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MCU: Gaming the war in Ukraine, continued

The Marine Corps War College and the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University have continued their recent wargame of the war in Ukraine to look at the months ahead. At the Modern War Institute website, James Lacey, Tim Barrick and Nathan Barrick tell us how it has been going:

Our wargame’s advisors came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including United States military officers, representatives from NATO countries, two experts on internal Russian decision-making, and a retired Ukrainian colonel with experience on the Ukrainian general staff. The second iteration’s most significant change to gameplay was a switch from each turn representing a single day to three-month turns. This was done to allow us to play out a full year of combat operations within the time allotted to complete the wargame. Lengthening the game turn duration required a higher degree of adjudication abstraction than our previous wargame, but it proved essential to enabling players to look at broader operational and strategic considerations over the duration of a protracted conflict.

After applying expected geostrategic and operational developments over the remainder of this year and into the start of 2023, we determined the Russians reached an operational culmination well-short of their maximal objectives. Given the combination of Ukraine’s proven will and its capabilities in a defensive fight, the prospects for Russian forces in heavy urban combat proved daunting. By the end of the summer, Russia no longer possessed the forces to pursue major simultaneous objectives nor the combat power to conquer a major city. All was not rosy for the Ukrainians, who lacked the combat power to go on the offensive and eject Russia from the occupied territories. With neither side able to achieve decisive military effects in the offense, without exception, the combined teams predicted that without a negotiated settlement the war is headed toward an indefinite stalemate.

The ramifications of such an outcome are immense. First, of course, is the toll in human suffering, as losses mount on both sides, and the refugee crisis remains unalleviated for a year or more. For the United States, a stalemate means that the ad-hoc defense-related resupply arrangements require systemization and the establishment of a quasi-permanent logistics infrastructure. Ukraine’s future success also requires the establishment of training centers that can regenerate Ukraine’s frontline combat power and allow these forces to reenter the fight.

As we conducted the wargame, the surprises came fast and furious. The first was we entered the wargame with a flawed assumption about Russia’s prospects. Initially, we assessed that over the next four months the weight of the Russian force would gradually wear down Ukraine’s military and allow for a complete occupation of the country. After conducting open-source analysis to develop a current operating picture and assessing losses since the start of the war, the team agreed to fast forward one month and assume the collapse of MariupolSumy, and Konotop. The wargamers were then tasked to determine the major operational movements for the summer 2022 campaign, using as the key decision how Russia would employ the maneuver forces freed up by these successes and the option to employ forces held in reserve. In weighing and then employing the wargame to test courses of action, it rapidly became clear that Russia lacks the combat power to collapse the Ukrainian military this summer.

Another surprise for the wargame was the validation of how national leaders’ political objectives trounce the best military advice provided by generals. As the summer campaign played out, the “generals” (wargamers) were forced to decide how best to employ military forces, and shift combat resources, including strategic reserves, to accomplish objectives. Political requirements dominated military decision-making, as the expert military advice on future operations was overruled in favor of seizing objectives deemed more politically important. In this case, our Vladimir Putin ordered spectacular victories were necessary to sustain his own power, repeatedly saying that the postwar condition of the army was of small consequence.

You can find the rest of the article here.

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.

Krulak Center: Director of Wargaming wanted

The Krulak Centre at Marine Corps University is looking for a Director of Wargaming:

The Director of Wargaming serves as Marine Corps University’s Chief Wargaming Expert. The primary purpose of this position is to advance Marine Corps warfighting excellence through the employment of wargaming methodologies within an academic institution delivering world class education to military and government professionals. The incumbent will serve as the Director of Wargaming, located at the Krulak Center, and is responsible for identifying requirements and resources, providing input to and assisting faculty development, and devising innovative approaches to employing wargaming through all levels of the Marine Corps Professional Military Education (PME) system.

Full details can be found in the document below. The deadline to apply is April 15. Applicants must be US citizens able to obtain a TS/SCI clearance.

Sea Dragon wargaming competition at Marine Corps University

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.

dragon1.png

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.

dragon2.png

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Cole Petersen

MCU/PILPG Afghanistan simulation

In December 2011, the Minerva Initiative, Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, and the Public International Law and Policy Group held an Afghanistan reconciliation simulation exercise:

The intent of this event was to involve a variety of participants in order to simulate negotiations related to crafting an end to the conflict in Afghanistan. Reflecting the real-world situation to the greatest degree possible, we expected the proceedings to draw attention to issues of discord and to highlight potential roadblocks in future negotiations, as well as to stimulate thought on developing potential work-arounds and to delineate areas of common ground. One of the principal intended benefits of this simulation was to develop its utility as a teaching tool that could be replicated for those preparing to deal with the Afghanistan issue or for students of the Middle East or of general foreign affairs.

We were fortunate to be able to bring together a wide variety of participants, some having dealt with Afghanistan over many years, others without such direct personal experience but with wide- ranging expertise in other applicable fields. Participants included military officers, government and think tank analysts, diplomats, journalists, academics, NGO representatives, and contractors.

The players were divided into four teams representing Afghanistan (the current government and the political opposition), the Neo-Taliban, Regional Actors, and the United States and Non-US NATO. In most cases, within each main category, players were assigned to represent specific national or factional entities, reflecting the spectrum of interests and positions even within a single broad category. Players were asked to focus on four principal issues in their negotiations: the cessation of hostilities, the current and future U.S. military presence, constitutional issues, and minority and women’s rights.

In preparation for the negotiations, each participant received a read-ahead with both general background and specific guidance on the positions for the entity he/she was to represent. Over a four-hour period, various sessions were structured to enable individual delegations to formulate their positions on the key issues, to negotiate with other delegations, and to engage in shuttle diplomacy across delegation lines. Rapporteurs from PILPG followed the negotiation proceedings, recording the key ideas that emerged, and drafted this synthesis of the results.

The full PIPLG report can be read here. Other PILPG negotiation simulations can be found on their website.

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