Wednesday 28 December 2022

Wargames are better predictive tools


On Dec 27th 2022, the BBC published an article Ukraine war: Five ways conflict could go in 2023 ( Five experts give completely different predictions.

1.       Michael Clarke, associate director of the Strategic Studies Institute, Exeter, UK says the war depends on the outcome of Russia’s spring offensive with its 250,000 mobilised troops.

2.       Andrei Piontkovsky, scientist and analyst based in Washington DC says Ukraine will win back its land due to “motivation, determination and courage of the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian nation as a whole, which is unprecedented in modern war history.”

3.       Barbara Zanchetta, Department of War Studies, King's College London says the war will grind on for years.

4.       Ben Hodges, former commanding general, United States Army Europe says Ukraine will win.

5.       David Gendelman, military expert based in Israel avoids saying how the war is going to end.

Five experts and five contrasting interpretations.

I have been wargaming the Ukraine War at an operational and sometimes tactical level since the war began. This was to develop my professional understanding. In November I published on my blog ( my conclusion that the Russian army would rout by the end of the winter. I outlined my reasoning and said, of course, I could be wrong as leaders make decisions that influence future outcomes.

Models must be continually re-evaluated in the face of actual real-world data. My crude model is only a model and is not reality. I assumed Russia would keep 33% of their PGM as a strategic reserve v NATO or Chinese aggression. I was wrong, Russia has used almost everything they have (leaving them very vulnerable, especially to China if the latter decides to realign the international border in the Far East)

In the real world, leaders make decisions that may be different from those used in a wargame (even if those decisions are not rationale from our perspective). The Ukraine power system has been hit badly, but it is not to the extent that the country is moved back to the 19th century.

This is because:

  •  Ukraine has a large repair capacity that is expanding (they have taken on 1000 more staff recently)
  •  Europe is feeding in power directly to the Ukrainian grid (10% of what Ukraine needs)
  • Power lines are hard to knock out
  • Europe is sending staggering numbers of generators to the Ukraine. Ukr has spare truck capacity to move anything it needs, including fuel for generators.
  • Spares for their grid are coming in from around Eastern Europe. They can use second hand and repair the broken.
  • The Ukraine power grid was designed to stand up to NATO attack during the Cold War

The majority of Ukraine has had no interruption to its power supplies. This should not be seen as in any way mitigating the misery of those in the east facing regular power cuts every day.

The military and the state war machine are largely inoculated from civilian power shortages, as the former tends to have generators and fuel. Hitting the Ukraine power system may cause misery for some, but it does not impact Ukraine national combat power. So, in summary, Russia has used far more PGMs than I expected (I was wrong), but it would need many times more PGMs fired within a short period of time to create a lasting impact on the power grid of the Ukraine. To me Russia seems to be repeating Hitler’s terror bombing directive from World War II; historical hindsight shows Germany should have focussed on military targets with its limited airpower. Similarly Russia should use its dwindling stockpile to attempt to have a military impact.

There are big questions about what will happen next:

  • Will Ukraine decide to advance during the winter? Ukr combat power is increasing in terms of troop numbers, armour and IDF. Russia is still waiting for the next batch of troops (though it did put perhaps 50,000 mercenaries, foreign troops, penal battalions and newly mobilised troops into the front line to replace the 100,000 casualties)
  • Will Russia fall below the critical level of resupply (67% according to QJM) and have to fall back?
  • Will the Russian army rout?

I think the answer is probably yes to all three questions, but probably is not 100% certainty. Of course, senior leaders may also make decisions that change future outcomes.

No wargame will tell us if Belarus will launch an invasion of the Ukraine (or whether Poland will then invade Belarus without NATO agreement). However, a wargame allows us to explore these possibilities.

As wargamers, we tend to overlook the value of the integration in our wargames of the inter-related factors of geography, time, space, ORBATs, logistics, etc. Personally, I have little interest in trying to determine the outcome of future wars just by talking about it.  I say let us get out a map, get some counters to show the military forces involves, label the military geography, talk through our underpinning assumptions, then discuss the future course of the conflict. If you want to understand something you have to do some analysis, game it, and then do more analysis

In the world of computing, we design IT systems, networks and software applications using a whole variety of models such as network diagrams, decision trees, data dictionaries, UML etc. If someone wanted to design a multimillion-pound system by just talking about it they would be seen as slightly detached from reality. So why do people think they can discuss one of the most complex intractable problems of all, war, without the mental tools imbedded in wargaming to analyse the situation?


If you want to know why the Ukrainian power system is still up see the Reuters article

Saturday 19 November 2022

My wargame says Ukraine is going to win as the Russian army collapses

I have been wargaming the Ukraine War since it began. To be clear this was for professional reasons, not for entertainment.

I believe, as of November 2022, the Russian army in the Ukraine is on the verge of collapse. Whether an army routs after it reaches its breakpoint in wargaming terms is a matter of chance, however, my prediction is the Russian army will rout by the end of the winter.

I have gamed the first start part of the war in 2015 and the cyber dimension many times, but in January 2022, I designed an operational level game set at brigade level to model the forthcoming Russian invasion.

The key features of the wargame were:

  • 2 day turns
  • Ukraine brigades largely had a combat strength of 4
  • The Russian equivalents rolled a six sided combat strength to determine their initial combat strength (their tank units had a plus on the dice roll). The dice roll reflected my understanding about the wild variability in the combat effectiveness of their units. (We now know some of the initial wave of Russian forces included follow on forces, such as military police, rather than just front line combat units).
  • Russian artillery was included in their units
  • Ukraine had separate artillery units that could be switched from combat to combat to reflect their flexibility.
  • In combat each side rolled their combat strength in dice. 5 or 6 caused a casualty, 6 if the enemy was dug in e.g. urban area, constricted terrain etc.
  • Rates of advance were based on Depuy’s work (work was quoted by the UK staff college).
  • Russia could supply less of its forces, the further it moved from its supporting railways.
  • Separatist infantry would not fight outside their home territory
  • Russian precision guided missiles (PGMs) were not that effective
  •   Russian airpower made an impact until losses forced the Russians to reduce air attacks in order to keep their airforce ‘in being’. Soviet era air defence was effective at shooting down Soviet era aircraft.

My pre-war games predicted the actual outcome of the Russian advance grinding to a halt. Ukraine was just too large, with too large an army, with too few axis of advance. Russian logistics meant their axis of advance were rapidly reduced to just a few lines of assault along major roads. Russian airpower and PGMs started by hitting strategic targets, then was reallocated to tactical targets as the advance slowed down.

Since the initial games, I have continued to update the game as it moved into the static phase, then the Ukraine counter attack. I changed the game turns to represent 3 days, then a week, as both sides moved towards exhaustion. I play out the next 4 weeks, then review my model against the actual war. Logistics is a major part of the game, with each side getting a limited number of supply points per turn. Each supply point allows a unit to attack or defend at full strength.

Neither side has shown operational brilliance; the war is all about amassing sufficient supplies in order to launch an attack, as well as causing attrition on the other side with indirect fire.

My game included a Ukraine advance on the east front, until it ran out of supplies, followed by an advance on Kherson.

My wargame has also found that Russia no longer has the PGMs or airpower to cripple Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure. The Ukraine air defence works, the Russia does not work very well, the latter has exhausted most of its munition stock. Ukraine infrastructure is based on the Cold War and was designed to withstand NATO attack.

My model suggests both sides are near their breakpoint as they approach 50% losses, however Ukraine has a higher breakpoint that Russia. I based this rule on the fact that Ukraine has maintained a policy of individual troop rotation, for example giving leave for soldiers to attend weddings and funerals, as well as rotating units out of the front line. Ukraine is also defending its home territory.

There are important questions that will probably be only answered with post war analysis, such as how are the Russian casualties distributed between units of differing training, morale, capabilities and equipment? Or is the entire Russian Army riddled with incompetence due to decades of corruption? Do the Russians have some units in reserve that actually know how to fight?

Prediction is always hard, especially predictions about the future. However, my wargame-based analysis says the Russian army is going to collapse, Ukraine is going to retake most of its lost territory. Of course, I might be wrong, but is it better to base a prediction on a tried and tested wargame model or just a well written piece of narrative as appears in our national newspapers?

Sunday 11 September 2022

Wargaming Tactical Actions in the Ukraine War

As part of my work on comparing wargames with future conflicts I examined low level tactics in the war using various videos. Then I starting using the current US Army wargame rules as modified by the first 6 months of the war. Note: the work is for research, not entertainment.

At the start of the war, the Ukrainians were bad at war, they were fortunate enough to be against an opponent who was very bad. As the war progressed actions have moved from Bn attacks, to company to routinely platoon. For example, the latest decisive Ukr counter attack NE of Kharkiv had a whole 15 tanks in it. Darwinian selection has increased survivability on both sides, as has Western training (in person and via the ubiquitous virtual Zoom).

Examples from the early stages of the war include:

  • Ukr entrenchments were inadequate and field discipline poor.
  • Ukr shooting down a helo from the front. This is risky as the helo may get upset if you miss and if you hit it may crash on you. Shooting from the rear is preferable.
  • A single Ukr with an NLAW climbs over village houses roofs, swearing in Russian all the way (they are ethnic Russian) and fires at Ru BMP. Probably misses, so Ru platoon then mounts up and retreats from village. i.e. one man faced off a platoon and apparently recaptured the village on their own with a miss. There were probably more Ukr infantry in support off camera
  • A single Ukr tank hides behind house and ambushes Ru armoured convoy on its own. It misses twice at point blank range, a common mistake for novice tankers, before it knocks out several Ru armoured vehicles. The Russian column stops when engaged, but would have had time to drive out of the kill zone while this was going on. However, the Ukr tank was probably destroyed by dismounted Ru infantry and this was edited out of the footage. A better tactic would have been to ambush the end of the convoy, not the middle, and fire from 1.2km away. Then withdraw into dead ground.
  • A Ru depleted platoon successfully ambushed two Ukr towed artillery vehicles. The latter were too close together that allowed both to be hit by the same ambush. The Ru move up the road and ambush two Ukr BTRs who come to investigate. This is brave move as the Ru had no anti-tank capability. The BTRs stop in the kill zone and the Ukr infantry debus, instead of driving straight through the ambush. Both sides throw lots of grenades and the BTRs mount up, then retreat up the road. The Ukr BTRs should have withdrawn to a safe distance and then shot the Ru pln to pieces (as the Ru had no AT).

How have the Americans updated their wargaming rules after studying the detail of the conflict?

Ru still apparently directs its powerful artillery using pre-planned strikes. Ukr calls it in when it has a target in sight. Ukr artillery must keep moving as Russian ‘divisional’ level assets will fire back. i.e. Ru has apparently not developed its artillery support methods since WWII.

Ru attacks with a thorough plan and moves at speed, until there is a change of the plan e.g. a road is blocked. Then they pause for orders. (in wargaming terns roll 5 or 6 on D6 for a 12 minute turn). i.e. the Ukr players gets perplexed by the Ru columns randomly stopping for a number of game terms.

The Ukr T64BV tanks are more effective than Ru T72BM , therefore Ru need 3 to 1 odds to succeed in a hasty attack from column of march. For those interested in stats at effective range, video indicates a Ukr tank stands an 80% of knocking out a Ru tank that is stationary in the open at effective range. At short range, less than 800m, the chance goes down to 65% of a kill, perhaps as the Ukr lack of training then shows.

Looking at the 2020 version of the rules, the American’s underestimated the hit rate of their weapons v Ru hardware. They thought their M1A2 tank would knock out a Russian T72 55% of the time per shot. Conversely, they over estimated the Russian effectiveness.

At the risk of a tirade of objections, I find in many ways tactical combat in the Ukraine War is similar to 1944/45 North West Europe. Artillery proceeds armoured advances. Tactical air is not that good (SAMs stop aircraft at high level and cheap point air defence makes low level also risky). However. tactical air is replaced by drones and long-range artillery; drones replace air reconnaissance. In the end, infantry have to debus from their APCs, 4 wheeled drive vehicles etc and clear the objective. Logistics centred around roads and rail is crucial.

The reassuring message for the west from the war is Russia is not very good at a tactical level. They can move large amounts of armour very fast, as per their doctrine, but their combat capability is poor. A UK armoured platoon of say 2 Challenger 2’s with 3 sections of infantry would be likely to use a hasty defence (i.e move into an unexpected ambush location after the Russian pre-planned IDF of likely defensive positions), and knock out a Russian company of 4 T72s and 10 BMPs on its own. Of course, in reality, the Ru would retreat after losing the first few vehicles. The only UK problem would be ammunition, we have given a lot of our war stocks to Ukr.

After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Wellington said that if he had the experienced army of veterans from the Peninsular War, instead of his composite allied army, he would simply have advanced over the top of Napoleon’s larger army. It is difficult not to imagine a NATO army with British, Poles or American’s doing the same if it came to a confrontation with Russia. 



After writing the above I came across an interview with a Ukr Tank Commanders 28th June 2022

  1.  Tanks have not become obsolete on the modern battlefield, their role has become more significant and the variety of tasks has increased. Comment: I noted YouTube videos that tanks carrying wounded back from the front lines as well as munitions to the front line.
  2.  During 2014/15 Ukr tanks operated in groups of 1 or 2, now they operate in company groups and infantry understand combined arms tactics with them. Comment tanks without infantry support are very vulnerable.
  3. The Ukr operate in coy groups of 3 platoons with 3 tanks each plus 1 tank for coy commander. Sometimes they use 4 tanks per platoon plus 2 for coy commander.
  4. Ukr is capturing and reusing Russian tanks, including manning them with infantry. Comment: captured enemy tanks were routinely reused in WWII.
  5. Russian tank losses were routinely because of poor training or just running out of fuel in the middle of the road. They were captured in good working order. Comment did they hope to retrieve the tanks or was there some other reason why the crews did not wreck the tank when abandoning it?
  6. The Ukr offers a bounty for capturing enemy equipment and handing it in.
  7. Ru uses tanks in groups of company level or more, with 10 tanks per 500 metres. However, they do not have enough armour left for a 2nd wave. They are operating their tanks in line with their doctrine.
  8. Tanks on both sides move their damaged tanks back 6 hours, 200-300km behind the lines to repair. Both sides cannot risk their limited repair capacity near the battlefield.
  9. There are just 3 tank repair plants in Russia and they can repair/ refurbish from storage 100-200 tanks per month.
  10. The Ukr specialist repair factory was mentioned on TV, then got hit by a missile. Destroying the plant and killing many key tank repair staff. Ukr gets 20-30 tanks repaired per month in a factory somewhere in eastern Europe i.e. 2-3 companies per month.
  11.  Both sides are adding reactive armour when upgrading (Russia uses KONTAKT-1, Ukr Nozh). This takes 2-3 welders one day per tank.
  12.  Ru 90% of T80BVMs have been destroyed.T72 B3BMS and B72B3, 900 have been lost, 800 are still in combat (June 2022). That is why T62, old T72 and T80s have been brought in to battle manned by older crews who served on these tanks in the past.
  13. Ukr is struggling to use thermal imaging equipment due to poor training.
  14. Training a tank crew on a modern Western tank takes 1 month. Training the repair crew takes 3-4 months. Ukr wants the remaining T72 from Europe (but not old ones from Africa, as these are badly maintained).
  15.  Ukr is almost out of T64’s and all new units use T72’s