Gaming World War III: Building the Air War Part I

When I began laying the groundwork for the gaming phase of this WWIII project, I suspected modeling the air war in Central Europe would be a major league challenge. First and foremost because there was not a single tabletop game or computer game available that could accurately create an air war in the amount of detail I was looking for. As fate would have it, a handful of impressive tabletop games built around a hypothetical NATO-Warsaw Pact air war in the mid-80s would arrive on the market long after my gaming phase had ended, naturally. Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany, 1987 and NATO Air Commander are the most notable titles. Unfortunately, these games were not around when I needed them. And to be quite honest, nothing else on the market back in 2015 and ’16 (tabletop or digital) came close to filling the requirement.

The most creative, and as it would turn out, time-consuming option available to me at that point was to build a NATO-WP air war model entirely on my own, using nearly all publicly available resources, games, data and model platforms at the time. So, that’s pretty much what I did, and when all was said and done, the Central Europe air war model turned out to be the most intellectually fulfilling, and at the same time foolish thing I’ve ever done with regards to wargaming.

Command: Modern Air & Naval Operations (Command) was the only wargame platform with enough horsepower to construct anything close to a fully functioning air war model. Maybe. To make matters more challenging, this was going to be a model of what hypothetically would’ve been the most extensive air war in history. Thousands of aircraft on both sides, hundreds of targets, two disparate doctrines with contrasting practices and objectives, and the always present possibility of nuclear weapons release.

Command was designed to simulate air and naval operations with a degree of realism never before seen in civilian gaming. Its developers certainly hit the mark regarding this goal. As I’ve said before in previous posts, think of Command as Harpoon on steroids, and a couple rounds of HGH. The game has a steep learning curve, especially for users who have little experience playing wargames of this nature. Yet for users who were looking to create something above and beyond the average air/naval battle scenario, Command was simply manna from heaven. The Northern Fury set of scenarios created by Bart Gauvin and Joel Radunzel, as well as their subsequent novel of the same name is proof positive of how far users can go with Command. They designed a series of interlocking, intricately detailed and realistic scenarios covering a war between NATO and a resurgent Soviet Union in the mid-1990s. In their alternative world the 1991 August coup was successful, providing the divergence from our real-world timeline. The scenarios and created backstory are a testament to Command’s power and capabilities.

Now, Command did have a few hindrances which made it a double-edged sword of sorts. The most glaring one was the larger and more complex a scenario became, the more difficult it was for Command’s engine to handle. This is an issue not unfamiliar to PC military games across the board. I put together a few practice theater air war scenarios using generic bases, aircraft, and other installations set in Central Europe. As aircraft numbers increased, and the amount of missions and tasks increased, it severely taxed the engine. Add to that dozens of aircraft in the air with sensors and jammers active at any given moment of gameplay and Command became susceptible to frequent crashes.

In defense of the developers, the engine functioned smoother as more updates were released to fix bugs, and help raise game performance. Unfortunately, back in the 2015-16 time period, my starship-sized scenario/model was proving to be a little too much for Command. Ironically enough, when its successor Command Modern Operations (CMO) hit the market in November, 2019 I found it able to handle my theater air war scenarios almost flawlessly.

But at the time, I was coming to the realization that a successful simulation of  theater-wide air war in Central Europe circa 1987 would require a bit more than Command, a couple of powerful laptops, and the reams of data and research I had on hand at that point. In order to bring all of it together and produce enough simulations to provide valuable conclusions, I was going to need a computer that could perform the task thousands of times consecutively in a short period of time and without breaking a sweat.  

I needed a supercomputer and as luck would have it, I had access to Crays at three different locations at that time.

Note: This Gaming WWIII article is going to require another entry or two, as you can see. I won’t post those until right after New Year’s Day. Between novel excerpts and beginning D+15 over the next week and a half, there is more than enough to get through first. The next novel excerpts will be posted on Sunday. –Mike  ir

8 Replies to “Gaming World War III: Building the Air War Part I”

    1. They are fun to play with, Pete. I’m fortunate to be in a line of work where they’re available for use. First time I used one was actually when I was doing my dissertation. I included a model designed to project the strategic and economic power of a nation-state in 5 year increments. It was fun to do, but took hours upon hours.
      The air war project I talked about in the article was something I was able to show as valuable for my job, so nobody gave me a hard time. In the end, everyone made out well

      Liked by 2 people

  1. I did not expect that last paragraph – but what a great opportunity! I’ve never taken (or had) the time to get into the gaming side seriously enough, which I do need to remedy over the next few years …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a different beast altogether, Luke. Simulating conflicts at that level involves such detail and precision that it’s almost impossible to imagine. Just the amount of detail that’s fed in and processed is amazing.

      Liked by 2 people

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