The last few weeks the sinking of the guided missile cruiser RFN Moskva has taken up alot of my wargaming bandwidth. The event afforded me a deep look into Harpoon 5 by Larry Bond & Chris Carlson from the Admiralty Trilogy Group. This week I decided to go from sea to land and pulled out MBT by James Day from GMT Games (2016).
MBT: The Game of tank-to-tank combat on a tactical level in 1987 Germany is solidly part of the “Cold War goes hot” genre of wargames. Which means it comes close, but not quite all the way, to replicating ground combat in today’s Ukraine War. Although MBT may not be the most modern “fit” for today, it still is a great game at discovering lessons of armored combat.
Wither the Tank?
One very common theme we hear from pundits and mainstream media is a constant harping that the Ukrainian use of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) has sealed the fate of armored vehicles on the battlefield. Sam Cranny-Evans and Dr Sidharth Kaushal from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI.org) looked at this thinking in a recent article titled, “Technical Reflections on Russia’s Armoured Fighting Vehicles” (April 27, 2022). In the article they tell us the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on lessons learned for armored combat in the Ukraine. Playing MBT helps to see these lessons on the gaming table in front of us.
Most of Russia’s tanks are well protected to the front. The frontal armour of the slope at the front of the hull, known as the glacis, typically combines high hardness steels with composites or materials like fibre glass that are known to be challenging for weapons like the RPG-7. The angle of the armour – 68 degrees – increases its line-of-sight thickness to 547 mm for some of the earliest T-72 designs – it may be more for others. The turret armour on Russian tanks is also relatively capable to the front of the tank. The ‘cheeks’ of the cast turret are hollow, allowing additional advanced armours to be inserted that significantly extend protection against some types of threat.
This is what MBT models best. Playing a game of MBT with its precise hit locations and penetration versus armor model is what the hardcore Grognard in me loves.
MBT is—by design—a wargame that recreates the (past potential) battlefields of Europe at the height of the Cold War. The game—again by design—is optimized to simulate those massed Soviet thrusts or defensive stands. In many ways MBT is built around the U.S. Air-Land Battle Doctrine and the competing Soviet Army of that day. Both focused on combined arms. From the past two months of fighting in the Ukraine, the reformed Russian Army, though equipped with more modern equipment, appears to have lost the ability to execute combined arms operations. While MBT has many of the rules that can be used to simulate the new war we see today, what it doesn’t simulate is the poor decisions in the Russian operational art of this war.
While stabilisation of the main armament has been improved and its recoil mechanisms balanced to reduce impact upon the vehicle during firing, most Russian tanks appear to lack the quality of stabilisation that most Western tanks carry.
A second element of this problem is the mission system fit of Russian tanks. The sights and fire control computers are generally less modern than their peers.
Russian designs are also very cramped, and few Western tank operators would want to operate a main battle tank with a crew of three – which is standard for all Soviet designs from the T-64 onwards.
The first two factors are generally reflected in MBT as stabilization and sights are taken into account in the combat model. The last point does not directly appear to be modeled, but may play a part in overall determination of Force Grade and Morale.
While MBT has a good detailed model of platform versus platform, what it doesn’t capture very well are all the human factors in battle. Some are here, like Grade or Morale or even Tank Fright, but at the end of the day the real human factor in MBT is the players. To recreate the war in the Ukraine would require MBT players to make decisions that they might not be inclined to make.
Soviet-era tank design, starting with the T-64 and continuing with the T-72, T-80 and T-90 families – albeit with some minor differences – introduced an automatic ammunition handling system which sits beneath the turret of the tank.
This is a problem for Soviet designs because the ammunition carousel sits in the hull, which is very well protected to the front by the glacis, but less well protected to the sides. If the side or roof of the tank can be penetrated, the projectile stands a chance of hitting the tank’s ammunition, causing it to ‘cook off’. This is where the charges and explosive projectiles catch fire – a fire which quickly spreads because of a lack of firewalls between the munitions. If enough of the ammunition catches fire and detonates, it will often result in an explosion that throws the turret a considerable distance and the death of the entire crew.
Suffice it to say that the damage model in MBT is built upon what today might be seen as a “charitable” view of Russian armored survivability against modern ATGMs.
Further, in MBT ATGMs (found in Advanced Game Rule 126.96.36.199) are of the 1980’s. What is missing in MBT are rules for modern top- attack ATGMs like the FGM-148 Javelin.
Command & Control
The third and final point is the need to consider of Russian tactics and doctrine, which typically emphasise combined arms operations with a view to creating opportunities for artillery and close air support to deliver overwhelming force onto an opponent. Mission command – the delegation of authority and creativity to the lowest levels – rarely features in Russian training. This means that armoured formations operating independently from their supporting arms are probably doing something that they are not trained to do.
I strongly believe that if you want to play MBT and really understand modern combat, you MUST use the rules for Grade (5.8), Command Range (188.8.131.52.2), and Command Span (7.43). These rules, along with Morale (and especially Optional Rule 7.1 Morale) are essential to getting past the simple “force-on-force” wargame that so many gamers seem to relish in. Of course, MBT does not have Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) in it either, but by using these rules you can get a bit closer to understanding the challenges the BTG commander has in combat. The more I think about it, the more I realize that MBT might actually be too granular a model to use to explore the effectiveness of a BTG in combat. Instead of a very tactical game like MBT it might be more useful to use a platoon-scale system, like Frank Chadwick’s Assault series from GDW in the 1980′s but updated for today. Maybe even a version of Less Than 60 Miles from Thin Red Line Games could be used…but I note that this game might be best used to depict only a single axis of advance and not the whole campaign. In case you haven’t noticed, Ukraine is a HUGE place!
Back to the Future
The demise of the tank has been talked about for almost 50 years now, especially in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli Wars of the 1960’s and early 1970’s that were the first to feature mass use of ATGMs. So strong was the sentiment that it even crossed over into science fiction:
Tanks were born in the muck and wire of World War One. Less than sixty years later, there were many who believed that technology had made the behemoths as obsolete as horse cavalry. Individual infantrymen of 1970 carried missiles whose warheads burned through the armor of any tank. Slightly larger missiles ranged kilometers to blast with pinpoint accuracy vehicles costing a thousand times as much. Similar weaponry was mounted on helicopters which skimmed battlefields in the nape of the earth, protected by terrain irregularities. At the last instant the birds could pop up to rip tanks with their missiles. The future of armored vehicles looked bleak and brief.“Supertanks,” Hammers’s Slammers, 1979
Of course, the answer in Hammer’s Slammers was the supertank. While I am saddened that similar combat vehicles are not on the near-horizon for us, I am confident that there will be a response. Probably not from Russia, but from someone. More importantly, along the path towards that new technology will very likely be a wargame. It might be similar to MBT, but depicting not the past but a bold new future.
That’s a wargame I can’t wait for.