Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hasty Defense at the Fulda Gap- Steel Beasts ProPE AAR - Part 1: Pre-Battle Thoughts

The simulated World War III battlefield with a phalanx of Soviet tanks crushing NATO forces makes up one of those tactical nightmares that I never wake up from in great shape.

Lately I had a lot of time to read and to catch up on many books and articles I had left un-read for a long while.

One of them is an article entitled "Efficient Concentration of Forces, or How to Fight Outnumbered and Win" by David Bitters (this article was published as part of the "Warfare Modeling" compilation, MORS, VA USA). Although the topic of the article applies to many wars and warfare eras, the WWIII overtones were remarkable. During the Cold War, the Soviets developed a series of formulas to calculate the amount of tanks, infantry and artillery tubes needed to breakthrough the NATO defenses. I don't know too much about military operations research from the NATO part, but it is unlikely that the West left military analysts un-busy at that crucial time. The article I am referring to is from 1995,  and I wonder if the research and conclusions could be ten years younger than the publication date.

The article is entirely theoretical but wholesome enough to sit down and reflect from the virtual commander's hatch. As I said before, scholars foretell battles that can’t be won and soldiers win battles that can’t be foretold. So, I am not going to throw differential calculus into Steel Beasts but rather be aware of the conclusions that Bitters arrived to with his equation-intensive model of war.

The article goes through two types of scenarios. One is the so-called "aimed fire" scenario, where the attackers and defenders are assigned a sector of responsibility to detect and fire upon the attackers. The other is the "ambush" scenario, where the attackers suffer casualties according to the "aimed fire" equations and the defenders (ambushing force) suffer casualties to a set of equations that take into account aiming and firing inefficiencies. Both scenarios are solved for a series of battles where the attackers are partitioned into equally sized elements (defenders engage or ambush a series of chunks of the attacker force, one at a time). It turns out that the optimal amount of enemy attackers "chunks" to engage at a time can be optimized in theory, which is fascinating but I will leave it as an academic topic for the time being. Divide and conquer, no surprises there.

But ...

One of the conclusions that can be extracted from the article is how abrupt is the likelihood of defeat when the defending forces shrink in size. Bitters uses differential equations and the size of forces is a continuous, but translated into real life it means something like: "if at the beginning of the battle you have 13 tanks you win, if you have 12 tanks you are gone". The effect is astonishingly dramatic when the defender side choose an "aimed fire" type of tactic. It looks like the ages-old principle of concentration of forces has an evil twist in modern war, and failing to get a couple of tanks to the battle position means risking the pain of defeat.

The other striking conclusion is that the choosing of an "aimed fire" or "ambush" tactic is neither trivial nor inconsequential. In the case of the scenario I am about to play, the superior range and target acquisition systems of the NATO forces made me think that the choice of an "aimed fire" tactic would be superior at all times. It turns out that if my defending forces are below certain threshold, I am better off with an "ambush" tactical approach (figure 1, page 267 in the before-mentioned book). This threshold is easy to calculate in the equation-driven, theoretical battlefield but almost impossible to calculate in the simulated (or real) battlefield. 

So, in the end I am left with my gut-feeling-based tactical decision-making. I read a mathematically consistent, in-your-face summary of the perils of my own decisions and I knew that being outnumbered was though. But THAT though? Thanks Mr. Bitters for the extra pressure! 

Without further fuss, this is the Steel Beasts ProPE scenario I am about to play as the defending (and outnumbered) blue (NATO) forces.

Right click and open in a new tab for a better view. In this classic scenario by legendary grog (and ex-US Army) "Volcano Man", I am commanding US mechanized Co (blue icons) against a tank-heavy Soviet regiment. The objective is to avoid any Soviet unit crossing the red line in the west extreme of the map.
A detailed explanation of the tactical plan will follow in a separate blog entry. For the time being, and in the spirit of the above discussion, I will fight this battle with a concentrated force composed of the 1st and 2nd Plt. (4 M1 Abrams tanks each) leaning on the south flank where the best tank terrain is apparent.

I already screened and chose a series of battle positions (blue brackets) and as you may have guessed I am going for an aimed fire approach. I just can't envision an opportunity to conduct a series of ambushes in a sector that is relatively shallow.



Doug Miller said...

Looking forward to this. I need to get back into this game, once I get tired of my current WWI obsession.

JC said...

Hi Doug and thanks for your comment.
See you are having fun with Steam and Iron. Great naval war game!

Anonymous said...

Keep up the great work guys, I love your blog. It was quiet there for a few weeks!

pavlos germidis said...

Great teaser JC !

It's great mixing theory (by professionals) and an applied simulation. Your setup reminds me of an old Osprey booklet I read "Central Front NATO vs. Warsaw Pact" by mr Zaloga. Is the outcome of the engagement going to be as harsh for the soviets as it was in the booklet ?

But enough salivating, I want to know more !

Let the APDS fly, goddammit !

Anthony Mercando said...

Looks like a daunting task, then again the whole European battlefield is dizzying when you look at the sheer scale of it. I'm unfamiliar with the game, but are those TRPs for artillery or TIRS markers for movement reference?

Otherwise, this looks like a good read. Looking forward to seeing the next part!

JC said...

Thanks for your kind words, gents.

I fought the battle last night. It was not pretty ...

Pavlos: the Soviets did much much better than in Zaloga's book. I bet Zaloga was not informed of my gunnery scores ... :)

Hi Tony, good to see you around here! Those are TRPs for artilley.