The ongoing Russian invasion of the Ukraine is certainly making wargamers—professional and hobby—rethink some fundamental assumptions of the Russian threat. This reassessment is also spilling over into game design.
There is maybe no better stimulant for discussion than the 40 mile (64 km) long military convoy road jam of Russian forces north of Kyiv. How does a game designer depict that 64 km long military convoy road jam in a commercial hobby wargame? More generally, do commercial wargames capture the apparent state of supply for the Russian Army as we are seeing in the Ukraine war?
Food for Thought
Supply rules in wargames often get a bum rap. Take for instance the infamous pasta rule. In designer Richard Berg’s The Campaign for North Africa (SPI, 1979), the Italian forces have to account for extra water rations for their soldiers to boil pasta. If the pasta points aren’t properly managed, Italian troops may desert, reflecting the inability to feed hungry soldiers in the field. Alas, it’s a rule not based on reality, but many wargamers know the rule and some derive a perception of supply rules from it.
While many wargames have supply rules, nobody wants to play a logistics game (except maybe Amabel Holland and her Supply Lines of the American Revolution series from Hollandspiele Games). Wargames often simplify—if not outright ignore—supply. Assuming for the moment we are designing a wargame to present something of a plausible model of how supply and the road jammed Russian military convoy are represented, how do we do it?
For thought, I’m going to first review some “typical” supply rules in Cold War/Modern operational-scale wargames and then muse on how they do, or do not, reflect the situation we are seeing on the ground.
Of Railheads & Trucks
A November 2021 article by Lt. Col Alex Vershinin, U.S. Army, for War on the Rocks titled, “Feeding the Bear: A Closer Look at Russian Army Logistics and the Fait Accompli” is very enlightening. His argument is very prescient given what we are seeing today:
Most of these wargames, such as RAND’s Baltic study, focus on fait accompli, an attack by the Russian government aimed at seizing terrain — then quickly digging in. This creates a dilemma for NATO: launch a costly counter-attack and risk heavy casualties and possibly a nuclear crisis or accept a Russian fait accompli and undermine faith in the credibility of the alliance. Some analysts have argued that these seizures are much more likely to be small in size, limited to one or two towns. While that scenario should, of course, be studied, the concern about the feasibility of a fait accompli in the form of a major invasion still stands (my emphasis).
While the Russian army definitely has the combat power to achieve these scenarios, does Russia have the logistics force structure to support these operations? The short answer is not in the timelines envisioned by Western wargames. In an initial offensive — depending on the fighting involved — Russian forces might reach early objectives, but logistics would impose requirements for operational pauses. As a result, a large land grab is unrealistic as a fait accompli. The Russian army has the combat power to capture the objectives envisioned in a fait accompli scenario, but it does not have the logistic forces to do it in a single push without a logistical pause to reset its sustainment infrastructure (my emphasis again).“Feeding the Bear,” War on the Rocks, 23 Nov 2021
Vershinin points out that the Russian military supply network is composed of railheads and trucks:
The reason Russia is unique in having railroad brigades is that logistically, Russian forces are tied to railroad from factory to army depot and to combined arms army and, where possible, to the division/brigade level. No other European nation uses railroads to the extent that the Russian army does. Part of the reason is that Russia is so vast — over 6,000 miles from one end to the other. The rub is that Russian railroads are a wider gauge than the rest of Europe…Rail traffic moving across borders usually stops to cross-load cargo or uses adjustable railroad carriages and switches engines (which cannot adjust). In times of war, it is highly unlikely that the Russian army would capture enough Western train engines to support their army, forcing them to rely on trucks. This means that Russian army rail sustainment capability ends at the borders of the former Soviet Union. Trying to resupply the Russian army beyond the Russian gauge rail network would force them to rely mostly on their truck force until railroad troops could reconfigure/repair the railroad or build a new one.“Feeding the Bear,” War on the Rocks, 23 Nov 2021
Those trucks are an Achilles heel. To illustrate, Vershinin uses simple “beer math” (which I can fully support!):
Russia’s truck logistic support, which would be crucial in an invasion of Eastern Europe, is limited by the number of trucks and range of operations. It is possible to calculate how far trucks can operate using simple beer math. Assuming the existing road network can support 45 mph speeds, a single truck can make three trips a day at up to a 45-mile range: One hours to load, one hour to drive to the supported unit, one hours to unload, and another hour to return to base. Repeating this cycle three times equals 12 hours total. The rest of the day is dedicated to truck maintenance, meals, refueling, weapons cleaning, and sleeping. Increase the distance to 90 miles [145 km], and the truck can make two trips daily. At 180 miles [290 km], the same truck is down to one trip a day. These assumptions won’t work in rough terrain or where there is limited/damaged infrastructure. If an army has just enough trucks to sustain itself at a 45-mile distance, then at 90 miles, the throughput will be 33 percent lower. At 180 miles, it will be down by 66 percent. The further you push from supply dumps, the fewer supplies you can replace in a single day.“Feeding the Bear,” War on the Rocks, 23 Nov 2021
With that broad overview of Russian Army logistics, let’s look at a few commercial wargames and how they depict supply.
Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom, designer Eric Harvey, Modern War Magazine Issue #45 (Jan-Feb 2020), Decision Games, 2020 | Scale: Units Corps/Division/Brigade, 58 kilometers (km)/ hex, 1 turn = ~2 days
Rule 7.0 SUPPLY uses a very typical wargame approach; “During each friendly Supply Phase, the owning player must demonstrate a path of contiguous hexes (regardless of terrain types) from his land units to a friendly city (3.0).” The path can be “of any length” and cannot cross prohibited terrain nor a hex with an enemy unit nor through an enemy zone of control (ZOC) unless that hex is occupied by a friendly unit.
Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989, designer Carl Fung, Multi-Man Publishing, 2020 | Scale: Divisions/Brigades, 24 km/hex, 1 turn = 3 days
Game Series rule 1..2d Supply states:
Given the short time-frame of the game, the multiple means of transportation, and the abundance of pre-positioned logistical sites as well as civilian stocks of food, medical supplies, and fuel, do not use the SCS [Standard Combat Series] Supply rules.Iron Curtain Game Series rule 1.2d
Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, designer Mitchell Land, GMT Games, 2019 | Scale: Units Division/Brigade-Regiment/Battalion, 12 km/hex, 1 turn = 3.5 days
In the Next War series, rule 13.1 Supply is an optional Standard Series Game rule. The approach used is very basic; certain hexes are Supply Sources (13.1.2) and in order for units to be in supply they must able to trace a Line of Communication (13.1.3). Units that are Out of Supply (13.1.5) have their Attack and Movement ratings halved and their Efficiency Rating reduced. They also are not eligible for Elite Reaction or Exploitation Movement. In the Advanced Game rules, 19.0 Supply introduces a somewhat more complex set of rules, the most important of which are 19.1 Supply Sources with their range limitations and 19.4 Supply Depots and MSUs (Mobile Supply Units). Specifically, the four possible supply sources and ranges are:
- Mobile Supply Unit (MSU) – 4 Movement Points (MPs)
- Beachhead – 4 MPs
- Urban hex (in friendly country) – 6 MPs
- Supply Depot – 8MPs
Less Than 60 Miles, designer Fabrizio Vianello, Thin Red Line Games, 2019 | Scale: Units Division/Brigade/Battalion, 5 km/hex, 1 turn = 3 hours
In Less Than 60 Miles, units accumulate Attrition Points as they fight. Rule 30 Supply specifies that in order to remove Attrition Points the unit, “must be able to trace a valid Supply Line.” Per rule 30.1 Tracing Supply Lines a Supply Line is formed from two segments; 1) From a Supply Source (Major or Minor Road on friendly map edge) to a Supply Hub of the Top HQ traced along only roads and of any length and, 2) From a Supply Hub to unit with a maximum length of 6 hexes for NATO and 4 hexes for Warsaw Pact. Of note, Supply Hubs are assigned to a Top HQ and limited in number by the scenario. Supply Hubs must be placed within the Command Range of a friendly HQ. The usual restrictions from terrain or enemy units also apply, with the additional proviso that the instant a Supply Hub is adjacent to an enemy unit, it is removed.
Out of Supply
The highly visible supply problems as Russian forces advance in the Ukraine are not well captured in Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom. Even that horrendous traffic jam is “only” 1 hex. The scale of Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom also may be too high to capture the role of trucks. However, one unknown that might explain the supply problems is the presence of Ukrainian units somewhere along that supply route that may be exerting a zone of control and therefore cutting the supply line.
Iron Curtain likewise fails to explain the current situation as it simply handwaves the entire supply issue based on prepositioned stocks which is certainly not applicable to the current fight. The role of trucks for the final leg of delivery to units is seemingly totally absent from the Iron Curtain supply model.
Both Next War and Less Than 60 Miles use a similar two-level approach to modeling supply in their game. Both depict the need to move supply forward along with attacking forces. Importantly, both have restrictions on the distance for the “final mile” of supply delivery.
In the case of Next War, the supply sources being pushed furthest forward are Mobile Supply Units (MSUs) with their 4 MPs. MSUs appear to represent the trucks pushing forward. Practically speaking, along a Primary Road this gives them a range of 96 km. Being forced to use a Secondary Road or Flat terrain reduces this reach to 48 km and if the terrain is Rough it drops to 12 km—a single hex. The big traffic jam, at 64 km in length, is within what a single MSU should be able to support.
In Less Than 60 Miles, the Soviets are limited to a 20 km range for supply from a Supply Hub. If we think of the trucks as the “reach” of the Supply Hub this model outwardly appears to be consistent with what we observe in action. However, even if we give the modern Russian Army the benefit of the doubt and allow them to use the larger NATO range for the reach of supply, it still is only a 30 km “reach.” In game terms, the Supply Hub for this convoy is at the end of the jam…64 km or (optimistically) twice the supply range.
One factor that appears unaccounted for by most any wargame supply rule is traffic jams. One would like to think this number is “baked into” the game mechanism, but the more I look at the different game mechanism the less confident I am in making such an assertion. Granted, almost every one of the wargames referenced here has rules for refugees clogging roads, but units clogging roads is part of the stacking rules in any wargame. Then again, those stacking rules are often for combat units and do not look at combat service or logistics. That may not be a good assumption to make. Take a look at imagery from the road jam again.
Do you see the triple-wide column of vehicles occupying the road edge-to-edge in places? Just where are the supply vehicles supposed to travel? One lane down, same one lane back? The unit in this photo has blocked their own supply units. Even if the road is within the range of the Supply Hub or MSU, the road is for all practical purposes impassable.
Obvious? In Retrospect…
The supply problems of Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), a somewhat ad hoc formation built around a motorized rifle or tank battalion with attachments, should not be a surprise. The Spring 2017 edition of Armor: The Professional Bulletin of the Armor Branch, Headquarters, Department of the Army, PB 17-17-2 has a very insightful article written by one CPT Nic Fiore. CPT Fiore researched the weaknesses that allowed Ukrainian Army units to defeat Russian BTGs in combat operations during 2013-2015 and described tactics that an American brigade combat team (BCT) might employ to create similar opportunities to tactically defeat a BTG. Here is how CPT Fiore described the vulnerability of a BTGs sustainment:
BTG sustainment was typically ad hoc and conducted over large distances. Replacement personnel, equipment and parts were primarily drawn from the already reduced units that remained in garrison, which could be more than 500 kilometers away from the BTG’s field site. This allows the brigade to surge replacements to the BTG, but it is not conducive to long-term regular sustainment. Consumable supplies arrived at depots from the Western Military District Headquarters (two echelons above brigade, similar to a U.S. corps headquarters) and were then delivered directly to the BTG deputy commander for distribution…BTGs rapidly deploy from garrison by rail. However, for field logistics, the BTG requires a road and bridge network because its light trucks do not have the same mobility characteristics as its combat vehicles. Paramilitary proxies distribute supplies using private vehicles of varying (limited) mobility.“
“Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” Armor, Spring 2017, p. 12
Going back a year earlier, in 2016 Dr. Lester Grau and Charles K. Bartles of the US Army Foreign Military Studies Office authored the most excellent The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces. Grau and Bartles discuss logistical and maintenance challenges to a BTG:
There are also logistical and maintenance issues, although the use of the Armata common chassis will mitigate some of them. One reform that has not been successful is the abolition of some logistics and maintenance units in favor of private contractors. Russia is currently trying to rebuild some of its organic logistics and maintenance units that were disbanded, but the process is slow going. BTGs are not immune to the logistical problems that still plague the Russian military, and BTG commanders still complain about them.The Russian Way of War, p. 38
What do the BTG commanders specifically complain about? CONTRACTORS! As David Axe explains in an article for Forbes:
Capacity isn’t the only problem. A decade ago, the Kremlin overhauled the military’s logistical system to hand over more responsibility to a state-run commercial firm, Oboronservis. The rationale was that the military, depending as it does on short-term conscript manpower, couldn’t reliably cultivate the expertise combat logistics requires.
Today Oboronservis’s contractors are sprinkled throughout the MTO [Material-Technical Support] brigades and their subordinate units. There could be friction.
“The critical point for the MTO during its support for combat operations is precisely this: the extent to which the military structures and civilian agencies can be integrated in order to meet deadlines and avoid unnecessary delays,” Roger McDermott wrote in a 2013 study for the Swedish defense department.
“The civilian institutions are also now private, profit-making entities and not institutions driven by state planning considerations. As such, they expect to have a contractual relationship with the [defense ministry] and to make a profit, and the efficiency needed by business will collide with the demand for effectiveness required by the military.”
“This civil-military mix has no serious track record in the Russian armed forces, and is naturally the main area that will be exposed to severe testing during combat operations,” McDermott wrote.David Axe, “The Russian Army Depends On Civilians to Keep It Supplied. This Could Be A Problem In Ukraine,” Forbes, Magazine (Online) 14 Jan 2022
The cited paragraph from The Russian Way of War also has the following, very interesting footnote: “One factor complicating the matter is that contract troops are funneled into the combat arms, leaving combat support and combat service support roles filled by conscripts.”
Missing Depots or Hubs?
Going back to Vershinin, he argues that the Russian Army will be hard-pressed to sustain combat operations beyond 90 miles (145 km) from the Russian border without a major logistical halt:
The Russian army will be hard-pressed to conduct a ground offensive of more than 90 miles [145 km] beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union without a logistics pause. For NATO, it means it can worry less about a major Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Poland and a greater focus on exploiting Russian logistic challenges by drawing Russian forces further away from their supply depots and targeting chokepoints in the Russian logistic infrastructure and logistic force in general…The Russian government has built armed forces highly capable of fighting on home soil or near its frontier and striking deep with long-range fires. However, they are not capable of a sustained ground offensive far beyond Russian railroads without a major logistical halt or a massive mobilization of reserves.
There are some reports that the Ukrainians blew up the rail crossings along their border in the early days of the Russian attack. Assuming those reports are true, in wargame terms the railheads for Russian supply terminate at the national border. Any movement of logistics beyond this point requires the use of those trucks.
A logistics halt is necessary to move supply sources forward. Essentially, combat operations must halt while supply is built up at a range that can support further activities. In Less Than 60 Miles, a headquarters unit has a finite number of Command Points representing the ability for the staff to plan and execute orders. A logistics halt allows them to “spend” Command Points on organizing logistics., but at the cost of being able to perform very few—if any—other activities like say, oh, I don’t know, combat.
Railroad Hobbyist & Monster Truck Enthusiast To Wargamer
In wargame terms, how would you go about modeling the railheads and trucks of the Russian Army logistics networks? In the simplest of terms, the Russian supply source ends at the edge of Russia (the railheads). Any logistics movement beyond this point is accomplished by trucks with a limited range. Terrain has a tremendous impact on the ability to deliver supplies to a BTG with light trucks being restricted to better roads. When both combat units and logistics must use those same roads, movement and convoy routing becomes a vital necessity.
But what about contractors? How do you “rate” a civilian unit contracted to provide services on the battlefield? What about those combat service units manned by conscripts? Is this an example of why troop quality ratings are important in a wargame?
If the Russian Army is going to move a supply source forward (Mobile Supply Units?) that takes time where combat operations by units are not permitted (logistics halt). All of this requires good staff planning by the BTG which it may not be capable of.
That sounds like that’s a good topic for next time.