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?
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.
It’s as if the Russian VKS has simply chosen to “pass” on their turn…
Feature image courtesy airplane-pictures.net