Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tac Air personal reflections

For a long time I thought my only "wartime" service would end up being my active duty stint in the mid-1980s in West Germany during the Cold War, so Tac Air always held a special place in my collection. It was the one wargame that included a unit I served in. Or at least it was until 2003 and Iraq, but that's another story.

My unit was the 1st Battalion, 80th Field Artillery, a Lance-missile equipped artillery unit. In the game it looks like this:

The counter depicts the trailer-mounted configuration of the missile, which was almost never used. The missile couldn't be safely towed any distance while mounted this way. Normally the missile was carried on a specially modified tracked vehicle based on the M113 APC chassis.
Still, the game is correct to depict the counter as a wheeled unit because the vast majority of the battalion's vehicles were and there was no mobility advantage conferred by the tracked launcher because all its necessary supporting vehicles were wheeled.

We weren't allowed to take photos for security reasons during my time in Germany, but this photo taken at Fort Sill at the Artillery Museum in 2003 shows what the Lance launcher/transporter looked like in firing mode:

The game simplifies things somewhat by making the unit one counter because in reality the launchers operated individually spread over a wide area. Still, tracking individual vehicles is well outside the scope of the game.

Tac Air was very unusual in explicitly depicting a wide variety of supporting units in addition to the usual tank and infantry maneuver battalions usually seen in this level wargame.

That wasn't by accident, of course, because the game was designed by an Air Force officer and meant to show the interaction between air power and land combat.

When wargamers think of airpower they typically think of a few extra factors of close air support being tossed in to up the odds for their combats. While close air support is an Air Force mission, it's not particularly popular with them and for good reason. It's usually not an effective way to use airpower.

Frontline units are already doing their best to conceal themselves from nearby enemy ground units with time and opportunity to shoot at them. Those same efforts make it even harder for jets swooshing by at several hundred miles per hour to see and engage those units. In addition, those troops are usually in armored vehicles or foxholes and well-dispersed, severely reducing the effectiveness of whatever aerial weapons do get sent their way.

Using air units as artillery can be useful on occasion, but the Army's generally found it more useful to use actual artillery for the work of close support. It's more accurate, responsive and effective. When a little air support is needed, the Army can call on its own rotary-wing aerial force of attack helicopters. Compared to air force jets these are also more accurate, responsive and effective, although they are also vulnerable.

Where airpower shines is when it moves behind the lines and attacks the softer targets such as supply dumps, trucks, headquarters, artillery, EW facilities and the like. In order to give the air units something to attack these need to be on the map. To justify having them on the map, they needed to have work to do, and so Tac Air ends up being a rather comprehensive depiction of the entire spectrum of mid-1980s warfare. There are rules giving artillery, headquarters, EW, trucks, etc. stuff to do. Neat.

So the 1st Bn, 80th FA is in the game primarily to be a target, but it can get the chance to shoot to some small effect. There was a conventional warhead available for the missile, but the unit's primary task was to launch nuclear-tipped missiles, a task it can perform in the game. The game places strict limits on the number of nukes available, far below what was actually on hand. But the limits are not unreasonable given the political realities and the fact that setting off more than a few would change the entire character of the war and probably make the frontline fight shown in the game moot.

During Reforger 1984 the 1st-80th was part of the Blue Forces. This was as interesting exercise because it pitted the M-60/M113- equipped Blue Army against an Orange force that included the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Mechanized Infantry, which had been the first brigade in Europe completely equipped with the new M-1 Abrams tank and M-2/3 Bradley fighting vehicles. I got a front-seat preview of what Saddam's army would face a few years later in Desert Storm. The Orange army literally kicked our Blue butts so thoroughly that the exercise had to be halted -- twice. In one day our battalion (which was rather obviously not normally a frontline unit) was overrun several times and ended up retreating 60 kilometers!

I also got a mouse's eye view of what being an Air Force target was like. I'll always remember the moment I looked up to see a direct, head-on view of a West German F-104 on a dive-bombing run on my platoon in a logistics staging are. Had it been an actual war, my 2nd Lieutenant's combat career would have come to an ignominous end amid the ignition of my own funeral pyre. The Lance was a solid-fuel ballistic missile that was powered by mixing two substances in the combustion chamber that created a controlled explosion (not burn) creating tremendous thrust. But one 20-mm aircraft cannon shell piercing the missile would create a very uncontrolled explosion that would have blasted the entire log site. We represented a very "soft" target indeed.

Tac Air was published in 1987 and appears to be current as of 1986, my last year with the 1-80 FA, so it definitely covered the time I could have seen combat. As folks old enough will remember, this was the very end of the Cold War and many of us were very afraid that the Soviet regime would not go quietly. It's huge a tribute to leaders on both sides and to good fortune that the walls fell down in peace, not war. Certainly we wouldn't have bet that way in 1986.

Tac Air is a great reminder of the tragedy that was averted.

1 comment:

  1. Close Air Support...

    My things have certainly changed since the 1980's in the world of Air Ground doctrine!

    Precision guided munitions and the re-emphasis of the ground Forward Air Controller in the form of the Enlisted Terminal Attack Controller (now Joint Terminal Attack Controller) and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made CAS a primary Air Force mission and in extreme demand by the US Army and Marine Corps. In the late 1990's the Marines scrapped they're version of the USAF TACP (Tactical Air Control Party, JTACs who work with the Army, Air Force guys to do CAS) and instantly regretted it in Afghanistan when the Air Force had to send SSgt and TSgt. JTACs to give they're ground units extra FAC coverage. By 2003, ANGLICOs were re-activated, and then enlisted personnel were sent to be JTACs... Now, the Air Force is looking at doing more CAS, the Army wants more, the Marines and Navy are in the same boat (pun intended). We even have the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb to be used in even closer proximity to ground forces. Sensors backed up by Mk. I eyeball on the ground are now more capable at brining in the CAS than they were during Desert Storm and earlier!

    I wish I could have played this game! Sounds like a great Joint Combined Arms game that could be rather accurate with some tweeks, and even modernized to represent what today is like! I might just have to look for it...

    (same response as on Board Game Geek!)