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Designer Notes Modern Air Power: War Over Vietnam
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by Gary C. "Mo" Morgan
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Working on development for the new War Over Vietnam (WOV) game has been a labor of love and brings to fruition the hopes and dreams of many for a "Godís Eye View" format, theater level wargame on modern airpower. The Modern Air Power series of games now fills a void in computer strategy gaming that has been overlooked for over a decade, despite the abundant preponderance of cockpit-view, flight simulator format computer games that cover the entire century of manned flight. While flying one fighter aircraft is lots of fun in a flight sim, the realm of modern operational airpower has evolved to a highly complex and technical environment where many diverse air and space platforms each contribute their unique capabilities to achieve the theater commanderís air objectives.
Comprehending the intricate teamwork and orchestration of air operations at the theater level requires a dynamic, spatial visualization environment or "common operating picture" due to the speed, range, and elevated perspective of modern airpower that help overcome some of the terrain limitations to ground forces on the Earth's surface. Airpowerís speed, range, and altitude characteristics also require an elegant balance between planning and execution. The sheer number of sorties (sortie is one takeoff and landing by an aircraft) involved in one dayís Air Tasking Order during a major air campaign, requires extensive centralized planning and very accurate spatial orchestration of platforms to achieve the desired effects. "Timing is everything" applies more to air operations than anything else, since supersonic fighter aircraft burn fuel at high rates and must land before exhausting their fuel (otherwise they fall out of the sky and crash).
Execution of air operations is best done in a decentralized manner, giving small unit element commanders (flight leaders and strike package commanders) full flexibility to modify their aspect of the massive air plan according to the dynamic local situation (threat, weather, aircraft systems, target status). The most recent air operations in Southwest Asia made maximum use of this flexibility through the use of time-sensitive targeting; aircraft took off from their base without knowing the exact location and type of targets and operated under the control of ground controllers embedded with indigenous or US Army or Marine Corps troops. These operations hearken back to the origin of close air support of ground forces during the days of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. In fact, most of the modern air operations can directly trace their origins to the revolutionary and innovative changes that were forced on America during the Vietnam War. It was this intricate and challenging air operations environment that we wished to replicate in the WOV game.
The Modern Air Power game series owes its inspiration to the "Connections" airpower wargaming conferences that began at Maxwell AFB Alabama ten years ago under the inspired leadership of gifted airpower theorist and planner Colonel John A. Warden III and continued for the next ten years under the diligent care of Colonel Matt Caffrey. Colonel Warden is typically referred to as the "Mastermind of the Gulf War Air Campaign" and his visionary, revolutionary approach to planning an air campaign, based on systemic analysis of the enemy as an integrated system of five interlocking rings. Colonel Warden became commandant of Air Command and Staff College, the Air Forceís postgraduate professional military school for Majors and gave a high emphasis to wargaming as one of the best ways to drive learning to the highest possible levels of comprehension, analysis, and ultimately application of what is learned out in the real world.
Colonel Warden authorized ACSC to conduct an annual event where wargaming faculty from military colleges could meet and collaborate for a week-long conference with commercial game developers and publishers in the hopes that a synergistic effect might benefit both diverse groups. Hopefully military educators would get more familiar with commercial computer strategy gaming (and possibly use some in their schools) and ideally the commercial computer wargame developers would learn more about airpower (and therefore more accurately depict it in their commercial games).
Colonel Matt Caffrey was working on the faculty at School for Advanced Airpower Studies and later ACSC when Colonel Warden arrived. Matt had become personally involved in wargaming in the 1980s under the auspices of Air Force Project Warrior, an informal program that encouraged professional development and study of warfare by Air Force personnel. Matt established an after-hours wargaming program at Nellis AFB with the base library and later contacted the USAF Project Warrior program manager at the Pentagon. So it was natural that Matt Caffrey would become the natural ACSC point of contact and Maxwell continuity for the Connections wargaming conference program.
The Connections conferences continued each year and the Air Force Wargaming Institute (AFWI), the wargaming component of the College of Aerospace Doctrine Research and Education (CADRE) at Maxwell eventually took responsibility for administering the conference. The Connections conference organizers always hoped for the development and release of computer strategy games that portray the intricacy and dynamics of modern theater level air war. It was the Connections conference of 2001 that provided the inspiration for computer wargame designer John Tiller to appreciate the speed, range, perspective, flexibility, and dynamics of theater air operations when he played the AIRGAP simulation demonstrated by Squadron Officer College on Demo Night.
John Tiller decided to try his hand at designing a theater-level airpower wargame simulation based on his AIRGAP Demo Night experience and extensive computer wargame design experience. John knew that a continuous time, multiplayer game was the type of game engine the game scope and scale required. He conceived the game using the flight level (a handful of aircraft, typically 4) as the integral tactical fighting unit. The core of the airpower game engine would be a continuous time naval game like Jutland, adapted for depicting flights of aircraft performing airpower missions over a landmass map.
Designing the first game of its type is a significant accomplishment and only happens through deliberate and creative game development. The development process occurred through the initial design of the game system and really matured after scenarios were developed and tested. Design and development of missions frequently identified limitations in the order of battle, aircraft performance data, or ordnance data needed to accurately model the air war from mid 1965 to early 1973. Scenario design often prompted the game designer to provide functions the scenario developer and player would need in order to represent reality in the game.
Some of the first "growing pains" experienced during game development revolved around layers of altitude to give the game a conceptual 3-D environment. It isn't necessary to break altitude up into hundred and thousand foot increments because combat aircraft typically don't fly at all altitudes: they fly in specific altitude bands depending on aircraft performance capabilities and the operational threat environment. Modern Air Power features aircraft like the F-111 that can fly at a couple hundred feet ("Nap of the Earth") or fly like the SR-71 in the ionosphere at the edge of space (around 100,000 feet). So the combination of aircraft types, service envelopes and ceilings, and threat capabilities produced a set of half a dozen fundamental altitude regimes. It is important for players to remember that every flight icon appearing on the map has a notional altitude level associated with it (like depths in a submarine game).
Sensors are really critical in Modern Air Power, since modern air weapons typically can hit and kill anything that moves or breathes. The concept of "Situational Awareness" or SA defines the sense of perception an aircrew has when flying. Aircrews without SA are in grave danger of being killed by an unseen enemy; Oswald Boelcke and Manfred von Richthofen figured this out almost a century ago and with modern weapons, sensors, and platforms this concept is even more profound. WOV models sensors based on optimal effective range against a typical signature target, and using angular limitations on sensor reception or coverage. When playing WOV, players will see radar range rings, air intercept (AI) antenna patterns, and even standoff jamming "burn-through" boxes displayed on the map.
Radar missiles (semi-active homing or command-guided) needed to function accurately in accordance with the engineering design of the specific weapon system: interceptors must fly in such a way to keep the target illuminated in the radar cone while the missile flies to intercept the target. The Fog of War function in the game determines whether air targets are detected and shown to the player or not. Most of the weapons developed during the Vietnam War period involved precision guidance and accurate sensors, so these are modeled in the game wherever required. Firing intervals based on tactical doctrine are included where possible. A full set of target types was developed and characteristics for these can be modified based on the specifics of the mission and target signatures.
The game interface offers players the option of flight planning many of the actions for the flights in the game, and then modifying those flight plan profiles based on mission progress. Once a flight is selected, it can be given flight plan routing and specific orders such as Follow, Escort, lay Chaff, Attack, Patrol, etc. The game offers flight planning functionality to help players manage large integrated air operations by preplanning tasked flights to accomplish their specific roles yet retain the spontaneous flexibility to instantly redirect or assign MiGCAP and Weasel flights to engage threats when they threaten friendly forces.
The broad range of roles, missions, and functions for modern air forces is faithfully created in MAP: flights can refuel from tankers, rescue helos can pick up downed aircrews, radar surveillance aircraft can fill in gaps of ground radar coverage and detect enemy aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft can overfly the target after an attack and capture imagery that shows mission effectiveness, maritime aircraft can drop mines into harbor waters, etc. The set of mission scenarios bundled with WOV will show players the evolution of the air war Up North, from its simple and primitive early beginnings in 1965 to the high-tech massed intricacy and orchestration of the night Linebacker II missions. Use that chronology to learn the fine points of the game and develop the skills and situational awareness to command massive theater-level combat air operations. The appearance of the guided missile and precision weapons revolutionized military conflict and the first large-scale environment that showcased how those missiles and smart bombs would impact air war for decades to come was Southeast Asia in the mid-Sixties.
Players who don't have access to airpower doctrine documents and tactics manuals may have to learn many of these enduring lessons through practical experience. Those who are avid history readers may be able to put many of these tactical concepts into practice while playing Modern Air Power. Counterair missions will require several types of flights to be assigned to strike flights in order to engage and neutralize enemy defenses.
Escort flights must confront the dilemma of how close and where to fly. If they fly out far enough to retain maneuvering flexibility they may not be in close enough when an enemy interceptor penetrates the formation and attacks. If the escorts stay in too close, they may be less effective in detecting and engaging the enemy interceptors until it is too late. The guidelines that the Luftwaffe learned during the Battle of Britain were still applicable over Hanoi during the Vietnam War. A roving force of "Sweepers" would fly a MiG combat air patrol (MiGCAP) out far enough ahead of the strike force that they had relatively unlimited flexibility to find, engage, and neutralize enemy interceptors. Another force of "Outrigger Escorts" flew in close to the strike force and would engage any enemy "Leakers" that could slip past the CAP. Escorts are like blockers in a football running play; some blockers clear a path ahead of the runner while others run side-by-side and prevent tacklers from stopping the runner. Some outriggers flew to the flanks of the strikers while others flew behind or in front of the strike flights so they were in immediate missile parameters when an enemy interceptor attempted to attack the strikers. Ground controlled intercept radars or unarmed airborne early warning and control wing (AEWCW) surveillance aircraft were also instrumental in detecting enemy interceptors and vectoring friendly air superiority flights against the threats. The GCI radars were positioned close enough to cover enemy airfields to detect enemy jets after takeoff and AEWCW platforms flew in orbits close enough that their effective radar detection range covered the area of operations.
Defense suppression forces include Wild Weasels, standoff radar jammers, flights laying chaff corridors, and flak suppression flights. These assets helped supplement and enhance the self-protection capability of each participating aircraft and the self-protection capabilities (radar warning receivers and electronic countermeasures pods) developed dramatically after so many aircraft were lost to the surface-to-air threat. These forces were comparable to the air superiority flights mentioned above (escorts, CAP, sweep) but were tasked exclusively against the dense surface-to-air defenses (early warning, height finder, and target acquisition radars, surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft artillery). The radar jammers and chaff corridors were nonlethal measures that covered the strikers from detection, confused the enemy air defenses, and degraded the guidance and targeting of the weapons to effectively engage the strike flights. Chaff flights had a very dangerous mission: fly straight and level and seed the airspace with tiny chaff filaments that looked like hair swept from the floor of a barbershop. The North Vietnamese quickly learned that the best way to neutralize the chaff threat was to launch MiGs to shoot the chaffers down, so escorts needed to fly with the chaff flights and protect them from intercept. Jammers had to fly in close enough to achieve an effective signal-to-noise ratio against the enemy radars in order to provide effective coverage for inbound strike flights. Most standoff jammers had radiation patterns off one or both wings so their orbits had to be positioned so the victim radars were at 90 degrees to the direction of the jammer racetrack. The Weasels and flak suppression flights made the threats against the surface-to-air defenses credible so SAM operators faced the very real deterrence of lethal retribution for firing on US aircraft. The Wild Weasel mission was THE most dangerous job of the air war and many of these aircraft and crews were lost while engaging the threats. Weasels tended to play "cat and mouse" to distract the SAM sites, get them to radiate and perhaps fire missiles, so the antiradiation missiles (ARM) could home in on the target tracking radars to kill the radar operators in the van. Multiple Weasel flights might taunt one or more SAM sites so one flight could attack the site while it was distracted by another flight.
Weasels also targeted antiaircraft artillery (AAA) radars with ARMs since nearly all the medium to heavy calibre guns (57-100mm) had radar fire direction. The big killer during the Vietnam War was AAA, and this was the single most capable and lethal threat down at low altitude. SAMs were primarily useful for forcing strike aircraft to jettison bombs before they got to the target to executive a defensive reaction maneuver that took them down to low altitude to be finished off by the AAA like piranha. Flak suppression missions were tasked to support strike missions early in the war but so many flak suppression flights experienced heavy losses that this strategy was eventually abandoned. Antiaircraft guns were in plentiful supply and gunners were forcibly recruited and often brutally motivated from the indigenous population. The AAA wasn't real selective when untrained gunners were shooting and many North Vietnamese low altitude MiG-17 Frescos were shot down by their own troops. The best defense against AAA was to stay up high, avoid known concentrations of guns, fly at night to avoid the optical AAA, and maneuver if the fire seemed to be aimed. For unaimed barrage fire, the best tactic was speed to get through the hail of bullets and minimize the damage. Bomb deliveries tended to be planned for high dive angles and high release altitudes when the target was known to be well-defended with AAA. The high-angle dive deliveries worked well for slick (unretarded) ordnance but for best bombing accuracy, the delivering aircraft needed to go in at really low altitudes and use high-drag bombs, which put the bombing aircraft into the heart of the AAA threat. The initial appearance of the F-111 during the Vietnam War provided great hope with its supersonic speed at low altitude, terrain-following radar to fly nap of the earth (a couple hundred feet) at night and deliver a string of twelve bombs using a very accurate, high-resolution mapping radar. With this attack profile, a single F-111 could roar in supersonic at a couple hundred feet off the ground, hit a target, and be gone in total darkness before a gun crew could even mount their weapons and have any idea where to fire.
SAM firing discipline was also a factor during missions; typical engagements called for firing two missiles against an enemy flight, and fire three missiles against a flight that was emitting self-protection jamming. The typical SA-2 site only had 6 ready-to-fire missiles, with another 6 nearby at the site to reload within 30 minutes. When these twelve missiles were exhausted, missile resupply had to be brought in from regimental headquarters or a SAM assembly depot. Once a SAM site fired all six of its missiles, it was very vulnerable to bombing attacks and no longer posed a threat to strike aircraft. SAM radars would not come up if Weasels were observed to be hunting in an area, and the SAM sites would only radiate to fire when the strike flights approached engagement range. As long as early warning, height finder, and target acquisition radars were covering the airspace, they provided the situational awareness for the SAM sites so they didn't need to come up until strike flights were within engagement range. These search radars were very resistant to antiradiation missile attack and moved often so they were hard to find and bomb. If the search radars were jammed and confused by chaff corridors, they became ineffective and the SAM radars then needed to radiate and look for targets; this also made them vulnerable to Weasel attack.
If all the supporting missions failed to deter or neutralize the threats, the final supporting mission was combat search and rescue (SAR) who were tasked to find and pickup downed aircrews who were lost to the enemy defenses. Hopefully crews in stricken jets could fly them far enough away from populated areas that they weren't immediately captured, since those who went down in the urban areas were captured almost as soon as they landed on the ground. Squadron mates in the flight or another flight in the same mission would fly Rescue Combat Air Patrol or RESCAP over the downed airmen in order to reassure them that help was on the way, identify their location so SAR forces could find them, and deter enemy interceptors from harassing the rescue force. If one or more airmen succeeded in successfully ejecting from their stricken aircraft, supporting aircraft like A-1 Sandy Skyraiders could play a part in delaying and deterring enemy forces from getting to the crash site and capturing the crew. The true heroes of the SAR effort were the courageous rescue helicopter crews who flew the Jolly Green Giant and Super Jolly platforms into withering enemy small arms fire to pick up downed airmen. The pararescue jumpers (PJs) were the brave souls who were lowered into the jungle canopy to find and assist wounded or injured airmen, help get them into the extraction harness, and defend them from capture by enemy forces until the helicopter could lift them both into the air. In order to get the rescue helicopters way Up North into northern Laos and North Vietnam, HC-130 Hercules tankers flew with drogue lines so the helicopters could get sufficient fuel to orbit and penetrate North Vietnamese airspace if needed. A controlling aircraft helped orchestrate the SAR force and often this was either a patrolling EC-121 or later the HC-130 was fitted with radios and controllers who plotted downed aircrew locations and coordinated the actions of the rescue forces.
Once all the aircraft landed back at their base, the real work began, as maintenance troops repaired any battle damage, performed routine maintenance, and kept all the aircraft systems working at peak capacity to provide combat capability. This thankless work was done for many hours after the aircraft landed, either throughout the night or all the next day if the mission was a night mission. Munitions troops built up bombs and loaded them on the aircraft, while other load crews assembled and mounted missiles on the aircraft so they could fly and fight the next sortie. They knew the air planners were busily plotting the next attack mission Up North and hopefully these would finally decide the outcome of the war.
The following is a list of the standard aircraft types that you will encounter in the game and advice on how to handle them:
- Air Superiority - These are typically fighter aircraft armed with air-to-air missiles as their primary ordnance. Use these to engage enemy aircraft through sweep missions and close escorts for attack flights. These aircraft usually have a supersonic capability that you should use sparingly to engage the enemy since it will quickly exhaust aircraft fuel. Example: F-4E with AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missile.
- Tanker - These are large, slow aerial refueling aircraft that will become very important to your fuel-starved aircraft as you are trying to get back to your base. Remember that if your aircraft exhaust all their fuel while airborne, they will be lost, so watch the fuel levels on your aircraft and direct your bingo aircraft to the closest tanker. Keep the tankers away from the enemy in orbits where they are available to you for refueling and consider designating an escort flight if they are in range of MiG bases. Example: KC-135.
- Jammer - These aircraft have a stand-off jamming capability. Put them in orbits just out of reach of enemy defenses and use them to protect your attacking aircraft. Orient the patrol paths 90 degrees from the direction of the SAM defenses since the jamming radiates out from the wings. Example: EB-66E.
- Chaff - These aircraft have chaff pods that dispense chaff corridors ahead of the strike flights or blanket a target area. Fly the chaff flights into an area of enemy radar defenses and use them to lay chaff corridors in advance of your attacking aircraft or blanket a target area to support multiple attackers from different directions. Example: F-4D with ALE-38 chaff pods.
- Weasel - These aircraft are used to suppress enemy SAM defenses through intimidation and possible attack. Use them to reduce the threat of enemy SAMís, but donít expect them to completely eliminate that threat. These assets will be most useful just in advance of your attacking aircraft to cower the SAM sites. Example: F-105F with AGM-45 Shrike ARM (Anti-Radiation Missiles).
- Strike - These aircraft will have air-to-ground ordnance as their primary load. Use them to attack enemy ground targets. But be sure to protect them from enemy MiGís using your Air Superiority assets and use your Weasels to protect them from enemy SAMís. Example: F-4C with Mk-82 General Purpose bombs.
- Surveillance - These aircraft may have long range circular scanning search radar or may have a signals intelligence capability to detect and locate enemy radar or radio emitters. Keep them well back from any enemy threat, but use them to provide you with an improved understanding of the enemy disposition and reactions. Example: EC-121.
- Reconnaissance - These are typically unarmed fighter aircraft equipped with aerial cameras to take aerial photographs of target areas and enemy activity. The most valuable recon was flown over a target immediately after an attack, so intelligence analysts could determine the level of damage from the attack and use this to help planners determine if another attack was needed. Sometimes recon was needed before a mission to verify the status of a target and disposition of enemy forces. Recon aircraft typically flew alone, unarmed, and very fast to evade interception and defenses; they often had to fly very low to get the best quality photos but strategic recon aircraft like the SR-71 could do this up at very high altitude. Example: RF-4C.
- Rescue - These aircraft provide a capability to defend a downed crew from capture and to pick up and recover downed airmen so they can fly and fight another day. The rescue team typically includes A-1 Sandy attack aircraft which provide fire support to the downed crew and delay capture, and HH-3 Jolly Green or HH-543 Super Jolly Green rescue helicopters to go in and actually pick up the downed crews. Often an HC-130 flies along to refuel the Jollys and occasionally an MC-130 may fly in to help do the pickup. Example: HH-3.
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Copyright 2004 - Gary Morgan and HPS Simulations