Friday 15 September 2023

Ukraine 2023: Fort Leavenworth’s Tactical Game of the Ukraine War


Having played the game a number of times with various audiences, I would say it demonstrated hobby wargamers were routinely better than military professionals in terms of tactics at the company level battle.

The rules were written at Fort Leavenworth, one of the homes of the American Army. First written in 2020 for a US v Russian battle in eastern Europe, the hit probabilities were considerably edited in the light of watching lots of YouTube videos about the actual Ukraine War in 2022. Russian units were downgraded considerably in the light of actual war.

The rules were for a 6mm scale Russian coy in a hasty attack against a standard Ukrainian ad hoc platoon in a hasty defensive position. The game system is ‘you go, I go’ turn sequence, but with overwatch fire. Roll to hit, roll to save in cover. The key innovation, apart from using actual combat data, was if either side moved off its plan, they pause and roll a dice to see if they can change the plan. If not, they just roll again next turn. This means good pre-game orders are crucial and sometimes the battle just stops as the Russians encounter an unexpected obstacle. The Russian advances stops for a random amount of time as the commanders consult and make a new plan. All very realistic.

The Russian company had 10 BMPs, 4 tanks, a ZSU, a truck with military police and another with a section of engineers. The Russian method of organising everything into battalion tactical groups means every sub formation has a bit of the support troops. NATO trained armies just allocate support as needed. Although the Russians had practically unlimited fire support, it had to be all pre-planned like something out of WWI.

The first problem was the professional wargamers largely did not know what the Russian tactics from the Cold War actually were. They have focussed on real world COIN for 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, so were a bit perplexed. The second problem was the professional wargamers largely did not know how to manage an ad-hoc Ukrainian platoon, so were unclear what to do with just 2 tanks, 2 BMPs, 1 dismounted saggar, some infantry, a couple of trucks plus some random obstacles (trees cut down). They had no drones, no mines, no wire, and artillery support availability was random depending on mobile phone reception. Hobby wargamers are quite used to operating with whatever toys come out of the box and improvise.

The result of the battle was the same in every game. The Russians took lots of casualties, but advanced 5 km over 2 to 3 hours, and the Ukrainians lost stuff during the fighting withdrawal. Most wargamers are too aggressive running a fighting retreat; in real war, a fighting retreat consists of a few ambushes, then a hasty withdrawal to the next position. Keeping the unit in being is a critical part of the defensive mission. 

The actual war has demonstrated that analysts underestimated the importance of morale. Tank combat is using a crew served weapon system. To win the battle requires a tank to position itself in harms way, observe, locate the enemy, prioritise, aim and fire. The longer a tank takes to do this the more chance it stands of getting a first-round kill, but the downside is the longer a tank takes to do this, the more chance of the enemy getting the first shot in. After firing, it takes a few moments after the dust, shock, flash and smoke to re-aim and fire a 2nd and subsequent rounds. Staying put and firing again increases the chances of obtaining a kill, but firing increases the chance of the enemy identifying you as an active threat and sending a missile towards you. Therefore, effective tank combat requires high morale for the crew to put themselves at risk in order to kill the enemy. Ukrainians tanks in these rules fire twice as often as Russian tanks, as the Ukrainians were more willing to take risks to fire effectively.

I commenced by saying hobby wargamers were better than military professionals at tactics, but this does not mean one could drop a hobby wargamer into commanding a troop of tanks in combat. Leadership in war is not just about tactics, but includes leadership, morale in the face of death, actually making the tank move and shoot, etc. Tactics are only a part of the professional warrior’s job description. However, based on the sample of people who have played my modern wargames over several decades, it suggests that professional warriors need to spend more time on the tactics of warfighting. This includes a deep understanding of how the Russians currently fight. Of course, how you fit that into the new British Army’s social calendar and ethos is an interesting topic of conversation.