For military people, wargames are not entertainment, but an opportunity
to avoid getting killed. Wargames have been around for thousands of years. The
earliest versions of chess were excellent tools for practicing how to fight a
battle, back in the days when you had no radios or guns, just lots of guys
armed with sharp objects and a bad attitude. Warfare is much more complicated
today, and air forces have the most complicated weapons and equipment to deal
with. For that reason, the U.S. Air Force was a little slow to get into
Air Force actually needed two very different types of wargames. For pilots, it
needs flight simulators. These have been around since the 1930s. Simulators
were originally introduced so that new pilots could get some experience
navigating, by instruments, which was how you flew at night and in bad weather.
This was not the sort of thing you wanted to practice while actually in the
air. These first flight simulators saved thousands of lives, and evolved into
the current ones that are extremely realistic, quite visual, and allow you to do
just about anything you would do in the air. But not realistic enough to
replace actually flying. The simulators do not, for example, replicate the
forces of gravity, that can cause pilots to black out, or come close to it,
when making sharp turns at high speed. The simulators cannot replicate all the
smells, sounds and more subtle signs that you are in a real cockpit. But the
simulators do serve to make a good pilot better. As with the original
simulators, they provide a safe venue for practicing dangerous procedures. The
simulators are also wargames.
there are the wargames that enable you to work out battle plans, test those
plans, and experiment with potential enemy moves. These are a rather recent
development for the Air Force. Before the 1980s, Air Force planners would
simply use map exercises and calculators to work out the details of upcoming
missions. Not a lot of playing around with what the enemy might do. Noting the
success the Army and Navy were having with wargames, the Air Force joined in.
But the Air Force took a slightly different approach, reflecting their unique
needs, and this produced three types of Air Force wargames;
Planning- This covers planning for an individual mission, involving anything
from one aircraft (for, say, a photo reconnaissance mission), to large raids
(employing dozens of aircraft, including electronic warfare planes, bombers,
fighters and aerial tankers). For about two decades now, the Air Force has been
using computerized systems that look a lot like the flight simulation games you
play on your PC. But the Air Force versions involve a lot more technical
detail, like fuel consumption and frequencies for electronic equipment. The
latest ones also have very realistic graphics, so that pilots can, for example,
do a test run flying low, through mountainous terrain (to hide from enemy
radar). The Air Force has many versions, including some that can be run on a
laptop. The next step is mission planning systems that are built into the
aircraft. Thus the pilot can quickly revise mission plans while in the air,
using the computer like displays that are now standard in cockpits.
Planning- Listing which targets are out there, and deciding which should be
hit. And when, in order to inflict the maximum damage, while minimizing
friendly losses. As far back as World War II, Operations Research (OR)
techniques (put simply, a combination of math and common sense) were used. This
is still the case, but computers are used now, along with spiffy computer
Planning- Working out the best strategy for a large campaign, conducted over a
long period of time. At this level of wargaming, the activities of the other
services (Army and Navy) get more attention, as do a lot of activities on the
ground (moving supplies, building airbases and the like.) The Air Force uses
two "wargames" for this; TBMCS (air campaign planner software) and AWSIM (a
very realistic and complex wargame).
addition, the Air Force has unclassified wargames for teaching new officers
what planning and running an air battle is like. These often look like the
professional wargames, because they use a lot of the same hardware and
graphics. In the last decade, the military has moved from creating its own
wargames in-house, to simply (and much less expensively) adapting commercial
wargames to professional use. But while there are plenty of commercial wargames
dealing with ground and naval combat, except for flight simulators, there are
very few that deal with planning air campaigns and battles.
how air battles work is important because, while we tend to think of air combat
as just dogfights or bombing, it's actually a lot more complicated than that.
Air campaigns (or "Theater Air Operations") tend to involve hundreds of
warplanes in the air at one time (and many more on the ground, getting ready to
fly), all of them performing different jobs. Someone has to work all this out
in advance, and wargames are a perfect tool for learning about it.
Unfortunately, few of the computer wargames out there deal with this aspect of
air warfare. Mainly because the situation doesn't lend itself to the same kind
of excitement you find in ground or naval combat. For the people in charge of
Theater Air Operations, the challenges are mostly logistical (supplying fuel,
bombs and the like), coordination and maintenance. That is, you want to use
your resources (aircraft and air bases) as efficiently as possible in order to
carry out the missions (supporting the troops on the ground, but also cover
reconnaissance, and making sure you retain supremacy of the air).
Air Force recently developed an unclassified wargame for teaching officers the
details of planning and executing large scale air ("theater") air operations.
To do this cheaply, a commercial computer wargame, "Modern Air Power," was
modified to meet air force requirements (mainly by adding more detail and the
right jargon). This game was re-named "Theater Airpower Visualization" (TAV).
In addition to contemporary operations, TAV came with databases showing past
theater air operations, all the way back to Vietnam operations in the 1960s.
Instructors could easily create new databases, and modify old ones.
game like this is needed so all Air Force officers understood exactly what the
Air Force did, and how it was done. They need something like TAV, because the
official wargames for doing this are quite complex, and also classified. The
students require a game can be learned quickly and played intuitively (without
having to learn a lot of arcane rules and procedures). Students don't have much
time. The other services use a similar approach. While TAV is easy to use, it
is still quite different from a commercial product. For example, the Air Force
added things like the Air Tasking Order (the computer generated list of what
every aircraft would do every day during a campaign, based on the needs of all
the combat forces out there). TAV also showed the complex relationships between
various Air Force, and non-Air Force, organizations. In short, TAV allows
users, and not those who might one day run these campaigns, to experience what
planning and executing a battle plan is like.
are basically about learning. Wargames are also about competition and are rich
in information. The wargame-like computer systems used to actually plan air
campaigns (or land or naval ones) are more process, than gaming. Students who
will actually do the planning of theater air operations, will learn all those
administrative procedures elsewhere. But when you want to teach them how to
out-think the enemy, understand how the air force operates, and the limitations
of existing aircraft, weapons and equipment, you need a competition based
wargame like TAV.
commercial wargames are built to get players into the game with a minimum of
fuss, professional wargames are much more complicated. That's because military
users are not just practicing fighting, they are also learning, and practicing,
the many procedures they must carry out to make this happen. Professionals need
to practice these procedures. These are the details of warfare that are left
out of commercial wargames. Logistics, for example, is rarely given much
attention in commercial wargames. But moving the fuel, bombs and spare parts to
the air bases is a critical task, and often a difficult one as well. There are
also a lot of administrative things to deal with, like making sure pilots don't
spend too much time in the air (for the same reason commercial pilots have
limits on this, to prevent fatigue, and mistakes while doing intense stuff like
the Air Force was created in 1947, the Army and Navy had already been using
wargames for over half a century. At first, the Air Force largely ignored
wargames. That would have changed eventually, but the process was speeded up by
an amazing coincidence. In the early 1980s, two guys, who were roommates at
West Point, got promoted. One (Charles Gabriel) became commander of the Air
Force and the other (John Wickham) of the Army. The two men had remained
friends since, and, together, they introduced an unprecedented period of
cooperation between the two services. That included the Air Force taking
advantage of new Army developments in the wargames area. Once exposed to
wargames, a lot of Air Force officers began coming up with new approaches to
gaming, ones that were particularly suited to Air Force needs.
of these new tools were used successfully in the 1991 Gulf War, and received
even greater acceptance. One problem, however, remained unsolved. The Air Force
has, since World War II, been having a problem with BDA (Bomb Damage
Assessment). The guys on the ground have, in every American war involving
airpower, successfully deceived the Air Force regarding just what was destroyed
and what was not. After each war, the Air Force attacks the problem, declares
it "solved" and, then, it happens all over again. At the moment, there are some
very top secret efforts (including wargames) attempting to solve the problem.
both commercial and professional, have been a major aid to the Air Force. The
benefits range from new pilots quickly learning the basics using flight
simulators they bought while in high school, to software that now allows the
Air Force to link its wargames with those used by the Army and Navy. This was
not easy to do, because when first undertaken, if was discovered that the three
services had different ideas about what the other guys were doing. That in
itself was a useful experience, especially since, in 1991, the Air Force and
Navy found that their pilots, weapons and aircraft operated very differently.
Normally, there differences, which tend to grow during peacetime, only become
problems when a war breaks out. But in 2001 and 2003, partly because of wargame
exercises between the three services, there were far fewer problems.
something else to consider. The U.S. Air Force has dominated the air for over
sixty years. We tend to take that for granted, but people in the Air Force, who
know their own history, realize that the "Victory Disease" (believing you are
good, to the point where you get sloppy) is a constant threat. The latest
generation of wargames has played a role in keeping it real. Flight simulators
have always done that for pilots, but now Air Force generals and staff officers
have realistic wargames that allow them to screw up, realistically, when there
isn't a war going on. This saves lives, but not in a spectacular way, so you
never hear about. But it happens, and is another reason why the U.S. Air Force
continues to own the skies.