Doug Miller of Cry Havoc!
is in the middle of has completed a fantastic series of posts teaching basic terrain analysis through our wargame of the moment, Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. These are worth bookmarking:
Also, Doug seems to like drawing his own separate map graphics outside the program as much as I do, which makes him an artiste. Of, like, destruction. A Raphael of reconnaissance. A Warhol of war. A Frank Lloyd Wright of…er, breaking stuff. Look upon my map symbols, ye mighty, and despair.
Speaking of despair: I am a habitually shallow planner, which is why I habitually get punched in the face. I usually have a plausible plan at the start, although more often than not it’s the first coherent plan to come to mind rather than the result of examining all the alternatives. I typically spend no time thinking about what to do with reinforcements until after they arrive. My guesses about enemy plans are usually just that — a series of guesses about the conceivable, with not a lot of cogent thought behind why I think A instead of B.
Admittedly, the Army’s OCOKA thing (or OAKOC, depending on which doctrine geeks you happen to be around…twenty years ago a Marine officer taught it to me as KOCOA) may seem vaguely overbaked. But its pedantic formality forces you to develop a mental framework for thinking about the battlefield. This particular battlefield. From both sides. Something like that could be quite useful when Team GOOP gets overrun by a Soviet tank battalion, like, totally unexpectedly. I will try using it to impose some discipline of thought into my future planning.
Hameln, in the Lower Saxony region of Germany, is quite literally a storied place. Most famously, it is the town where the Pied Piper imposed his famous penalty for failing to pay the pest control invoice (though in the age of Boko Haram, I suppose this tale loses some of its charm). During the Cold War, Hameln — with its bridges across the Weser river — was a frequent setting in World War III speculative fiction. One of the most vivid scenes from the superb Red Army, by Ralph Peters, features a Soviet heliborne assault on those bridges — which, unbeknownst to tough, cynical Lieutenant Colonel Gordunov and his parachute battalion, is merely a diversionary ploy. Gordunov, the soldier’s soldier who learned his trade in Afghanistan, dies in the burning streets of old Hameln, holding out for a relief force that his higher commanders never intended to send.
This morning, I returned to alternate-universe Hameln in the wartime 1980s — this time not as an invader, but as a defender. The Matrix-published wargame Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm (NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe) includes a small exercise portraying a West German task force attempting to delay some absurdly large Soviet force bent on taking the bridges at Hameln. The scenario is named “The Pied Piper.”
Like most NATO-side situations in the genre, the setup is maddeningly brief. You are half-awake, still have toothpaste in your mouth, have only one pant leg on, and most of your force is not here yet, but there is a huge Soviet formation headed your way so you’d better get going. The briefing says something about the “11th Guards Tank Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army” which doesn’t sound good, but also mentions that the war has been going on for two days and this is a second-echelon attack. Which happens to be late, even. Go figure. Why am I always the last to hear about things?
No matter. I have been given something called the “4th Panzer Brigade Task Force.” A brigade! Awesome, that’s more like it. But the fine print douses my momentary delight with gasoline-flavored water: “brigade” is the new “battalion.” I have two companies of armor and two companies of mechanized infantry. What’s more, fully one-half of the task force, and all of the artillery, won’t be here for a few hours. Typical.
The staff is looking at me like a dog with a bowl in its mouth, so I feel like I should give some orders. At the moment, I have a company of thirteen Leopard 1 tanks (1st Company, 4th Panzer Battalion, or “1/4 Pz”)¹ in the city outskirts, so I send them racing up Highway 217 toward the leftist menace. About 5 kilometers up the highway is the village of Gross Helligsfeld, which has good cover and some nice sightlines to the east. The captain commanding 1/4 Pz tucks his three armor platoons into the village and sets up his headquarters section near the highway, then waits.
The remainder of my meager force consists of the 1st Company, 66th Panzergrenadier Battalion (“1/66 PzG”), with eleven Marder 1 infantry fighting vehicles. Three line platoons of heavy mech infantry (what the Germans like to call panzergrenadiers) with anti-tank guided missiles. I split the force, sending two platoons forward to straddle Highway 1, and retaining the headquarters section and the remaining platoon near the junction of Highway 217 and Highway 1. These are the two main westbound arteries into Hameln, and I figure the Soviets will need to use at least one of them. Finally, I pull my own task force headquarters into west Hameln, against the river. Then there is nothing left to do but wait.
Dawn comes. A self-propelled artillery battery shows up, and then another. Six 155mm guns, for my dedicated use. Some good news. I set them up on the far side of the river, where they can do their mischief at a distance. Then the radio murmurs and the talker informs me that division scouts have reported Soviet vehicles in the eastern minebelts. It’s still over five kilometers away from 1/4 Pz and they cannot see anything yet. But it will not be long.
“Enemy contact.” And they are in force, not just a stray reconnaissance probe. The captain reports a battalion minus of tanks, coming straight west in ten-vehicle formations. Then he barks sharply and the shooting begins. 1/4 Pz works the engagement for almost an hour, ripping chunks out of the Soviet armored spearheads while calling in artillery fires. But they are taking casualties too, and before long an entire platoon is out of action. Time to go, I urge the captain. But it is always an agonizing balance between staying to delay just a little bit longer, and pulling away. And it is not so easy to disengage under fire. The Soviet tank companies edge closer, and I again order a retreat. Go. Now. Down the highway to the next village. You’ve extracted your price. But now the enemy is too close.
It becomes very clear what is going to happen. The Soviets must feel it too, and they storm Gross Helligsfeld with two battered companies. The last thing I hear from 1/4 Pz is the captain’s terse report that he is almost out of ammunition. Then there is nothing but the tortured hiss of the radio jamming as my picture in the village goes entirely dark.
I order all the guns to barrage the last-known positions of the Soviet forces while I figure out what to do next.
The brutal price paid by 1/4 Pz at Gross Helligsfeld has bought me the time and space to reinforce before the Soviets hit our main line. During 1/4’s final moments the remaining two companies of my task force have arrived. I now have a fresh company of powerful Leopard 2 tanks (2/4 Pz) and a somewhat less powerful panzergrenadier company mounted in M113s (2/66 PzG).
After studying the map, I quickly issue orders to deploy the force as follows:
- Two of the tank platoons and the bulk of my Marder-mounted panzergrenadiers are positioned near Afferde, along the south side of Highway 1 facing north where they have a good flanking view of Highway 217. This position provides good cover, an elevated vantage point, and some low ground to the east where I can withdraw the group out of the view of the oncoming Soviets to enter Hameln. I call this group “Team Amy.”
- The remaining Marder platoon and tank platoon, together with the headquarters elements for both companies, are dug-in to a roughly north-south line bisecting the road junctions entering east Hameln. This force guards the “front gate” and is intended to fix the Soviet force while Team Amy attacks the flanks (or, alternatively, cover Team Amy’s withdrawal from Afferde). I call this group “Team Isla.”
- The second panzergrenadier company is deployed in the Hameln city center as the reserve. Because they are mounted in older M113s and not missile-armed Marders, I don’t want them facing any Soviet vehicles in the open. Instead, the infantry (who have manpack antitank guided missiles) will dismount and engage the Soviet force in whatever part of the city they appear. When Team Amy withdraws and Team Isla comes under pressure, I expect to move this group to the east to reinforce and counterattack. I call them “Team Gwyneth.”²
The red monster to the east grumbles and growls. Eventually Team Amy reports vehicles in sight. Wheeled vehicles, not tanks, headed down Route 60, the lesser road running between the two highways. Infantry vehicles, reconnaissance vehicles, personnel carriers. A lot of them. This must be the main body of the motor-rifle regiment.
Fri Apr 11 18:15 so much work to do
Fri Apr 11 19:00 so much work to do
Fri Apr 11 20:45 mmm guacamole
Fri Apr 11 21:30 so much work to do
Fri Apr 11 23:42 must rest eyes for a bit
Sat Apr 12 03:14 no wonder woman don’t get in the helicopter
Sat Apr 12 08:30 so much work to do
Sat Apr 12 09:30 so much work to do hence very important to go to gym right now
Sat Apr 12 10:30 cannot for life of me remember name of third kardashian sister. kingfish? kent? wait no, these are russian cruise missiles. although, maybe not mutually exclusive
Sat Apr 12 10:34 person on next treadmill definitely cyborg
Sat Apr 12 11:15 omg so much work to do
Last month there was a well-publicized kerfuffle after a Dec. 5 encounter between USS Cowpens (CG 63) and several Chinese Navy ships in the South China Sea. The PLAN had a (relatively large) task force centered on celebrity training aircraft carrier Liaoning (pennant #16), together with both of the fleet’s Type 051C (Luzhou-class) destroyers and two Type 054A (Jiangkai II-class) frigates from the North Sea Fleet. Apparently Cowpens got too close for the PLAN’s liking, and one of the Chinese ships (interestingly, not one of the North Sea Fleet surface combatants, but rather a lightly-armed Type 072 LST accompanying the group) “aggressively” maneuvered to block the American cruiser. Everyone called “all stop”, and after a brief bridge-to-bridge exchange between Cowpens and Liaoning‘s captain (English-speaking, British-educated Senior Captain Zhang Zheng), the parties went their separate ways. Diplomatic back-and-forth continued for a week or two afterward (with some calling for an Incidents at Sea agreement between the U.S. and China), but the issue has since died down. Liaoning returned to her home port on Jan. 1. The Chinese are still coming to RIMPAC later this year.
As is fairly typical for military exercises that China wishes to publicize (almost all of them, these days), the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration did publish a notice identifying the exercise zone and warning that “no vessel is allowed to enter the designated maritime areas.” This sort of jealous approach to their use of international waters raises the usual freedom of navigation objection, and although everybody agrees that there are legitimate concerns about self-defense, one gets the sense that this would all go easier if they were a little less brusque about the whole thing. Blue water isn’t just about logistics and command-and-control; it is about sharing the playground.
In any event, the legal discussion is not today’s topic. I decided to plot the exercise zone, just to get a feel for where this was. The Chinese set aside three numbered “Maritime Areas” to the south and east of Hainan Island. The two western boxes (Maritime Areas 1 and 2) were right up against Chinese territorial waters (in fact the edges of the boxes overlap the 12-mile limit). The easternmost box (Maritime Area 3) is about 50 miles off the coast of Hainan. It is not clear in which box the Cowpens encounter took place, but it seems to have occurred on the first day of the exercise.
Looking at the chart, it struck me how close these waters are to Yankee Station, the U.S. carrier operating zone from which naval air strikes were launched against North Vietnam between 1964 and 1973 (I’ve plotted its location above). Indeed, Yankee Station is just about 50 miles to the west of the PLAN’s Maritime Area 2. Perhaps the Chinese, ever attentive to American military precedent, are hoping that some of the hard-won know-how developed in these waters a half-century ago will rub off.
I’ve been fascinated by the tactics of modern air-to-air combat since I was a kid. Unfortunately, while I have a pretty good grasp of the technology and can visualize the tactical building blocks passably well, I’ve always had trouble fitting everything together. Countless times over the past twenty years I’ve taken my well-worn copy of Robert Shaw’s Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering off the shelf, hoping to better educate myself. But while I have no trouble with the early chapters or the aerodynamics, once he starts into the dynamic three-dimensional geometry in the middle part of the book I quickly get lost. Many hours in “serious” computer simulations have not really helped my tactical intuitions. How fighter crews are able to manage all of this in real time while under severe physical stress is really beyond me.
A Board Game? Like, Monopoly?
After pretty much giving up on ever understanding contemporary tactics, I was surprised to discover that an “old-fashioned” board wargame could do what textbooks and advanced computer simulations could not. Birds of Prey, designed by Phil Markgraf and Tony Valle, breaks down the close-in maneuvering fight into six-second slices of time, where the physics, aerodynamics, and relative geometry of air-to-air combat is laid bare for your perusal. Unlike computer flight simulations, the “why” becomes transparent. Unlike a textbook, the scenario is completely interactive. At its heart is an ingenious system of two-dimensional slide rules (“nomographs“) and a method of handling airplanes moving relative to one another in full three-dimensional space. There are aspects of the game that are rough, and parts that are just barely “playable” in their present form, but taken as a whole it is a genuine work of genius.
Anyway, this is not a review of Birds of Prey. Instead, I’d like to use the Birds of Prey system as an educational tool to explore the real-world tactical concepts that appear in the various texts and publications I’ve accumulated over the years (e.g., as a laboratory for working through some of the examples in Shaw). Mostly, I’m doing this for myself — I’m hoping that by putting it into writing, I’ll better absorb the concepts. Of course, on the off-chance that others read this and correct any mistakes I make, so much the better.
There is an odd bit of trivia about the U.S. air campaign over Iraq in 1991 that has been a source of curiosity for me for more than fifteen years, and I think I happened upon the answer last night. Or, at least, an answer.
Over forty Iraqi aircraft were downed by the U.S.-led coalition in the course of air-to-air engagements during Operation Desert Storm (ODS); I have a “kill table” here. The table draws upon various official and unofficial historical records that have emerged in the two decades since ODS, and in most cases includes the parent unit and radio callsign of the coalition aircraft that scored the victory. You will see that the overwhelming number of victories were scored by F-15Cs of the USAF (and indeed, a disproportionate number of kills went to one particular squadron, the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing). The reasons for this are complicated, involving joint command-and-control arrangements and inter-service politics, and remain controversial even two decades later.
In any event, two air-to-air engagements resulted in kills for the Navy. The first encounter occurred on the first night of the war (Jan. 17), when two F/A-18C Hornets from VFA-81 “Sunliners” shot down a pair of Chinese knock-off MiG-21s while on the inbound leg to their ground target. The second encounter occurred on Feb. 6, when an F-14A Tomcat from VF-1 “Wolfpack” shot down an Mi-8 helicopter while on a combat air patrol.
My puzzle related to the question of callsigns. If you look at the litany of callsigns in the kill table, you will notice that almost all of the callsigns take the form of a call name followed by two digits. The call name usually follows a theme, such as oil brands (QUAKER, CHEVRON, CITGO) or firearms (PISTOL, SPRINGFIELD), and the two digits indicate the position of an aircraft in an element or flight. So, for example, the pair of F-15s from the 36th TFW that got four kills on Jan. 27 took the callsigns OPEC 01 (the leader) and OPEC 02 (his wingman). This uniform system was dictated by the Air Tasking Order (ATO), the theater-wide air plan used to organize and control the very large numbers of armed aircraft crossing the skies over Iraq and Kuwait, the majority of which were ostensibly on the same side and should not be colliding into or employing weapons against one another.
So, let’s look at our Navy flights on Jan. 17 and Feb. 6. We see that our MiG-killing F/A-18s took the callsigns QUICKSAND 64 and QUICKSAND 62, which appears to be consistent with the ATO system. But our helo-busting F-14 was using a strange callsign that is not like the others: WICHITA 103. This is not an ATO-compliant callsign. Rather, this is a “tactical callsign” used by Navy carrier air wings, comprised of a squadron-specific call name combined with the three-digit modex number painted on the side of the airplane. “WICHITA” was the unique call name used by VF-1 “Wolfpack”, and the jet in question was #103. (The Navy tactical callsigns for our Hornets from Jan. 17 would have been SUNLINER 401 and SUNLINER 410.)
Why did the Tomcat on Feb. 6 not use an ATO callsign? It couldn’t have been an Air Force/Navy thing, since the Navy F/A-18s on Jan. 6 were using ATO callsigns. It couldn’t have been a Tomcat/Hornet thing, since we know that when an F-14B from VF-103 was shot down on Jan. 21, it had the ATO callsign SLATE 46.
For years I assumed that this was simply a question of incomplete recordkeeping, and that there had to have been an ATO callsign somewhere that simply hadn’t made it into the public sources. But when I inquired with the pilot of that F-14 last year, he told me that to the best of his recollection, his callsign on that day was in fact WICHITA 103. So it seems there was a discrepancy, but still no indication as to why.
The Soviet submarine force during the Cold War was enormous. From 1945 to 1990, there were over forty classes of submarines fielded under the Soviet naval ensign, numbering well over six hundred hulls. (By comparison, the United States constructed just under two hundred submarines over the same period.)
The sheer diversity of Soviet submarine platforms has always given me a headache. Take the 1950s-era “Project 613” conventional fleet submarine, known to NATO as the Whiskey-class, for example. The Whiskey quickly spawned many variants. In 1955, a Whiskey was adapted to carry the P-5/NATO SS-N-3c cruise missile, with the testbed being called “Project P-613” and the six operational missile-carrying units called “Project 644” (NATO Whiskey Twin-Cylinder). In 1961, a series of new-build Whiskeys were commissioned with quad-tube P-5 missile mounts (Project 665/NATO Whiskey Long Bin). Project 640 (NATO Whiskey Canvas Bag) was a radar picket variant launched in 1957, and Project 613S and Project 666 were dedicated rescue submarines. As late as 1974, the Whiskey design was being used as a propulsion testbed (Project 613Eh). And, of course, it wasn’t until 1981 that a Baltic Fleet Whiskey (S-363) ran aground off the Swedish coast in the infamous “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident. All told, there were over two hundred Whiskeys built for the Soviet Navy.
And there was even more diversity among classes. In the jargon of the western navies, we have Echo I/II/IIIs, Foxtrots, Hotels, Romeos, Victor I/II/IIIs, Charlie I/IIs, Yankees of many stripes, Alfas, Sierra I/IIs, Oscars, Kilos, Typhoons, an unfortunate Mike, and an endless procession of Golfs and Deltas–not to mention many ships of lesser celebrity, to which NATO never assigned code names. With all of these ship designs floating around, it is often difficult to discern the relationships between classes. Indeed, the common NATO code names are sometimes misleading, as the Soviet admiralty usually saw no reason to be transparent on these subjects to the intelligence services of their class enemies.
Over the New Year’s weekend a few years ago, I was reading Norman Polmar’s and K.J. Moore’s excellent submarine design history, and, feeling lost as usual, thought that I’d chart out the basic Soviet class lineages for myself. The result is this very large timeline map of Soviet submarine classes since 1945. In addition to class and sub-class lineages by timeline (flowing left to right), I’ve added (a) indicators for the total number of hulls in the class (green circles); (b) boundary markers for the “four generations” into which Soviet nuclear submarine designs are commonly divided (shaded boxes toward the bottom); and (c) concurrent timeline tracks for major known Soviet submarine incidents for each class (white dotted lines and triangles).
This chart is a first draft, and may be incomplete or erroneous in a number of ways. After that weekend, I had intended to go back and refine its contents, but haven’t yet found the time to do it. With that caveat, I thought I’d share it with others who might find it interesting and/or useful.
[Download high-resolution JPG image, 6394×3648, 1.2MB]