination. Russia was preparing to do precisely that when the wargame ended. Still, one hopes that Western pressure, and the infliction of unacceptable losses upon Putin’s legions will create an opening for a negotiated peace.

You can read the full report at the link above.

One response to “Lacey, Barrick, and Barrick: Wargaming a war in Ukraine

  1. sunray42 25/03/2022 at 5:34 pm

    Jon Jeffrey and David Redpath from the Canadian Joint Warfare Centre Wargames Section took part in this game, – Jon was the Russian Commander in the East and North, while I commanded the Ukrainian Eastern Sector, and after Jim Lacey was jumped by Spetznaz, took over command of the Airforce and also as overall Comd UKR.
    It was a great game and so many of the events in the game have now been replicated in real life.
    It might be one of the few times in history that a ‘professional ‘ wargame was played out just days before the actual action took place.
    (Not counting any pre planning games by actual adversaries – eg Midway)
    Well done Tim Barrick and his team for pulling off a very fast reaction and effort.

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