I’ve decided to try my hand at digital war gaming and tie it into this blog. For this series, I’ll be using the PC game Command: Modern Operations by WarfareSims. CMO, as I’ll refer to it, is basically an updated version (2.0) of the game Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (AKA CMANO), also by WarfareSims. To that end, I’ve set up a Fair Winds & Following Seas (FWFS) Youtube channel where I’ll be posting the simulation recordings on.
Follow the link below and subscribe to the channel:
I know I previously said I wouldn’t create a companion Youtube channel, but I think this might be fun and it’ll give the blog more exposure. Undoubtedly, it’ll be a lot of work, but it should be interesting and a good way to tie video gaming into something more academic with game-based learning. In this way, it’ll keep the entertainment on the Youtube side, and the scholarship on this blog. So, those who just want to be entertained can stick to Youtube, while those looking for something more intellectual, can come and read the war game blog posts (and the other content on this blog).
Here’s the basic drill:
- I’ll play and screen record a war game scenario in CMO which I’ll then post on the FWFS Youtube Channel.
- After reviewing the recording and the game-generated log, I’ll write up a blog post which will include an after action report, analysis, and evaluation of the operation.
In other words, each video will be tied (linked) to an appropriate post on this blog. (e.g. There will be a “War Game #__” video and blog post.) While I do have the technical capability to do audio commentary for the videos, I’m going to forego that because it would be redundant and it takes extra time to edit the video and audio recordings together (time which I do not really have in my schedule, and I’m no stranger to video editing). The write-ups on this blog should suffice for commentary substitution. Besides, I can be more in-depth with research in the blog posts, as oppose to blabbering on about crap I know nothing about in an audio commentary. Another benefit is that I can easily correct any mistakes I make in a blog post, whereas you can’t do that with voice commentary. Thus, the video will feature only game play.
What Types of War Games Will I Play?
I expect to play two basic types of war games which will generate the following types of videos and write-ups:
- In-depth War Game: This will include the simulation parameters (setup), historical background (if applicable), situational briefing, after action report, statistics on losses and expenditures, and evaluation of game play with alternatives and lessons learned.
- Quick Battle War Game: This will use the Quick Battle (QB) feature of CMO to showcase simple engagements (air-to-air, anti-submarine warfare, surface engagements, or submarine duels). It will include basic simulation setup (A force vs. B force), statistics on losses and expenditures, and some simple evaluation. I expect these to be much quicker videos and write-ups since they’re just simple engagements that occur in the tactical realm of warfare.
While I’m no expert at using CMO, I’ve had a few years to get grounded in the basics from playing the older CMANO. Still, there’s a lot for me to learn and there will be plenty of mistakes to had because the game has a steep learning curve. However, it’ll be a good learning experience as I play it more and get better at it. I imagine that it’ll also take some time for me to work out a format for these war game posts and become more efficient at writing them. Depending on how big the scenario is the write-up can be a real chore!
Now, I don’t have tons of time to play video games, so don’t expect me to be doing a war game post every week. Besides, the analysis and evaluation alone will take time to write up, and it depends on what we’re measuring in the game. Sometimes we may just look at the pure statistics of the game, and other times we may look at my decision-making processes (or both). The scenarios I play through will probably be a mixture of historical and fictional/hypothetical. There will probably be some completely silly ones in the mix, as well. Depending on the size of the scenario (some are absolutely massive strategic scenarios), then the write up may take quite a bit of time and I’ll have to divide it up into multiple parts. Currently, I’m not accepting any particular requests, but that may change in the future.
So, look out for upcoming war game posts and the associated videos! Read on to learn about what CMO is and why it’s appropriate for this.
What is Command: Modern Operations?
Command: Modern Operations (CMO), and it’s predecessor, Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (CMANO), are digital PC war game naval and air operations simulators. (I have both games, but since CMO is the latest iteration, there’s no reason to play CMANO anymore.) In many ways, they’re spiritual successors to the old Harpoon series of computer war games. On the surface, they resemble strategy games, but they’re highly configurable and based on real-world information. A lot of what the game boils down to is logistics. So, in a given scenario you have X number of ships, planes, helicopters, ground vehicles, etc. and so many bullets, bombs, and missiles. You need to destroy targets ABC and you have X hours to do it in. Expected enemy forces are XYZ. Good luck!
WarfareSims studied military operations and have accurately modeled things like, aircraft readying times, sortie rates, fuel consumption, weapons loadouts, etc. The game is very firmly in the operations area, although it can simulate tactical and strategic scenarios, to some extent.
The main selling point of these games are the two massive, and accurate, databases covering naval, air, and (some) land units, as well as their weapons, sensors, etc. Virtually every nation’s assets are covered from the year 1950 onward (including various hypothetical and experimental designs. The two databases are broken up into the “Cold War database” (CWDB) (1950 – 1970) and the “DB3000” (1970 – 2020+). All for less than $80! To get an equivalent amount of information all in one place is difficult and far more expensive. Although I wouldn’t use the information in the game for scholarly research (accurate as it may be), but I would verify the data by cross-referencing other sources. That being said, when it comes to more recent technology and designs, much of the data is based on public information and thus constitutes the game developers’ best guess. For example, currently, the specific capabilities of the systems in the F-35 Lightning II are classified, but the game developers just looked at whatever open intelligence is available and modeled it in the simulation. It’s also worth noting that I’m using the civilian market versions of the software. Hence, the lack of classified data. Professional versions do exist, but these are only available to academic institutions (like military academies/war colleges) and organizations (defense contractors) that would have a greater need for the more statistical and configurable capabilities of the professional versions. For example, the databases in the professional versions are modifiable, meaning the characteristics of units can be changed. So, a defense contractor using the professional version can input the real values for the F-35. In the civilian version, you can’t change the characteristics of any of the units. And, don’t think about getting your hands on any of the professional versions because they’re outrageously expensive (i.e. designed to be purchased and used by academic or professional institutions). You’re better off joining the military or becoming a defense contractor and specializing in operations. Got money and time on your hands to get that MBA degree in operations?
Combat in the game operates on a probabilistic model (AKA Monte Carlo method). Simplistically speaking, the game calculates various factors of the weapon being fired, the platform firing it, and the target being fired at, and then comes up with a final probability of hit or final P(hit). The multitude of calculations that the game makes is very apparent when it comes to aircraft and weapons engaging aircraft like Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) or Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs). A theoretical 100-sided die is rolled, and if the number rolled matches, or is below, the final P(hit), then the weapon will result in a HIT. If the number rolled is over, then it’ll be a MISS. The game also calculates how much penetration and damage a hit would cause. For example, let’s say a friendly fighter jet fires an air-to-air missile at an enemy fighter jet. The game calculates a final P(hit) of 75% and rolls the die. The number comes up as 86, so the missile will miss. If it rolled a 75 or lower, then it would’ve hit.
CMO does have an extremely robust scenario creator (i.e. a mission editor) which players can use to design and play their own missions. In addition, the game’s setting are extremely configurable (with the exception of the database entries, of course). If you want to pit a hypothetical 200x Iowa-class battleships against 5,000x Fletcher-class destroyers, then go ahead. Want to play out a Soviet nuclear first strike and the NATO retaliation? Yup, you can do that. Want to see if that proposed A-12 Avenger II would’ve been a good attack aircraft? You can try that out! The units aren’t restricted to their particular countries, either. You can make up whatever nation or side you want and assign any types of units to them. Sure, the Russians can operate Arleigh Burke destroyers and Pakistani JF-17 Thunder jets. The British can have F-105 Thunderchiefs and ANZAC frigates. That fictional nation, the Royal Kingdom of Stupidity, can have a very impressive number of T-14 Armata tanks. However, the one major limitation with the scenario editor is that you can’t combine units from the two different databases into the same scenario. For example, you can’t pit a modern Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier against a WWII Japanese Shokaku-class aircraft carrier because the former is only in the DB3000 and the latter is only in the CWDB. However, any possible combination you can think up, within their respective databases, is possible.
If you’re interested in learning more about CMO from people who actually know what the heck they’re doing then I recommend watching some of the videos from the following Youtubers:
What Can We Learn From Command: Modern Operations (and war gaming)?
War gaming is not new, of course. I’ve already written several posts on what it’s used for and the benefits and drawbacks it has. (See: On War Gaming parts 1, 2, and 3.) In fact, in part 2 of those posts, I used CMANO to demonstrate war gaming.
To reiterate, Francis McHugh (2013) writes that the purpose of war gaming is, “to provide decision-making experience and/or decision-making information that is applicable to real-world situations” (p. 9). McHugh is referring to the educational (decision-making experience) and analytical (decision-making information) aspects of war gaming. Games can be educational, analytical, or a mix of both. Furthermore, regarding the overall benefit of war gaming:
Because it can be played over and over again, the war game makes it possible to do what cannot be done in the field, that is, to vary characteristics, to extend the scope and value of limited peacetime engagements, to study the effects of atomic exchanges, to practice operations in any areas and with weapons of both the present and the future. Currently, war gaming appears to be one, if not the best, method available for visualizing and preparing for tomorrow’s battles and for developing the organizations and tactics of the future.McHugh, 2013, p. 21
Now for the disclaimer AKA Trigger Warning:
(…because we live in an age where people get offended by everything, can’t handle criticism, can’t be empathetic or self-reflective, and sue for causing any amount of mental distress.)
While we can sing the praises of simulations and all of the details that they model, the reality is that simulations cannot model intangible qualities. Additionally, with regard to CMO, since I’m using the civilian version of the game I want to remind everyone that it relies on publicly available knowledge. Anything classified has been removed or altered. I also want to caution anyone from taking too much away from the war games and misconstruing them as representative of reality. Remember that a simulation is just that…a simulation. It’s a mathematical (in this case probabilistic) representation of reality. In fact, one of the main criticisms of using war games as an analysis tool (as oppose to an educational tool) are that they’re inherently a representation and therefore not necessarily indicative of reality. We can identify trends, statistics, and derive some possible conclusions from the simulation data, but they’re not a predictor of the future.
Furthermore, we should understand the strengths and limitations of the platform itself. I foresee that as I play with CMO more and more, I’ll learn more about its strengths and weaknesses to the point where I’ll probably be able to predict what the game can and cannot simulate. It’s bound by the limits of its programming, at the end of the day. I know that we all want a highly advanced simulator that models absolutely every single aspect (strategic, operational, and tactical) of air, ground, and naval warfare with 100% accuracy, plus lots of fancy graphics and impactful story lines.
I’ve yet to find a computer simulation on the public market that does literally everything with high-fidelity accuracy. The programming, not to mention the system requirements, would be insane, and the market price would likely be huge. People already balk at CMO‘s $80 price tag.
I have noticed that CMO doesn’t do so well on a tactical level, particularly when it comes to ground units like infantry, motorized, or mechanized elements. Many ground units exist in the databases, but the primary focus and detail in the game mechanics center around naval and air assets. Remember, it’s an operations simulator, not a tactical simulator. For example, collisions aren’t modeled. Aircraft can fly around with no fear of running into each other. Same goes for ships. The only thing they need to worry about is the land, but the A.I. wisely plots courses over/around that. This also isn’t a first-person shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield that relies on fast-twitch muscle reactions and scoring no-scope headshots from 200 meters away. It’s mainly about getting assets and weapons from point A to point B, on target, in a timely fashion. So, don’t expect it to model every single nuance of every single weapon and the relevant country’s tactical doctrine with 100% accuracy. Similarly, it has limited strategic simulation capabilities, too. Things like politics, Gross Domestic Product, and macroeconomics are noticeably absent from the game mechanics.
So, when people get triggered and shout at me over the internet saying:
Well, actually that wouldn’t happen because that assault rifle or machine gun, blah, blah, blah! Compared to the armor of blah, blah, blah! This is so flawed and fake!
My response is:
Well, duh! You’re expecting the game to do something it isn’t really designed to do. If you want that level of tactical fidelity, then go play a game that’s modeled around it. Furthermore, the majority of the projectile weapons modeled in the game are roughly 20mm or larger in caliber. Infantry weapons are modeled, but they’re not doing much of the work.
In fact, the game developers at WarfareSims.com (2019) were well aware of the simulation’s limitations and noted in the manual for CMO that:
Even in scenarios intended to re-enact historical battles or wars, the results are frequently much different from the actual outcome. This is to be expected. While a bug report may be in order if the historical result is never obtained even once, variation is normal and good.
Command’s engine is intended to be able to simulate everything from 1940s broadside duels to futuristic satellite-cued ballistic missile strikes with a reasonable degree of success, not be incredibly accurate for any one conflict. To return to the Vietnam analogy, the performance of similar, and frequently the exact same aircraft and weapons varied widely by conflict. There was Vietnam, the Indo-Pakistan, and Arab-Israeli Wars in the same time period.
Attempting to model any one of these conflicts with one hundred percent razor-sharp accuracy would make any of the others less effective. One would be faced with either an ahistorically strong Egyptian/Syrian Air Force or an ahistorically weak North Vietnamese one if a strict model intended for one was used for the other.
In addition, real events can only happen once, while the simulator can be run many times. The real result may have been a one-in-a-hundred “outlier”, while the most common one have been quite different.p. 257-258
Given this information, I am very much led to believe that all of the units and the combat in the game, operates off of a fundamentally probabilistic mathematical model. What I mean is that the game engine will probably not model any particularly creative tactical thinking. As noted, some historical results may have been a one-in-a-hundred shot. Perhaps event XYZ happened because a crew modified their weapons to a achieve specific set of performance characteristics, but I doubt the game would model such a specific detail. Since you’re not doing any actual “trigger pulling” in the game, it’s easier to think about the simulation in terms of systems (platforms, weapons, and sensors) and how they interact with each other. Remember that the tactical level is the boots-on-the-ground perspective, whereas the operational and strategic levels are around the 15,000 and 30,000 feet perspective, respectively. CMO sits at the operational level.
The easiest way to picture this disconnect between the tactical and operational levels is to look at the way CMO utilizes side/unit proficiency. The proficiency settings, from ‘novice’ to ‘ace,’ have no bearing on a units abilities to use guided weapons or sensors. For example, barring differences in generational models, a ‘novice’ plane firing an AGM-65F Maverick anti-tank missile will still use it the same way that an ‘ace’ plane with the same missile would. For sensors, a radar operator will still detect a unit at the same distance regardless of whether they’re set to a ‘cadet’ or ‘veteran’ proficiency. Basically, the people using the equipment are no better shots with guided weapons and no better at using their radars, sonars, etc., than if they were total neophytes or experts.
What proficiency does affect are things like reaction time which is simulated in a unit’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop decision-making process. Essentially, an ‘ace’ unit will fire on a detected hostile quicker than a ‘novice’ unit. As Arleigh Burke once said, “the difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds” (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 6). Higher proficiency levels also give bigger evasion modifiers to aircraft when dodging missiles. The manual goes on to say that, “proficiency also affects damage control, ability to fly at low altitudes without advanced avionics, ability to withstand g-forces during hard maneuvers, …and the accuracy of unguided weapons” (WarfareSims.com, 2019, p. 112).
That being said, the manual further mentions that historically, individual proficiency “is (generally) less important when one side or unit has a clear supremacy. Often, putting assets in the right place at the right time is more important than the exact performance of those assets” (WarfareSims.com, 2019, p. 113).
So, for better or for worse, there’s not a lot of singular Rambo or John Wick characters in this game. It’s about massing and coordinating forces.
Like many gamers out there, I first got into tactical simulators way back in the 1990s with space combat games like Star Wars: TIE Fighter and the Descent series. Nothing terribly complex about those titles until I tried my hand at something more formidable like Falcon 4.0 and the later Falcon 4.0: Allied Force. More recent examples would be something like Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) or Steel Beasts, although I don’t play those due to time & financial contraints. Even games like Armored Brigade are very detailed tactical strategy simulators. However, all of those are very different pieces of software compared to CMO because they’re high-fidelity tactical simulators. I’m not saying that one type of simulator is better than the other, but some of us just have different preferences and expectations. Colloquially, these games are what some people term as a “study sim.” They’re not games that you can just jump into, play, and automatically be good at. The learning curve is steep and dedicated study is required to gain even a modest understanding of the gameplay. For tactical games like DCS, the study comes through in understanding how to operate and fight the various aircraft and their weapons. For CMO, the studying required relates to the various systems and logistic involved.
While this isn’t a tactical simulator, there is a surprising amount of tactical fidelity in the game, generally speaking. This is apparent in the tons of detail in terms of the performance characteristics of platforms, weapons, and sensors represented in the game. CMO models all manner of different types of the same aircraft/ship/weapon/etc. depending on the era/upgrade/user/etc. For example, the F-16 is one of the most exported fighter jets in the world, but not everyone uses the exact same F-16. Many countries have modified their F-16s in some way and they don’t all have the same characteristics. There are many different varieties of F-16 in CMO‘s databases, which are modeled accurately, but I doubt something as specific as the different paint schemes are simulated in the game. In short, there’s a great deal of detail and variety, but only to a certain point. At the same time, there’s a certain degree of abstraction in the game’s modeling. So, I wouldn’t expect a highly specific amount of tactical realism.
At any rate, I wrote this really long-winded disclaimer because we’re headed into the land of Youtube and the concomitant vitriol of the comments section. In fact, I’m very much tempted to disable the comments section on the videos because I don’t like wasting my time with squeaky 10-year-old Call of Duty/Fortnite/PUBG players/Navy SEAL wannabes. Those who really want to argue the point will take the time to read the blog post and provide relevant details apart from simple descriptors like, “it’s guud” or “this is lame.”
We do live in the Information Age, after all, and that means we take the smart with the stupid. I’m no stranger to the fact that Youtube (and social media, in general) is filled with some of the most ignorant, racist, bigoted, and annoying trolls to ever figure out how to use a keyboard and mouse, but at the end of the day you just learn to ignore them and/or delete their dumb comments. I don’t know. Is it too much to ask people to apply basic critical thinking skills? Again, I understand that the average Youtube comment isn’t terribly penetrating or bright, but I keep high standards and I don’t lower them for social media…period. So, the trolls can either rise to meet those standards, or piss off and get blocked!
The bottom line is that it’s a video game. So, let’s not get too serious about it.
Hughes, W.P. & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
McHugh, F.J. (2013). U.S. Navy Fundamentals of War Gaming. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.
WarfareSims.com. (2019). Game Manual Command: Modern Operations. Matrix Games.