Air Group Tactical Formations in Command

Tactical aircraft do not generally operate alone.  Western fighters fly in pairs (“elements” or “sections”) or foursomes (“flights” or “divisions”), in accordance with fighting doctrines that provide for mutual support among formation-mates.  Reflecting this practice, Command‘s mission-planning logic automatically groups aircraft together according to player-selectable rules (couples, quartets, menages a trois, etc.).

But a limitation of Command‘s current approach is that the aircraft formation handling becomes a bit simplistic from here.  Once grouped, fighters will tend to travel in a bunched formation at the same altitude.  While the formation editor does permit the player to designate any aircraft as the leader, it does not allow variations in aircraft distance (either laterally or vertically) or radial position.  There do appear to be some behavioral variations based on mission type (e.g., some fighters on an Air Intercept mission seem to adopt wider spacing), but the player has little control over this.

Default group formation. These two F-14As are roughly a mile apart, with the wingman slightly ahead of the leader.

The result is that leader and wingman will tend to be detected together, and the opponent will tend to maneuver against both of them as a unit.  This reduces the overall fighting potential of the aircraft group (for an account of a similar historical situation, see the discussion of the “finger four” vs. “loose deuce” formations in Michel’s Clashes ).

Given the developers’ tireless devotion to their simulation, I suspect that a higher-fidelity aircraft formation model is already on the Command wishlist.  But what can we do in the meantime?   (more…)

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Cope Taufan 2014-1

Version 1.0, tested on Command v1.10.  Download scenario file (68K).

Scenario Description

As Asian air forces continue to modernize their equipment, the “COPE” series of international military exercises conducted by the U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) has captured the attention of analysts worldwide as a showcase and testing ground for fifth (and “near-fifth”) generation airpower.  One of these was COPE TAUFAN 2014, a biennial game hosted by the Royal Malaysian Air Force, beginning on June 6 and running for a full two weeks.  This was the first time that the F-22 Raptor appeared in Southeast Asia, and at this event it would fight alongside (and against) the RMAF’s exotic Su-30MKM Flanker-Gs and MiG-29N Fulcrums.  The notional “war” involved a threat to the Malaysian peninsula from the sea, with Americans and Malaysians taking turns as invaders and defenders.

This scenario depicts a diverse and chaotic large-force-employment mission event during the exercise, later described to the press as involving “eight USAF F-15s intercepting two RMAF C-130s and a USAF C-17 which were escorted by four RMAF Su-30MKMs, six USAF F-22s, two RMAF MiG-29s, and two RMAF F-18s.”  It is designed to be played as BLUFOR (the F-15 defenders).

(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released)

(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released)

For their first overseas joint exercise, the Massachusetts Air National Guard has brought along eight of the most modern and deadly F-15C Eagles in the force, recently upgraded with the new APG-63(V)3 AESA radar.  They will stage out of RMAF Butterworth, and will be fully supported by the RMAF ground-based air surveillance and tracking radar network.  BLUFOR’s primary objective is to prevent the transport aircraft (which are carrying special operations forces) from landing at RMAF Kuantan in the southeast peninsula.

As is typical for wargames of this sort, the F-22s opposing them will be operating under severely restricted rules of engagement:  for this event, AIM-120 shots at ranges exceeding 10 miles are prohibited.  In addition, to test the expensive new Ground Master radar in the Malaysian air defense network, some of the F-22s will be carrying their weapons externally and will suffer the resulting increase in radar cross-section.  However, the Malaysian Su-30s, MiG-29s, and F/A-18s will not be operating under any special restrictions, and will shoot at maximum range at any confirmed hostile.  The OPFOR transit package is generally expected to move in a large escort box with F-22s working with Su-30s in an “eyeball-shooter” arrangement, but OPFOR has enough jets available to generate some surprises.


This scenario comes with three (3) pre-planned BLUFOR air defense plans that deploy the F-15 elements to different patrol stations throughout the exercise area.  These pre-planned options are executed by the player through the “Special Actions” menu.  Alternatively, the player may reject all of the provided options and instead construct a custom strategy or assume manual control.

BLUFOR receives 3 points for each F-22 kill, 1 point for each non-F-22 fighter kill, and 15 points for each transport.  It loses 2 points for each F-15 lost.  If OPFOR incurs too many escort losses, the transports will abort their mission and bug out to the east.  BLUFOR receives 25 points for forcing such a mission abort.  OPFOR is airborne at exercise start, and the event runs for a maximum of four hours before terminating at 13:00 local (06:00Z).






LETHAL 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x

8 x F-15C (APG-63(V)3)

131 FS, 104 FW, MA Air National Guard


HOKU 1x, 2x, 3x

6 x F-22A

199 FS, 154 Wing, HI Air National Guard


COBRA 1x, 2x

4 x Su-30MKM

No. 11 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force


BAT 1x

2 x MiG-29N

No. 17 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force



2 x F/A-18D

No. 18 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force



2 x C-130H

No. 20 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force



1 x C-17A

517 AS, 3d Wing, USAF


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Play It Again, Gwyneth

When I’m feeling out of sorts, I often like to blow up the town of Hameln.  I mean, protect it from being blown up.  Which, to the untutored observer without my vast expertise at being run over by notional Soviet tank armies of the mid-1980s, might look very much like the same thing.  But I assure you that they are entirely different, and in any event none of it is even a little bit my fault.

Anyway, today I didn’t even want to drop explosive projectiles into a 700-year-old German town.  Like most things that end in these kinds of horrible misunderstandings, it started not with war, but with art.  In the course of writing up these after-action reviews, I started to look for ways to better illustrate the ending of “Waltz of the Eaglehorse.”  Which led to experimenting with small, basic map graphics.  Which led to drawing whole new maps of the German countryside with a newly-purchased copy of Ortelius.  Which led to replacing all of the art resources in a computer game with custom-made replacements.  Simple, really.  Could have happened to anybody.


Once I was done with a working map, of course I had to load it.  Just to see if it worked, you know.

“Ah, you have returned,” said the little man with the pitchfork who always shows up when I start looking at the wargame directory.  “And I see this time you don’t have Ms. Paltrow with you.  Good.  We need your help.  Shouldn’t take more than an hour.  There is this ‘brigade task force’ that has misplaced its commander…”

“Why are you making that twisty face when you say brigade task force?” I asked.

“That is how I make air quotes when my hands are occupied with a pitchfork,” the little man explained.

Anyway, you will be shocked to learn that it wasn’t a brigade, that most of the force hadn’t yet arrived, that the war had been going on for two days, etc., etc., etc.  Some new things that I learned from another go-around:

  • Stay out of Gross Helligsfeld.  I have never been able to successfully extract that first tank company (1/4 Pz) when I set them up in town.  This time I arranged the platoons individually in various delaying positions further south along Route 217, where they gave a much better account of themselves.  I still eventually lost the whole company in the two-kilometer stretch behind Rohrsen when the Soviet side finally got its act together for a third attack, but this is a far cry from the usual outcome.


    This is what Gross Helligsfeld looked like at the end of the engagement. Best to avoid…bad things happen there.

  • Recon matters a lot.  Even on the defense.  Not losing 1/4 Pz in the first thirty minutes preserved eyeballs that gave me much better information on how the attack was developing in that crucial first hour, when forces are very thin.  One happy outcome of the improved reconnaissance was that I was able to observe the enemy regiment’s first motor-rifle battalion in the midst of their bridging operation north of Coppenbrugge, after crossing Route 442.  Coincidentally, my artillery had just arrived, so I dropped a neutralizing fire mission on the vehicles paused at the riverbank and killed the Soviet battalion commander, which I think accounted for the sluggish pace of the resulting movement.


    This Soviet battalion had the misfortune to execute its river crossing, under artillery observation, directly into a minefield. Minefield and clearance graphics are new!

  • Remember to cross-attach units.  In this scenario, I think it is necessary to split the second tank company (2/4 Pz) when it arrives.  The reason is that you need to plan for a defense in two directions — the “front door” to the east along Route 217 (Team Amy’s old sector), and the “back door” to the north past Am Schot (where Team Gwyneth failed last time).  Your infantry force does not have the firepower to hold either direction by themselves if the Soviets show up with tanks.  So you end up with some tanks guarding the front door, while the rest are in town as a mobile reserve (or, if you think the Soviets have committed to the north, actually in defensive positions along the K1).  But the tank company’s captain can only be in one place, and units lose effectiveness when they stray too far from their headquarters.  The solution?  Give the tank platoons that will be separated from their own headquarters to another company commander.  In my case, I cross-attached one platoon of Leopard 2s to the infantry company in Team Amy’s sector while the balance of the company headed north.
  • Don’t fear the north.  If you read my last account, you could be forgiven for believing that the northern route, coming down along the K1, is the thermal exhaust port of the Hameln Death Star, a gaping and very dangerous vulnerability where the bulk of the defense needs to be weighted.  In fact it is really a deathtrap for the Soviet side, at least when Gwyneth Paltrow is not overseeing defensive preparations.  The village covering the mouth of the valley is ideal terrain for the second infantry company (2/66 PzG, which doesn’t have infantry fighting vehicles but can hold urban ground viciously).  If the attacking force has the mass to force entry, he will then have to run a winding gauntlet surrounded by wooded high ground, where he will take antitank fire from above in at least two directions.  The heavy Soviet force that attacked in this direction never made it halfway down the valley.


    Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. All in the valley of death, rode the six hundred. This situation looks even worse for this reduced company of Soviet stragglers when you notice that all of the West German units are still unspotted.

  • Weather matters.  At around mid-morning heavy rains began and visibility dropped to 500 meters.  Now instinctively you might think that this is bad news for the attacker, and maybe it is, but a great deal of the West German force’s defensive power is tied up in the superior long-range killing ability of the Leopard 2 tanks.  In fact, I had gotten used to setting up killing grounds at 1,500 – 2,000 meters, and distributed my forces with appropriate spacing.  When visibility fell to a third of that, all of a sudden my units were unable to provide the mutual support I was expecting.  The deepest Soviet advance was in the east right after the weather soured, when the enemy along Route 217 broke contact after the last of 1/4 Pz disengaged (er, died).  Turns out that they were driving for the first bridge on Route 1, but the forces tasked with covering that route couldn’t see that far through the haze from their positions in Afferde.  This led to an exciting moment in the rain when my reaction force groping blindly north blundered into the Soviet assault force groping blindly south, and we all laughed and laughed.  And then there was a lot of shooting.


    Nobody in this town knows how to drive in the rain.

In the end we ran into “sudden death” again as the Soviet side lost more than 70% of its force.  For the Soviets, it was primarily a tank fight, as I didn’t see much of the motor-rifle troops.  In addition to the command and control problems arising from the early loss of a battalion commander, the Soviets had a bad time with mines.  At game’s end there still were at least two fresh motor-rifle companies still north of Gross Helligsfeld.  After over six hours of fighting.  Well, given how Soviet personnel carriers seem to fare in the presence of West German main battle tanks, I wouldn’t be in any great hurry to drive down the road either.

The game awarded me a tactical success.  I did take higher casualties than I would have liked, almost all among the two companies equipped with older equipment.  1/4 Pz  ended the game in its customary way (completely out of action), but actually drove back the Soviet advance twice.  2/66 PzG lost about two-thirds of its strength blocking the Soviet entry into the valley in the north.  In retrospect I wonder if it might have been better to let the Soviets into the valley earlier.  Unfortunately the infantry doesn’t have a lot of good options to disengage from the village once they have the tiger by the tail.  Which, I suppose, is a classic military problem that is older than even Hameln itself.

I plan to write up the conclusion to “Waltz of the Eaglehorse” in a couple of weeks (I have developed a glamorous new custom map to illustrate that messy engagement).  After that I’ll examine the same Eaglehorse scenario from the Soviet side, which is an interesting object lesson in the challenges and opportunities that arise from punching someone in the face while he’s still mostly asleep.

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Nice Ice Navy



Something grabs a hold of me tightly
Flows like a harpoon, daily and nightly
Will it ever stop?  Yo — I don’t know
Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow.

— Vanilla Ice, late Cold War American recording artist

Storm reports that she has reached Point Egret,” Hanne announces flatly.  “The squadron is in place.”

“Very well,” I acknowledge, to the back of her head.  My chief of staff is seething.

It is very early in the morning aboard KNM Fridtjof Nansen (F310), the largest and most capable ship in the Royal Norwegian Navy.  We have just completed a harrowing overnight sprint north, hugging the jagged coastline in darkness and total electronic silence, and I am hoping that our arrival in this area will remain unnoticed for a little while longer.

We are not alone.  Our friends out in the pre-dawn darkness are four Skjold-class fast missile craft.  The Skjolds are this generation’s tribute to PT boats — barely displacing 300 tons, they are specially shaped to evade radar and can make 60 knots in calm seas.  They are, in fact, the fastest armed surface craft in the world.  For the past two weeks they have been wreaking havoc on Russian surface activities, punching at amphibious shipping and then fading back into the shelter of the coastal radar clutter before the escorts can react.  Which is why the Russians have now sent a fast surface group to kill the Skjolds once and for all.

Hanne believes that I am making an enormous mistake.  She knows the Skjolds very well, having served as the deputy program officer before going on to be Skudd‘s first commander.  In fact, she is one of the Navy’s top two or three tactical experts on fighting these boats, and she insists that the key advantage of the Skjolds lies in their blistering speed.  And by ordering the squadron to remain in their hide sites instead of keeping them on the move, she thinks that I am squandering the initiative and robbing them of their best chance to survive the coming engagement.

I’m not so sure.  My chief of staff comes from a world of fast-boat alley fights, where short-range hit-and-run attacks on other missile craft are the order of the day.  She thinks I am too old, too cautious to understand her carbon-fiber spaceships that zip around on cushions of air.  Perhaps she is right about that.  But my background is in the frigate navy, a world of helicopters.  You cannot outrun a helo.  Zooming around at 60 knots in the presence of enemy airborne search radar just announces to the world that you are something to kill.

And what the Russians can see, they can kill.  They build the best antiship missiles in the world, and their newer weapons are heavier, faster, and longer-ranged than ours.  Even their older systems are monsters.  By comparison we are throwing thumbtacks.


But, of course, the race does not always go to the fellow with the three-ton Mach 2.5 cruise missile.  We hope.

I glance at the clock.  It is time.

“Cola 03, green deck,” the deck circuit chirps.  A minute later the helicopter winds up and bites into the air, lifting away from the flattened rear end of Nansen.  The helo departs with a throaty roaring growl that we can feel even deep inside the heart of the ship.  But electromagnetically, she is as quiet as a hummingbird.

This is a game of hide-and-go-kill.  We are crouched on the dark sea with radar flashlights, armed with ship-killing weapons that can reach over the horizon.  Shine your flashlight on a target and you can kill it, though you may not be able to tell exactly what you are killing.  But others can see your beam sweeping across the water from farther away than you can see them.  It is precisely the kind of uncomfortable situation that certain long-haired Canadian guitarists of decades past might have declared to be ironic, if only there were a singable English word that rhymed with “radar.”

Our five ships are strung out on a loose line that runs to the northeast, hugging the rugged coastline like rain on a wedding day.  My flagship anchors the line to the south, ambling down the channel at an innocuous 10 knots.  The Skjolds are tucked into small inlets and coves without a hint of irony, where the rocky surroundings will hopefully shield them from the probing fingers of enemy radar.


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The Waltz of the Eaglehorse


On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen
Shall we dance, shall we dance, shall we dance?

                                        – The King and I (1956)



It is July 1989 and you have just been kicked in the chest.  But the inevitable boot-torso contact accidents that arise when soldiers scramble inside the cramped interior of an M577 command track are really the least of your problems this morning.

“It looks like we’re it,” the S-2 growls, as the track lurches to the right.  “I can’t raise Regiment.  Every net is jammed to hell.”

You are a recent arrival to Bavaria, after most of a career spent in line infantry units on the Korean DMZ.  After your company command, the Army has decided that you might have some potential leadership talent, maybe.  They have given you major’s leaves and a chance to screw it all up, in the form of a coveted S-3 job in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the fabled Blackhorse.  Or, as the E-4 mafia calls it when their sergeants are not around, “The Speedbump of the Fulda Gap.”  You are a serious soldier who has served in serious places, and you understand the realities of the mission.  But even you had secretly started to think that this tour would be an easy one, certainly compared to the deadly cat-and-mouse games played in the DMZ.  The Cold War was thawing, and the Soviets were leaving Europe.

That quaint notion, of course, ended forty-five minutes ago.  You have no idea what is really going on.  Nobody knows where the squadron commander is, though someone thinks that he may have been caught in the opening barrages.  Nobody has been able to raise Regiment or any higher authority.  What you do know is that you cleared camp in a command track with the S-2, and that you are the ranking officer in the vicinity of the squadron’s wartime deployment zone.  And as a result you are the acting commander of the 2nd Squadron, 11th ACR, at what is looking disturbingly like the start of World War III.



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What is the PLA Cyberspace Strategic Intelligence Research Center?

Earlier this week there was an interesting announcement on China Military Online (the online version of the official newspaper of the Chinese military):

The Cyberspace Strategic Intelligence Research Center was officially founded at an information center of the General Armaments Department (GAD) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on June 26, 2014. Experts believe that the center will provide strong support in obtaining high-quality intelligence research findings and help China gain advantage in national information security.

. . . .

The center is designed to become an authoritative research resource for Internet intelligence, build a highly-efficient cyberspace dynamically-tracking research system, provide high-end services for hot and major issues, and explore approaches of intelligence analysis as well as identification and appraisal with cyberspace characteristics.

. . . .

The center will adopt the expert engagement system as the basic organization form, engaging experts from such key equipment and technology development fields as cyberspace situation awareness and fundamental research while giving attention to such key development directions as strategic policies.

Bill Gertz, with his characteristic attentiveness to these kinds of things, wrote an article about this yesterday, in which he pondered the curiosity of announcing a new “military cyber spying center” so soon after the U.S. criminal indictment of five PLA hackers. Other well-informed sources echoed this sentiment:

Michelle Van Cleave, former DNI national counterintelligence executive, a senior counterspy policymaker, said the PLA announcement is interesting for its timing.

“In May, we indict five PLA officers for cyber espionage against the U.S. and the Chinese deny the charges,” she said in an email. “Next they announce a whole new center dedicated to the same thing, only now they’re calling it research.”

But is that what is really going on here?

One thing to note is that the host institution for this new Center is the PLA’s General Armaments Department (GAD).  The GAD is one of four top-level headquarters elements for the PLA, the others being the General Staff Department (with responsibility for operations and intelligence), the General Political Department (political and ideological affairs), and the General Logistics Department (quartermaster functions other than weapons).  It is effectively a weapons R&D and procurement organization, with no direct operational responsibilities.  “Spying” per se is an operations matter that, as far as the PLA goes, would be managed by the GSD’s Third Department,¹ not by the weapons labs of the GAD.  Indeed, this appears to have been the case for the PLA hacking units operating under the cover designators “61398” and “61486”:

Last year, the private security firm Mandiant first disclosed that a Shanghai-based military group, Unit 61398, was engaged in cyber espionage.

The five PLA military hackers indicted May 1 were part of this unit.

Then last month the firm CrowdStrike revealed a second cyber espionage group, called Unit 61486, also based in Shanghai. It attacked and penetrated U.S. defense, satellite, and aerospace companies, as well as similar targets in Europe, since 2007.

Those two units are part of the PLA General Staff Department in charge of intelligence.

Admittedly, the opaque language used in the description of the new Center’s function (probably exacerbated by translation issues) doesn’t help.  But jargon in the cyber domain is still pretty fuzz-laden even in English (ask ten people what “cyber intelligence” means and you’ll get answers ranging from ordinary malware reports to “any sensitive data obtained through unauthorized network access”).  Judging from the context, my guess is that the Center is really supposed to be focused on what we used to call network security research.  The reference to “expert engagement” and “specially invited experts” suggests that the Center is a military-hosted interagency point of engagement for the various other centers of cyber expertise elsewhere in the Chinese government, such as the Academy of Military Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, neither of which report up through the GAD.

Now, this does not mean that the Center’s purpose is innocuous.  By their nature the applications for this kind of research are never limited solely to defensive matters, and that same research would doubtless be used to develop tools useful for cyber espionage and offensive mischief.  The GAD is, after all, a weapons development institution.  But actual spying activities themselves would be handled by an operational unit, and the existence of this Center does not by itself speak to the actual existence or nonexistence of operational activity.

The other caveat, of course, is that I am only interpreting the article — in other words, what the Chinese government intends to convey to the public, which may or may not reflect what is actually going on behind the scenes.  Nonetheless, it is important to understand the nature of their public rhetoric to get a picture of what they’re doing.  Similar to our own “critical infrastructure protection” initiatives over the past 15 years, the Chinese government has recently floated the idea that defensive cyber needs to be a national priority.  In that light, the announcement of this Center is neither rank hypocrisy nor an accidental confession to cyber espionage, but rather a logical extension of the Chinese government’s stated commitment to defensive cyber (and, they would argue, wholly consistent with their denial of U.S. charges regarding offensive intelligence operations).  Do I believe their denial?  No.  But this announcement doesn’t have much to do with it.

¹ I originally said the Second Department (military intelligence), but, of course, cyber belongs within the purview of the Third Department, the GSD branch traditionally responsible for SIGINT.  As the cyber order-of-battle continues to evolve, some analysts also believe that the Fourth Department (ELINT) also plays a cyber role.  More on this in a separate post.

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Daggers at Hasvik


We have been operating off the Norwegian coastline for thirty-six hours, having departed Granitnyy before dawn on Saturday morning. There are four of us. To the west we have the two newest ships in the 55th Missile Ship Brigade, both Gremyashchy-class corvettes barely out of sea trials. I fly my very small flag in Gremyashchy herself, while Provornyy, on her first trip outside Russian waters, holds station nearby. Thirty miles to the east we have Tucha and Urugan, a pair of elderly Nanuchka III missile craft that serves as my fast missile group.

We are hunting ghosts. We lost three Ropuchas last week to…nothing, just missiles out of nowhere. Naval aviation lost another two reconnaissance aircraft trying to figure out what happened. Fleet intelligence thinks it knows — four of the Norwegian Skjolds have been missing from their berths for two weeks. And they have even better news — the Norwegians have a Nansen-class frigate supporting this raider group. So it is up to my little squadron to seek and kill four stealth surface effect craft and a midget Aegis.


It is just past dawn and the surface picture is starting to populate. I have both surface groups in a tight EMCON state, while the helicopters listen and occasionally radiate from 12,000 feet. “Mostly commercial traffic, Commodore,” says Usenkov in a tired tone of voice. “Just like yesterday. Fishermen.”

“I see. But what fisherman travels at 55 knots?” I ask.


“Fast missilecraft,” breathes Usenkov. “No emissions, he’s running silent. Our contact is a skin-paint from the helicopter.”

“Then I doubt he sees us yet,” I reply. “Let’s take the group to the west, I want to be off the axis of the helicopter radar. Radars off.” We shift our weight as the corvette heels starboard.

Five minutes pass. The helicopter reports radar activity. “Surface search radar. Airborne. Type NH90.”


The NH90 is the helicopter operated by the Nansen frigate. So the Nansen may be far to the south. There is a surface contact near the helicopter, emissions-silent, cruising at an innocuous 6 knots. Is it a fisherman that the NATO helicopter was just checking out? Or is it the Nansen itself?

We wait a few more minutes while the helicopter carefully makes its way to the west. Our helicopter detects more surface contacts popping out of the coastal radar shadows. Usenkov points out that three of them have accelerated past 26 knots and are headed north to open water.


“Well?” I look at my very young executive officer.

“They saw the Helix,” he replies. “Then they vectored their own helicopter in. I think there is a good chance they have us — you know the new NATO airborne radars.”

“And the fast-movers are their strike force, moving in on us radar-silent,” I finish. “I agree. Classify SKUNK 6 as hostile, NATO Skjold-class fast missile craft, and let’s see how this develops.”

Usenkov nods, looking pale, and gives the order to the combat systems officer. And then all hell breaks loose.


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