Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Persian Incursion

(Virtually) bombing Iran and limits of (real) military power


Last Friday, I got together with “Mister X” (a government analyst specializing on Iran) and a group of McGill University graduate students to play a modified version of the board game Persian Incursion. The modifications were designed to approximate current real-world conditions, including the possibility of a “Syrian route” to Iran whereby Israel might exploit of the degradation of Syrian air defences caused by the ongoing civil war in that country.

So, how did it go? In order to keep players engaged, I had to cut a few corners. We used simplified target profiles, coupled with some of the quick strike rules that the game designers have released. Mission planning was rather rushed and a bit chaotic, and even then the Iranian side was left with little to do for extended periods of time while the Israelis plotted their attacks. (Fortunately, the Iranians were able to fill the time with a constant stream of political banter and the occasional fiery rhetoric condemning the Zionist entity.) Despite my efforts to speed things up, by the end of four hours of game play we were a little less than half way through the week that the game is designed to cover. Having as many eight players in the room at once certainly contributed to a certain degree of chaos, with the murky complexity of Iranian simulation decision-making often mirroring the dysfunctions of the real thing. If I were to do it again I would do a few things differently.

Nevertheless, I think things went well, and the participants seemed to have fun. I was certainly able to use the simulation process to generate discussion of a number of military and political/diplomatic aspects of a potential military confrontation between the two countries. The account below adds some atmospheric embellishment to the game as it unfolded, but nonetheless accurately reflects the strategic decision-making and calculations of the two sides.

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At the beginning of the game the Israeli side decided to concentrate their attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities, rather than undertaking a broader campaign against its oil and economic infrastructure. To facilitate this, they secretly converted several transport aircraft into additional air-to-air tankers. They also  modified some of their HARM missiles to home in on any GPS jammers that Iran might deploy at sensitive sites. Israel decided to launch its initial attack through Jordanian and Iraqi air space, but held open the possibility of using the Syrian route in future if diplomatic developments foreclosed other possibilities.

For its part, Iran did indeed deploy both GPS jammers and laser countermeasures at its nuclear sites. Aware of reports of Israeli jamming of Syria’s air defences in 2008 during Operation Orchard, as well as ongoing cyberattacks against its defence and nuclear facilities, the Iranians also heavily invested in electronic hardening of their own air defence network.

In Tehran, the Iranian leadership plots their diplomatic moves as an Israeli strike mission prepares to launch.

In Tehran, the Iranian leadership plots their diplomatic moves as an Israeli strike mission prepares to launch.

The game started with an initial Israeli strike against the Fordow underground uranium enrichment facility near Qom, the Natanz nuclear fuel enrichment facility, and Iran’s reactor and heavy water plant at Arak. More than 120 Israeli aircraft—four squadrons of F-16s, one squadron of F-15s, plus tankers and electronic warfare aircraft—took part. Although some aircraft were assigned to fighter sweeps ahead of the attacking force or to close escort of the strike packages, for most part the need to maximize the amount of ordnance that would be delivered meant that the Israeli strike aircraft were expected to self-escort. Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) missions were plotted against key SAM sites.

The attack was generally very successful. Despite efforts to make their system more robust, Israeli EW took its toll on Iran’s air defence system. Two long-range S-200 (SA-5) surface-to-air missile batteries were destroyed, as were several of the medium-ranged systems defending particular targets. The GPS jammers were also eliminated using the modified HARMs. When the smoke cleared, Fordow had been completely destroyed. The deeply-buried and well-protected main centrifuge halls at Natanz were also destroyed, with Israeli F-15s having successfully “double-tapped” pairs of EGBU-28B bombs one after the other in the same locations so as to drill down through the concrete structure. Some secondary installations  at Natanz did survive, however. At Arak, more than two-thirds of the facility was destroyed.

About a dozen Iranian aircraft managed to intercept the Israeli force, but all were shot down well beyond visual range by the IAF, which enjoyed the advantage of much superior modern radar systems as well as the much greater range of the AIM-120C air-to-air missiles. However, one IRIAF F-14 pilot was able to target and destroy an F-16. While the Israeli pilot was killed—thus denying Iran the opportunity to parade him on television as a prisoner of war—the shoot-down was nonetheless a morale-builder for Tehran.

Members of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-14 squadron that engaged the Israeli attack force on the first day of the war. The pilot responsible for downing an Israeli aircraft can be seen in the back row, centre.

Members of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-14 squadron that engaged the Israeli attack force on the first day of the war. The pilot responsible for downing an Israeli aircraft can be seen in the back row, centre.

As the Israeli aircraft landed back at their bases, Iran also launched the first of what would be several retaliatory waves of attacks by Shahab 3 medium range ballistic missiles. The Supreme Leader, anxious to seize the moral high-ground, ordered that these not be targeted against civilians in Israeli cities, but rather in symbolic retribution against Israel’s own nuclear complex at Dimona. Less than half of the missiles made it through Israel’s layered ABM defences of Arrow-2 and Patriot PAC-3 interceptors. Those that did killed several lizards and damaged an ancillary building, but did little more.

Iran also responded to the Israeli attack with a barrage of angry statements and indignant diplomacy, putting particular pressure on Jordan in the hopes that it might deny its airspace to future Israeli attacks. Most countries, including the United States, seemed to be unhappy with Israel’s unilateral action. Unwilling to be drawn into the fighting, Washington refrained from deploying military assets (notably its Aegis-class cruisers) to buttress Israel’s own missile defences.

In order to increase the pressure on Tehran, Israel readied a second attack to finish off the nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak, and to highlight to Iranian leaders the ability of the IAF to strike at will. Anxious to minimize its losses, aware that Iran had increased the alert status of several squadrons and redeployed several batteries of short-range SAMs to Natanz,  and with many fewer targets to strike than before, a much larger proportion of aircraft were assigned to SEAD, fighter suppression, and close escort. Secret Israeli entreaties to King Abdullah II assured that the operation, once more flown via Jordanian and Iraqi air space, was met with little other than verbal opposition from the Kingdom.


A second Israeli strike mission is en route, on the morning of D+2.

As the mission began, tragedy struck when one F-15 suffered mechanical failure and crashed into a residential neighbourhood in northern Israel. The rest of the  operation went flawlessly though, with the remaining facilities at Arak and Natanz completely destroyed. Israel’s jubilant leaders and public waited for Iran to concede to the IDF’s clear superiority, and agree to terminate its nuclear programme.


“So, how many Zionist aggressors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

Except that Iran didn’t. On the contrary, President Ahmadi-Nejad toured the smoking ruins of Natanz only hours after the Israeli warplanes had left, vowing that for every “peaceful civilian nuclear site destroyed by Zionist aggression” Iran would build “two more to replace it.” His opponents in the Iranian Majlis (parliament) immediately condemned his comments as a sign of weakness and insisted instead that at least three new facilities be built for every one destroyed by Israel. With domestic public opinion generally supportive, Iranian leaders seemed to be in no mood for compromise. On the contrary, another barrage of Shahab-3s were fired at Israel, this time lightly damaging the Ramat David air force base. The Supreme Leader seemed more upbeat than usual, joking with his aides during his public appearances.

The perplexed Israeli chief of staff reported to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Iranians—unable to confront Israel effectively in the air—seemed to be “playing for a draw.” The PM, aware that international concern at Israel’s actions was growing, angrily banged his fist on the table in frustration. “A draw is not good enough! We need to strike them where it hurts, and force them to concede to our demands!” Mossad reported that the Iranians had likely been set back in their nuclear development efforts by between one and three years. One junior Foreign Ministry analyst in the room warned, however, that Tehran could respond to further Israeli strikes by escalating its own retaliation, or even deciding to press ahead and build nuclear weapons at all costs. Ironically, therefore, the attacks might actually hasten the emergence of a nuclear-armed foe.

The Prime Minister, having embarked on this course of action, didn’t want to hear it.

Instead, Israel’s strategy was revised. Plans for a strike against Iran’s fuel enrichment facility at Isfahan were put on hold, until such time as Iranian leaders and Iranian public had been made to feel the pain of Israeli attacks more directly. Emphasis was to be shifted to key economic and infrastructure targets instead.

There was some risk in this. Faced with a more direct challenge to regime stability, Tehran might escalate its response, either attempting to close the Straits of Hormuz or even encouraging Hizbullah to launch rocket attacks against Israel from Lebanon. The latter in particular would likely escalate into a major military confrontation, diverting IAF squadrons into fighting a different war much closer to home for many days or weeks.

The IDF examined, but the PM rejected, the option of launching a series of airstrikes against Iran’s oil refineries and terminals. This would require a large number of continuing air operations, an operational tempo that might begin to stretch IDF resources. Moreover, with every mission came the risk of losing an aircraft—thereby handing Tehran a propaganda victory. Iran might also be expected to politically exploit any overt shift by Israel to bombing civilian targets.

Instead, IDF special forces and Mossad, working in conjunction with the anti-regime Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), were ordered to launch a series of covert sabotage operations against important infrastructure targets within the country. Three nights into the military campaign, the first of these struck an electrical generator complex near Tehran. Subsequently attacks hit oil pipelines and port facilities in the south.

Again, however, the attacks—while very successful in narrow military terms—failed to generate the desired political effects fast enough. Iranian public support for the regime’s positions remained relatively firm. Indeed, one attack rather backfired, causing Iranians to rally around the regime more closely.

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…and that’s where, for lack of time, we had to leave it. The game demonstrated both the power of the Israeli military and its limits. The IAF could mount a mission into Iran and destroy its assigned targets. The IRIAF could do very little to stop this, and indeed had suffered almost two dozen planes shot down for the loss of just one Israeli jet. However, even with additional tanker support the IAF could not destroy Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure in a single mission, necessitating a multi-day operation that increasingly concerned the international community. More to the point, the destruction of nuclear facilities did not necessarily guarantee that Iran would suspend its nuclear programmes—on the contrary, it might even redouble its commitment to this for reasons of both domestic politics and national security. The frustration of the Israeli team was palpable, as they executed near-flawless airstrikes, only to find their opponent bloody but unbowed. Faced with this, Israel decided to broaden the war, with unpredictable consequences.

One participant, briefly summarizing his take-away from the game, expressed it thus:

In terms of my experience, it really drove home the disparity in power [between the two sides] due to technological differences. Also, the complexity of planning a strike and balancing certainty of destruction with hitting more targets. Then, the fact that Israel’s military success barely made a dent against the Iranian regime until we subverted it by other means.

In addition to providing a rare opportunity to discuss the technical aspects of modern air warfare in a political science class, I was particularly pleased at the way in which the politics unfolded. The difficulty that the Israelis encountered in translating military superiority into achievement of desired political goals was rather reminiscent of the failures of political failures of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon or the 2006 war with Hizbullah—or, for that matter, the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for the “Syrian route,” we never had a chance to explore it since Jordan remained a viable option right until the end. However, the mere availability of the Syrian option certainly gave the Israeli side a sense of greater flexibility, since they knew that no matter what happened on the diplomatic front they could still strike against Iran.

Who would have won at the end? It is hard to say. The Iranians were certainly upbeat, even more so because they were slowly winning the diplomatic war as international concern grew at Israel’s actions. On the other hand, Israeli public opinion remained strongly supportive of their government throughout the crisis, while towards the last few turns there had been some slight deterioration of the Iranian position. If we had an opportunity to continue to play, the battle for Iranian public opinion would likely have emerged as a critical factor.

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.

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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.

Gaming an Israeli strike against Iran

Over the past couple of years at PAXsims we’ve highlighted several crisis simulations that have explored a possible Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In recent weeks the world has seen renewed speculation about such an attack, in part because of press reports from Israel and in part because of the release of the latest IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program.

In that context, Michael Peck has just written a couple of interesting articles examining the boardgame Persian Incursion, designed by Larry Bond (of Harpoon fame), Chris Carlson, and Jeff Dougherty. Larry and Chris did a presentation on the design of the game at the Connections 2011 conference, which I’ve uploaded here.

In his first piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Michael offers a description of the game, a little play-by-play, and some overall impressions of its value as a simulation:

So is Persian Incursion actually useful for understanding how an Israeli strike on Iran might unfold? No and yes. My first reaction is that it’s a lovely game set in an alternate universe where Turkey is still an Israeli ally and the Arab Spring is still winter. But to be fair, we are talking about the Middle East; any game would be obsolete three months after it hit the shelves.

Militarily, the game demonstrates that Iran has as much chance of stopping an Israeli strike as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does of becoming an ayatollah, but then again, Iran doesn’t need to shoot down many Israeli planes. Every F-16 burning in the desert reaps Tehran a rich political harvest. Think Gilad Shalit multiplied by nine or 10 captured Israeli airmen.

The game does allow for some surprise events, such as a “press leak” or “anti-war riots,” that influence the political tracks. And there are unpleasant surprises, like an “industrial accident” in Iran that damages a nuclear site or an “intifada” against Israel.

But there’s also the glaring omission of Iran’s proxy force, Hezbollah. Bond, the game’s creator, told me that the Lebanese organization would not have time to react to an Israeli air campaign. This seems a bizarre oversight: Clearly, Hezbollah would have military as well as political roles in the conflict. Ten minutes after the first bombs fell on Iran and well before Israel launched any follow-up strikes, southern Lebanese skies would be milky with Katyusha rocket trails, and the swarm of Israeli Air Force drones on the border would fill the air with the buzz of propellers.

Additionally, the game doesn’t allow for an Iranian military response on any country but Israel. If Saudi Arabia allows Israeli jets to transit its airspace, might not Iran respond with military action against it (which in turn could drag in the United States)? Persian Incursion cries out for some rule updates. But that’s the beauty of an old-fashioned board game versus a video game. No need to wait months for a software patch. With just a few strokes of a pen, you can add your own rules to simulate the effects of Hezbollah or the Arab Spring.

Despite its flaws, I learned a lot from this game. It managed to capture the essence of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, which is that both sides would wage war by very different means. I focused on the nuts and bolts of conducting a complex and difficult Israeli air campaign, while Colonel Noob had to be more patient and subtle, compensating for Israeli military superiority by judiciously striking at public opinion with missiles and terrorist attacks, seeking to politically isolate Israel and deny it allies.

The real question of this exercise, however, is whether an Israeli strike on Iran is a good or bad idea. Persian Incursion’s answer is an unqualified “maybe.” Israel can’t stop Iran from retaliating with missile attacks and terrorism. But it also can’t guarantee complete destruction of Iran’s nuclear program. Perhaps most importantly, the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war.

So was it fun? Sure, but let’s just hope it stays a game.

In his second piece, in Wired’s Danger Room, he offers some briefer lessons drawn from the game:

1. Bombing Iran is complicated. There’s a lot of prep work that needs to done. Persian Incursionassumes that an Israeli air campaign is only feasible if one of Iran’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Iraq — overtly or covertly agrees to Israeli passage through its airspace.

2. Iran can’t do jack about being bombed. The Persians in Persian Incursion have a snowball’s chance in hell of militarily stopping the Israeli onslaught. The Iranian player has to roll dice every turn just to see if his maintenance-starved air force can even get off the ground, while Israeli jammers and decoys keep things hopping for Iranian radars and anti-aircraft missiles. But Iran doesn’t have to shoot down every plane to win. Parading a dozen captured Israeli pilots before the cameras would be a political victory.

3. Israel can’t do jack about Iranian retaliation. The Israeli Air Force is going to be too busy bombing nuclear sites to go after Iranian missiles. The game assumes that Israel’s Arrow anti-missiles will knock down some Iranian rockets (I’m not so sure, given the less-than-sterling record of ballistic missile defense). But regardless, some Iranian weapons will get through. Israel has military superiority, but not invulnerability.

4. Iran’s nuclear hydra has many heads.Persian Incursion’s target folder lists dozens of Iranian nuclear facilities (along with their exact dimensions and defenses — the game is a reference library in a box). Some of them are hardened against all but the biggest bunker-busters. I don’t know how many would have to be destroyed to ruin Iran’s nuclear program, but the Israelis will have spread their limited resources over many targets.

5. Israel can’t do it all in one shot. Unlike the 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, Israel can’t pull this off in a single raid. Persian Incursion assumes Israel will need to conduct a one-week air campaign. Besides the diplomatic ramifications of a sustained assault, combat losses and maintenance downtime means the Israeli effort will only weaken over time.

6. Planning an air offensive is hard work. I have a lot of respect for U.S. Air Force planners after seeing what the Israeli player has to go through in Persian Incursion. Juggling the right mix of ordnance versus fuel tanks, and then calculating the right mix of bunker-busters versus air-to-air and anti-radar defensive missiles, is a brain teaser.

Leaving aside the issue of Hizbullah (unlike the game designers, I think they could retaliate very quickly—but I’m less convinced they would do so, given the costs in Lebanon of appearing to be solely Iranian proxies), the impact of the Arab Spring (where Michael is right: a boardgame allows easy modding for current circumstances), and Iranian retaliatory options (which are fairly broad, especially over a time frame of weeks and months after an attack), I’m not entirely convinced that the “the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war” as Michael suggests. Certainly part of the tangible cost to Israel is the extent to which an attack has negative political effects internationally and regionally. Domestically, however, the costs of an attack would like vary substantially over time, with an immediate rally-around-the-flag effect in Israel, coupled with possible longer term political damage to the government if an attack proves to be ineffectual, or actually spurred a substantial acceleration of Iran’s somewhat slow-motion path to some sort of nuclear capacity. In this context, a critical question is one of capability and damage inflicted—which is why the game’s victory conditions (which you can read here) do place substantial weight on how successful Israel strikes actually are at destroying their intended targets.

In any case, I’ve had a copy of Persian Incursion sitting on my game shelf for many months now, awaiting enough time to play it. When I get a chance, I’ll certainly post a review here to PAXsims.

UPDATE: Michael has also given an interview on the game on National Public Radio.




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