War Games: Why They Don’t Work

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Mon, Nov 24 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - War Games

And so, as we saw in the last column, in the course of 1983’s Command Post War Game, in Panama, our borderline sociopathic hero – or maybe he was just naturally difficult, a natural son of a bitch, shall we say? – Lieutenant Reilly, has knocked off the government of Panama, plus the chain of command for the Panama Defense Force, and gained permission to start a series of riots, all in the happy knowledge that, Americans being Americans, all the troops actually capable of dealing with a riot (and the 193d was probably the only unit in the Army capable of dealing with a riot1) are off in the jungle hunting guerillas.

At first, as mentioned last column, there are just five yellow pins stuck in the map, four by Reilly on the Pacific side, one by the OPFOR player for the Atlantic side. In another half hour there are ten of them. Then twenty… forty… eighty… one thousand, two hundred and eighty, representing over a hundred and twenty thousand rioters, plus women.2 And then Reilly and the player on the Atlantic side start moving them.

From Arraijan comes only about one hundred pins. But that’s ten thousand rioters with two fully armed infantry platoons concealed among them. They’re mostly civilians, not well organized, so they walk slowly. Their numbers increase as they move along. Within three hours the gate and security police of Howard Air Force Base are gone. The rioters swarm the airfield. Different groups also swarm the field at Albrook, Coco Solo-France Field, on the Atlantic side, the main airport at Tocumen, Paitilla (where, about six years later the SEALs got shot up rather badly)… you get the idea. And then the buildings start to burn. The brigade is desperately trying to move troops back by helicopter but, as predicted, they can’t… and the fuel facilities are soon lost.

There are aircraft in the air, providing support. But when their airfields are overrun by “peaceful, non-violent demonstrators,” they have no place to go. There are A7s and AC-130s in the air… with no place to go.

The Air Force major, a pilot controlling all the air power in play, comes to Reilly and asks, “What are those pins on my airfield?”

“Rioters, sir, to the tune of about fifteen thousand or so, at this point.”

“Well move them, I need to land an AC-130.”

“No, sir.”


“No, sir. They’re part of the game. You’ll have to move them. No; not that way, sir! I mean you have to get them to move as part of the game.”

So the Air Force major brings out a couple of water cannon, the fire trucks that serviced the airfield. The rioters get moved around some, but two water cannon are not going to keep the airfield cleared. “No, sir, they’re not going far. Hell, it’s hot in Panama and the water would actually be kind of pleasant.” Reilly is laughing at the flyboy’s frustration. He’s obviously never even imagined this.

The pilot tries to move the rioters by having the jets and AC-130s fly low. This moves them around, but does not move them away.

“By the way, sir, how much fuel have they got left? How much time in the air? For each?” Upon hearing the figures, Reilly consults his watch and smiles.

“I’ll use tear gas!”

Reilly answers, with a smirk, “Have authorization from the president, sir? That’s what it takes to use RCA3. And besides, did your guys draw any? No, huh? Keep any on hand in the bunker line west of the airfield? Again, no, huh? Well, then, all the RCA is at Rodman ASP4. How do you propose to get to it, with the roads blocked by thousands of rioters?”

The conversation continues in this vein, with the major getting more desperate and Reilly getting more obnoxious with each proposal he shoots down. Eventually Reilly ends up standing on a folding chair, hence towering over the Air Force guy, who was kind of short, anyway, jumping up and down, laughing hysterically, as he pointed at and ridiculed the major.

“I’ll have the gunships open fire!”

Jump, jump. Point, point. Laugh, laugh. “Still need that presidential authorization, which will never come, in the real world. And you’ll be set for court-martialed within days, as will any crew that opens fire on unarmed civilians.”

“But some of them are armed!”

Jump, point, laugh. Jump, point, laugh. “Not enough to save you from a court-martial!” Jump, point, laugh. Jump, point, laugh.

Finally, in a huff, the Air Force major stomps off. Got to tell you, I lost a lot of respect for USAF officers as a class when this one failed to lock Reilly’s heels and explain the rules of military life to him. That, and I learned that you can generally get away with whatever you act like you can get away with.

Reilly consults his watch, then tells the Observer-Controller, “That’s AC-130 is now out of fuel. Crash it, please.” An AC-130 pin is duly removed from the map. “That one over there has about eighteen minutes…”

Then Reilly went back to the map to supervise the continuing, escalating riot, and the burning of the Canal Zone to the water line, before it’s time for his shift to end. He’s made substantial progress when he briefs his relief, too.


He came back eleven hours later and it was all gone, no crashed airports and crashed airplanes. No trashed cities, no trashed bases. No rioters, no riots. No Chiva-chivas; no attack on the presidential palace. But the 79th Army Band pin was still there in the Palace of the Herons, in Panama City. It seems one of the senior colonels in the brigade (there were some twenty-eight of them, at least twenty eight important enough to have their name on the brigade wiring diagram) had come in, seen the plan was trashed, seen the impossibility of the US position for the defense of the Canal, seen the war was lost, and ordered everything reset to before that first “Viva!” was sounded. That colonel may have agreed that it was all very realistic, from the band to the buses to the booms of the mortars and the boom boxes of the riots… but it didn’t matter.

And that’s pretty much why war games don’t work – are not permitted to work – for this kind of thing. War gives vast scope for human ingenuity, innovativeness, and initiative. It’s one of war’s few appealing points for its practitioners. A war game, on the other hand, that gives that kind of scope will come up with uncomfortable answers. It happened in Panama, in 1983. It happened at the War College, at Carlisle Barracks, PA, in 2004. It may have happened aboard Yamato, in May 1942, prior to the battle of Midway. A war game that fails to give the expected answers will simply be discounted and discarded. A war game that makes of those expectations something for ridicule will be discarded with extreme prejudice.


1 I may someday explain the reasons for that, here. For now, suffice to say that a) the brigade took riot control as seriously as it took anything, and it took everything involving violence seriously, b) a typical exercise for RC would lead to as much as 20% of the troops involved needing hospitalizations, or c) at least to have some broken bones set and casted, and d) because of the seriousness of the training it basically dumped Field Manual 3-19, Civil Disturbance Operations, as mere intellectual fantasy, the product of minds either diseased, or clueless, or both.

2 The addition of women to a riot is important. As soon as the riot control force seizes a female, the overwhelmingly male portion suddenly remember why they have the protuberant reproductive organs, and more muscle, and becomes extremely aggressive and violent. One might say it becomes a matter of pride then.

3 Riot Control Agents, CS, CN, that sort of thing.

4 Ammunition Supply Point.

Don’t miss last week’s column: Why War Games Fail.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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