Winning: Reprising Dirty Little Secrets


June 19, 2022: In 2022 there was yet another incident in the decades long struggle to maintain OPSEC (Operational Security) despite so many people having access to military secrets who also participate in Internet forums, open to all, where military matters were discussed. The growing number of MMO (massively multiplayer online games) covering contemporary forces often involve troops on active duty who use the same weapons and vehicles depicted in the game. This has led to a lot of inadvertent OPSEC violations and the latest ones came as a surprise to the Hungarian firm that created and managed the MMO game on modern armored warfare called War Thunder. Three War Thunder users from three different nations (China, Britain and France) were found to have posted classified information on a new Chinese tank gun shell, and the latest tanks used by Britain (Challenger 2) and France (LeClerc 2) to correct the capabilities of these items in the game. These posts were quickly removed because it was obvious that they were classified (secret) information. On the Internet removing something posted on line does not remove it from the Internet because those posts were passed on to other sites.

Less well known is the long history of MMO and older online or offline wargame users presenting similar information to prove a point or persuade the game developers to make changes. This was so common that many off-line computer wargames were equipped with “scenario editors” that enabled any player to change these characteristics themselves. Some members of the user community asking for this were active-duty military personnel who created variations of the games using classified data or data on proposed upgrades to their aircraft or vehicles.

User edited wargames came decades before computer games were able to cover the same subjects. This sort of thing began fifty years ago when some instructors at the U.S. Army Infantry school were using historical wargames to better study the history of modern weapons and tactics. They got in touch with SPI, the New York city publisher of these games and asked why SPI didn’t do games on contemporary warfare. They were told that SPI didn’t believe there would be much demand from their customers who were buying lots of games based on historical conflicts. SPI agreed to give it a try if the army sent them the unclassified manuals that included the data they needed. The infantry school gamers knew how this worked and a week later a large package arrived at SPI with the latest unclassified data and several months later the Red Star/White Star appeared and became a bestseller. It was based on earlier games covering World War II topics and because any user can modify these games, there were soon classified versions at the army schools, West Point and the Pentagon.

The Cold War was still active and several years later the FBI visited SPI and asked to check the Strategy & Tactics magazine subscriber list. The reason for this was there was a law banning the export of munitions to certain counties and some SPI games had been classified as “munitions”. The FBI searched the customer printout and apparently came up empty. SPI staff pointed out that their games were available in hundreds and American and foreign retail outlets, including the SPI offices, where new games were first available for sale. Impatient gamers often came to SPI to get new releases. This included a young diplomat from the Russian UN delegation who showed up in 1974 to buy a copy of War In East, a massive game of the War in Russia from 1941 to 1945. The Russian gamer had suggested that the delegation staff play the game over the weekend, with the understanding that those playing the Germans would not do anything unpatriotic like winning. The Russian gamer was asked if he wanted to buy Red Star/White Star and other games on contemporary warfare and he replied that they already had those. We later discovered that the Chinese did as well, along with a large number of foreign militaries, including South Korea and Taiwan. These games were very popular at the Pentagon and CIA.

Later in the 70s a law was passed banning the CIA from developing or using wargames on contemporary subjects. Many CIA personnel were SPI customers and the CIA, along with the Pentagon, would hire many game designers. Being an experienced wargamer helped you get a job with the Pentagon or CIA because it indicated a detailed knowledge of how military operations worked. It was also common knowledge that experienced wargamers got that way by modifying manual games and that was where many of the first generation of computer game designers came from.

SPI published Arab-Israeli Wars in 1973. This historical game covered the 1956 and 1967 wars and a hypothetical mid-1970s war that unexpectedly broke out in October 1973 just as the SPI game was ready for production and shipment. That process was delayed so the designers could incorporate the events of the actual war. That was noted by an Israeli gamer who worked at the Israeli UN delegation and knew of the Sinai was being developed. He was also an Israeli army reservist and disappointed that he was not allowed to return to Israel to join his unit. He was told to keep an eye on the SPI game progress, something he had been doing unofficially for months before the war broke out. SPI knew he had access to classified information about the location and mobilization plans for Israeli forces in the Sinai and did not ask for that. The SPI developers did ask what he, not Israel, thought about the capabilities the game assigned to the Egyptian forces. He thought we overestimated Egyptian capabilities and we showed how we had reached our conclusions using open sources, just as we did with the capabilities of Israeli forces in Sinai. We were never told what he reported back to his superiors or what impact that had on Israeli operations or post-war reforms. Within the year the Sinai designer was invited to the high-security Israeli UN delegation facility to discuss our wargame development techniques. The Egyptian Army also expressed interest and an Egyptian general came by for a briefing suggested during his recent visit to the Army War College.

That was not the end of such predictive wargames. In 1990 Austin Bay, a wargamer and regular contributor to StrategyPage, was an army reservist who had done some wargaming work while on active duty. He was asked to do a game on the situation in Kuwait, which Iraq had recently invaded and the U.S. was organizing a military coalition to liberate Kuwait. Austin said he could do the game before the end of 1990 and it was scheduled for publication in Strategy & Tactics magazine. He made the deadline and the new Arabian Nightmare game, along with its predictions, was featured on the TV show Nightline in October 1990. The predictions turned out to be very accurate, more so than the 1973 Sinai game, and it was all done using open sources.

The success of Sinai and Arabian Nightmare remained perplexing and unexpected to many military professions, especially those doing counterespionage (detecting and preventing the disclosure of secrets). Publishers of modern-era wargames were regularly accused of using classified information and handled this by putting the designer of the offending game on the phone with the irate military or defense industry official. The game designer detailed how open-source data and historical precedents were used to produce accurate representations of classified systems. This never failed, especially when it was pointed out that popular trade magazine Aviation Week was often referred to as Aviation Leak for the amount of secret data it revealed or just confirmed.

After the Cold War ended it was possible to obtain details of Soviet espionage efforts in the West, especially the United States. Former KGB and GRU (military intel) agents boasted of how easy and risk-free their work was in the United States. That’s because so many military secrets were readily available from trade magazines and related books and newspaper interviews. The Soviet agents often had a shopping list with them and their work was over when all the requested open-source data was collected for shipment back to Russia via diplomatic pouch (letters and packages diplomats are allowed to send or receive from home without any inspection). The need for security was because Western intel agencies believed the Soviets were getting so many secrets because military and defense officials were spied on successfully. The only ones in the West who knew how this worked were Soviet spies and Western wargame designers. Actually, there were individuals in the CIA and military who knew how this worked, usually because they were avid wargamers. Despite that, the official policy was that it could not be that easy for the KGB.

Russia did not have these problems with open-source data because there were few open-sources the foreign diplomats could obtain and send back. Russian intel officials knew about the reality of the situation, as well as the fact that having all those Western secrets did not help much because the inefficient Soviet command economy never could achieve Western levels of manufacturing quality and speed. In Soviet Russia there a lot of truths that could not be openly admitted. In the West there was a similar blindness because there were lots of new Soviet weapons obtained via capture (usually by the Israelis) or by defectors (who were offered huge sums of money and a new identity if a flew a modern jet to the West.)

The Israelis knew and admitted that the Soviet weapons were trash and that was one reason the Soviets always maintained good relations with Israel, in order to limit how much the Israelis would promote the inferiority of Soviet weapons. In effect, Russia and Israel cooperated with each other to make their unofficial truce work. That’s why Russian threats to intervene military against Israel to end another Arab-Israeli war the Arabs lost, were never carried out. The relationship continued after the Soviet Union fell and Russia found that, even with access to Western tech and training, they could still not match the performance of Western weapons. This is why Israel and Russia cooperated during the current Syrian civil war.

The Russians were not as astute about other nations, and missed the fact that Ukrainians had made the transition to modern technology, as had the East European nations that were once part of the Soviet Union but after 1991 were free and sought to quickly “Westernize” their military forces and join NATO for protection from Russia. It’s still an official policy in Russia to ignore the reality of Russian weapons effectiveness. Similarly, it’s still official policy to classify far more things that are easily discovered via open-source material and common sense. That accounts for the inability of most Western intel agencies to notice the Ukrainian military improvements and continue to doubt the ability of the Ukrainians to defeat the Russians. This is sometimes described as a system of professional courtesy by government and intel officials on both sides. It is in their interest to maintain these illusions. As one ancient Chinese official put it: “politics is not about winning or losing but keeping the game going.” In that respect the Russian political, military and intel bureaucrats survived the collapse of the Soviet Union quite well. For them, that’s a feature, not a flaw.

Their Western counterparts also found it more beneficial, for them, to keep the game going with Russia after 1991. That became more difficult after 2000 when the American Internet technology, in development since the 1960s, went commercial in a big way and made it easier to access open-source data and demolish official secrecy. That’s why so many governments see the Internet as the biggest threat to their power. Once more, what’s old is new again.




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