Another great William “Chip” Sayers article on wargaming.
Wargaming 101 – In the Bowels of the Pentagon with J-8
I had been a Soviet Military Aviation analyst for DIA for only a few weeks when a friend from my previous life in the Air Force Reserve Intelligence program invited me to accompany him to the Pentagon to observe a wargame being conducted by J-8, the Joint Staff’s Force Requirements directorate. The J-8 was basically “wargame central” for the Pentagon, using this tool in various forms to evaluate the impact of various proposed force structure changes on the warfighting abilities of the US military. In this case, the wargame “command post” was dominated by a floor to ceiling map of NATO’s Central Front with small cardboard chits representing units stuck to the clear acetate covering. One glance was sufficient to tell me all I needed to know: the units were in a solid line one-deep stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Alps. It was 1915 all over again. Not the most auspicious beginning to 10-years of playing Red Cell in J-8 wargames, but I have to admit it got a lot more interesting from there.
One of my more interesting encounters with J-8 was with regard to an exercise known as “Competitive Strategies.” The brainchild of Senator — and later Vice-President — Dan Quayle, Competitive Strategies was designed identify and implement ideas that would pit enduring US strengths against enduring Soviet weaknesses. Senator Quayle, at that time considered a true wunderkind and the smartest person in the Senate, believed that too often the US was pitting strength against strength — a contest the US could not win — and wanted to engage in what would today be referred to as “asymmetric warfare” that the USSR could not match. For example, pushing technological warfare beyond what the Soviet industrial base could compete with.
J-8 scoured the Pentagon for ideas, then sent them to the intelligence community to be vetted. I had missed out on Competitive Strategies I, which took place shortly before I arrived at DIA, but was there for Competitive Strategies II and III. In the first round, a number of ideas were kicked around, but apparently none were found suitable. In CS II, I was chosen to be on a board that considered a proposal to counter Soviet air operations (lower case). The Soviet Air Operation (upper case) was a stratagem the Soviet General Staff came up with when they realized that upwards of half of NATO’s combat power resided in their air forces. The Air Operation was a preplanned series of strikes intended to deny NATO its airpower advantage by destroying NATO’s air assets on the ground before they could be employed. This meant that the Air Operation, and the initial ground operations as well, would fire the first shots of WWIII. I was known to be well versed in the Soviet Air Operation — thus my invitation as a relatively junior analyst to serve on the board — and was not pleased with the proposal. It seemed inordinately expensive, technologically doubtful, and unlikely to yield the desired impact. The proposal involved creating a force of ground-launched tactical cruise missiles targeted on virtually every Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS) on every Soviet and Warsaw Pact airfield in the East Bloc countries. These missiles would be fired at the outset of hostilities to catch the enemy aircraft on the ground and destroy them before they could take to the air.
The gentleman who served as our chairman was a good and knowledgeable analyst, but I felt at the time was too prone to “go along and get along.” We met on a Friday and he proposed to rubber-stamp the proposal and let it go because, “It’s what they want.” We agreed to meet again on Monday to decide the matter. As I said, I was young and fairly inexperienced in the way of bureaucracy and chaffed at approving an idea I believed was fatally flawed. First, the idea proposed creating a sizable force above and beyond the existing force structure, clearly a very expensive proposition. There were probably an average of 36 to 45 HAS on each of 20-30 airfields on NATO’s Central Front, alone. That’s 720-1,350 missiles on 180-340 launch vehicles, if they piggy-backed on the similar Ground-Launched Cruise-Missile deployment under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces scheme. The GLCM force as deployed reached a total of 120 GLCM Transporter Erector Launcher vehicles — each with four missiles — in 22 flights of about 69 airmen, each. This proposed anti-HAS force would have been potentially three times larger — a very significant investment in force structure above and beyond that already fielded.
Worse, it was highly unlikely that the anti-HAS force would accomplish its intended mission. The Soviets were all about preempting NATO in order to limit the damage to their own forces and infrastructure, while it was almost inconceivable that NATO would fire the first shot in any credible scenario. NATO was greatly outnumbered in virtually every category of military equipment and personnel, and starting on the offensive was fairly universally recognized as a death-wish, given the advantages of the defender. More to the point, getting unanimous consent from all of NATO’s member countries to start a war — regardless of the provocation — was laughable. Even if one could conceive of a scenario where all the members would agree, the time expended in reaching a decision and promulgating it through the system would ensure that the Soviets — who had thoroughly penetrated NATO’s command structure — would have seized the initiative and launched a preemptive strike long before NATO was ready to move. This being the case, the Soviets would have gotten the first shot in by launching the Air Operation before the anti-HAS force was ready to go into action. When the cruise missiles arrived at their targets, they would find the HAS either empty or filled with second-line jets to replace the first-line units which would have recovered at dispersal locations away from their main bases.
Being young and inexperienced, I decided to spend my weekend writing my own substitute proposal, which emphasized doctrinal changes designed specifically to answer the Air Operation. I had spent a reserve tour working on recreating the AO using individual aircraft on a time schedule, so I believed I had some insight on what the strengths and weaknesses were in the operation. My proposal was more about where and how to fight, vice buying a whole new category of weapon and the infrastructure to support it. On Monday morning, I handed out my counter-proposal — Countering the Soviet Air Operation — to the other board members. After reading it, they voted to adopt it in place of the original proposal and send it forward as our recommendation.
A year or so later, I had the opportunity to host and chair an interagency panel to vet proposals for CSIII. Over 30 years later, the only proposal I remember was one that proposed to raise several divisions of Marines who would invade the Crimean and Kamchatka peninsulas and cause the fall of the Soviet empire because, as everyone knew, the post-WWII Soviets could not abide by the loss of even a single square centimeter of Soviet territory. Needless to say, that proposal failed to make the cut. In fact, such was the disconnect between “Blue” strategists and “Red” doctrine that we could not in good conscience give a thumbs up to any submitted proposal. Nevertheless, it was a fun, if fruitless, endeavor. Was Competitive Strategies a completely dry hole? Had the Soviet Union survived longer, I’m sure it would have proven its worth. As it was, I was later told that there was at least one proposal adopted through the process. However, modesty forbids me to talk about it further…
Another interesting J-8 wargame I participated in was a NATO exercise in the late 1980s. My office was directed to supply a “Red Air” commander and I was selected mainly because the game was scheduled to run over the Thanksgiving holiday that year and I was still fairly junior in the office. In order to save time, it was decided that we would piggy-back on another wargame that was run every year by another organization. The did the preliminaries and the first three days of combat, and we would take over from there, starting our game on D+3.
Unfortunately, the folks that had run Red Air had no concept of the Soviet Air Operation, what they would target, or how they would fight. Their model claimed the Soviet side had lost 800 aircraft in three days and accomplished nothing while doing so. The losses were excessive, but had they been sacrificed achieving some important goal, that would be one thing. To simply throw them away like so many target drones was ludicrous. Red Ground had not fared much better. They were held to an advance of less than ten kilometers across the length of the front — an inconceivably small movement. The Soviets could practically have tripped and fallen that far forward. Any model that could produce such results should have automatically been suspect.
Our overall Red commander was an expert at NATO bureaucracy, but knew very little about how the Soviets would fight. Despite the team’s protests, he insisted on fighting the Red side according to MC 161 NATO’s Strategic Intelligence Estimate. MC 161 was supposed to be NATO’s assessment of the threat, but each NATO country insisted on having the final say on how the threat to them would look. After the document was compiled and approved, it was used to by the various Ministries of Defence to justify their military budgets. The upshot was that each country had to have a goodly slice of the threat, whether or not it made sense within the scope of Soviet doctrine. For instance, during this game, I was instructed to come up with a Soviet Air Force threat to Portugal so that the Portuguese military could play. I dutifully came up with a scheme to send Tu-95/BEAR bombers along a circuitous route across North Africa to hit a NATO target in Portugal only to be told they had been spotted a thousand nautical miles out and swatted down like flies. I’m pretty sure those weren’t Portuguese Air Force A-7P attack jets that did in the Bears. The upshot was that NATO had the Soviets attacking everywhere and concentrating nowhere, thus dissipating their forces and chances for success — precisely the opposite of Soviet doctrine.
As it happened, our overall Red commander suffered a health issue and I moved into his position. I immediately moved to reconfigure the Soviet attack into something much more akin to their actual doctrine. After having run three practices according to MC 161, the “Blue” players were unprepared for what hit them — they undoubtedly felt sucker-punched. To be fair, Blue’s big move had not been a part of the practice runs, either so both sides were confronted with surprises.
The final plan with fixing attacks (screw-type arrows) to pin three NORTHAG Corps in place while the Northernmost corps was hit with overwhelming force. The critical moment occurred whenSACEUR ordered a rearward passage of lines to save the corps sector.
The original plan had the Soviets attacking in proportionate attacks all along the front. The big change I made for Red’s ground offensive was to concentrate forces against the weakest of the NATO corps, while making lower-odds attacks to fix the other forces in place. Since NATO exercises always assumed a Soviet/Pact invasion, the tools used by white (control) cells developed in a way that were inherently biased to favor the defense. This bias insinuated itself into the programing of computers that were eventually used to adjudicate results to the extent that the attacker had to overwhelm the defender to make any ground at all. Witness the beginning of this exercise where in the first three days of fighting, Red forces made less than 10km in the advance. Our final plan set up an attack so overwhelming that even the computer could not deny a Red victory. Even that victory was limited such that the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) was able to order a corps-level rearward passage of lines to introduce a fresh defending force in that sector.
A rearward passage of lines has an unengaged, fresh force set up defensive positions to the rear of the force to be relieved while it is still delaying the enemy. When the relieved force is pushed back to the relieving force’s new defensive positions, the relieved force slips through the lines at prearranged points with the relieving force taking up responsibility for the sector. It is one of the most complex and difficult of military maneuvers, and for a brief time, twice the normal amount of defenders are squeezed into the attacker’s line of fire. To help minimize the risk, SACEUR ordered a fleet of reserve combat aircraft brought in from the UK and other rear bases to cover the maneuver.
One of the key factors in the Red victory came from an unlikely source. Having failed to do the Soviet Air Operation in the first three days of war, the previous crew left a lot of tools lying around unused. It so happens that Blue’s movement of aircraft was noted by Red intel and was particularly vulnerable to a belated Air Operation as the aircraft were being staged through auxiliary bases without aircraft shelters. It would take a little explaining to the control cell, but fortunately, I was on good terms with their leader, having hosted him at my house for an evening of hobbyist wargaming before the exercise. It turns out that he was one of my all-time favorite game designers, so we had a common language to use. One of the interesting things I found out was that the program J-8 was using did not explicitly model airbase attacks, and in particular, runway attacks. I explained to my friend how the Air Operation would work and some of the tricks involved, and he proposed work-arounds to give me realistic results. Therefore, at the moment that NATO was at its most vulnerable, all of the air cover over the Schwerpunkt turned out to be Red, not the Blue that was intended. Faced with a catastrophe, Blue’s moves were ludicrously out of touch, the perfect example of Col. John Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, Act-loop going unrecoverably out of cycle. Everything they did was increasingly out of synch with the reality on the ground and only made matters worse. The exercise ended with a huge, smoking hole where NORTHAG used to be.
While SACEUR came to the Red Cell to shake our hands, thank and congratulate us on a successful exercise, I am doubtful he was much concerned about what happened on the map as the point was to stimulate conversation among the top NATO leadership. However, the exercise was never repeated, so I might have gone a tad overboard in delivering a “realistic” enemy.
 See NATO STANDARD AJP-5 ALLIED JOINT DOCTRINE FOR THE PLANNING OF OPERATIONS Edition A Version 2 MAY 2019, NORTH ATLANTIC TREATY ORGANIZATION ALLIED JOINT PUBLICATION, Published by the NATO STANDARDIZATION OFFICE (NSO) © NATO/OTAN; https://www.coemed.org/files/stanags/01_AJP/AJP-5_EDA_V2_E_2526.pdf Accessed 12Feb23.