Thursday, December 3, 2009

Plausible war? Red Dragon Rising

Speculative wargames have been a staple since SPI published Red Star/White Star, and in particular speculation about how a possible confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact as so fertile a topic for wargame designers that games on that topic were virtually a hobby within the hobby and contemporary combat generally ranked among the top two or three most popular wargame topics in SPI polls for years.

Of course that confrontation never came to be and the bottom sort of dropped out of the genre after the Fall of Communism in 1989. Oh sure, there's still an occasional game published on the topic, but it's dropped down somewhere between the Spanish-American War and the War of Austrian Succession in wargamer interest.

Even during the heyday of NATO-Warsaw Pact interest there were a few other stabs at treating other prospective wars -- and some of those even happened. The SPI game Sinai was famously redesigned in 1973 just before publication to account for the actual October War.

Still, I think it's fair to say that most of the major conflicts of the Cold War era that actually broke out were unanticipated by wargame designers. And who could blame them? There's a considerable amount of implausibility of Britain and Argentina coming to blows, Iraq invading Iran or even the Soviets invading Afghanistan. Implicit in making the case for a plausible future-history wargame is making a case that one side or the other has something to gain. The unpleasant outcome for the aggressor in those three wars suggest it really wasn't a good idea. (Yes, I am aware that Iraq supposedly "won" it's war with Iran, but I don't think there's any doubt it was a very hollow victory).

The post-Berlin Wall world has seen a steadily decreasing number of international state-on-state conflicts of the sort wargames handle best and wargamers find interesting. Most conflicts these days are low-level guerilla wars, insurgencies and terror campaigns.

Advances in printing technology have made it possible to rush into print with a wargame if there's sufficient lead-time in the crisis. Both the first Gulf War and the more recent Iraq War saw pre-conflict wargames hit the market, but they were hardly great examples of prognostication. The very title of Back to Iraq (which appeared in various editions in Command and then Strategy & Tactics magazine suggests how predictable the occurrence of that war would be. But even the Iraq War games that did appear missed the real nature of the war that would be fought -- stopping after a month or so of fighting in the belief that the issue would be decided. We now know that the "Mission Accomplished" moment was really just the beginning of the story. And I don't think anybody designed a wargame involving an American intervention in Afghanistan beforehand.

So how many plausible situations exist for a major state-to-state war in the current international climate? In the post-Cold War world there were brief fads of looking at potential wars between the United States and Japan, some kind of resurrected Russian state or even the "World" banding together to take down the remaining superpower USA. All of these had more of the aura of some kind of "Sci Fi" treatment than an examination of a real possibility.

There seem to be five possible international flash points that could boil over into some sort of major state-on-state war. Some of these have had wargames designed about them, a few have not.

1. Korea -- For more than 50 years the threat of war has hung over the Korean peninsula, but despite the weird reclusive nature of the North Korean regime, the chances of war breaking out there seem to recede each year. The fact is that any chance the North Koreas had of overrunning the South dissipated years ago -- a fact that even a madman can see. There have been a few of wargames looking at this, including some in detail -- but the last one was almost a decade ago.

2. Israel -- Another area that has seen more than a half-century of conflict and will undoubtedly see more, but not state-on-state. There gulf in military might between the Palestinians and the Israelis resembles late Nineteenth Century colonial warfare. No one has bothered to design a game on this topic.

3. Iran -- Possibly the single most likely war -- with both Israel and the United States has plausible foes to Iran, and yet no one has tried to design a wargame on how this could play out. Is it too politically fraught, hard to research or what?

4. Pakistan -- This resembles a NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in miniature -- two large, conventional armies with nuclear weapons facing off along a long border in a shallow theater. There were a couple of wargames on the topic around the beginning of the decade but nothing recently. The chances of this one happening seem to have receded for the moment, but it wouldn't take a lot for it to come to a boil again.

5. China -- This one has caught the fancy of recent designers for some reason. Red Dragon Rising was a big hit in S&T magazine and even had some expansion counters in a recent issue. The last issue of Command Magazine featured a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. And Taiwan remains a potential flash point, but like many of the other long-simmering conflicts around the world, the passage of time seems to be lessening the chances of war. The potential costs are high and the stakes seem relatively low, especially because everyone concerned seems to have an interest in kicking the ball down the field.

Most of the anticipated conflicts seem unlikely to erupt into anything wargame-worthy. Are there any out-of-left field Falklands War situations out there?

There don't seem to be many candidates. Neither North America nor Western Europe seem to have any. The EU integration of economies and distaste for military spending make a state-on-state war unthinkable in Western Europe (which is an astounding break with the past, BTW).

Hardly any African states have the wherewithal to consider meaningful state-on-state fighting. South America has some countries with the potential for military power, but a lack of state-vs.-state disputes that anybody would want to fight over, the antics of Venezuela notwithstanding.

That leaves Asia and the Middle East where most of the potential wars have already been discussed. Could Thailand and Burma battle? What about Russian and the Ukraine? Australia and New Zealand? Well, I guess the last one would be quite a stretch. The Russia-Ukraine possibility was been touched on in one game, but that's it.

Of course, the lack of suitable topics for plausible future wars is not a bad thing. And our forbears have provided us with no shortage of historical wars to refight, so this is no crisis.


  1. Actually, I'm pretty sure someone knew that the Russians *would* in fact invade Afghanistan. The one thing Soviet Russia was really missing was a warm water port - it's been called the "dream of the Tsars" repeatedly. The Black Sea doesn't count, as the straits leading to the Med are only the first of at least two (three if you go through the Suez Canal) paths to the world ocean. Although Stalin sure did try to take the Dardenelles right after WW2, albeit largely diplomatically.

    The only other real path to a warm water port was South Asia. They certainly weren't going to get access to the Chinese ports, and while Viet Nam provided a harbor for the Soviets after the mid-70's, there was no direct supply line to it. That means South Asia, which means going through Afghanistan.

    At that time, you have to remember that the Iranian Revolution happened in early 1979. Up to that point a strong US ally in the region, any Soviet incursions into South Asia would have been met by a US response. When the Shah fled and the mullahs took over, the Soviets started planning to move on Afghanistan almost immediately (if they didn't already have plans in place). At the time, Pakistan was a Soviet client state, so at least the Soviets would have a direct supply line to any Pakistani naval bases, and the US presence in the Gulf was sorely limited - Diego Garcia out in the middle of nowhere, an incredibly convoluted flight path to get from Turkey. I have to imagine that this was a *very* real concern on the part of US planners at the time, far from being something that people couldn't see coming.

    In hindsight, it's easy to see why we invaded Iraq in 2003 - create a client country that would allow the US to project it's military power into an area of the world we had almost no bases in (Saudi required us to ask permission before aircraft could take off from their airfields after the First Iraq War). In fact, the presence of the US military in Saudi was cited by bin Laden as why he planned 9/11, among other things. While we're no longer concerned with the Soviets, it was perhaps this demonstration of US impotence in the late 70's that precipitated the "dream of the Bushes" - a long-term military presence in South Asia. Who knows, maybe they will get it after all if Iraq stays "friendly" - in much the same way that Iran was "friendly". Of course, now our main adversary in the region is Iran.

    On the topic of Cold War wargames, there are actually games on the real history, which I find very interesting - almost every wargame I play took place long before I was born, but now there are wargames on conflicts in my own lifetime that are relevant to the history of my own country. I do have a bit of a soft spot for some of the alt-hist games, especially the awesome Fleet series, of which 5th Fleet covers actions in South Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, including the Soviets finally realizing the warm-water port dream, as well as US/Iran and India/Pakistan conflicts.

    And on that last one, you are absolutely right. We're one really bad day away from the first nuke exchange fired in anger (we won't count the various "tests" done after WW2, which were really a matter of "look at me, I'm baaaaad!")

  2. A Soviet invasion of Afghanistan wasn't on the radar for wargame designers. though. Gulf Strike, for example, assumed they might try to take out Iran, not Afghanistan.

  3. Given the recent events I think that a modern Chilean-Peruvian war is plausible, even if not probable, and it would make an interesting wargame.