Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Israel

Preparing for the doomsday variant

In confronting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Israel has been moderately successful. Cumulative mortality is well below that of most OECD or G20 countries.

This is around the mid-point of those countries in the Middle East and North Africa for which reliable data exists.

Israel was among the earliest vaccinators in the world and among the first to introduce booster shots—although vaccine coverage is still a little lower than many comparable countries (due to hesitancy, not capacity).

But why raise all of this at PAXsims? Because Israel recently conducted an exercise to examine the challenges that would be posed by a “doomsday” variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, one that is more lethal to children yet not affected by current vaccines.

According to Haaretz (paywalled):

Last week, a national exercise code-named Omega was held, to examine how to cope with a fifth wave that would be caused, hypothetically, by the arrival of a new variant that was immune to vaccination.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took the possibility seriously and spent eight hours straight in the national management center. The exercise was planned by the special methods branch of the Defense Ministry, and it was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Ayash, formerly head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate.

The method of the simulation recalled a military exercise, which takes the scenario to the extreme to examine the true capability of the system to arrive at and implement decisions.

The fifth wave that was posited in the exercise was a doomsday affair: the penetration of a vaccine-immune variant that strikes hard at children and causes large-scale death among children and teenagers. In the past year, and more decisively under the Bennett government, Israeli strategy has relied on vaccination as the chief response to the virus. Here, then, the carpet was pulled from under the feet of the decision-makers and they were compelled to look for other solutions.

One method that is meant to improve the situation is the purchase of a large quantity of medications against COVID-19, which are now in the final stages of approval in the United States. Prior acquisition of such medications, on the assumption that they will prove effective against the next variant, too, could reduce deaths and perhaps allow the continued partial opening of the economy.

he economic damage from one week of closure is estimated at between 2 billion and 4 billion shekels ($650 million-$1.3 billion). No medicines or vaccinations will be anywhere near as costly.

On the other hand, Bennett leans to hermetically closing Ben-Gurion airport to non-Israelis in the event a new variant appears, and to conducting stringent control and quarantine of returning Israelis.

The exercise turned up other points of weakness: the difficulty of the civilian system to move from routine into emergency mode, the feeble ability of the public information system and holes in the coordination between government ministries. (The National Security Council, on which the Netanyahu government pinned its hopes, is not up to the task.)

One of Israel’s problems – again, contrary to the boasts of the former prime minister – is the absence of an orderly mechanism capable of tracking and analyzing the spread of the virus abroad. Thus, the Foreign Ministry is barely mobilized in the national effort, even though it has representatives in almost every country.

The Guardian provides further details on some of the issues that were explored:

Restrictions on gatherings and movement, quarantine policy, lockdowns, curfews and tourism.

Oversight and warnings issued during the development of a new and dangerous variant, testing vaccine protection, epidemiological investigations, hospital capacity and the carrying out of mass-testing and vaccination programmes.

The legality of local or regional lockdowns and curfews, and other restrictions.

Economic support for the population.

Public security in enforcing quarantine, lockdowns and curfews.

Closing schools in outbreak centres, reducing class sizes and remote learning.

Departure and arrival policy at borders including Ben Gurion airport.

Informing the public and responding to “discourse on the internet”.

You can also find additional details from Reuters and the Jerusalem Post.

Iranian Ambition matrix game


From the ever-prolific Tim Price comes yet another matrix game scenario: Iranian Ambition (pdf).

Iranian Ambition.jpgThe ongoing crisis between Israel and Iran escalated when Israeli jets struck dozens of Iranian targets in neighbouring Syria recently. The strikes came after a rocket attack against Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, which the Israeli military said was from Iranian forces. Israel retaliated and destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, according to Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

It should be noted that much of the Golan Heights are Syrian territory but have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. The Syrian Government in Damascus also asserts that, as a sovereign country, it has a clear right in international law to host forces from Iran or any other country if it so wishes

The package is  includes basic briefing materials, an introduction to playing matrix games, and a print-and-play map and counters.

Those who wish to develop and play matrix games might also be interested in the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK), developed by PAXsims with the support of the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).



Israel-Hizbullah matrix game (beta)

Lebanon map.jpgA few people have asked me for this, so here it is: the current beta version of an Israel-Hizbullah matrix game. This game was first developed as part of a matrix game design session at Dstl, and revised versions were then played at both Connections UK and McGill University.

The “narrative cards” mentioned in the scenario are not included. These are simply pictures of conflict (destruction, the human cost, political figures, etc) that players may incorporate into matrix arguments. You can easily generate your own with pictures found online, or dispense with the game mechanism altogether.

The current version of the game features three players: Israel, Hizbullah, and the Lebanese government (with the latter drawing a card each turn to determine which political faction the player represents). The original version of the game had a civilian player too—it remains an interesting idea, but players assigned to that role found it a bit dull.

The game has two parts to it: a pre-war game, during which Israel and Hizbullah invest in capabilities that might give them an edge, and a wartime game, where the conflict is fought out. During the latter the IDF will certainly secure a military victory measured in narrowly military terms, but the real issue is political framing: who is seen to have won? Thus the primary metric is domestic political support, modified by one final matrix game argument at the end. The original version used a victory point system, but having it hinge on political support and end-of-game arguments better captures the indeterminacy of those sort of confrontation.

The scenario assumes that you have access to a copy of the Matrix Game Construction Kit (MaGCK) for the game materials. if you don’t, however, it is easy enough to make up suitable markers yourself.

The scenario also assumes that you know how to run a matrix game. If you’ve never used the technique before, you will want to read the MaGCK User Guide to learn the technique (available as a pdf via The Game Crafter).


As noted above, this is only a beta version and the scenario is still being developed. Feedback is welcome, and I will post any updated versions here as they become available.


INSS simulation on the aftermath of a “bad deal” with Iran

INSS The Institute for National Security Studies recently conducted a simulation of the diplomatic and other consequences of a “bad deal” between the P5+1 and Iran on the nuclear issue—or, more accurately, what Israel might consider a “bad deal.”

As the talks between Iran and the P5+1 continue, the INSS Arms Control and Regional Security Program held a simulation exercise on September 29, 2014 to explore possible developments following a “bad nuclear deal” – one that effectively enables Iran to maintain a nuclear breakout capability. The assumption of the game’s opening scenario was that an agreement that might look reasonable could actually contain many interpretation loopholes that render it “bad.” In the simulation, following Israel’s initial reaction to the deal, Israeli, US, Russian, European, Iranian, and Gulf teams grappled with the implications of the new reality. The objective of the game was to spur a dynamic thought process regarding the possible implications if such an agreement is signed with Iran.

The opening scenario was as follows:

On the morning of November 25, 2014, following a marathon session of negotiations in Geneva, Iran and the P5+1 reached a last minute agreement on a comprehensive deal. The agreement removes sanctions against Iran in return for the partial dismantlement of its nuclear program. US President Barack Obama described the deal as a “landmark agreement that distances Iran from a nuclear weapon and sends a message to determined proliferators everywhere.”
Israel is alarmed that the agreement does not deal with Iran’s current stockpile of low enriched uranium, does not dismantle centrifuges, and approves a reconfiguration of Arak that would enable limited amounts of plutonium to be extracted from the heavy water reactor. The agreement acknowledges Iran’s right to continue enrichment, though limiting the amount of 3.5 percent enriched uranium readily available for further enrichment, and provides for the phased removal of sanctions, even though the P5+1 have exposed Iran’s clear violation of the NPT in the weaponization work it has carried out. Israel’s dismay and anger over the deal was reinforced by the reaction of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who declared that the “agreement was a demonstration of Iran’s resolve and its refusal to buckle in the face of pressure.” An Israeli official stated that as a result of the deal, Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon within four months of a decision to do so.
According to the INSS, the main insights of the simulation were:
a. The deal that appears to meet the needs of all the parties could actually constitute a bad agreement, because of a lack of attention to the technical details. The deal in essence enables Iran to remain a nuclear threshold state and grants legitimacy to this status.
b. The assessment of any agreement with Iran requires an extensive evaluation of technical considerations and terminology.
c. In order to obtain international support for Israel’s position, it is recommended that Israel focus its diplomatic activity on no more than the aforementioned five key problems that it identifies in the deal.
d. The opening scenario in which the US President signs an agreement before the prior approval of the US Congress is a distinct possibility.
e. In the event that the agreement requires the approval of the UN Security Council, there may be an opportunity for Israel to take diplomatic action to try to influence the content of the agreement. Nevertheless, once it is signed, there is little likelihood that Israel will succeed in this regard.
f. The simulation demonstrated that US fears of an Israeli attack against Iran’s facilities have diminished. It appears that the concerns over an Israeli strike are no longer a significant factor among United States calculations. This could well lead to strategic surprise should Israel attack after facing a “bad deal.”

You’ll find the full simulation report at the link above. See also the updated Israel vs Iran wargame compendium at Wargaming Connections.

Persian Incursion 2013

As I’ve noted in a couple of reviews (here and here), the game/rules engine in Persian Incursion provides a powerful combat model of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear or oil facilities. As a manual, “cardboard” wargame it is also very easy to tweak. With that in mind, I’ll be running a version of the game this Friday at McGill University with some political science graduate students, plus an Iran analyst colleague. Although game-playing is part of the reason for doing so, I also want to use the session to explore some of the issues involved in any possible Iranian military action, and then collect some feedback on how useful participants found the process.

The game will be set in the here and now of 2013. This means that the initial opinion settings will mirror the current diplomatic environment, and the upgrades available to the players will be restricted to those that Israel and Iran might plausibly have obtained by March 2013.

Moreover, as detailed below, the Syrian civil war raises the possibility of an Israeli strike overflying Syrian airspace, rather than having to use the northern (Turkish), central (Jordanian), or southern (Saudi) route. The Syrian route would be risky, exploiting the relative weakness in Syrian SAM defences between Damascus and Homs as well as the severe degradation of Syria’s air force and integrated air defence system caused by two years of civil war. On the other hand, it would not depend on the political acquiescence of the country being overflown, an aspect which otherwise constrains potential Israeli use of other possible routes.

Syrian SAM defences, in 2010, with S-200 (SA-5) ranges shown in purple. Source: Sean O'Conner, Strategic SAM Deployment in Syria (click picture for link).

Above: Syrian SAM defences, in 2010, with long-ranged S-200 (SA-5) ranges shown in purple and the Damascus-Homs gap in medium-range systems readily apparent. Source: Sean O’Connor, Strategic SAM Deployment in Syria (click picture for link). Video below: Syrian rebels overrun a S-200 SAM site. Several early-warning sites may also have been destroyed.

Political Opinion

israelunThe following initial political opinion settings are used at the start of the game:

  • Iran -8
  • Israel +10
  • China -6
  • Jordan 0
  • Russia -3
  • Saudi Arabia/GCC 0
  • Turkey -1
  • UN/rest of world -2
  • USA +2

iranunThe “ally actions” listed in the rules (p. 11) include some rather unlikely possibilities. Consequently, they are replaced with the following:

  • China: If Iranian ally, Iran may purchase the GPS jammer or laser dazzlers upgrades for its nuclear facilities at a cost of 1 MP. 
  • Russia: If Iranian ally, Iran may purchase up to three S-300 batteries at 1 military point (MP) each; R27ER1 AAM upgrade for 1 MP.
  • Jordan: If Israeli ally, Iran suffers -10% penalty to terrorist attacks.
  • Saudi Arabia: If Israeli ally, provides covert support for Israeli strikes. Israel adds 10% to SAM suppression and +1 to CGI fighter rolls when using southern route.
  • UN/rest of world: Use rules as written.
  • US: If Israeli ally and Iran has attempted to close Strait of Hormuz, roll for US airstrike against Iran each turn (p. 11). If Iranian ally, game ends immediately as US diplomatic pressure forces Israel to halt its air campaign.

In the latter case, being an Iranian “ally” doesn’t, of course, mean that the US is actually allied with (or even friendly with) Iran—rather, it just signifies that the US is deeply opposed to Israeli actions.

Most of the “arms sales” rules are not used because, even if China or Russia were to sell Iran additional military hardware, they could not be fielded effectively in the timeframe covered by the game.

Other ally effects listed elsewhere (p. 27) still take effect.

Player Upgrades and Reinforcements

These are set as follows to reflect current real-world conditions, but with some potential for “unknown unknowns”:

  • The Iranian player may purchase any and all air defence systems upgrades, countermeasures/EW defences, additional Tor-M1 batteries, and up to one battalion of Sejil-2 MRBMs. Iran may also purchase EM-55 naval mines, although these do not represent any particular weapons system but rather an increased Iranian investment in combat systems for use in the Straits of Hormuz. Iran may not purchase Pantsyr S1E SAM/AAA batteries, S-300, Buk-M1, or HQ-9 SAM batteries, or any air-to-air missile upgrades.
  • The Israeli player may purchase all upgrades except AIM-120D AMRAAMs.
  • Neither player may gain extra-national reinforcements, although Israel can still benefit from ballistic missile defence assistance from US Aegis class cruisers under appropriate circumstances

Central Route

In the Persian Incursion rules, Jordan is assumed to be unwilling to intercept any IAF strike transiting its airspace. Instead, the US attitude is what counts—especially given (then) US control of Iraqi airspace.

jordanprotestsBy 2013, things have changed. The US no longer controls Iraqi airspace, and Iraq itself lacks the capability to effectively control or even monitor it. On the other hand, the “Arab Spring” has rendered the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan more sensitive to public criticism. Repeated Israeli overflights of Jordan could create serious domestic political problems for the regime. Israeli destabilization of Jordan, in turn, wouldn’t go over very well in Washington.

Indeed, under some extreme circumstances one can even imagine some limited Jordanian military response to Israeli actions. (If this seems farfetched, consider how Jordan entered the 1967 Arab-Israeli war—a war it knew it would lose—when it became clear that failure to do so would severely undermine the monarchy’s political position.)

Consequently, the following modified rule will be used:

Israel may overfly Jordan at any time if political opinion there is 0 (neutral) or better. However, whenever it does, Iran rolls 3 dice on the Jordanian opinion track, and one on the US track.

Syria Route Special Rules

Syrian rebel fighters pose on a destroyed tankUse the following procedure should the IAF choose to use the Syrian route, reflecting the need to deal with whatever functioning Syrian air defences are encountered en route.

The Syria route counts the same as the Central route for the purposes of tanker support and targets that can be struck.

  1. First, Israel may conduct a Suter EW/cyber attack against Syrian air defences.
  2. Next, roll a D100 for each of the five Syrian SA-200 long-range SAM batteries that cover the Israeli route. These have a 33% chance of being able engage in-bound Israeli aircraft, and 66% chance of engage out-bound (return) aircraft. A failure to obtain a sufficient result indicates that these batteries have been overrun by Syrian opposition forces, redeployed to other areas or duties, or are otherwise incapable of responding.
  3. The IAF may conduct SAM suppression missions as usual, or target them with airstrikes.
  4. Surviving Syrian SAM batteries may then engage Israeli aircraft.
  5. After this, dice on the GCI Fighter Table to see whether any Syrian aircraft are able to intercept, subtracting 3 from the result. The IAF may conduct fighter suppression missions. The Iranian player may not spend MP to augment Syrian air defences. The Israeli player gains +1 for every one (not two) MP spent on suppression of Syrian air defences.
  6. Roll D100 to determine the type of intercepting aircraft: 01-50 MiG 23MLD, 51-85 MiG-29, 86-100 MiG 25. The Iranian MiG 29 aircraft data card is also used for Syrian MiG 29s. (Jeff Dougherty kindly generated Syrian MiG 23 and MiG 25 weapons data for the scenario, which I’ve incorporated into these modified aircraft cards at right—click the image to download).

Persian Incursion Syrian MiGsUse of the Syrian route by the IAF would likely give Iran around 60-90 minutes of advance warning of the inbound strike packages. Subtract 5% from the effectiveness of IAF SAM suppression missions in Iran, and add 1 to the GCI Fighter Table when determining Iranian fighter interceptions.

Each time the Syrian route is used the Iranian player may roll 1 die against either the Russian, Chinese, or UN/rest of world opinion tracks.

One small (but non-zero) risk of using the Syrian route is that Damascus might launch its own retaliation against Israel, and that the situation could then escalate out of control.

If at any time the Israeli players rolls a natural 12 while conducting a SAM suppression, SAM strike, fighter suppression, or air-to-air engagement, Syria responds. Roll a d6:

  1. Syria vociferously condemns Israeli actions. Iran gains 1 PP (political point).
  2. Syria lends support to Iranian retaliation. Iran gains 1 MP (military point).
  3. Syria lends support to Iranian retaliation. Iran gains 1 IP (intelligence point).
  4. Syria organizes hasty terrorist attack against Israel next turn, 50% chance of success.
  5. Syria organizes major terrorist attack against Israel next turn, 80% chance of success.
  6. Syria launches limited missile strike next turn (treat as 6 ballistic missiles). If any of these hit with a die roll of natural 12, further escalation takes place. The game ends immediately as the IAF is retasked with striking Syrian chemical weapon facilities.


While Persian Incursion includes rules for Iranian-backed terrorism against Israel, this seems to represent small-scale bombings, infiltrations, international terrorism, or perhaps Palestinian Islamic Jihad being encouraged to fire a few rockets from Gaza. It certainly doesn’t address Hizbullah’s potential involvement in the conflict, with its arsenal of an estimated 30,000 rockets.

hizbullahI don’t think it is inevitable, or even particularly likely, that Hizbullah would become overtly involved  is Israeli-Iranian hostilities through large-scale attacks from Lebanon—doing so would be deeply unpopular in Lebanon, even among its Shiite constituency, and also leave the organization open to a major Israeli riposte. The slow collapse of the Asad regime in Syria has likely rendered Hizbullah even more risk-averse. However, if the Iranian regime were feeling especially vulnerable it could pressure Hizbullah to act, especially in the context of an extended Israeli military campaign.

Modelling this in the game is tricky, because a major Israeli-Hizbullah war would, in many ways, be an even bigger military operation than an Israeli attack on Iran.

If the Iranian political opinion track is at 7 or higher, or Israel has attacked this turn for a third or subsequent time during the game, Tehran may spend 2 PP and press Hizbullah to attack Israel in a substantial and direct way. The base chance of success of convincing Hizbullah is 50%, plus  10% for each additional 1 PP spent.

Once Hizbullah has entered the war, a “Lebanon War Phase” is added after the Strategic Events Phase in each morning turn for the duration of the game. Israel must commit at least 1 MP and 1 aircraft squadron to the war effort. It may allocate additional MP/IP and additional aircraft squadrons. After it has done so, roll 2D6.

  • Add 1 to the total for every 2 MP/IP allocated to the Lebanon campaign.
  • Add 1 each additional aircraft squadron.
  • Add 1 if Israel purchased an expanded Iron Dome system.

Because of the Syrian civil war Iran has little capability to assist or resupply Hizbullah during the fighting.

Consult the following table to ascertain the effects of the war that day:

  • 2: Hizbullah rockets rain down on northern Israel and points further south. Iran gains 3 PP, and may roll 4 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8). 
  • 3-4: Iran gains 2 PP, and may roll 3 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8). 
  • 5-6: Iran gains 1PP, and may roll 2 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8). 
  • 7-10: Iran may roll 1 dice on the Israeli opinion track (backfire 8). 
  • 9-10: The war generates greater Western support for Israel. Israel may roll one die on the US or UN/rest of world opinion track.
  • 11-12: Hizbullah casualties mount. Israel gains +1 to all future rolls on this table (this effect is cumulative).
  • 13+ : Hizbullah suffers severe damage. Iran loses 2 points (PP, MP, and/or IP—Iranian player’s choice), and Israel may roll 1 die on the Iranian opinion track.

Israeli aircraft allocated to Lebanon are assumed to be engaging in airstrikes during the morning and afternoon phases, and test for breakdowns at the end of the latter.

Other Rule Modifications

In general, we’ll be using the full rule set. However, use of  simplified target profiles makes mission planning much quicker, and also allows more effective use of the quick strike chart that the game designers have made available. Resolving aircraft breakdowns/repairs will speeded by using the additional charts for this developed for this.

Rather than treating SAM suppression missions from planned airstrikes at SAM sites as different things, any suppression mission that exceeds its necessary roll by 30% or more is assumed to have permanently destroyed the battery (in the case of older SAMs relying on a single radar system) or half the battery (with more modern SAMs with multiple radars). Players may still attack airfields.

Review: Persian Incursion


Persian Incursion. Clash of Arms Games, 2010. Designers: Larry Bond, Chris Carlson, Jeff Dougherty. $71.50.

* * *

This is among the games that has been sitting on my shelf for far, far too long, awaiting the opportunity for a proper playtest. I finally got around to it last month—and, as you’ll see in the review below, I found it both to be problematic as a game but insightful as a military simulation.


Frustrated by the apparent ineffectiveness of sanctions and viewing Iran’s nuclear program as a growing threat, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the order: Israel would attack. Operation “Lovingly Detailed but Incredibly Complex and Time-Consuming Strike Planning for a Boardgame” would seek to inflict heavy damage on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and thereby convince the Islamic Republic that there was little point in continuing its nuclear programme into the future.

MIDEAST-ISRAEL-US-F16INot knowing how much time the international community would permit them to complete the task, the Israeli leadership emphasized to IDF planners that first strike needed to be as decisive as possible. Additional tankers were procured to assure that more than 120 Israeli aircraft—F-15s and F-16s, Shavit ELINT platforms, and Eitan drones—would be committed to a long-distance mission via Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. Some aircraft would be allocated to suppressing the air defences that the IAF would encounter en route, and still others to escorting the strike packages. Most, however, were heavily laden with bombs intended  for three major targets: the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the heavy water plant and reactor at Arak, and the deeply-buried uranium enrichment facility near Qom. Improved EGBU-28C “bunker-buster” bombs were obtained to facilitate penetration of the underground centrifuge halls at Natanz and Qom. Insufficient aircraft were available to target the uranium conversion facility, zirconium production, and fuel manufacturing plant at Isfahan on this first strike, which would have to await a return visit.

Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) grumman F-14 Tomcat supersonic, twin-engine, two-seat, variable-sweep wing fighter missile bvr long range154 AIM-54 Phoenixaim-7 9 132  (2)Initially all went well, with an electronic/cyber attack partially disabling Iran’s air defence network. The SEAD missions were partly successful, but one lucky S-200(SA-5) battery escaped damage, and then was even luckier still when it managed—against all odds—to successfully engage an IAF F-15, shooting it down.

For the most part the obsolete Iranian air force could offer little substantial resistance. However, two patrolling Iranian F-14 pilots detected the strike mission headed for Natanz and managed to shoot down one Israeli F-16 with a long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile before they were destroyed. No sooner had they done so than a flight of four Mig-29s took advantage of the distraction to close the range, downing a second F-16 before also being destroyed by the Israeli escorts. One IAF pilot survived and was captured by Iranian troops, providing Tehran with a minor public relations coup that it would later exploit. IAF planners had considered the option of allocating more aircraft to escort and fighter-suppression missions, but had opted to maximize the ordnance that could be delivered on target.


The damage from the Israeli attack at Natanz: heavily damaged, but not quite destroyed.

The air defences at the target sites proved less of a hindrance. While the GPS jammers that Iran had installed at its sensitive sites confused some of the Israeli bombs, most found their marks. The facilities at Qom and Arak were completely destroyed, while Natanz was heavily damaged.

As the Israeli aircraft left Iranian air space, they were once more intercepted, this time by small numbers of F-5Es and F-7M fighters. These were quickly and easily downed long before they had closed to within range of their own much inferior air-to-air missiles.

Although Iranian air defences had been lucky, the bombing was largely successful.

In the court of international opinion, however, the Israeli did less well. Perhaps it was Israel’s refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or open its nuclear facilities to international inspection; perhaps it was the impressive skills of Iranian diplomats; or perhaps it was astute card-play and some very good dice rolls, but within a matter of hours and days it was clear that there was little support for a continuation of military operations. Jordan emphasized that it would not allow its airspace to be used again for an attack, and the northern route (through Turkey) and the southern route (through Saudi Arabia) were equally unavailable. Even the United States seemed unhappy at Netanyahu’s unilateral move.


While domestic support for the government remains (top track), high, the international community is less approving (middle tracks). However, the attack and subsequent Israeli sabotage activities are slowly undermining Iranian resolve (bottom track)

Iranian retaliation was swift but largely ineffectual. Salvos of Shehab-3 missiles were fired at Israel, although only a handful made it past Israel’s Arrow-2 and Patriot PAC-3 ballistic missile defences, and these did little real damage. Twice Iran partially and briefly closed the Straits of Hormuz to signal its displeasure, but these actions only antagonized the international community and were quickly abandoned. Hizbullah and the northern border with Lebanon remained eerily quiet.

For its part Israel—unable to launch another airstrike because of the negative attitude of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—instead launched a serious of night-time special forces raids against key Iranian economic infrastructure. These had considerable effect over time, aggravating the domestic economic and political problems of a beleaguered Islamic republic already under severe pressure from international sanctions.

In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. The regime remained in power, undeterred, and committed to rebuilding its  damaged nuclear infrastructure . Israel’s gambit had failed to win more than a brief respite from the perceived Iranian threat, and at the cost of greater international isolation.

Game Review

And thus unfolded our playtest game, which was played using a slightly tweaked version of the “real world” scenario in the game. It was unusual in that Israel able to launch only a single attack (most games involve several), largely due to some very lucky Iranian diplomatic dice. The Iranians were lucky too in managing to shoot down any IAF aircraft, let alone three. The overall outcome was actually quite realistic, both in terms of the damage inflicted to Iranian nuclear facilities and the diplomatic challenges to Israel of sustaining an extended unilateral military campaign.

pic825374_mdPersian Incursion comprises one 17×22″ map, 280 cardboard counters, two decks of cards, data cards for all major aircraft cards, game rules, a target folders (including satellite photographs of each major site), and a background briefing package, and dice. It really consists of two interlinked games, one modelling an Israeli airstrike, and the other representing the broader diplomatic-political context within which military action occurs.

As suggested in the account above, the airstrike part of the game is extremely detailed, with the Israeli player having to quite literally decide on the precise loadout and target of every single aircraft in every single strike, escort, or SEAD package. Since many buildings are individually profiled, some sites include more than thirty different aim-points. The range and probability to hit of every type of air-to-air missile, surface-to-air missile, anti-radiation missile, and guided bomb used by the combatants is rated, as is the effectiveness of each aircraft type. Planning a single attack can take the Israeli player up to an hour—during which time the Iranian player has little do besides practice his rhetorical condemnations of Zionist aggression. Once an Israeli strike arrives on target, the effects must be determined by rolling dice for every single bomb. Since this could conceivable involve a few hundred rolls, it provides another extended period when the Iranian player watches while uttering angry Farsi threats of revenge.

pic774032_mdConversely, the political-diplomatic component of Persian Incursion is a highly abstracted. The changing political position of the various international actors determines how many political, military, and intelligence points a player collects at the start of each turn. These in turn are expended to conduct military operations or to attempt to influence domestic opinion of key regional and international states. Attempts at political influence are carried out through the play of cards, each of which has general labels like “collateral damage,” “spin control, ” or “careful planning,” and each of which affects different target countries to different degrees. Unlike airstrikes, the card play runs proceeds at a rapid pace.

Our play test game was quite exciting in the end, with Israeli special forces raids bring the Iranians perilously close to the point of political defeat before the game ended. However, the ponderously slow airstrike process is problematic from a game design point of view since it exclusively engages only the Israeli player most of the time. Some of this detail is unnecessary too: I’m not convinced there is a real need to have separate aim points for every single building (although it does highlight the need for some targeting redundancy in real-life strike planning with pre-programmed GPS-guided weapons), while the rules of anti-aircraft guns are entirely superfluous given that the IAF almost invariably drops its guided bombs well outside the AAA engagement envelope. Indeed, had our game included the usual several Israeli airstrikes instead of just one, I have a sneaking hunch my opponent would have called it a day before the game ever finished. In an attempt to speed both strike planning and adjudication, the game designers have released several rules modifications that simplify targeting and allow for faster resolution of bombing effects. In similar fashion I also put together my own revised set of target sheets targets that I will likely use in future games, and there are some useful player-made spreadsheets and record sheets available at BoardGameGeek.

The other military options available to players—Iranian ballistic missiles, Israeli special forces operations, terrorist attacks, closing the Straits of Hormuz—are much less complex. The game does not, however, include any option for Iran’s close Lebanese ally Hizbullah to launch major attacks against Israel in retaliation for Israeli attacks on Iran. Indeed, Hizbullah is only briefly mentioned in the  background briefing package, where it is peculiarly placed in the section on the Palestinians. While I don’t believe Hizbullah would necessarily become involved in the fighting after a single Israeli strike, the chances of it doing so would increase if Israel were to launch a sustained campaign. From a game perspective, it certainly would be more interesting for the Iranian player if there were some sort of substantial Hizbullah option that forces Israel to divert its air assets to hunting Hizbullah rocket launchers, but risks a weakening Hizbullah’s military and political status in Lebanon.

Persian Incursion as a Serious Game

How useful might this game be in educational or other “serious game” settings? It certainly has considerable potential, but only if used in certain ways.

This is not a game that can be easily played by students. It is far too long and complicated for neophytes. The asymmetry in role demands and the long delays while Israel plans strikes also would render it highly unsuitable.

On the other hand, the core airstrike game “engine” is excellent, covering everything from the effectiveness of various weapons platforms and ordnance to electronic counter measures, aircraft readiness rates and maintenance, ground control interception, Iranian air defence zones, decoys, and the hardening of targets. The game engine is easily tweaked too, in most cases by simply changing certain ratings or percentages. Playing through a strike or a full game offers considerable insight into the complexities of mission planning, as well as the capabilities and limits of the two militaries. One could even use it to model a potential future “Syrian” route to Iran, predicated on the declining effectiveness of Syrian air defences as the civil war there intensifies.

Given this, the best way of using Persian Incursion in a serious game setting would be with multiple players and an assigned division of labour, some focused on the political side of the conflict and others wholly devoted to military staff planning. One wouldn’t need to use the diplomatic-political subgame that the designers have developed—a standard negotiations role-play or seminar crisis game format could do equally well, or even better if the major international community actors were included too (although this could conceivably also be handled by the game controllers/white cell). The Israeli military staff planners would need to keep detailed tasking orders ready to go for when their political leadership required it, updating this as developments and resources changed. This would also generate some interesting internal dynamics between the political/diplomatic and military components of the Israeli (and Iranian) teams, especially when the politicians wanted more than the military could deliver, or when military hubris might cause it to over-promise mission results, leaving diplomats to make the best of a bad situation. Throughout, only the game controller would really need to know all of the rules, using these to adjudicate the effects of each strike.

An implementation of the game something like this (but exclusively weighted towards the military element) was undertaken by the folks at the “War College” at the 2011 Origins Game Fair—you can see a sample of this in the videos above and below.

Overall Assessment

If you are a serious gamer interested in this era and issue, Persian Incursion is certainly worth buying, but probably best played with the quick strike rules unless the Iranian player has enormous patience and/or something else to busy themselves with while the Israeli plots plots targets, strike packages, and weapons loads. If you’re an inexperienced wargamer, this is not the best game for you. If you are an instructor thinking of using it in the classroom to examine the challenges of airstrikes and preemption and have enough gaming experience to handle its complexity, the game could be very useful—provided you are willing to put in quite a bit of effort in to modify it for your particular needs, and provided you do so in a way that keeps much of the complexity “under the (adjudication) hood” and away from the participants.

If time allows, I plan to give the game a try with students (and possibly a Middle East intelligence analyst or two) in the coming months. If so, I’ll report the results here at PAXsims.

Reflections on “A Reign of Missiles”


Last week Foreign Policy magazine posted for comments “A Reign of Missiles,” a draft print-and-play solo conflict simulation of the 2012 Gaza war designed by Paul Rohrbaugh. Not surprisingly both the timing and the topic of the game generated a little online controversy, coming so soon after the war itself.

Nevertheless, my son David and I printed it out and give it a try this weekend. We used the map version originally posted at FP—a much nicer quality version has since been posted at ConSimWorld which you can see above.

In the game the player assumes the role of Israel, attempting to strike at Hamas’ missile capabilities (and win “military victory points”) while at the same time keeping a wary eye on the potential civilian casualties caused by your strikes, and the negative effects this can have on Israel’s diplomatic standing (indicated on a “diplomacy track”). As the Israeli player you deploy Iron Dome anti-missile systems, aircraft, drones, a naval units, and (potentially) special forces. After you have finished conducting military operations each phase the surviving Hamas rocket launchers fire missiles in random directions. If you are unlucky some might slip past your defences and strike populated areas. Random events also affect game play.

Since the game is still in draft form, parts of it are still a bit rough, and the rules certainly need a good edit. There are very few design notes to let you know what the designer was hoping to achieve in the various game rules.

What about the actual gameplay, though? Here we divide our comments into three categories: player choices, representations and realism, and game mechanics/play.

Player Choices

Games are all about choices and trade-offs. In A Reign of Missiles the Israeli player’s primary choices revolve around:

  • Which targets to attack. Typically this is an obvious choice, since the longer-range Fajr-5 are both easier to suppress and are more dangerous. Hamas leadership and supply targets can also be attacked once per turn. It is rarely seems worth attacking the short-range Qassam rocket units.
  • How to attack. Aircraft and drones can attack separately, but if they combine their efforts into a single attack they are more likely to succeed and less likely to cause collateral damage.
  • How to defend. The Israeli player may deploy and redeploy Iron Dome defences, the availability of which can vary from turn to turn. As noted below, this is a bit odd—Iron Dome interceptors are rarely if ever moved during the conflict, and they are used to protect particular urban areas. Once these are deployed at the start of the game there shouldn’t be many more decisions for the Israeli player to make.

Overall, we didn’t think there were enough interesting choices to make the game particularly interesting. This might be addressed by allowing the Israeli player to make some pre-war resource allocation decisions about whether to, say, invest in more Iron Dome batteries, more drones, better intelligence, or other military capabilities. The intelligence collection part of the game could also be enhanced through using dummy markers. If markers were face down, for example, dummies/decoys were also used, and civilians were scattered among them, the Israeli player would face the dilemma of having to decide whether to attack the target on suspicion, or use drones or other intelligence to confirm its identity.

Representations and Realism

APTOPIX Mideast Israel PalestiniansWe very much liked that the game tracks both diplomatic and military dimensions, and that you need to do well on both to win the game. This accurately reflects a situation whereby Israel could maximize the damage and destruction it causes (in game terms, this is largely achieved by using drones and aircraft separately), but at the cost of civilian casualties, alienating world opinion, and handing Hamas a diplomatic victory. On the other hand, the game doesn’t model at all the important domestic element of the conflict: in reality, both Hamas and Israel are playing to domestic as well as international audiences.

In the game, the level of diplomatic support each side receives affects the level of military resources available to it each turn. The logic for this isn’t entirely clear—especially since it means that successful Hamas rocket attacks, which can have the effect of weakening Israeli diplomatic standing, also decrease the level of available Israeli military assets in future. In the actual conflict, I would think the reverse is true: particularly devastating Hamas attacks create Israeli domestic pressures for expanded military operations.

1121-iron-dome-israel-630x420The Iron Dome anti-missile system could be better portrayed in the game. In A Reign of Missiles, Israel has up to ten Iron Dome batteries, whereas in real life it only deployed four in the initial stages of the Gaza war, with a fifth being rushed into service to defend Tel Aviv. Iron Dome batteries aren’t moved much, if at all, once a conflict has started (since they would be unable to conduct interceptions while being relocated), whereas in the game their number and deployment usually varies from day to day. The game also seems to reflect a common misunderstanding that Iran Dome has an interception range of 5-75km. While this number is often reported in the press, it actually refers to the types of missiles that can be intercepted: missiles fired from less than 5km don’t leave the system enough reaction time, while those fired from further than 75km away are travelling too fast for the system to intercept. One Iron Dome battery provides protection for about 150km2 around the battery—that is to say, only one city (or square in game terms). The game also suggests that Iran Dome batteries can become depleted, presumably when they run out of missiles. There’s no evidence this ever occurred in 2012, although if it had it might well have been withheld from the public. In the game, Iron Dome seems to have an interception rate of 20%, whereas in 2012 it appears to have been closer to 85%.

Strangely, Sderot—the Israeli town of 24,000 most associated with rocket attacks from Gaza—is not depicted on the map.

Fajr-5 units fire the most rockets in a turn (4) of any rocket launcher type, while in practice these larger rockets were fired singly or in smaller numbers.

We thought the random events could have been much more diverse interesting. During the 2012 war, for example, the presence of visiting dignitaries in Gaza (such as the Egyptian prime minister) sometimes forced Israel to halt certain military operations.

On a minor note, while in the game all Israeli aircraft are depicted as F-15s, the IAF actually has far more F-16s.

Game Mechanics and Play

Overall, we found the first few phases interesting. After that, however, the multiple die rolling for each rocket coming out of Gaza grew rather tedious: a single Grad rocket launcher firing 3 rockets will require roughly 15 dice to resolve (up to 3 dice for movement, 1-2 dice for Iron Dome interceptions, 1-2 dice for each surviving rocket striking the ground). One wonders if this couldn’t all be much simplified into a smaller number of card draws or chit pulls. Overall the game play seemed less engaging than the often rather tense draw of a card in the “State of Siege” series of solo games published by Victory Point Games. A card would also be able to address the effect of the strike, and contain some flavour text.

It seems impossible to hit Ashkelon. Qassam missiles (which can only reach the green boxes) will fall short. Grad missiles (which start on the last black box) will overshoot it, as will Fajr-5s (which carry on to the final boxes).

There seemed to be little incentive to hold back military resources to the second and third impulse of each turn, when instead you could suppress or destroy missile launchers on the first impulse and prevent them from firing for the rest of the turn.

In the game, the Israeli player has perfect intelligence about Hamas assets and their deployment. As suggested above, some sort of blind system would be more interesting. Hamas units might then be revealed either by firing, surveillance (drones), or intelligence collection. Senior leadership figures, civilians, SAMs, and the press could be treated in the same way. As the game goes on, the ratio of military to civilian targets could further shift towards the latter, this modelling the latter parts of the war when Israel’s intelligence existing target list began to run short, and greater collateral damage began to accrue.

The game counts a 0 on a d10 as a zero, rather than (as is more conventionally the case) as a ten. I have no idea why.

The game ends immediately when the Israeli and Hamas diplomatic markers reach the same point on the diplomatic track. I’m not quite sure what the political logic is for this.

Finally, it would be interesting to add a two player option. While Hamas might have only a limited number of decisions to make once the game started, it would have many to make beforehand (for example, whether to invest in fewer long-range Fajr 5s or more shorter-range Qassams and Grads, how much to invest in ground defences, command and control, camouflage/decoys/deception, and so forth).

Israel vs Iran: The first 48 hours

In September the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel conducted a large-scale wargame/crisis simulation of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yesterday they issued their summary report on the exercise.:

After midnight on November 9, al-Jazeera reports that Israeli airplanes have attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities in three waves of attack. As reports multiply, Israel officially announces it has attacked Iran’s nuclear sites because it had no other choice. According to the scenario, Israel did not coordinate the attack with the United States in advance, and only informed the US once the planes were already en route to the Iranian targets. Initial assessments estimate that the Iranian nuclear program has been set back by nearly three years.

Following the successful attack, Iran decides to react with maximal force, launching missiles from within its borders and urging its proxies – Hizbollah, Hamas, and other radical elements – to attack Israel. Nonetheless, it is careful to avoid attacking American targets. Israel attempts to contain the attacks and works to attain a state of calm as rapidly as possible. The international community is paralyzed, largely because Russia tries to exploit the situation for its own strategic objectives. At the end of the first 48 hours, Iran continues to attack Israel, as do their proxies, albeit to a lesser extent. At this point in the simulation, the crisis does not seem to be close to a resolution.

What is unusual about this Israel-Iran wargame is, as we noted a few days ago, that the simulation was also filmed by the UK Channel 4 current affairs show Dispatches. The resulting 27 minute documentary aired tonight in the UK. (UK viewers that missed it can still watch the video via the Channel 4 website, but those elsewhere are out of luck unless they know how to use a proxy server.)

According to the Channel 4 production team, they were rather taken aback by how easy the Israelis thought it would all be:

And that seemed to sum up the game: ‘Israel’ doing pretty much what it wanted – with little or no consequences. By the end of the proceedings, the picture of almost total ‘Israeli’ victory was clear: ‘Iranian’ retaliation had been limited; ‘Irans’ attempts to get others to enter the conflict on its behalf had largely failed, as had its attempts to get ‘Egypt’ to cancel its peace accord with ‘Israel’.

‘Tehran’ failed to have the sanctions on it removed and also failed to have sanctions passed on ‘Israel’ in the Security Council. A strike against ‘Iran’, it seemed, could be an almost unqualified success.

While it is possible to read the simulation in this way, it seems to me that the INSS wargame actually pointed to some rather complex and important issues related to Iranian retaliation.

  1. Iran has only a limited capacity to inflict direct damage on Israel, largely through its ballistic missile force (which would have to penetrate Israel’s dual-layer Arrow and Patriot ABM defences.)
  2. Iran could press its Hizbullah client in Lebanon to attack Israel with shorter-range rockets (of which it has tens of thousands) and other methods, but Hizbullah might be reluctant to do so for fear of sparking a major Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, especially at a time that its Syrian ally is engulfed in civil war. Dragging Lebanon into war at Iran’s behest would also damage Hizbullah’s domestic and regional political standing. The Iranians know this too, so much would depend on whether they wanted to take the risk, and how hard they were prepared to push Hizbullah to act.
  3. On the Palestinian side, Hamas has a much more distant relationship-of-convenience with Tehran, and would be even less likely to want to risk an unpopular major war on Iran’s behalf. Iran would have rather more influence over the very much smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which might fire off some rockets until Hamas decided to intervene.
  4. Iran could target Arab Gulf states, US facilities in the Gulf, or oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz. This would risk dragging the US into a shooting war, however—with even greater costs to the Iranians.
  5. In the longer term the Iranians have a number of other indirect retaliatory options, including attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and stepping up their involvement in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere. However these largely lay outside the 48 hour timeframe of the game

One needs to be very careful about that “48 hours timeframe,” therefore, in assessing the policy implications of the game. The game does not assess whether the Iranians choose to rebuild their nuclear facilities after the attack, much less whether they might decide to develop a much more serious nuclear weapons program than the one they have at present. The game does not assess possible Iranian retaliatory actions in the weeks and months ahead, and the potential for escalatory tit-for-tat. Indeed, the concern that while a war with Iran would be easy to start it would be much harder to end seems to underpin much of the opposition that the Israeli national security establishment has shown to the idea of an attack.

Needless to say, this game has been added to the fourteen others now listed at the Israel vs Iran Wargame Compendium.

h/t Charles Cameron

Channel 4: Nuclear War Games

The Channel 4 (UK) current affairs programme Dispatches will be airing a report on 5 November 2012 that explores the regional and international implications of an Israeli attack on Iran via crisis simulation:

Nuclear War Games: Channel 4 Dispatches

On the eve of the US presidential election Dispatches explores one of the major international issues facing the world: the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The programme has gained exclusive access to an Israeli ‘war game’, in which an Israeli attack on Iran is played out in detail.

The outcome of the imagined scenario could help Israel decide whether it goes to war with Iran. Dispatches examines how such a conflict could have dire repercussions for global stability and goes inside a country that lives with the permanent threat of war…

Behind closed doors in Israel’s elite Institute for National Security Studies, Israeli diplomats, former government ministers and spies are role-playing what could be the most audacious military strike in Israel’s history. All the potential players in this drama – the US, Iran, Israel, the EU, the UN, the Arab World and Russia – are represented in the game by Israelis, who chart out likely responses to an event that will ripple throughout the world. Will Israel escape unscathed? Or will the region explode into war – possibly dragging the West along with it…?

Producer/Director: Kevin Sim

Prod Co: Blakeway

Newsweek’s Iran Wargame

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the United Nations General Assembly with a cartoon bomb to highlight the dangers of Iranian nuclear enrichment. A few days later, Israeli intelligence officials noted that some Iranian Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) had been used to make nuclear fuel, making it unsuitable for weaponization. And in the media and think-tank world, the increasingly popular pastime of Israel-Iran-US crisis gaming this past week had its latest entry, in the form of Newsweek magazine’s Iran War Game.

In point of fact, the Newsweek wargame isn’t a wargame at all, since it involves only one side and no moves or countermoves by the participants. Instead, it was more of a policy options exercise, in which participants were assigned roles—in this case, as members of the National Security Council Principal’s Committee (NSC-PC). They were then presented with a scenario, and asked to assess risks, interests, and possible policy options:

As part of the war game, Newsweek convened seven former political and military officials and staged a mock meeting of the “Principals Committee”—the team the president calls on for recommendations about matters of the highest importance. Assuming the roles of Obama’s key advisers, including his chief of staff, his national security adviser, secretaries of state and defense, directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the panel was roughly analogous to the group Obama consulted before ordering the operation against Osama bin Laden last year.

Former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Mideast Policy, prepared detailed briefing papers on the Israeli attack, during which Israeli strikes knocked out some facilities but left other key parts operational. The documents indicated that Israel had set back the Iranian nuclear program with its attack but hadn’t managed to destroy it. They also outlined international responses to the operations: denunciations across Europe, rocket attacks on Israel by Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah group, and small-scale street protests around the Muslim world.

The group then heard from their simulated CIA Director, played by former CIA Deputy Director Richard Kerr:

Principals Committee meetings often start with assessments by intelligence directors. In ours, Kerr, as the CIA chief, predicted worse things to come: Iran would likely step up its attacks on Israel, and, viewing Washington as implicitly involved, could try indirectly to strike at American targets as well. The easiest ones might involve U.S. troops in western Afghanistan or in Iraq. In both cases Iran would likely operate through proxies, keeping its fingerprints off the operations. Kerr, who in real life helped manage the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan in 1990, said the administration should also brace for Iranian cyberattacks, another way for Tehran to lash out at Washington from behind a wall of anonymity. “They will be very cautious about a direct confrontation with the United States, but there are a number of things … they might be able to do,” he said.

In what could easily cause shock waves to the world economy, Kerr also warned about Iranian attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf. (Some 20 percent of oil traded worldwide flows from the Gulf out through the Straits of Hormuz.) “I don’t think they’ll try to close the Gulf, but they can make the Gulf a difficult place to operate in, and raise the cost for everybody,” he said.

[Former CIA Deputy Director John] McLaughlin, in the role of director of National Intelligence, said street protests in the Muslim world could precipitate the kind of violence that killed four Americans in Libya last month, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Not everyone agreed. Kerr estimated that the Gulf countries would be happy to see Tehran cowed and that Sunni Muslims would not come out for Shia Iran. But McLaughlin pointed out that the ouster of autocrats across the region in the past two years meant the Muslim street was less predictable.

I tilt towards Kerr on this one, and in any case don’t think the “Arab” or “Muslim” street is a very useful concept in any case. However, this could simply be the article’s rendering of a more complex conversation. In any case, as the Newsweek report notes, the real challenge in the view of participants was how to develop a response that deescalated tensions, and showed support for Israel’s security without endorsing Israel’s unilateral action:

The assessments helped frame a main quandary of the discussion: how to scale back the tension without signaling to Iran that the U.S. was weak or hesitant, a message that might tempt Iran to actually escalate the violence; and how to put distance between the U.S. and Israel, which explicitly defied Obama in launching the operation, without emboldening Iran and, again, potentially raising the flames.

Acting characteristically assertive—but rather unlike the real Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—Bing West suggested that the US pile on by attacking Iranian assets even before Iran had taken any actions against the United States.

West proposed a 10-day military campaign to neutralize much of Iran’s offensive capability. Others ruled out such an operation for the time being but agreed that an Iranian attack on an American ship would trigger a broad military response against Iran’s Navy. “We have multiple ways of taking on their assets,” said Rudy deLeon, in the role of defense secretary. [John] Podesta, as Obama’s chief of staff, asked lightheartedly if the uranium–enrichment plant at Fordow was part of the Iranian Navy. In other words, he wanted to know if the U.S. would see an Iranian provocation as an opportunity to destroy those parts of Iran’s nuclear program still standing after the Israeli attack. The question raised chuckles, but Podesta predicted later in the discussion that an escalation would likely result in American strikes on Iran’s remaining nuclear facilities.

So, while the team would urge Obama to focus on de-escalation, it was also acknowledging that much depended on Iran’s actions after the Israeli operation. An Iranian attack on American targets would inevitably lead the U.S. to war.

The group wrestled with how best to deal with Israel, with participants’ views apparently running the gamut from full backing (including military resupply) to a much more cautious response. Although Podesta had urged participants to ignore political considerations and the pending US Presidential election, it seemed to be implicitly accepted that US criticism of or pressure on Israel could come at an undesirable domestic political price for the Obama team.

Considerable concern was also expressed that the Israeli strike might have harmed US security interests by facilitating or accelerating Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons:

Several participants voiced concern that the Israeli assault would, perversely, undermine Washington’s ability to keep Iran from getting the bomb. They estimated that Tehran would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after the attack and expel international observers from their facilities—something Iranian leaders might have been looking for an excuse to do. “I think there’s a chance this is a gift to the Iranians,” McLaughlin said, describing the Israeli operation as a possible “get-out-of-the-NPT-free card” for Iran. Without the observers, the U.S. would have a harder time determining what Iran was doing at Fordow, Natanz, and the other sites, and, specifically, at what level it was enriching uranium, a key component of nuclear weapons. On top of that, given international anger at Israel over the attack, the broad weave of international sanctions against Iran that Washington has pulled together over the past year would likely fray. “We have to avoid the rapid unraveling of sanctions,” Podesta said.

In the end, several participants offered odds of 50% or higher that the US would end up getting dragged into the conflict, resulting in some level of US military action against Iran.

…the upshot of the simulation is a sobering one: Washington could quickly lose control of events after an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Iran attacks Americans or goes after Israel too aggressively, even an administration wishing to avoid another war in the Middle East might find itself in the middle of one.

I’m a little surprised there wasn’t more discussion of the economic consequences of all this, given the potential (flagged by Kerr at the outset) for the conflict to spike up oil prices, thereby choking off an already fragile global economic recovery and possibly pushing the Eurozone into an even greater financial crisis. This may have been a function, however, of the predominance of former spooks, diplomats, and military folks in the room, and the absence of anyone playing the Secretary of the Treasury (normally a member of the NSC-PC). Still, all-in-all it seems to have been a thoughtful discussion by a group of eminently-qualified participants that highlights the many policy dilemmas that would face the United States should Israel attack Iran

For a summary of all publicly-reported Iran nuclear crisis games, see the ever-growing Israel vs Iran wargame compendium at Wargaming Connection.

IDC crisis-games a terrorist attack on Israel

According to an article a few days ago in the Jerusalem Post, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya recently conducted a crisis game exploring Israel’s response to a “an attack from Sinai, in which 17 people were killed and dozens wounded when two rockets hit Eilat.”

The security cabinet, comprising former senior officials, ordered a strike on the Gaza Strip, where the terrorist attack was said to have been planned by the Army of Islam, while at the same time coordinating with Egypt, the United States and the international community.

The prime minister – played convincingly by the former head of the National Security Council, IDC Prof. Uzi Arad – ruled after hearing the views of his security cabinet members (Eitan Ben-Eliyahu as defense minister, Roni Milo as foreign minister, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Eitan as chief of staff, Ya’acov Perry as director of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and Col. (res.) Lior Lotan as director of military intelligence) that the IDF should retaliate immediately with a massive air strike – but not a ground operation – on terrorist targets in Gaza.

“We have to react,” he said. “We cannot wait.”

In the second stage of the simulation, major parties in the region played by academics and former officials – including Hezbollah, Syria, Egypt, Iran and al- Qaida – decided, for the most part, not to get directly involved in the escalation following the Israeli military strike, which, according to a mock report on CNN, killed dozens in Gaza.

In the third stage, the US ambassador (played by Michael Singh, managing director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy) vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s excessive response presented by the German ambassador (played by Dr. Daphne Richemond-Barak, head of the International Law Desk at IDC) and supported by other members of the council.

There are a few peculiar aspects to the report (which may be more a function of the Jerusalem Post coverage of the event than the crisis game itself). First, there is no mention of any actions taken by Hamas, arguably the second or third most important actor in the crisis. Hamas has been acutely aware of the potential dangers to itself and Gaza by actions taken by more militant Islamist groups since the 5 August 2012 attack by unknown gunmen against Egypt-Israel border crossing at Kerem Shalom that left 15 Egyptian soldiers dead, and is almost certainly taking measures to prevent the reoccurrence of such attacks. It also has a very strained relationship against the Army of Islam, having threatened or used force against it in the past. Oddly, al-Qa’ida is mentioned as a player in the game, although they have little presence in Gaza. There is no discussion of the repercussions of an Israeli strike for the Palestinian Authority, which has recently faced a wave of austerity protests (and which Israeli decision-makers would have little interest in destabilizing). It isn’t at all clear what the target of a “massive airstrike” that “killed dozens” would be, given that the Army of Islam is small and has no real infrastructure to target.

If any readers participated in the simulation or have further information, please feel free to add it in the comments section below.

US Central Command wargames war with Iran

According to today’s New York Times, US Central Command recently conducted a wargame to explore the effects of an Israeli strike against Iran that escalates to involve the United States:

The two-week war game, called “Internal Look,” played out a narrative in which the United States found it was pulled into the conflict after Iranian missiles struck a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, killing about 200 Americans, according to officials with knowledge of the exercise. The United States then retaliated by launching its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

(“Internal Look” is actually an annual CENTCOM wargame, held since the 1980s. The topic changes from year to year.)

The initial Israeli attack was assessed to have set back the Iranian nuclear program by roughly a year, and the subsequent American strikes did not slow the Iranian nuclear program by more than an additional two years. However, other Pentagon planners have said that America’s arsenal of long-range bombers, refueling aircraft and precision missiles could do far more damage to the Iranian nuclear program — if President Obama were to decide on a full-scale retaliation.

By “other Pentagon planners” I suspect that they mean “US Air Force planners.” After all, who wants to admit that with an annual air force budget of $170 billion doesn’t buy you certainty?

According to the New York Times account, “In the end, the war game reinforced to military officials the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a strike by Israel, and a counterstrike by Iran, the officials said.”

The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results and spoke on condition of anonymity because of its classified nature. When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first-strike would likely have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there.

I’ll added this to the ever-growing Israel vs Iran wargame compendium over at the Wargaming Connection blog.

h/t Brian Train

Iran wargame du jour

The Times (London) reported yesterday on yet another political-military simulation of the Iranian nuclear program, this time conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University:

The Israeli specialists assumed that the following would occur:

THE US would try to restrain Israel from military retaliation and propose a formal defence pact, including possibly inviting the Jewish state to join Nato;

RUSSIA would propose a defence pact with the United States in an effort to stop nuclear proliferation in the Middle East;

SAUDI ARABIA, not content with US nuclear guarantees, would develop its own nuclear arms programme;

EGYPT would push for military action against Iran while Turkey would be likely to avoid a showdown with Tehran. If Israel were to become a member of Nato, Turkey would withdraw from the organisation.

All the predictions are based on current international policies.

The specialists – including a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, two former members of the Prime Minister’s Office, a former ambassador and others with close ties to Israeli military intelligence – believe that a nuclear test in January 2013 would be presaged by a series of provacative demands from Tehran.

They include an Iranian call for its border with Iraq to be redrawn; calls for sovereignty over Bahrain and low-level actions against the vessels of the US Fifth Fleet in the Gulf.

The specialists made clear that although Israel would come under pressure to abandon any military plans against Iran, it would keep this option on the table.

“The Israeli military option is likely to be a significant lever, if not toward Iran, then toward some of the main players,” said the minutes of the war game seen by The Times. “The simulation showed that this option, or the threat of using it, would also be relevant following an Iranian nuclear test,” it added.

“The simulation showed that Iran will not forgo nuclear weapons, but will attempt to use them to reach an agreement with the major powers that will improve its position.”

In their report, the Israeli authors, INSS fellows Yoel Guzansky and Yonatan Lerner, wrote: “Iran is closer than ever to the juncture at which its leaders will need to decide whether to stay in a relatively comfortable position on the verge of nuclear capability or, alternatively, to break through to the bomb. Iran has an interest in postponing the decision whether to cross the threshold to a later stage. Nevertheless, a series of regional and international developments is likely to cause Iran to decide to accelerate its nuclear development and to break through toward nuclear weapons.”

The original Times article is behind a paywall, but you can find a version here at The Australian, as well as a widely-cited AFP report (which seems to be based entirely on the original piece in The Times). The INSS website also released a summary (here), which mirrors the piece in The Times (and may have even have been the original source for it, or vice-versa).

For more on gaming an Iranian crisis, see the updated “Israel versus Iran wargame compendium” at Wargaming Connection.

Israel vs Iran wargame compendium at Wargaming Connection

I’ve pulled together a listing of recent (public domain) wargames regarding Israel and Iran’s nuclear program over at Wargaming Connection. Most of the links have been previously featured here at PAXsims.

If anyone knows of any other reports, feel free to add them in the comments section.

Ayatollah for a Day (more Israel/Iran simulation)

I missed it when it first came out (largely because I was locked away in a SCIF that day discussing things Middle Eastern), but Karim Sajadpour had a piece in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this month discussing his role as a (simulated) Ayatollah Khamenei during the Brookings Institution’s 2009 crisis game examining a possible Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities:

Although the precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation is debatable, its objective — to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran — is crystal clear. What’s less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would the Iranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond with fury or restraint?

To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, each representing their government’s top national security officials. The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S. government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel, including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.

I had the unenviable task of trying to channel Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge or consent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.

We’ve covered other reports on the game in the past, and had some doubts as to how realistic the military scenario was. At the risk of quibbling, Sadjadpour’s account only further contributes to those doubts when it notes that the Iranian side in the wargame “unleashed Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israeli population centers.” While PIJ is certainly subject to very heavy Iranian influence, and Hizbullah might fire rockets in such as case (although perhaps not, since the political cost would be very high), Iran has no substantial operational influence over Hamas at all. Someone in the room ought to have known that.

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