Support: August 25, 2004

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The U.S. Air Force is playing catch up in the wargames department. This would seem odd, as the air force has taken the lead in developing flight simulators and mission planning simulators. But these were rarely used as wargames. That is, there was no use of these tools to explore different strategy and tactics against enemy forces on a large scale. 

The flight simulators, first introduced during the 1930s, were for training pilots and crews on how to fly an aircraft on instruments, and operate complex aircraft controls. By the 1980s, it was possible to add a visual element to flight simulators, but these devices were still seen mainly as training (in procedure) devices, not wargames for practicing actual combat. About the same time, flight planning software become popular. Pilots had always planned their missions, but on paper. Pilots had to carefully calculate where they would fly and at what altitudes, if only to make sure they had enough fuel to get there and back. But in combat, possible enemy opposition had to be taken into account as well. There was also coordination with other groups of aircraft, especially those engaged in refueling or electronic warfare. But this was all mainly planning what the air force aircraft were going to do, not wargaming (working out the many things our aircraft, and enemy defenses, could do as alternatives.)

There was always some institutional resistance to wargaming in the air force. Until quite recently, many senior air force commanders opposed using flight simulators for combat training, mainly because they thought that would start a disastrous trend towards substituting flight simulator time for actual flying time. 

The army and navy have long used wargames to test the what ifs? of future battles, or simply to give their commander some practice at fighting a battle. If anything, air force battles are even more subject to change and unexpected enemy actions. Yet for decades the air force did not feel it was necessary to get into wargaming. Partly this was because the air force never faced a worthy challenge. Even during the air campaigns in Vietnam, the air force went along with its usual planning methods, leaving it to the enemy to adapt to what the United States Air Force was going to do. This did lead to the last time (four decades ago) that the air force faced a serious challenge in combat. The tactics and equipment used over North Vietnam led to a sharp reduction in the effectiveness of U.S. Air Force aircraft and equipment. The air force reacted to the situation by searching for problems with their weapons and tactics. Training was revised, to take into account the fact that likely enemies were going to fight differently. A more realistic approach to weapons was adopted, meaning that the belief that air-to-air missiles were going to revolutionize air warfare, was an idea whose time had not quite come. Wargaming would have revealed these problems before actual combat did, but the concept of wargaming remained alien to air force leaders. Wargames were something the army and navy used, and the air force had better methods to deal with unknowns. The air force didnt, but the air force didnt know it didnt know.

Going into the 1990s, mission planning software became powerful enough to allow for some wargaming. Pilots were interested in exploring different possibilities when planning missions, as that sort of thing could save their lives. Flight simulators also became realistic enough to allow for simulated combat. Fewer generals were hostile to pilots climbing into simulators rather than real aircraft. Moreover, the increasingly complex aircraft now had more combinations of things that could go wrong. You cant practice how to handle a lot of that in a real aircraft. Too dangerous. But the new simulators could handle it without killing anyone. 

However, the air force has still not developed realistic campaign wargames, or simulations for vital things like BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment, finding out how much damage your bombs actually did.) Its expected that these needs will be filled by a younger generation of computer savvy air force officers who know what a wargame is, even if only because of some very simplistic ones they played on a game console. It may be just in time. The Chinese Air Force has taken a keen interest in computerized training aids and wargames for the last two decades. 


 


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