I’ve done a little more thinking on the principles of war as elucidated by Tom Kratman in “Learning to Ride the Red Horse: The Principles of War”, from the Castalia House anthology Riding the Red Horse. First Mr. Kratman offers the standard U.S. military list, the so-acronymed MOSSMOUSE: Mass, Objective, Surprise, Security, Maneuver, Offensive, Unity of Command, Simplicity and Economy of Force. Then he appends three more of his own: Attrition, Annihilation and Shape.
How have these applied to what I’ve seen of Wargame: Airland Battle? This is a PC game with some pretensions to combat realism that was developed by Eugene Systems and published by Eidos. The premise is the breakout of outright hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact circa 1985 or so, and how that would play out across Scandinavia in particular. The game features impressive visuals, rollicking-fast matches and a dizzying number of period-units. I’m sure much, probably most, of it is unrealistic; I knew out-of-box that F-16s are never used for tree-skimming strafing runs on armored columns, or that fighter-bombers are in the habit of descending below 20,000 feet or whatever when Swedish forests are stuffed with all manner of anti-air.
Kratman defines Mass as “decisive combat power,” or “concentration of force.” I expect this is exactly what William Lind would define as the ruling principle of the First and Second Generations of Modern War, especially the latter ie. putting steel on target. In a set-piece battle on the high seas, for example, the admiral who could consistently bring a higher amount of firepower to bear should expect to win against an equally-equipped opponent (setting aside the intricacies of gaining the gauge, raking, morale aspects etc. etc.). Likewise, whosoever could have his line infantry spread in such a way so as to throw the most lead could expect to win against an equally-equipped opponent on land. Or, an admiral or general who effectively fielded more troops could expect to win, all else equal.
As you might guess from a phrase like “decisive combat power,”Mass is as much a measure of quality as it is a headcount.
The application to Airland Battle is fairly straightforward. The primary weapon is the armored tank, and the most sensible practice is to field a medium-number of moderately-effective tanks, interspersed here and there with higher tier models that are much more expensive. It’s essential that command zones are captured so that there is a healthy fund of command points for continuous reinforcements and new attacks.
Another important Airland factor I cannot see anywhere except under Mass is how your units are geographically deployed. Massed columns and lines are horrifically vulnerable to artillery, airstrikes and even outnumbered yet well-fortified squads of infantry, so the ideal advance and fortification looks surprisingly loose and disorganized from the air. Tanks may be a kilometer or so apart in a jagged line, continuously changing direction and even reversing to frustrate enemy artillery-gunners and the first shots of long-range anti-tank missiles. This may be the first strategy game I’ve played where fortifying a position requires as much maintenance as attacking one’s enemy; quite as soon as a tank takes out an enemy-scout, it must be moved out from under retaliatory artillery shells. It’s quite interesting, actually. And it applies across the board: a Tunguska finishes perforating a bomber with 20mm, and it must be moved to a new hedgerow or treeline. ATGM vehicles are even more fragile and flighty.
Economy of Force is something like using your Mass in the most efficient way possible. One might have to accept the risk that your line will be fatally circumnavigated or your artillery annihilated so that you can apply effective Mass to your enemy’s weakness. Since Airland is inherently miserly with how fast you can deploy your units, you are always, always, always strapped for reinforcements. Airland does Economy of Force extremely well in other ways too, better than I’ve seen anywhere else on PC. For example, a well-camoflaged infantry squad can take out half a dozen tanks and twice as many vehicles over the course of a match. Same with a well-timed air/artillery strike on a temporarily-clumped group. A cheapo missile-battery can bring down a magnitudes-more-expensive jet flying carelessly by overhead.
Kratman’s Shape is very related to Economy of Force and Mass, I think. As implied, deploying sufficient Mass will require a consideration of Shape. Should our strength be spent in a single fast-moving spearhead down the center? A loose slow-moving echelon? Shall we be required to deplete our Mass somewhat to reinforce the long-supply line trailing our spearhead like a bungie-cord? And of course, Airland’s maps are all very unique in how they arrange towns, mountains, rivers, highways, reinforcement-points and forests.
The principle of Objective is usually predetermined in strategy games ie. destroy the enemy completely, just his command-units, out-perform him economically etc. etc. The maps of Airland are quite large, which permits one to set changeable and intermediary objectives as one desires.
Surprise is always operative in Airland, mainly because one perceives very little of the map at any one time. This is by no means a problem that can actually be resolved at any time during the match; fielding more recon means fielding fewer guns. And, just as Kratman says, mustering forces to strike at some unexpected point simply means that you will have fewer forces elsewhere. This means that your opponent will have surplus forces and a wandering attention span. Good luck.
Security is the counter-measure to enemy Surprise. Don’t skimp completely on recon or tanks and infantry to simply sit around; they are your rearguard.
Maneuver is the practice of “placing the enemy in the disadvantageous position through the flexible application of combat power.” Flexibility is difficult in Airland, what with the huge maps, the rugged terrain and the limited fuel, not to mention the immense fragility of supply vehicles in the game. Artillery, airstrikes, attack-helicopters and heli-troops are the best tools for responding quickly to the enemy, though they are quite limited the longer they remain engaged. The heavy weapons must be ordered into response simultaneously, so that they join the action before your fast-response weapons are completely overrun or mediated.
The principle of Offensive is difficult to quantify for Airland. Quite frankly, I’ve never managed to carry out successful large-scale offensives with any consistency; camoflaged troops, artillery and airstrikes have a way of smashing an offensive. I think this is because carrying out an offensive in Airland requires a vulnerable concentration of your forces. Perhaps this is simply how it boils out in reality as well.
Attrition is huge in Airland, since the victory conditions stipulate that the winner is whoever reaches a certain sum of enemy kills. Whereas capturing a single point would encourage Offensive strategies, Airland seems to incentivize “turtling.” Unity of Command, of course, is simply a given within strategy games. There is only one commander: you. The principle of Annihilation is similarly limited in Airland: when the match is over, it’s over. If the combat were integrated into a wider-campaign a la the Total War series, destroying the enemy utterly and without mercy would be crucial to victory. It’s a sort of panacea to the threat of every other principle of war working against you: if the enemy has lost his left arm and you have cauterized the stump, you never again gave to fear a strike from the right. This allows one to concentrated one’s surplus strength just where it is needed elsewhere.