Wargaming 101 – The 40-60-80 Games

Yet another great article from William (Chip) Sayers. First of three that are coming. The conclusions are his. 


Wargaming 101 – The 40-60-80 Games

Shortly after the George H. W. Bush Administration entered office in 1989 a story — probably apocryphal — was making the rounds. In the story, President Bush and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Bill Crowe, were on the back nine when the Commander-in-Chief turned to the Chairman and said, “Bill, I want you to gather together our best wargamers and game out some scenarios for the Conventional Forces in Europe talks. I’d like you to look at bringing the two sides down to parity and then do three wargames where one takes the two side’s forces down a further 20% to 80% of baseline parity, a second down to 60% of baseline and finally one at 40%.”

For many years of the Cold War the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) talks were on the books, but nobody took them seriously. Then, in the late 1980s, they were suddenly on the front burner with a real chance of yielding results. President Bush wanted us to have credible proposals ready if a breakthrough occurred and in particular, he wanted to thoroughly understand the implications of various possible proposals. The crux of the matter was a question of force-to-space ratios. For 40 years the two sides had sufficient forces to man a continuous line of units from the Baltic Sea to the Swiss Alps. CFE was designed to lessen the chances and consequences of war by radically reducing the forces of both sides. The problem was that no one knew how the character of a war in Europe would change when this was no longer true.

Heading the project was the legendary Huba Wass de Czege, at that time a Colonel about to pin on a general’s star. EUCOM sent its best and brightest to provide the Blue side, DIA was tasked to man the Red team, while J-8 facilitated the games. The plan was for each team to wargame its scenario as many times as possible within the time allotted and note any points of interest.  We quickly began referring to the exercise as the 40-60-80 games. I was assigned to run Red for the 60 game, which turned out to be the most interesting of the three scenarios. COL Wass de Czege instinctively knew this would be the case and he spent the majority of his time with us. The 80% game was too conventional to be very interesting, while the 40% game would be the Wild-West — no structure, too much open-field running to deal with in an organized manner. The 60% game would have the right amount of possibilities with the structure needed to make it work. COL Wass de Czege’s presence was a good gauge for where the real lessons would be learned and the longer the exercise went, the more time he spent with the 60% team.

The Blue Air guy opposing me was a US Air Force officer from EUCOM who had some distinctive ideas about how to use airpower. His main line was that airpower should be used in mass, that rather than parceling it out, one should concentrate to eliminate a target-set in its entirety. Not a bad thought. However, the White Cell controllers found him very persuasive. At one point, he directed a mass air attack on one of my second echelon formations, two Combined Arms Armies lying in wait in the Thüringer Wald. The controller looked at his tables, reached over and dumped all eight divisions in the dead pile. I’m an airpower guy myself, but in my wildest dreams I would never believe that this could happen. Billy Mitchell and Giulio Douhet would have blushed. In other circumstances, I would have been happy to explore Major Airpower’s theories, but I was concerned that his fantasies were going to skew the results of the games and that COL Wass de Czege, as a ground-minded Army officer might not be able to sort this out. I wrote the Colonel a note at the end of the exercise explaining why I was concerned with airpower’s portrayal. In retrospect, however, I doubt I needed to worry about the wool being pulled over COL Wass de Czege’s eyes.

Fortunately, it was during our games that Capt. Alex Zuyev of the Soviet Air Force decided to abscond with one of the USSR’s newest jets and deliver his MiG-29 to Turkey. Major Airpower was called back to Europe in a hurry to help find out what he could about Zuyev’s jet, leaving me free to play the game without an omnipotent air force to fight. Nevertheless, even with my nemesis gone, I still had some systemic problems to overcome.

As I noted in a previous post, the models at that time had a severe bias against the attacker. It was extremely frustrating to be told that an entire Combined Arms Army could be held in check by a single NATO division when I knew I could devise a plan that would make a mockery of such ridiculous assertions.

If the NATO division concentrates to have a realistic chance of holding off a force twice its size, the remaining Soviet divisions easily sweep through the cavalry screen monitoring the defender’s right.

If the NATO division instead spreads out to cover its assigned sector, the Combined Arms Army concentrates to make a breakthrough for its tank division to exploit into the defender’s rear.

In order to make up for such obvious problems, COL Wass de Czege gave me extra forces to work with. The justification for this was that the Soviets did not have to count units east of the Ural Mountains under the terms of the agreement as it then stood.  Eventually, we posited an early movement of these forces — since the Soviets would know when they intended to attack — and had them arrive in time to take part as the second echelon of the operation. It was a bit of a cheat, but a very reasonable one in our estimation. I don’t remember who came up with the idea, whether it was me, someone else, or COL Wass de Czege himself, but it had the full backing of the Colonel, and that’s what mattered.   

My biggest frustration, however, was that my attempts to execute an Air Operation kept ending in miserable failure, with no apparent effect on Blue Air at all. This prompted a very revealing conversation with a White Cell controller. We basically broke open the “black box” of the model and found that the algorithms assumed a single runway 24,000 miles long — essentially encompassing the entire Earth at the equator. Even Fairchild-Republic — maker of the A-10 and a manufacturer reputed to build its aircraft to use the last third of any runway, no matter how long it was — would have to bow to this monstrosity. I was unable to come up with a hack to overcome this problem, but at least knowing how the model was cheating allowed me to conserve resources that I had been wasting pursuing an impossible task.

On our final run-through, I developed a tactic that, if not entirely realistic, was very successful in overcoming some of the model’s bias against the attacker. I attacked with Combined Arms Armies deployed in two echelons. On two or three occasions, I had two CAAs attacking on parallel lines successfully pushing a Blue Corps back until held up by Blue’s defense of a river line. Because I had put extra weight behind this push, there were Blue forces on Red’s flanks, which seemed to the Blue players to be a good thing, but they weren’t counterattacking through those flanks. They hadn’t turned to face inward — apparently, they had their hands full to their direct front — so I turned my second echelon divisions 90⁰ toward either side and attacked into Blue’s rear areas.  My Blue counterpart protested that you can’t just turn on a dime and attack, but now it was my turn to be persuasive. I answered that Patton did it at the Battle of the Bulge and that was what second echelons were for. That argument carried the day. It probably shouldn’t have been that easy — my counterpart was right, armies are unwieldy and have large logistics trains following them around — but the Soviets were structured better for that kind of maneuver and Blue’s defenses had no business being as effective as they were, so I wasn’t too troubled by it.

In COL Dupuy’s Understanding Defeat, he points out that, historically, the single most important factor causing defeat in land combat is the fear in the minds of defending troops that the enemy is on their flank, or worse, in their rear. By hitting Blue in the “joints” between Corps, I was able to force the flanking corps to displace to avoid entrapment. This left open flanks on the targeted corps, which was, in turn, forced to give ground to avoid being enveloped.

My Blue counterpart had no answer for this and so we went from position to position with Red leveraging Blue out of strongpoints with maneuver. I was able to gradually make progress marching to the North Sea in a thrust reminiscent of the France 1940 campaign. My operation culminated just a few kilometers from the sea, but the thin strip of land we didn’t occupy was easily dominated by Red artillery, so I believed we had accomplished our mission in isolating three NORTHAG corps from the rest of NATO’s central front. I was understandably happy with the results. They called it a Blue victory.

COL Wass de Czege considered the events, picked up his notes and headed off to Europe. The Colonel was correct about the relative value of the various scenarios: I peeked in on the other gamers from time to time and the 80% games looked a lot like the usual J-8 affairs, while the 40% games looked a lot like air combat with units zipping around the map to strike a particular point, only to have an enemy unit chase them down as though they were in a dogfight. None of that felt very real to the players, but they were frustrated because they couldn’t come up with a rationale to restrict play to something that seemed more plausible. To me, at its best it resembled nothing so much as operational-level maneuver during the Napoleonic Wars. I made a note of that for future consideration. It would have been interesting to explore that idea, but the 60% games were where the action was and gave rise to the most interesting results.

I don’t know what impact the 40-60-80 games had on the CFE negotiations, but the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty was soon a reality, and it was nice to feel like I had a piece of that history. Interestingly, the Soviet General Staff tried a gambit to gain as much advantage as they could by proposing that we use their Correlation of Forces methodology to measure force strength. There is no doubt that it would have been a smart move to incorporate qualitative factors as well as quantitative ones in the sorting out of force strength. However, the General Staff had control of the methodology and the scores they proposed for individual pieces of equipment were neither what we would have expected, nor did they look anything like previous Soviet assessments. In short, they were clearly undervaluing their own arms in comparison with the West’s in order to keep an advantage in numbers. We ended up rejecting the use of CoFM in the treaty process, but it proved to be a coup to gain valuable insight into how the Soviets did business. Many of the formulas I use in modeling are a direct result of these exchanges.

Unfortunately, events soured me on the process in an unexpected way. As with most arms treaties, CFE was only possible when circumstances changed such that it was no longer necessary. It was completed with the foundation that the Warsaw Pact countries would remain allies of the Soviet Union when it was clear that wouldn’t actually be the case. Nevertheless, Polish, Czech, East German, Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian units were counted as being on the Soviet side of the calculation. It was a bit of an unfairness, but Gorbachev was in such great need of relief, he acceded to it. When the Bush Administration left office after only four years, they were replaced by the Clinton Administration which was heavily criticized for not having a depth of experience in foreign affairs. The CFE Treaty was still new when they took office and their inexperience took its toll.

In 1991, Germany reunified and the General Staff saw six of the former Pact’s best divisions move from the Pact column to the NATO column. They believed they should get some adjustments to compensate. The Clinton Administration ultimately rejected compensation. Then, one by one, other former Pact countries announced their intention to apply for NATO membership. It made no sense that these forces should be counted against the (now) Russian side when they would actually be fighting for NATO. We were holding Moscow to terms that made no sense and were fundamentally unfair, but in a spirit of triumphalism in the 1990s where they wanted to claim the Cold War victory as their own, Clinton’s people danced on the grave of the Soviet Union, believing that Russia would forever be too weak to cause us problems, no matter how just their cause. Or at least not until after a second Clinton term. They rejected major Russian-proposed changes in the treaty. In 1996, when Russia was faced with conflict in the Caucasus region, we did allow an amendment that took into account the fact of what would have been a civil war a few years prior. Moscow believed the US and NATO were using a treaty meant to end the possibility of conflict between the two blocs to interfere with security challenges legitimately within their sphere of interest that had nothing to do with a potential NATO/Pact conflict. Lest I be accused of political bias, the George W. Bush Administration did little better, managing to incense the Russians by building bases in former Pact countries the Russians believed to be in violation of the treaty.

I recently read an opinion piece that ultimately blames our treatment of Russia in the 1990s for the current war in Ukraine. While we should never condone or fail to resist to our utmost the kind of outrageous military action Russia has taken against a sovereign neighbor, we should learn the hard lessons of how unjust actions we take can come back to haunt us years down the road. Putin partially suspended Russia’s participation in the treaty in 2007 and then withdrew entirely in 2015. The Russian strong-man is undoubtedly the worst war criminal to appear in Europe in the last 80 years; nevertheless, he didn’t spring onto the world stage fully formed. We should soberly reflect on our responsibility in making him what he is today.


This entry was posted in Eastern Europe, Modeling, Simulation & Wargaming, Russia by Christopher A. Lawrence. Bookmark the permalink.

About Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience. Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation. His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) and The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019) Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

6 thoughts on “Wargaming 101 – The 40-60-80 Games

  1. I have encountered the conjecture of the last paragraph before, and it can be dismissed as a fundamental misinterpretation of the nature of policies and restorative efforts. Both administrations ignorance in the face of world resource consolidation and neocolonialism was only transcended by their insufficient comprehension of continuity. They were of course not an isolated case, as it may have been applicable to the matters of 1815 or Molotov-Ribbentrop.
    The absence of NATO presence would have threatened sovereignty of the independent states, reattaching the strings to their former puppeteers. In retrospect, the more stable the situation in Moscow was, the more willing they were to wage war.
    As a failed core country of the orthodox world, the verges of the sphere are more confined, which for instance the Baltics were never a part of. The exchange of a political actor would not be a permanent solution, but rather induce postponement or a shift in modus operandi.

  2. Hello Chris,

    This is a very interesting war game summary, thanks for posting it.

    Opening up the black box of the air modeling, to find embarrassing numbers …. awful!
    This CFE analysis and the quantitative analysis of the European front, it reminds me of similar quantitative analyses on this front a generation earlier. Concerns after the Yom Kippur surprise in 1973 and US fatigue after Vietnam encouraged the development of the “Active Defense” doctrine by William Depuy. Apparently war gaming proved this doctrine untenable, and it was improved upon by Don Starry to form “Air-Land Battle”.

    Ft. Leavenworth – Donn Starry, Active Defense, and AirLand Battle:

    I can clearly see this Air-Land doctrine at work when we hear about the Blue Air officer going after your 2nd echelon, and wiping out the whole formation (?!). This doctrine seems to have sunk in deepest with White! The 1973 experience certainly taught the IAF a thing or two about Soviet air defenses …. I’m curious how well that fight was modeled.

    Anyway, I’ve also located a great paper ….
    The Air Superiority Battle in the Middle East 1967-1973
    Clarence E. Olschner, III, MAJ, USAF
    U.S. Army Command and General Staff College
    Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas 66027
    Final report 9 June 1978

    And this paper references an unpublished (at the time) book by a certain COL T. N. Dupuy, which became Elusive Victory.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this. Curious about those “Active Defense” war games from the late 1970s. Any intel on those?

    Best Regards,

  3. Hello Christopher,

    I’ve been a reader for a couple of years now, bad I just wanted to post a note and say that I think your work is spectacular and probably deserves more recognition.

    These Chip Sayers articles are fantastic.

  4. From the moment Putin entered office he declared his intention to reestablish a Russian/Soviet Empire. This could only be accomplished through violent aggression against former Soviet republics which wanted nothing to do the Kremlin after 50 years of Soviet occupation, and applied to join NATO precisely because they knew what Putin’s intended. The were absolutely correct.
    US and EU policy towards an increasingly fascistic and aggressive Russia was closer to appeasement if not outright friendliness (remember Gerhardt Schroeder? Where is he today?) than anything else. The parallels between Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany after 1934 are astonishing.
    To think the US had some responsibility for causing the war in Ukraine is also based on the fictional assumption that the US has established all-powerful ‘hegemony’ over the entire world, and can control everything that happens if it wants to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *