#ThreatTuesday: South China Sea #wargame danger zone – Will the PLAN wield a trident with ASBMs and carriers?

I play wargames to learn. Wargames, or what some call “historical conflict simulations” have taught me alot of history. But I also believe wargames can provide insights into the future. While think tanks use wargames to inform or influence decision and policymakers, hobby wargamers can explore similar issues using commercial titles.

I recently read the article “Analysis of the Relations between Chinese Aircraft Carriers and the Maritime Order of the South China Sea” in The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis (Vol. 34, No. 3, September 2022, 433-452). What caught my attention in particular about this article was the authors; Xingxing Wang and Jiyong Zheng, are from the Shanghai International Studies University; Fudan University; People’s Republic of China. Articles about sea power and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are a dime-a-dozen these days, but to read an article written by “the opposition” is not as often encountered. Wang and Zheng’s article is intended more to inform than to propagandize, but it does fit into a series of studies around the maritime aspects of the U.S.-People’s Republic of China (PRC) competition that relates several articles and books together. Along the way, we also have an opportunity to look at what wargames can help us better explore these issues.

Aircraft Carriers

As Wang and Zheng explain:

“China has gradually shifted its geopolitical focus from land-based control to sea-based developments out of both security and economic considerations. Marked by the official launch of its aircraft carriers a decade ago, China has dedicated resources to building up its navy as a blue water force rather than the offshore defensive force that it had primarily been until that point. Meanwhile, by serving as the pillar of sea power, these aircraft carriers will play more important roles in China’s naval development, ultimately reshaping the global strategic picture of sea power. This article aims to explore the influence of Chinese aircraft carriers to maritime order of the South China Sea and strategic pattern of global sea power by analyzing the Chinese aircraft carrier fleet’s operational design and reconstruction of China’s naval strategy. The presence of Chinese aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and their inherent combat capabilities has inevitably cased a subversive light on the region and brought the attention of the United States’ and other regional actors’ own activities and strategies for the region. This research has great significance for understanding China’s grand strategic conception and practice on the South China Sea issue as well as construction of a new maritime order in the context of China-U.S. competition.” (Wang & Zheng, 433)

If you are a wargame player like me, then you might of gamed out a confrontation between a PLAN Carrier Task Force and a U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group (CSG) using a game like South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific (Compass Games, 2017) or Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2020). Playing such scenarios may lead to the assumption that a PLAN Carrier Task Force is not a true match for a CSG. While that conclusion may have some basis, it ignores the impact of the PRC’s “carrier killer.”

Carrier Push Back

Gerry Doyle and Blake Herzinger are co-authors of the book Carrier Killer: China’s Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile and Theater of Operations in the early 21st Century (Asia@War No. 29, Warwick: Helion & Company Ltd., 2022). Doyle and Herzinger frame the issue this way:

“The idea of an anti-ship ballistic missile has taken root in China’s military planning. The country is not only building more of its first version of such a weapon, the DF-21D, but has developed an anti-ship warhead for another such missile, the more-numerous DF-26, billed as having a 2,500-mile-range — more than enough to hit Guam from several hundred miles inland in China. In theory, that puts any naval adversary at risk long before it is in Chinese waters, let alone within striking distance of China’s coastline.

That puts US carrier strike groups — a linchpin of US power projection, able to hit any corner of the world at short notice with overwhelming force — in a situation they have never before faced. For years, US war planners took for granted that American naval power could operate unimpeded anywhere on Earth and deliver strikes with relative impunity. If a missile can sweep that option off the board, it changes the balance of power not just in Asia, but across the Pacific.”(Doyle & Herzinger, book back)

Photo by RMN

Again, wargames like Harpoon V or South China Sea can help game out the impact of these anti-ship ballistic missiles, at least at the tactical levels. While South China Sea provides some insight into the strategic impacts of the ASBM on operations in the South China Sea, the topic is actually underrepresented in wargames. Maybe, just maybe, the arguments advanced by Wang and Zheng regarding the capabilities of a PLAN Carrier Task Force are not that inconceivable if the PRC uses their “carrier killers” to keep the U.S. Navy out of the South China Sea…and beyond. That in turn creates opportunities for the PRC to “wield a trident.”

Trident Strategy

Kohji Kuhara of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force writes in the Spring 2022 edition of the Naval War College Review about China’s ‘Trident” Strategy (Kuhara, Kohji (2022) “Countering China’s “Trident Strategy—Frustrating China’s Aims in the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 75: No. 2, Article 4):

“China is trying to construct a naval strategy to deny U.S. forces freedom of action in the western Pacific Ocean. Looking back to the U.S. Navy’s last major strategic contest, against the Soviet navy during the Cold War, provides comparisons between Soviet and Chinese strategies that yield insights and analogies that can help develop more effective countermeasures against undesirable Chinese initiatives.”

Kuhara reminds us that, unlike the claims of Doyle and Herzinger, the U.S. Navy has indeed faced before a situation in which access to the worlds oceans was contested. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union challenged the United States for supremacy on the high seas. Wargamers can play out this confrontation in many games, ranging from Victory Games’ Fleet series (Victory Games, 1985-1990) for operational campaigns to the strategic Blue Water Navy: The War at Sea (Compass Games, 2019) or Seapower and the State (Simulation Canada, 1982). Alas, there are very few “modern” equivalent game showing the confrontation between the U.S. Navy and PLAN, and certainly none at the strategic level. Quite simply, there is no good wargame to help fully navigate “the danger zone.”

Danger Zone

Hal Brands and Michael Beckley write in Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2022) that:

“China is at a perilous moment: strong enough to violently challenge the existing order, yet losing confidence that time is on its side. Numerous examples from antiquity to the present show that rising powers become more aggressive when their fortunes fade, their difficulties multiply, and they realize they must achieve their ambitions now or miss the chance to do so forever. China has already started down this path. Witness its aggression toward Taiwan, its record-breaking military buildup, and its efforts to dominate the critical technologies that will shape the world’s future.” (Danger Zone dust jacket)

Photo by RMN

Finding a wargame, or in this case maybe more properly a strategy game that looks beyond kinetic military confrontation, of the U.S.-PRC competition is nearly impossible. I had some hope earlier this year with the release of Flashpoint: South China Sea from GMT Games which advertised itself as thus:

Flashpoint: South China Sea is a two-player strategy game that simulates the complex geopolitical contest currently taking place between the United States and China in a disputed region of the South China Sea. The game is driven by a card deck that captures developments ripped straight from today’s headlines, bolstered by cards with a context-setting reading of recent history, and a set of speculative cards capturing a diverse range of potential future events. 

The Chinese player works to influence other countries in the region, establish territorial claims and regional hegemony, and improve its world standing. The U.S. player works to maintain influence with allied countries in the region, secure freedom of navigation, and keep China in check. Success for both players hinges on the support and allegiance of non-player countries in the region. The game stops short of dealing with a potential full-scale military conflict. Rather, it requires the nuanced exercise of political, economic, and military resources, in a form of prima facie diplomacy – on the waters, in the air, and ultimately in the minds of the people – to achieve victory.”

Photo by RMN

Alas, for all the theme in the ad copy, Flashpoint: South China Sea is more “Euro” than “wargame;” it’s a mechanically well-executed game with the thinnest of themes layered over. Consequently, its ability to explore the “danger zone” is limited at best.

Building from the Brands & Beckley book, we can see how the “Trident Strategy” is but one part of the danger zone, and the PLA’s “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles are one of those technologies that change maritime strategy. Does our perceptions of what a PLAN aircraft carrier is intended to do change?

Wargaming the South China Sea

Wargames seem very popular in the think tanks of Washington, DC. A recent article from War on the Rocks by Robert Haddick titled “Defeat China’s Navy, Defeat China’s War Plan” talks about what wargames are “teaching” decision and policymakers:

“Washington has already lost the war for Taiwan — at least according to the most recent wargames organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The think tank’s simulation of a conflict between the United States and China saw several U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups sunk, hundreds of U.S. combat aircraft destroyed, and thousands of U.S. military personnel lost in the war’s opening days.

These games, planned long before the most recent Taiwan crisis and set in 2026, add to decades of analyses of the Taiwan scenario conducted at war colleges and think tanks on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Scheduled to be written up later this year, the games have reinforced at least one previously well-known conclusion: should the United States attempt to fight the battle for Taiwan relying mainly on military forces located west of Guam, U.S. losses will be severe. The United States and its allies might stalemate the People’s Liberation Army. But the cost could very well be too high for U.S. society to sustain. And if China’s leaders believe this, even wrongly, deterrence will collapse, and the risk of war will rise.”

Via YouTube

With an online moniker of “RockyMountainNavy” it should be obvious where my loyalties lie between navalists and (ch)air force advocates. This makes it a bit hard to accept Haddick’s advocacy of using U.S. Air Force bombers to defeat the PLAN:

“Destroying China’s maritime power would end China’s capacity for conquest in the western Pacific. Yet the Chinese navy is not an Air Force priority, despite its vulnerability to U.S. bombers. As Taiwan-focused wargames show, the shortage of U.S. anti-ship munitions represents a missed opportunity that will come with high costs. 

Civilian policymakers should make China’s maritime forces a top targeting priority for the U.S. bomber force. First, they should require Air Force officials to explain how their munitions strategy supports deterrence by denial against Chinese forces. Following that, they could demand the Air Force fund the rapid development of Mark Gunzinger’s affordable mid-range munition and acquire, say, 2,000 long-range anti-ship missiles, even if this means acquiring fewer joint air-to-surface standoff missiles. Policymakers could also demand the Air Force repair and return to service some of the 17 B-1B bombers that were recently sent to the boneyard despite each being able to carry 24 long-range anti-ship missiles. These relatively minor expenses would quickly add substantial striking power against the Chinese Navy.

More broadly, policymakers should recognize that the sensor-missile military-technical revolution has transformed the Indo-Pacific into a military theater where long-range aerospace power dominates. America’s aerospace power is an enduring competitive advantage that matches up well against several Chinese vulnerabilities, starting with its navy. Exploiting this competitive advantage is the most direct way to strengthen U.S. deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Regardless of my service biases, even I recognize that Haddick’s proposal is probably worthy of exploration with a wargame. This seems like a good scenario to explore at the tactical level using Harpoon V or at the operational level using South China Sea.

What does the wargame tell you?

Which brings us back to our original inquiry: Wang and Zheng talk almost exclusively about the “defensive” power of a PLAN aircraft carrier. What if the PLAN wants to operate those carriers out to the limit of, or beyond, the coverage of their ASBMs? Will the pointy end of the trident be sharp or dull? Does that change the nature of the danger zone? What are the alternative strategies that armchair commanders can wargame at home? More broadly, how can we use hobby wargames to explore this strategic situation?

Feature Photo: Simon Yang, CC-BY SA 2.0

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#ThreatTuesday – Sub-optimal NorKs and Ukraine Air-to-Air Survey (mentions @19_forty_five admiraltytrilogy.com @WessexGames @gmtgames)

North Korean Submarines

In a past #ThreatTuesday on North Korean military reference sources, I mentioned that there was no good single-source on the the North Korean Navy (aka the Korean People’s Navy). A recent article posted to 19fortyfive.com may help explain why. See “North Korea’s Submarine Fleet: Underwater Coffins Or Threat To The U.S. Navy?” by Christian Orr (posted 30 Aug 2022). Given the current state of the KPA, it is not surprising that even years ago Larry Bond gave them a Kilo-class SS in his Second Korean War book Red Phoenix (1989) just to make it interesting.

Ukraine Dogfights

Another interesting 19fortyfive.com article is “The Air-To-Air War In Ukraine No One Saw Coming” published 02 Sep 2022. Author Sebastian Roblin presents a survey of aircraft losses in the war, with a particular focus on trying to identify those that fell in air-to-air combat. He concludes:

It’s essential not to over-extrapolate from an incomplete dataset drawing on deeply selection-biased sources. However, it does suggest the technical advantages of Russian fighters (especially long-range radars and fire-and-forget missiles) are working in their favor.

Nonetheless, both sides’ aviation operations are geographically constrained by the robust ground-based air defenses of the other. On the balance, that means Russia’s air force can’t press its advantage into Ukrainian-defended airspace to claim air superiority. That allows Ukraine’s air force to continue flying and impose costs on a foe with a larger number of more advanced warplanes.

“The Air-To-Air War In Ukraine No One Saw Coming”

While the title of the article seems to focus on the air-to-air aspects of the Ukraine War and would therefore seemingly make good scenario fodder for a modern dogfight wargame like Air Superiority (GDW, 1987) or AirWar: C21 Max (Wessex, last updated 2008) the truth is that you probably need to use a more operationally-focused wargame. Titles like Harpoon 5 from Admiralty Trilogy Group (using a variant inspired by Persian Incursion) or a modern Red Storm (GMT Games, 2021) would be more useful.

Feature image courtesy Creative Commons

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Admiralty Trilogy Group on Moska Sinking

Not long after the sinking of the Russian Federation Navy cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea, I posted my own analysis of the event using the Harpoon V rules from Admiralty Trilogy Group. Now, co-designer Chris Carlson walks though his analysis of the event in a recent Admiralty Trilogy Chat on YouTube. The presentation is the same one Chris presented at Historicon 2022 and is available online. That said, listening to Chris walk through it is well worth your time. The Moskva presentation starts at around the 10:30 mark:

Via Peter Robbins channel on YouTube

Feature image courtesy Twitter

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#MaritimeMonday – Russia vs. Ukraine in Harpoon V #Wargame

This weekend I added to my digital Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Group) wargame collection by purchasing Russia’ s Aircraft: Soviet & Russian Military Aircraft 1955-2020. At the same time I bought the latest issue of The Naval SITREP (#62, April 2022) which has a featured article, “Ships and Aircraft of the Ukrainian Navy and Air Force.” Now I can rerun my Moskva sinking scenario with the benefit of several plays (aka “rules learning sessions”) and validated game data.

While I have already studied the sinking of the Moskva using Harpoon V, the only other real naval engagement has been a Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 UAV versus a Russian Raptor patrol boat (PB).

Ukrainian army sank 2 patrol boat “Raptor” of the Russian occupiers. Bayraktar TB-2 “| Ukraine War

Like the video shows, in Harpoon V this battle is very quick to finish. The Harpoon V rules note:

Small craft, size class F and G, are tougher, ton for ton, and cannot be sunk by successive turns of fire that add up to their total damage point rating. They have to roll for critical hits for damage effects, but their point total is not reduced after each hit like larger craft. If the damage they receive in a single turn is twice their damage point rating, they are sunk.

14.1 Applying Damage

So…a Bayraktar TB2 dropping a single GAM-L hits and scores 14 damage points. The Raptor PB has a damage rating of…6.2.


One less Raptor…

Look for the full “unboxing” video of Russia’s Aircraft, The Naval SITREP #62, and Russia’s Navy at the Armchair Dragoons on Thursday, May 19.

Feature image “Ukraine announces destruction of two Russian patrol boats – NATuts

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Did Poseidon feed Moskva to Neptune, or was it Mineral-U spirits? What does Harpoon 5 (admiraltytrilogy.com) wargame say?

There are reports floating around the internet making the interesting claim that a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was operating in the area the night the RFN Moskva was sunk. The implication is that the U.S. Navy P-8 fed targeting data to the Ukrainian Navy Neptune coastal defense anti-ship missile battery and therefore contributed to the sinking of the cruiser.

On April 13th, a P-8 Poseidon with a hex code of AE681B was spotted leaving the U.S. Airbase at Sigonella in Sicily, Italy, and was then detected over the Mediterranean at 1:32 pm local Kyiv time.

FlightRadar24 data then showed the P-8 flying over the Balkans and Bulgaria, after which it flew over the Romanian coast in the Black Sea in the afternoon. The last known position of the aircraft was Valea Nucarilor, Romania which is about 12 miles from the Ukrainian border, at 3:27 pm, about 100 miles from the location where the Moskva was found after allegedly being hit.

It had begun descending from an altitude of around 29,000 feet down to 11,900 feet just before dropping off FlightRadar24 tracking and disappearing.

It disappeared for about 2 hours and 56 minutes before appearing again at 6:23 pm, where it was seen flying towards the Black Sea coast above Casimcea in Romania, around 37 miles from the position it had been before it disappeared.

It is standard procedure for an aircraft to turn off its transponder or the device that broadcasts its location before entering any kind of conflict zone.

Around 19 minutes later the aircraft disappeared from the radar once again and then reappeared after 42 minutes near Abrud, in Romania at 7:24 pm. After that, it traveled back to Sigonella.

The Moskva was first reported to have been hit at 8:42 pm after a Facebook post that came from a Ukrainian who had links to the military, and then at 10:31 pm, the Ukrainian governor of Odesa confirmed that a strike had been carried out on the vessel.

oslint.org, April 21,2022

Using the wargame Harpoon 5 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021) lets see what we can learn. For this exploration we will need to dig deep into two particular rules sections; 5.0 Detection and 6.0 Fire Control.

In Harpoon 5, detection takes place in the Detection Phase of the Tactical Turn Sequence (2.3.3). Assuming the P-8 was using it’s surface search radar in the active mode after descending to 11,900 ft (3,627 m or Medium Altitude), taking the Radar Line of Sight table (part of rule 5.2.8 Radar Line of Sight) we cross-reference a P-8 flying at Medium Altitude and a Medium-size surface target to get a detection range of 170 nm; Moskva was very likely detected by the P-8 (and Moskva very likely also detected the P-8 in return).

The implication in the story is that the P-8 passed targeting data. In Harpoon 5, data is passed during the Detection Phase when players, “exchange visual, radar, sonar, Electronic Support (ES), data links, and other sensor information.” Once Moskva was detected, the P-8 would have to pass a fire control solution (see 6.3 Fire Control Solutions) to the Neptune battery to enable an attack. Per rule 6.3.1 Fire Control Solution Quality, there are four levels of quality; Good, Fair, Poor, and No Attack. Building a fire control solution is a combination of time (longer time in contact the better), contact speed, the generation (age) of the Combat System (aircraft are always a modifier of 0), and the generation of the weapon being used in the strike. Equally important is the Tactical Data Link being used to “pass” the solution. Given the amount of time the P-8 allegedly spent near Moskva—hours—the quality of the fire control solution would very likely be the best possible—Good.

In Harpoon 5, like in real life, how does the P-8 get that Good fire control solution to the Neptune battery? Did it use a Real Time or Near Real Time tactical data link? Although there are plenty of reports the U.S. is sharing intelligence with Ukraine*, there is no clear evidence that tactical data links are being used. A more plausible scenario is that U.S. and NATO intelligence is being collated and passed to Kyiv. At best, and assuming the P-8 was directly in contact with Ukrainian forces (a big assumption), we have to go to rule 6.3.10 Sharing Contact Information Without TDLs which states:

Contact data can be manually shared by radio (voice or teletype) or even cell phones, however, the process is slow, with a higher risk of errors, and has little tactical use other than reporting the presence of a contact in the area.


Even if the fire control solution was passed in real (or near) time to the Ukrainians, it was good at ~6:23 pm when the P-8 reappeared in the flight tracking application. This was maybe as long as two hours before Moskva was struck. There is no way in Harpoon 5 to keep a “good” fire control solution when not in contact. After two hours, the fire control solution from the P-8 by-the-rules was of No Attack quality.

If the Ukrainian Neptune battery commander in Harpoon 5 had only the general information (“No Attack” quality fire control solution) provided by the P-8, the commander is forced to use a Bearing Only Launch (BOL) following rule 6.3.6 of the same name. BOL attacks in turn are executed using rule 8.4.2 Bearing Only Launch (BOL) Attacks. The commander must pick a launch azimuth and a range for the seeker head to activate and start looking. The fire control solution quality is automatically Poor (interestingly, an improvement over the No Attack starting condition). As in any surface missile attack, when the seeker head opens the player must make a Placement Roll (6.3.8 Rolling for Weapon Placement) to see if the seeker finds its intended target. The chances of an anti-ship cruise missile using a BOL and finding its intended target when the seeker activates is 30%.

How could the Neptune battery commander improve his odds using the rules in Harpoon 5? It’s quite possible he used his organic sensors. The Neptune ASCM is part of a weapons complex that includes the missile, the launcher, command and control, and sensors. The sensor intended for the Neptune system is called Mineral-U. The Mineral-U is an interesting system, known in Harpoon 5 as a Targeting Radar (SS-T):

Targeting radars (SS-T) are a type of surface-search radar used by the Soviet Union/Russia. They not only function as a surface search radar optimized to use the surface duct to extend their range over the horizon, but can serve as extremely precise ES [Electronic Support] sensors….They can use the radar duct to extend their range.

5.2.4 Shipboard Radar Types
Mineral-U radar vehicle seen displayed at the open-air exhibition ”A Digital Future for the Army” held in Kyiv in October 2021 (Courtesy en.defense-ua.com)

Although one could argue about the lack of Russian air superiority, the Neptune battery commander might not want to “go active” and try to get an Active RF [Radio Frequency] fire control solution. To radiate the Mineral-U radar is to invite an attack. Alternatively, it is possible to work towards a Passive RF fire control solution using rule 6.3.2 Radio-Frequency (RF) Fire Control Solution. To achieve a Good solution for the Neptune means tracking Moskva for at least 15 minutes (5 Tactical Turns); a risk but one well worth it? With a Good quality fire control solution the Placement Roll is 90%—a vast improvement over the 30% chance with a BOL Poor quality solution.

This little exploration using Harpoon 5 shows us that, while it is technically possible the P-8 “tracked” Moskva, even if that data was somehow passed to the Ukrainians it was more likely used for (at best) general situational awareness and not for targeting. To achieve the greatest chance for success, the Ukrainian Neptune battery commander more likely used organic sensors to Find, Fix, Track, and Target Moskva to enable the Neptune missiles to Engage. Harpoon 5 gives us a tool to Assess strike success.

* UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 26, NBC News published a story that talked about the degree of intelligence sharing between the United States and Ukraine:

Ukrainian forces have used specific coordinates shared by the U.S. to direct fire on Russian positions and aircraft, current and former officials tell NBC News.

As Russia launched its invasion, the U.S. gave Ukrainian forces detailed intelligence about exactly when and where Russian missiles and bombs were intended to strike, prompting Ukraine to move air defenses and aircraft out of harm’s way, current and former U.S. officials told NBC News.

That near real-time intelligence-sharing also paved the way for Ukraine to shoot down a Russian transport plane carrying hundreds of troops in the early days of the war, the officials say, helping repel a Russian assault on a key airport near Kyiv.

“There has been a lot of real-time intelligence shared in terms of things that could be used for specific targeting of Russian forces,” said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the situation. The information includes commercial satellite images “but also a lot of other intelligence about, for example, where certain types of Russian units are active.”

Ukrainian forces have used specific coordinates shared by the U.S. to direct fire on Russian positions and aircraft, current and former officials tell NBC News.

While the phrase “real-time intelligence” is liberally sprinkled throughout the article, and some of the reporting implies extremely timely exchange of intelligence, the association of the P-8 and the Moskva sinking is not discussed. The fact remains that even if the P-8 passed target-quality intelligence “in real-time,” the data was “aged” by at least two hours before any Neptune strike. The Harpoon 5 -derived situation still stands as a very plausible explanation of the likely events at the time of the sinking.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Moskva Burning – Using the #wargame Harpoon V from admiraltytrilogy.com to assess the story

Update as of April 14, 4:30pm Eastern time. Reports from Russian state media now say Moskva sunk while under tow.

As I start writing this post, it is the day after the news broke that the Russian Navy cruiser Moskva either was struck by Ukrainian coastal anti-ship missiles or suffered an ammunition explosion and fire. Pending further developments, let’s assume for the purposes of this post that the ship was attacked. This allows me to look at the event through the lens of wargaming, specifically using the rules for Harpoon V: Modern Tactical Naval Combat 1955-2020 (designers Larry Bond & Chris Carlson, Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021).

Courtesy ATG

In the October 2006 issue (#31) of The Naval SITREP: The Journal of the Admiralty Trilogy Game System, the co-designers of Harpoon V assessed the anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) attack on the INS Hanit in July 2006. I’m not going to go into the same technical depth here but instead want to talk a bit about what Harpoon V helps explain and what it doesn’t.

Given that Moskva is a major combatant with a wide assortment of radars and defensive systems, the result of the attack/accident seems almost implausible. On paper this is a Ukrainian David vs. a Russian Goliath. Alternatively, how could the Russian Navy lose a ship to a fire? A closer examination of a plausible “engagement” using the Harpoon V rules reveals it’s not as lopsided as one might think.


If reports are to be believed, Moskva was struck by by two RK-360MC Neptun (Neptune) anti-ship cruise missiles. Neptune is generally reported to be a Ukrainian version of the Russian Kh-35U but with a longer body, more fuel, and a larger booster. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s use the Kh-35U which is listed as the Uran (3M24) [SS-N-25 Switchblade] in Annex D1 of Russia’s Navy: Soviet & Russian Naval Vessels, 1955-2020 (Admiralty Trilogy Group, 2021). The most important data element is perhaps the damage caused by the 150kg warhead which Harpoon V rates as “35+D6/2” or 36-38 damage points. Admittedly, this number may be a bit low given the Neptune has more fuel and is larger, factors which lead to more damage in Admiralty Trilogy models.

Courtesy Military-Today.com

Moskva is (was?) the lead ship of the Project 1164 Atlant class. To Cold War Grognards like me it’s perhaps better known as a Slava-class guided missile cruiser. The lead ship, Slava, entered service in 1983 and eventually was renamed Moskva in 1995. This particular ship was overhauled between 1991-2000 and was to be overhauled again in 2016. Reports indicate the overhaul stalled for lack of funds and the ship reentered service in 2019 with few—or none—of the planned upgrades completed. Full details for Moskva are found in Annex A of Russia’s Navy. Of particular concern to this analysis, Moskva is rated at 341 damage points.

Courtesy @Naval_Graphics on Twitter

The “Engagement”

There are many unanswered questions about how the Ukrainians may have hit Moskva with two ASCMs. In Harpoon V one can play out the detection, engagement, and damage results. While many pundits are saying that Moskva “should” have seen—and defeated—the inbound missiles, Harpoon V helps us understand why this may have not been an “automatic” thing.


  • Missile Size/Height of Flight: The Neptune is a “Very Small” missile that approaches at “Very Low” altitude (Annex D)
  • Radar Detection Range: The MR-710 Fregat-M (Top Steer) air search radar has a detection range of 27 nm versus a VSmall target (Annex J1)
  • “A radar’s range is reduced by rising sea states, rain, and nearby land masses” (5.2.9 Environmental Effects on Radar)
    • Although it is unclear exactly where Moskva was operating, general weather reports from the region indicate poor weather with possible precipitation; assuming Sea State 3 with Light Rain the detection range is reduced by 40%
    • The Fregat-M is a 4th Generation radar so technically it should be able to deal with the environmental clutter and keep the full detection range—if the crew was properly trained.
  • Missile Speed: The 3M24 flies at 580 knots, or almost 10 nm a minute. That’s a little less than one Tactical Turn (3 minutes, or 6x 30 second increments) in Harpoon V.

Once the missile was detected the ship’s defenses should have engaged. Maybe…but not so fast…

Of SAMs and CIWS…

  • Reaction Time: Rule covers Reaction Time; with a 3rd Generation SAM the normal delay is 3 increments (90 seconds) with a variable 0 to +4 increments added (see Combat System Reaction Time and Combat System Reaction on page 8-4).
    • Moskva at best may have gotten one SAM volley off and then point defense CIWS—if they were fully alerted at General Quarters
  • SAMs
    • The S-300 Fort (5V55R) [SA-N-6a Grumble] has a minimum range of 2.7nm (Annex D1)
    • The Osa-MA (9M33M2 [SA-N-4a Gecko] has a range of .5 to 6.5 nm (Annex D1)
    • Using 8.1.1 Radar-Guided Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), step 7) Punch the Table, we look up SAM Intercept Table – VLow Altitude Targets and cross-reference Subsonic & Transonic with 3rd Generation (Fregat-M radar) and get”S-P” meaning there will be one chance to engage at Short Range and one chance for Point Defense (good guess above!)
    • If the S-300 Fort got off a two-SAM salvo, the Probability of Kill (Pk) is around 80%; the Osa-MA is a bit less with a Pk of ~75% for a two-SAM salvo
  • CIWS
    • Moskva mounts two, twin AK-130 130mm/70 guns; given the short reaction times involved I’m going to rule they were very likely not able to get into action fast enough to engage the inbound missiles
    • Moskva also mounts six AK-630 30mm close-in-weapon systems (CIWS); assuming one pair is able to engage at Point Blank Range it has roughly a 76% chance of knocking down a missile.

The defensive model in Harpoon V assumes ships are at General Quarters with all sensors and weapons at the ready. General Quarters is also very hard to maintain with watertight doors secured and people constantly on edge. It is more likely that Moskva was operating in some lesser readiness condition. This of course means sensors and weapons may not have been ready (extending the Reaction Time) and watertight integrity/damage control teams may not have been set to immediately deal with damage.

Damage (Out of) Control

Regardless of the defenses, if stories are to believed at least two ASCM got through and hit. Let’s see how Harpoon V portrays that:

  • Applying Damage (14.1): Two hits cause ~74 points of damage which is less than the 85 needed to reach 25% damage and no loss in speed (14.1.1); 341-74=267 damage points remaining
  • Ship Critical Hits (14.1.2): To compute damage ratio take 74/267 for a result of .277 rounded down to .2; the Critical Hit Damage Ratios table indicates a a D6 roll of 4 is 1x Critical, 5 is 2x Critical, and 6 is 3x Critical.
  • Missile Impacts (14.1.5): Guided missiles cause additional Critical Hits because of the airframe and fuel based on the damage points from the missile; the 3M24 will cause D6/2 extra Critical Hits PLUS one Automatic Fire Critical hit
  • Critical Hit summary: So far that’s between 0-6 Critical Hits with an additional automatic Fire Critical
  • Fire Critical (14.4): Rolling D6 gets 3 or 3% of the original 341 damage points or 10 more damage points scored immediately (257 remaining)
  • Flooding Critical (14.4): Let’s assume for the moment that one of those other Critical Hits was a flooding scoring 4% (13 DP) for a total of 97 hits or 244 remaining; this is more than 25% overall damage so speed is reduced
  • Weapon Critical Hit/Mount Detonation (14.5): There are some reports that “broadside ammunition” was the cause of the fire. Moskva has those huge tubes for the P-500 Bazalt (4M80) [SS-N-12 Mod 1 Sandbox] missiles; if there was a Weapons Critical Hit that scored against this weapon, there is a 10% chance of detonation which would score 71+D6 damage (average 75?) reducing the damage points to 244-75=169 which is just under 50% remaining which means speed is reduced to 16 kts and kicking off another round of Critical Hits (75/169=.44 rounded to .4 for between 0-5 more Critical Hits)—it’s easy to see a snowballing damage effect here especially if more fires or flooding in involved…
  • Fire & Flooding Severity Level (see 14.4): If Moskva suffered at least 16% in Fire and Flooding damage the crew is considered “Overwhelmed.” The damage is considered a “Conflagration” which has a 25% chance every Intermediate Turn (30 minutes) of causing a magazine explosion which can only be avoided by flooding the magazines and pushing ordnance overboard.

So why is everybody seemingly surprised at the outcome of events?

“Naval combat at sea has always been highly lethal to the participants.”

Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.)

Unexpected Lethality?

The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.) in his book Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat Second Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000) shared a study showing the number of Exocet equivalents (approximately equal to one 3M24) it would take to cripple or sink a warship (see Fig. 6-1, Exocet Missile Equivalents versus Full-Load Displacement for Ships Out of Action and Sunk, p. 160). The table goes up to 7,000 tons but extrapolating the data to ~10,000 tons (Moskva is 9,380 tons standard displacement) indicates that two hits are very likely enough to put Moskva out of action and four or five hits would be sufficient to sink the ship. Assuming two missiles and maybe one sympathetic detonation of ordnance that’s already three hits…with maybe a fourth from fire and flood damage. In many ways the surprise should not be Moskva sinking but if the ship somehow survives.

To be or not TB2

Part of the story of the Moskva attack includes the Ukrainians using a Bayraktar TB2 drone (Harpoon V stats found in The Naval SITREP #56) to “distract” the crew. Personally, I am unsure as to the chances that the Ukraine Navy would operate a TB2 at range (the datalink is rated in Harpoon V as 150 km range), at night, and in bad weather but it’s possible? Some allege the TB2 pulled off Moskva’s radars so they didn’t “see”the attack coming on on the other side. Note that the air search radars used aboard Moskva provide 360 degree coverage. A more plausible explanation to me is that the crew became fixated and focused on a potential TB2 threat and in turn failed (at night and in sea clutter) to see inbound sea-skimming missiles. This is a reality of life in combat and not necessarily replicated in a wargame simulation model.

Courtesy aerotime.aero

Which is the real point of this post; wargames can help us understand more about a battle but in the end it cannot capture many human factors. Was Moskva ready for an attack? If not, how long does it take the crew to react (this is a major training issue). Was the crew “distracted” by a TB2 and lacked the discipline to maintain their sector watch and “missed” the inbound missiles? We may never know these answers.

Feature image courtesy koko.ng

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#Wargame Wednesday – Air War: Ukraine from a wargame perspective

Over at the Royal United Services Institute, Justin Bronk wrote an article, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” As I read the article I thought, as I am wont to do, about how the issues Mr. Bronk raises are reflected—or not—in wargames. As I worked my way through the article, it reminded me that many wargames approach air warfare differently. The different game mechanisms used in wargames to represent complex air operations seemingly try to balance playability versus a “realistic” depiction of complex air operations resulting in wildly different mechanisms and gaming experiences. Alas, many of these air warfare wargames present a very “western” view of complex air operations that actually may not be reflective of the Russian way of war.

No (Air) Show?

One of the greatest surprises from the initial phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the inability of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) fighter and fighter-bomber fleets to establish air superiority, or to deploy significant combat power in support of the under-performing Russian ground forces. On the first day of the invasion, an anticipated series of large-scale Russian air operations in the aftermath of initial cruise- and ballistic-missile strikes did not materialise. An initial analysis of the possible reasons for this identified potential Russian difficulties with deconfliction between ground-based surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, a lack of precision-guided munitions and limited numbers of pilots with the requisite expertise to conduct precise strikes in support of initial ground operations due to low average VKS flying hours. These factors all remain relevant, but are no longer sufficient in themselves to explain the anaemic VKS activity as the ground invasion continues into its second week. Russian fast jets have conducted only limited sorties in Ukrainian airspace, in singles or pairs, always at low altitudes and mostly at night to minimise losses from Ukrainian man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and ground fire.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

Mr. Bronk goes on to explain how many analysts, like himself, tended to focus on equipment modernization. Is this not just like wargamers, who always want to play with “the latest toys?” He then discusses three possible explanations as to why the VKS is almost a total “no-show” in the early days of the Ukraine War:

  • The VKS is being held in reserve as a deterrent to NATO
  • The VKS has few aircraft able to employ precision-guided munitions and in an effort to avoid civilian casualties its use was restrained
  • VKS commanders have a low-risk tolerance and are unwilling to risk expensive platforms.

Bronk contends that none of these explanations are sufficient. As he explains:

While the early VKS failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

So, how does one reflect an “institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale” in a wargame?

“…plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations…”

Of the several reasons Bronk lists for the failure of the Russian air force in the Ukraine War, scale and complexity are directly relatable to wargaming.

First, while the VKS has gained significant combat experience in complex air environments over Syria since 2015, it has only operated aircraft in small formations during those operations. Single aircraft, pairs or occasionally four-ships have been the norm. When different types of aircraft have been seen operating together, they have generally only comprised two pairs at most. Aside from prestige events such as Victory Day parade flypasts, the VKS also conducts the vast majority of its training flights in singles or pairs. This means that its operational commanders have very little practical experience of how to plan, brief and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundreds of assets in a high-threat air environment.

Justin Bronk, “Is the Russian Air Force Actually Incapable of Complex Air Operations?” RUSI.org, 04 Mar 2022

If we want to understand complex air operations in a high-threat environments, it seems to me we need to look at both the scale and complexity of Cold War or modern/near future air warfare wargames. While the scale may be easy to distinguish, “complexity” becomes a bit more, uh, complex of an issue. As we look at different games, we need to distinguish between “game complexity” and depictions of “complex” air operations.


Looking at my personal collection of Cold War/modern or near-future wargames, I have a wide variety of titles like J.D Webster’s modern Air Power combat games (Air Superiority/Air Strike, GDW 1986/1987 and Speed of Heat, Clash of Arms Games, 1992) or Gary “Mo” Morgan’s Flight Leader (Avalon Hill, 1986) and even the incredibly detailed Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games, 2008). What all of these air combat wargames have in common is a very granular scale with a focus on individual aircraft. Indeed, these air combat wargames are focused just like VKS operations in Syria since 2015—great for dogfighting individual or small numbers of aircraft but less applicable to integrated complex air operations.

Some wargames with individual aircraft try to get towards complex air operations, but often suffer from playability issues. What I mean here is that “game complexity” does not necessarily lead to a better representation of “complex air operations. For example, Persian Incursion (Clash of Arms Games, 2010), based on Harpoon from Admiralty Trilogy Games, tried to take individual aircraft and defensive batteries and depict Israeli strikes on Iran nuclear weapons facilities. While in development, the designers and developers discovered the game mechanisms were actually far too granular for what they were trying to do. The result was a streamlined air combat system that eventually worked its way into the next generation of Harpoon. Even with the streamlined approach, however, the game is still incredibly complex to plan and play and players often get bogged down in figuring out how to manipulate the game rather than explore the effects of planning choices. Then again, this might be a reflection of the challenge the VKS face; they are more practiced at “dogfighting” but when planning and executing more complex operations (aka an “air campaign”) they themselves get bogged down by details and lose sight of outcomes.


One series of wargames that certainly allows players to “plan, brief, and coordinate complex air operations involving tens or hundred of assets in a high-threat air environment” is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s “Raid” series of wargames that started with Downtown (GMT Games, 2004) and was followed by Elusive Victory (Terry Simo, GMT Games, 2009) and Red Storm (Douglas Bush, GMT Games, 2019). These games are excellent for planning and coordinating “modern” large strike packages (i.e. “air raids”) in high-air defense threat environments. The “scale” in these wargames is minutes and flights of aircraft. If they have a drawback in this discussion, it is they are almost strictly focused on the air combat domain and only indirectly show the impact of air operations on ground forces.

For an air “raid” wargame that shows the impact of air power on ground forces, I look to Gary “Mo” Morgan’s TAC AIR from Avalon Hill in 1986. TAC AIR is at-heart a manual wargame training aid used to, “depict modern air-land battle, complete with integrated air defense systems, detailed air mission planning and Airspace Control considerations” (“Game information – Designer’s Profile,” TAC AIR Battle Manual, p. 20). Like Red Storm, flights of aircraft move about the board in TAC AIR. The main difference is that TAC AIR has a ground combat system integrated into the game whereas Red Storm abstracts ground units and is only concerned with the effects of air strikes while not attempting to depict the ground war in any real level of detail.

Squadrons & Tracks

The next “scale” of air combat wargames I see are what I call “squadrons and tracks.” These wargames tend to have air units at the squadron-level and often move air warfare “off-map” to a sideboard set of tracks. A good example of a modern operational “squadron and tracks” wargame that integrates complex air operations is Mitchell Land’s Next War series from GMT Games. Specifically, I am talking about the Air Power rules in the Advanced Game (22.0 Air Power in Next War: Korea 2nd Edition, 2019). As the design note comments, “This air game is not for the faint of heart” as it adds a great deal of complexity to the game. Instead of flying units on the map, squadrons of aircraft are allocated against broad missions. The air system in Next War demands players allocate for Air Superiority (22.6) or Air-to-Ground Missions (23.0) which includes Wild Weasel missions to suppress enemy Detection and SAM Tracks (23.3), Air Strikes (23.4.1), and Helicopter Strikes (23.4.2). Air Defenses (24.0) get their own section of rules which includes “Local” Air Defense Network (24.2) such as man-portable air defenses (MANPADS) as well as SAM Fire (24.5) and anti-aircraft artillery (24.6 AAA Fire). The Next War air system certainly steps up game complexity while simultaneously reflecting the “complexity” of air operations. These game mechanisms are also maybe the most tied with the ground war of any wargame we will discuss here, albeit at the cost of that increased complexity of showing complexity.

Although designer Brad Smith calls NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a game of “Solitaire Strategic Air Command in World War III” I view the game as an operational-level depiction of the NATO Air Campaign for a war in Central Europe. Much like the Next War series, player in NATO Air Commander allocate air units against different missions. The whole gamut of missions are here, from various recon missions like Battlefield Surveillance (6.1) to Locate Headquarters (6.2) to Locate Staging Areas (6.3). Primary Missions (7.1) include the Close Air Support, Follow-On Forces Attack (think interdiction), Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD), Offensive Counter-Air (OCA), and even a Decapitation Strike against enemy headquarters. Aircraft can also fly Support Missions (7.2) such as Air Escort or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). In the 1980’s, precision guided munitions (PGMs) were of limited supply so there are restrictions their usage. Likewise, pilot quality can make a difference and assigning a Pilot to an Air Unit on a raid is beneficial. Ground combat in NATO Air Commander is a bit abstracted with the use of Thrust Lines and a Cohesion Value for the Warsaw Pact attacker being compared to a NATO Defense Value. In many ways, NATO Air Commander does an excellent job capturing the complexity of air operations with a relatively simple ground combat interface that emphasizes the impact of air operations on the ground war without a detailed model of that part of the conflict.

[Interestingly, a playtest version of the follow-on game to NATO Air Commander from Brad Smith provisionally called Warsaw Pact Air Commander that I saw used a different ground combat model. The new model which is a bit more detailed used areas instead of just the Thrust Lines of NATO Air Commander.]

Missions, Point Salads, & Assets

More than a few wargames abstract air power away from even squadrons and use an even more simplified sideboard set of tracks. Different wargames use different approaches, but I arbitrarily group many into a broad set I call “Missions, Point Salads, and Assets.”

An example of a “Missions” wargame is Carl Fung’s Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020). Here, points of individual aircraft types (i.e. F-15 or MiG-29) are assigned to broad mission categories on a sideboard track. In the case of Iron Curtain, aircraft are assigned to either Air Superiority or Air Strike missions. As air combat is resolved, some aircraft might be eligible to support a combat action on the mapboard. While Carl’s approach is very playable, it is hardly a depiction of “complex air operations.”

Another example of a “Missions” wargame is Bruce Maxwell’s original edition of NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983). Instead of allocating different types of aircraft players track Tactical and Operational Air Attack Points and assign them to different missions. Interestingly, air superiority and air defense missions are not represented; Air Attack Points are allocated against Airstrike Missions, Support Suppression, Road Interdiction, or Rail Interdiction. While certainly more playable, the reflection of “complex air operations” in this system is heavily abstracted.

Fabrizio Vianello’s C3 Series wargames (Less Than 60 Miles, 2019 & The Dogs of War, 2020) from Thin Red Line Games give players Air Points every turn. These Air Points—which do not get any sort of aircraft typing or identification—can be used for Interdiction or Bombardment and can be “shot down” with Anti-Aircraft Fire. In a similar fashion, in Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, Sept/Oct 1980, SPI) each player gets air points to allocate in the Airpower Segment. Air superiority is a simple die roll at the beginning of the Airpower Segment, and Air Points (if any) may be added to the attack or defense strength of a unit in combat. These air “Point Salads” wargames once again are light on gaming complexity with a commensurate lightness on their depiciton of complex air operations.

Designer Peter Bogdasarian’s Corps Command series game Dawn’s Early Light (LnL Publishing, 2010) is an example of an “Asset” wargame. When the Airstrike Asset Chit is drawn, the player is allowed a single airstrike in each day impulse of the remaining turn. Of all the games discussed here, the Asset approach is by far the most abstract and least complex to play. It is also the least reflective of complex air operations. Indeed, one could make the argument the Asset approach is so abstract that it, in effect, almost totally ignores complex air operations…

(Another) Russian Way of War?

In 2015, Russian military forces started a major reorganization. As Grau and Bartles explain in The Russian Way of War: Force Structure, Tactics, and Modernization of the Russian Ground Forces (U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office, 2016) from this reorganization the Aerospace Forces (VKS) developed. The reorganization has not been seamless; the Russian Ground Forces and Airborne continually try to maintain control of army aviation assets (ground attack aircraft and helicopters) to integrate into their forces (Grau, 385). One must also be cognizant of how the Russian Ground Forces integrates attack aviation with artillery planning. Generally speaking, aircraft are assigned targets beyond artillery range or not located with sufficient accuracy for an artillery strike; “fixed-wing aircraft attack deep targets while helicopters operate over their own force or the forward line of contact” (Grau, 386). Planning for airstrike missions is accomplished at the Army or Military District level with further planning at the brigade or battalion level (Grau, 387). On-call fires for close air support is possible, but requires coordination through a Forward Air Controller that should be assigned to a Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) (Grau, 387). One has to wonder if the Russian BTG can actually keep up with all this planning. Interestingly, it appears that BTG commanders assume fires, electronic warfare, and air defense artillery (ADA) superiority in a fight (see CPT Nic Fiore, “Defeating the Russian Battalion Tactical Group,” eArmor Magazine, September 2017). Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Sean Corbett, formerly of the Royal Air Force, writes for Jane’s:

From a tactical, close air support perspective, the apparent limited effectiveness of the VKS is easier to explain. Co-ordination between air and ground forces is technically and procedurally challenging, requiring a robust communications architecture and well-rehearsed processes. It is highly unlikely that most of the Russian ground formations will have the required enablers in place, nor will they have trained in joint land/air operations and, with both sides using similar ground equipment types, the potential for fratricide would be significant.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

It is difficult to discern anywhere in the reorganization anything akin to an Air Operations Center or an Air Planning Cell. Could this be the reason, “the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale?” More directly related to wargames, does this lack of institutional planning in the VKS mean we are giving the Russian Air Force too much credit—or capability—in a wargame?

Mirror Image – Not?

Many analysts—and wargames—seem to think the Russians will execute an air campaign like those seen since DESERT STORM. In the Ukraine, this does not appear to be the case:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began as expected in the early hours of 24 February: a large salvo of cruise and ballistic missiles destroyed the main ground-based early warning radars throughout Ukraine. The result was to effectively blind the Ukrainian Air Force (UkrAF), and in some cases also hinder aircraft movements by cratering runways and taxiways at its major airbases. Strikes also hit several Ukrainian long-range S-300P surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which had limited mobility due to a long-term lack of spares. These initial stand-off strikes followed the pattern seen in many US-led interventions since the end of the Cold War. The logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938, would have been for the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to mount large-scale strike operations to destroy the UkrAF. With its early warning chain blinded and some runways cratered, the UkrAF was left vulnerable to raids by strike aircraft like the Su-34 with guided munitions, or even multirole Su-30 fighters with predominantly unguided munitions. If present in significant numbers, escorting Su-35 and Su-30 fighters would have overwhelmed the Ukrainian fighters, even if they did manage to take off for sorties conducted at very low altitudes with limited situational awareness. This did not happen.

Justin Bronk, “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force,” RUSI.org, 28 Feb 2022

Most every wargame listed above can capture, in some fashion, the initial strikes. In order to reflect the later days, we are depending on a “player choice” to consciously NOT execute an air campaign. While that player choice doesn’t invalidate the wargame models, it begs the question of WHY and a desire to ensure that the reason is a truly player choice and not a deficiency of the model.

That “player choice” may be what we are seeing in the Ukraine. As Air Vice-Marshal Sean Corbett (retd) wrote for Jane’s:

Given these limitations, the VKS would normally resort to unguided weapons, employed on a greater scale to make up for the lack of precision. However, this type of employment appears to have been sporadic and limited so far. This supports the view that the VKS has been deliberately holding back in its offensive campaign rather than lacking the capability [my emphasis]. Whether this has been to preserve combat power for later in the operation or in the misapprehension that Ukraine wouldn’t fight remains to be seen, but worryingly, the likelihood is that we would expect to see a significant increase in airstrikes in the coming days with increasingly indiscriminate targeting, including of urban areas, tactics previously employed by the VKS in other operations including in Chechnya and Syria.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

It is possible that, in a zeal to “model” complex air operations, designers have (unconsciously?) modeled complex air operations according to how the west wants to execute them and not how the Russians actually will or do? The models in the wargames give the Russian player the ability to execute a complex air operations in a mirror-image manner to a player using U.S. or allied forces. This may be wishful thinking and not an appropriate representation of reality. As Air Vice-Marshal Corbett explains:

Even if stiff resistance was expected, another question is how far in advance did VKS planners have sight of the full extent of the operation. Effects-based targeting is both time-consuming and resource-intensive, and to be effective, it would have taken from weeks to months to identify, gather, and assess the necessary information on target types and locations. While there was undoubtedly a limited VKS shaping air campaign, employing predominantly cruise and ballistic missiles to target both airfields and air defences, it was clearly ineffective and the Ukrainian Air Force and its air defence elements have continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity.

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

Even U.S. Air Force General Mark Kelly, Commander, Air Combat Command, responded to a question about Russia’s air defense systems since the beginning of the invasion by stating, “They’re operating pretty well when they’re operated by Ukrainians.” While that is certainly a funny soundbite, is it a fair assessment of Russian capabilities?

Courtesy Seapower Magazine

Player Choice – Pass!

In summary, I’m going to quote Air Vice-Marshal Corbett again who I think brings a good perspective on the issue:

The poor performance of the VKS to date is probably not explained by a single issue, but a combination of factors. The relative lack of VKS offensive and defensive counter-air activity over the whole area of operations cannot be explained solely by the remaining threat, but will likely be a contributory factor, to which a combination of limited aircrew experience and training, a lack of precision munitions, and poor air/ground co-ordination are likely playing a role. However, the biggest factor is likely to be that the need for a comprehensive air campaign to both shape the operational environment and support ground forces was never envisaged as being necessary, and therefore not planned for [my emphasis].

“Ukraine conflict: Is the VKS underperforming?”, Jane’s online. 03 March 2022

Not planned for…that’s hard to believe. It’s not even true if Anonymous is to be believed and the Russian military had at least 30 days to plan for an invasion.

Prior planning?

It’s as if the Russian VKS has simply chosen to “pass” on their turn…

Feature image courtesy airplane-pictures.net

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

2021 #Wargame Expansion of the Year – or – SITREP: Wing Leader Harpoon’d in Tank Duel (@gmtgames admiraltytrilogy.com)

There are certain wargames in my collection that I just cannot get enough of. For these games I’m always looking for more to play with. This year three games got lots of new love. The candidates for my 2021 Wargame Expansion of the Year are:

Before we go any further, it’s worth mentioning here that there are two other titles I acquired in 2021 but—for various reasons—I deemed ineligible:

First, the DQs. The Holland ’44 scenario I disqualified due to age. Second, as much as I love Panzer and have eagerly awaited the reprint of Expansion Nr. 1, it is a reprint and not “new” material.

As for the nominees…you can see they really cover three games—Harpoon, Tank Duel, and Wing Leader.

Harpoon – The Expanded Critical Hit Tables are nice, but not necessary for play. The Naval SITREPs are always welcome content, but again missing them doesn’t mean game failure.

Tank Duel – The RMN Boys and myself like the Tank Duel system. It’s a very different game system that challenges the very defintion of a wargame. The North Africa expansion is very welcome, and one can never have enough tank “mats” to play with.

Wing Leader – One of my all-time favorite game systems. Legends adds depth and the Supremacy update keeps an already clean system that much tidier.

…and the winner is…

Tank Duel Expansion Nr. 1: North Africa. Not only does this expansion take the game into a new theater, it also cleans up the rules. This expansion, along with Tank Pack Nr. 1 ensures Tank Duel will be on the table often this coming year.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2021 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

#SundaySummary – From cavemen in KINGDOMINO: ORIGINS to Tigers of Normandy during a DARK SUMMER and a new SITREP @BlueOrangeGames @BrunoCathala @gmtgames @tdraicer admiraltytrilogy.com #boardgame #wargame


New Arrival Kingdomino: Origins by Bruno Cathala from Blue Orange Games (2021). I really like the changes in this Kingdomino. Thoughts coming this week.


It took a while, but hitting the gaming table this week is The Dark Summer: Normandy, 1944 by Ted S. Raicer from GMT Games (2021). This is the latest entry in the GMT Games Dark-series that uses a chit pull mechanic making it excellent for solo play.

For all you naval wargamers out there the latest edition of The Naval SITREP: The Journal of the Admiralty Trilogy Game System dropped this week. Available via wargamevault.com, at a mere $3 The Naval SITREP is a bargain not only for players but naval history lovers too. This issue includes a long-form article, “Combat Ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the 20th Century” by the ATG’s China editor Chang Lei that is a good history lesson. I also appreciate that ATG is finally breaking from deadtree publishing thinking and will be marking changes in the pdf copies of their rules in red.

Professional Wargaming

Recently been reading several article on nuclear wargaming. This has got me thinking…

Gaming Social Media

Hmm. As I put together this post I see that designer Bruno Cathala “protects” his tweets. That’s ok; he very likely has good reasons to not allow random follows. I also see that designer Ted S. Raicer blocks me. Well, fortunately for his royalty checks I don’t have to agree with a designer’s politics to play their games.

#SundaySummary: @ADragoons goes @originsgames, @CatastropheGam2 ZURMAT emerges, kicking BOER WAR canvastemple.com, @stonemaiergames TAPESTRY unfurls, & almost 1979 again | @FoundationDietz @Bublublock @AcademyGames revolutiongames.us admiraltytrilogy.com #wargame #boardgame

Wargame Origins

Very happy to see Regimental Commander Brant and other members of the Armchair Dragoons at Origins Game Fair this week. Origins started out as a wargame convention and over the years it, uh, changed.

The Dragoons bring wargaming back to the Fair and it’s good to see. Some of the games played included Tank Duel (GMT Games), Second World War at Sea (Avalanche Press), Team COIN, and Command & Colors Napoleonics (GMT Games). I am very sad that I missed the Persian Gulf game with the admiraltytrilogy.com folks.

The new game Zurmat (currently on Kickstarter from Catastrophe Games) was also prominently featured; this “small COIN” game looks very interesting! Check out the Armchair Dragoons Twitter feed (@ADragoons) or their webpage for pictures and the like.

I look forward to talking with Brant about how this year’s convention went and what he sees (or doesn’t ) as the future of wargaming at Origins. So far it looks good

Kickstarter Wargame

This week I also backed Imperial Campaigns Series Game Nr. 1: Boer War by designer Joseph Miranda from Canvas Temple Publishing on Kickstarter. Several reasons drove my decision; the topic is interesting, Joseph Miranda can be a hit-or-miss designer but Jon Compton at CTP is involved in development, CTP is a smaller publisher somewhat local to me so I think of them as my FLGP*, and the price is not outrageous.

Revolution Wargames

The October Sale from Revolution Games is underway. Great chance to pick up more than a few bargains. Personally I recommend Pacific Fury. If you are willing to purchase folio-packaged games some of the prices are really low and (hopefully) more affordable.


I continued my local acquisitions support program by picking up a copy of Jamie Stegmaier’s Tapestry (Stonemaier Games, 2019) from a nearby gamer. Used but in great condition. Will try to get this to the table soon, maybe as the season kickoff for the Weekend Family Game Night Return.

Reality Shift from Academy Games is closing in on final production. It was also demo’d at Origins.

Jim Dietz has been doing a great job communicating the shipping status of 1979: Revolution in Iran (which I affectionally call Volume II of the Axis of Evil Series following No Motherland Without). For many games we are happy just to hear that “it’s printed” or “it’s shipped” but Jim is giving us shipping movement details at the near-daily level. Certainly helps build anticipation!

*FLGP – Friendly Local Game PUBLISHER