My initial attempt at modeling the air and sea sides of a hypothetical World War III set in 1987 will sound familiar to anyone who has ever worked for a think tank. I took an inordinate amount of data, put together a rough model for air operations in the European theater, ran it through a Cray supercomputer a few thousand times with varying parameters, and then sat down to analyze the results. The finished product was quite impressive, and beneficial in many regards. But when all was said and done, it failed to produce a satisfactory feel for day-to-day air operations in theater. There was no point in going through the same process for naval operations since the end result would more than likely be the same. Instead, I turned again to wargames hoping they could help me create a viable accounting of day-to-day air and naval operations in the conflict.
The number of quality naval wargames covering World War III in the ‘80s is respectable. I could draw on the original Fleet Series games, naval systems of Aegean Strike and Gulf Strike, and on the PC side of things, the Harpoon series, and Command (Command: Modern Air & Naval Operations or CMANO). The primary naval arena for the war was the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea. Events taking place here would logically have operational level consequences for the land war in Europe, and perhaps strategic level implications. The naval battles in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and in other bodies of water were also important, and worthy of being simulated in detail. However, none of them were going to affect the Central Front in the same manner that the North Atlantic/Norwegian Sea likely would.
An extended period of play testing and discovery followed next. Vassal proved itself to be an invaluable tool. For those of you unaware of Vassal, it is a game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games. In the wargaming community Vassal is polarizing. Gamers either love it, or hate it. There’s no middle ground. For my purposes, it proved to be a valuable tool.
Through trial and error I determined what game systems would be most helpful, or something of a hindrance. 2nd Fleet turned out to be a disappointment because the game’s southern map did not include the main shipping lanes in the North Atlantic. If there was no way to simulate convoy crossings, and the battles surrounding them, 2nd Fleet was not going to be helpful. Also, I was not as enamored with the game’s air system as I had been back when I was playing the game simply for fun. 2nd Fleet was released at a time when information about Soviet aircraft was far more speculative rather than based in fact. I felt the game designers seriously overestimated the capabilities of Soviet fighters, and bombers. This undoubtedly helped to level the playing field and make the game more fair, however, I was interested in realism. Not parity.
On the positive side, 2nd Fleet and its sister titles made it possible to simulate an entire naval campaign faster than its PC counterparts. One game turn equals eight hours of real time. Three game turns therefore equal one day of war. Safe to say, one day of the war could be completed in 1-2 hours. Playing out 24 hours of the North Atlantic campaign on the computer with Command or Harpoon, on the other hand, could take 24 real world hours! Even with very fast computers, the World War III North Atlantic campaigns I created for Harpoon and Command were monsters. Harpoon couldn’t handle it and crashed, making all of the time I spent creating the campaign scenario absolutely useless. Command held up much better, but it became painfully apparent after a couple hours that playing out the Third Battle of the Atlantic through a single scenario was virtually impossible.
Command became the main platform for creating and modeling the naval and air aspects of the conflict. Over an extended holiday weekend, I created seven scenarios covering D+0 (9 July, 1987) in the Atlantic, Norwegian Sea, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea, Western Pacific, and Caribbean. I placed NATO and Warsaw Pact installation, squadron, submarine and warship to where they should be, created missions, tweaked the AI behavior, and completed a hundred other small, yet essential tasks necessary to assure that all was ready.
Command, and the laptop I was playing it on, could handle a single scenario heavy with units, missions, etc and running 24 hours of game time was easier than an equally heavy scenario lasting 14+ days. My plan was to play the D+0 series of scenarios and create a set of D+1 scenarios to pick up where the former left off. Time-consuming? Affirm. Frustrating? Absolutely. Challenging? Certainly. However, the final result made it all worthwhile and rewarding.
I also used Command for air operations. Air ops on the flanks, and in the Atlantic and Med were integrated into the naval scenarios. For Central Europe, I went through a separate process of trial and error with various platforms before getting it right and settling on Command. That will be discussed in Part III later this week.