RAND Corporation analysts Kimberly Jackson, Andrew Scobell, Stephen Webber, and Logan Ma looks at issues of Command and Control (C2) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) in their research report Command and Control in U.S. Naval Competition with China which is available as a free download. This report is not only a good backgrounder on the C2 differences between the PLA Navy and the US Navy, it also has poses some questions that could make for a good “serious” wargame topic albeit a difficult one to design because C2 and wargames don’t necessarily go well together.
How is C2 exercised in the U.S. Navy and the PLA Navy?
How are these C2 concepts reflective of service culture?
How do these C2 structures support or challenge each nation’s shift to new maritime missions?
The U.S. Navy and the PLA Navy will likely be challenged to fully shift to new strategic postures if they do not adapt their existing concepts of C2
The U.S. Navy’s model of mission command appears conducive to counter-power projection missions in theory, but success will likely require increased investments in education and professionalism across the force.
The PLA Navy’s rigid control and command structure is likely to come under increasing strain given the relative independence and greater operations tempo required by power projection operations.
Currently, many unknowns exist, particularly in understanding how PLA Navy culture is evolving and how the Chinese Communist Party might weigh its preferred method of tight control throughout the PLA against more-effective power projection efforts.
Future Study = Wargame?
The part that interested me as a wargamer was actually the four topics the authors propose for future study:
What is more valuable to China: the ability to project power globally or retaining its rigid control and command system?
Will the PLA Navy’s increased experience and professional development affect the trust placed in PLA Navy personnel by senior PLA commanders? And how will increased PLA Navy professionalism affect control and command?
Would the Chinese Communist Party tolerate a PLA Navy that is more empowered to make independent decisions?
Would the PLA Navy taking a mission command approach to C2 be a threat to the United States?
Each of those study topics, in a way, make for a good jumping off point in a more serious wargame. My problem is finding a commercial wargame that gives one a good taste of C2 challenges out-of-the-box. In order to make it more realistic, one often needs to resort to some sort of pre-plotting or double-blind systems with a referee. Let’s be honest, the real questions about C2 are more than just an initiative roll to see who goes first;. A part of me feels like we need an OODA Loop game like Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games, 2019)does for the Air Land Battle of the 1980’s in Europe. Amongst my commercial wargame titles some insight may be gained but it will require lots of tinkering:
Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020): This wargame that verges into simulation is very good at depicting tactical situations but I am not sure the design can really be stretched to show the more operational-level elements of C2 outside of starting scenario conditions.
Indian Ocean Region – South China Sea: Volume II (Compass Games, 2021): This forthcoming second volume of John Gorkowski’s South China Sea-series of games is in many ways the 21st Century successor to the 1980’s Victory Games Fleet-series; however, there are no real C2 rules in the game.
BLUF – A mechanically simple wargame that builds a believable narrative of combat but is slowed by many rules.
I CAME OF AGE IN THE 1980s. At that time, I was heavily into naval wargaming and studying the latest weaponry so of course some of my favorite wargames were the Harpoon series by Larry Bond. I started out first with Harpoon II (Adventure Games, 1983) but quickly moved on to Harpoon 3 from GDW (1987). I eventually joined the Navy (1989) just at the end of the Cold War; which is to say I joined a Navy in flux for although I fought in Gulf War I we still trained for the Cold War. Thus I found myself in the Vest-fjord of Norway in 1991 not long after the attempted coup in Moscow. The war I trained for, the Cold War at Sea, was ending and I (thankfully) never had a go at the Soviets.
Blue Water Navy covers the war at sea, air, close-ashore and low-earth orbit from the Kola Peninsula in Northern Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and West over the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and Cuba. The game models the full order of battle that could be expected in 1980’s wartime, from multi-regiment Soviet Tu-22 Backfire bombers to multiple US carrier groups. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)
Blue Water Navy is large both in game scope and game contents. The two-piece 30″x45″ map uses areas spanning approx. 500nm to depict the battlespace from the Gulf of Mexico to the Kola Peninsula to the Mediterranean and Black Sea. Over 700 counters represent groups of ships or aircraft (although to be fair about half are markers, not units) and each turn is 2 days. Play time is rated at 1-3 hours for shorter scenarios and 8-16 hours for a campaign.
To try and make this all work, the game uses a form of the Ops-Events card-driven mechanic:
The game is card driven, with each card providing points to move or trigger special events such as ‘KGB Assassinations’ and ‘Space Shuttle’. There is also a reaction mechanic where most cards can be used in the other player’s turn to perform a spoiling event such as ‘Raid Aborts’ and ‘Friendly Fire’. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)
To avoid the “God’s Eye” problem of wargaming, the rules feature robust detection rules:
The heart of the game is detection. Task Forces can only be attacked once detected. By contrast, land airbases can always be attacked. The race to detect opposing Task Forces begins as soon as they enter potential striking range…. (Blue Water Navy – back of the box)
Here are some of my impressions after reading the Rules Booklet and playing the first short scenario, ‘The Boomer Bastion, 1983’:
Game Mechanics & Rules
Mechanically, Blue Water Navy is not very complex. The Operations Cards and possible Actions are fairly straight-forward. Movement is very simple; even detection is logical. There is no Combat Results Table (CRT) in Blue Water Navy; combat ‘strength’ is expressed in terms of d10 rolled, with a natural 10 being highly favorable and doubles often also having a favorable effect. Modifiers are few.
That said, combat in Blue Water Navy is very procedural and, although the core mechanic of rolling multiple d10 is the same, every combat type is handled differently (and even within warfare types, such as air, different engagements are not always handled the same way). The use of Player Aid Cards (PAC) is absolutely essential. When coupled with the detection and reaction rules and the interaction of weapons systems (such as SAMs vs missiles or aircraft) this dramatically slows the game down.
Blue Water Navy also lacks an index (though the PAC has rules references). This can make finding essential rules a chore. For instance, the shorter scenarios use a ‘smaller’ Ops Track with different rules found in an unnumbered section at the beginning of the Scenario Book.
Gameplay in Blue Water Navy feels very organic. There is a very natural (dare I say, realistic?) feel to the flow of combat. Battles in Blue Water Navy build a narrative. In my scenario play, a US nuclear fast attack submarine (SSN) entered the Soviet Bastion hunting for Boomers (SSBN) and was intercepted by a Soviet SSN which got a shot off but missed. Now alerted, a Soviet MPA aided in the search supported by a surface ASW group. Facing off against this threat, the US SSN eventually was lost, but not before it exacted a heavy toll on the Soviet surface ASW group. This in turn set the stage for another US SSN to get into the bastion and, with Soviet ASW forces attrited, it was able to sink a Boomer. Another US SSN faced off against a Soviet SSN but lost out to the Rocket Torpedoes of the Soviet Victor III SSN.
I rate Blue Water Navy a qualified success in depicting World War III at sea. Blue Water Navy has the strategic coverage of World War III at sea (operations planning & events, movement, detection) but it takes an extended time to play because combat delves deeply (too deeply?) into the operational-level of warfare. The rules are generally simple but no two combats are resolved in the same manner thus slowing play. I like the game and I want to get the other short scenarios to the table. Maybe in doing so I can build up a rules-familiarity to speed play. Only then would I dare to attempt a campaign game.
Feature image – Blue Water Navy box cover (credit – self)
Let me be clear up front – I generally like South China Sea but wish it was better. I honestly have little room to complain as I was a marginal participant in the open playtest designer John Gorkowski ran. I did a pass through the original rules draft and provided comments to John. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay involved. So in a sense I had my chance to influence the game before publication and failed. I should be happy with what the product is; and like I said I generally am. That said, I still have conflicts!
South China Sea(hereafter SCS) is a combination of two games played out in Political Turns and Military Turns. Political Turns represent 3-7 weeks of international action. If (when?) conflict erupts, the game transitions to Military Turns representing several hours of combat operations.
This is SCS‘s first conflict; is it a political or military game? Political Turns are played using a deck of cards. Some cards are playable only by Global Powers (US and China) while others can only be played by the Regional Powers (Malaysia, Vietnam, The Philippines). Card play moves the Victory Point Track which starts at 10VP. Moving down the track (minus VP) is good for the US, while moving up the track (positive VP) is good for China. So for the US to win they have to have less VP. [Forgive me for being an American, but having less VP seems counterintuitive to me.]
My second conflict with SCS is Armed Conflict, specifically how it happens. Certain cards call for a Roll for Armed Conflict which, if failed, moves the game to Military Turns. Now, I guess I can see how (few) cards affect the initial set-up, but it is few. I am not sure the balance between the Political Turns and Military Turns in really there; the Roll for Armed Conflict seems to be a rush to get the “forces to sea” and start the fight.
My third conflict with SCS is the Military Turns themselves. I am conflicted here because I actually really like the Military Turn Sequence and how it uses rules for Situational Awareness. Although units on the map are “spotted,” they must be Illuminated to be targeted. Evasion is how units escape Illumination, and Hiding is avoiding Illumination. These rules are a simple way to portray the battle to locate the other side. Combined with a very simple Strike mechanic (2d6 + Weapon System Score +/- Modifiers vs Defense Score or Missile Defense) combat is resolved quickly. The Air/Sea Engagement Sequence captures the order of Strikes with Stealth Rating vitally important as most Strikes are resolved in descending order of Stealth Rating. Thus, the Stealth Rating (3) F-35 fires first against the Stealth Rating (2) J-31. Simple mechanics makes for simple combat resolution while maintaining the feel of modern naval combat.
My fourth conflict in SCS are the game components, specifically the map and counters. The counters feel a bit “thin” for my taste and are graphically very crowded. Having all the information needed to play on the counter face is very helpful but I and not sure you want to risk any corner clippers with these! The map is more problematic. Look below:
Although hard to see there are actually two map sheets. They do not butt against each other, but actually overlap by 5 hexes. Why? None of the scenarios are single mappers…so why the large overlap? Note also the littoral and sea hexes to the west of Myanmar. Why? Bangkok is not used in any scenario (Thailand is not a playable country) so is this for a future expansion? Another part that bothers me is the placement of the Guam and Okinawa Transit Tracks…on the northwest part of the map or away from where the US player is likely to sit (for it seems to me the logical seating would be PRC to the north, US to the south, Vietnam west, The Philippines to the northeast, and Malaysia to the southeast). Thus the Transit Tracks are about as far away from the US player as they could be. To my untrained eye it seems to me that west edge of the map could be five hexes closer and added to the east edge giving space to move the Transit Tracks to the same side of the map as the entry hexes.
I played a solo game to experiment with the rules and learn the game system. Although the Political Turns are not really soloable, in my effort to experiment with the system I played through a sample game assuming that:
China’s overarching goal was to assert sovereignty in the SCS
The US opposed China and wanted Freedom of Navigation
Malaysia generally supported the Chinese
Vietnam generally supported the US
The Philippines was focused inward (but leaned to the US)
After the cards were dealt I “played” out the first round. The Chinese led by publishing a negative Human Rights Report on the US but it didn’t shift world opinion. US companies in the meanwhile made a major Gas/Oil Find in the SCS and gained 2VP while avoiding armed conflict. Embassy Demonstrations in Malaysia were ignored, and a Humanitarian Disaster in Vietnam allowed the US to place one Arleigh Burke DDG near Cam Rahn Bay. The Philippines tried appeal for ASEAN Solidarity and when supported by Vietnam pushed the VP further to the US side. Of note, the VP Track starts at 10 VP with less VP good for the US and more VP favoring China. At the end of the first Political Turn the VP had moved 4VP towards the US (6VP on the track). In the Political Negotiation Phase, I simulated the give-n-take by trading cards since the Global Powers had cards they could not play and vice-versa for the Regional Powers.
In the second Political Turn the Chinese led off with a High Level Visit to Malaysia but again failed to move the Victory Track. The US played Economic Sanctions and, with the support of Vietnam and The Philippines, shifted the VP again (now at 5VP). Malaysia invited China for a Combined Military Exercise but it backfired and shifted world opinion further towards the US (VP track now at 4VP!). Not wanting to risk a conflict while things were going well for their patron, both Vietnam and The Philippines passed (discard). In the Political Negotiation Phase a few more cards were traded.
Trying to get something back, the Chinese declared a major Gas/Oil Find and shifted 2VP in their favor while avoiding armed conflict. The US played a High Level Visit that fizzled (no change in VP) and Malaysia passed (discard) while trying to avoid igniting a conflict. The Vietnamese instigated a Embassy Demonstration outside the of the PRC consulate but again the world ignored. The Philippines then tried to buy arms (Arms Sales) from the US, which agreed, and moved the VP marker to 2VP. However, the roll for armed conflict failed and the game moved to Military Turns.
Of note, playing strictly by the RAW and with 5-players and factoring in Analysis Paralysis, this card play portion of the game might of been 45 minutes or more. That’s assuming 2-minutes per card play and the 10-minute Negotiation Phase at the end of each 5-card round. All this interaction placed exactly one unit on the map in my game.
The scenario being played was Scenario 1: Clash of the Flattops. This pits a US Carrier Strike Group (CVN with F-35s escorted by DDG and a Virginia SSN in loose company) versus two Chinese CV with J-31 and J-15 navalized fighters and escorts supported by a Song/Yuan SS. The scenario calls for six Military Turns.
Combat was…quick. By the end of the third Military Turn the Chinese strike against the US carrier group had failed and the Americans refused to enter the range of SSMs on Hainan. One Chinese CV and both naval fighter squadrons were destroyed at the cost of one Vietnamese fighter squadron. Seeing no way to win, I declared a cease-fire in the Military Negotiation Phase at the end of the third Military Turn. The total play time for the Military Turns was maybe 30 minutes.
As a longtime fan, collector, and player of Victory Games’ Fleet Series, it is inevitable that I compare SCS to the Fleet Series. SCS, with its simple Strike resolution mechanic and superior Air/Sea Engagement Sequence is a faster playing, more streamlined game than the Fleet Series that also seemingly better captures the feel of modern naval combat. But SCS – at least this first iteration – seems to lack the some of the depth that the Fleet Series has. I admit that more depth may mean more “chrome” on the game and more rules overhead and time to play. I think it may be worth it as the “bones” of SCS (Situational Awareness, Strike, and the Air/Sea Engagement Sequence) are strong.
Finally, there are two other (very) small quibbles I have with SCS. The first is the subtitle and the reference to “South Pacific.” I’m sorry – when I think of the South Pacific I think of it in terms of World War II and the South China Sea is NOT part of that definition. Second, there is this section of the publisher’s blurb,
Most important, SCS allows naval units to move more than one hex in a single turn, but includes a mechanism, based on stealth, that enables the other side to “check” multi-hex moves to create a more dynamic, variable, and volatile environment. This last adjustment allows quick moves at a distance, but prevents close-in ships from “jumping” through the beaten zone of modern anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM), 290 nmi in some cases.
In all my time as a naval grognard and while on active duty as a naval officer I never heard the term “beaten zone” used with ASCMs. “Engagement Zone” maybe, but not beaten zone. In my mind I associate beaten zone with artillery and the Army. Maybe I’m behind the times….
Having been heavily focused on RPGs for a long while, I am trying this summer to get back into my wargaming groove. Always having a soft-spot in my heart for naval games, I recently acquired the 2013 Compass Games’ Breaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea. Taken directly from today’s headlines, BtC explores the naval battles that could take place in the named area.
My favorite operational-level naval conflict series is the old Victory Games Fleet Series (starting with Sixth Fleetin 1985). The scale of both BtC and the Fleet Series is very similar (i.e. time and distance). The combat mechanic is updated and in many ways simplified in BtCwith a near-exclusive focus on missiles.
The Fleet Series featured a very diverse selection of combatants whereas BtC is much more limited. There are also just a few scenarios included in BtC. In any given Fleet Series game one got a very large selection of scenarios or campaign games to play out.
I have read the BtC rulebook, and like the many detailed examples of play. Should help with the first run-thru of the game.