Wargames in Warsaw

Do these war simulations help when the bullets start flying?

Santiago de la Presilla
1 February 2017

Just six months after the NATO Summit, military experts from NATO, think tanks and former members of the military gathered in a small room with only a few computers on the 2nd floor of Poland’s national stadium to play a wargame: a mock Russian invasion of the Baltic states. The purpose? Assess all of the Alliance’s capabilities and provide the Polish Ministry of Defence with a full report. These wargames, unlike military exercises, are conducted using software only.

‘These kinds of exercises are not about drawing specific conclusions, they’re about giving us different problems that force us to think about how to handle them, therefore delivering a framework,’ said former Supreme Allied Commander Europe Phillip Breedlove, emphasizing the need to test military doctrines and policies. ‘Wargames are not played to win, they’re played to learn.’

Whilst this isn’t the first exercise of its kind, it is the first-ever wargame to be conducted in Poland. Back in February of last year, RAND Corp. ran a similar type of wargame in which Russian tanks were able to reach the outskirts of both Tallinn and Riga in less than 60 hours. This was before NATO’s deployment of 4,000 troops in the Alliance’s Eastern-flank, which is seen by Moscow as a provocation, whilst NATO argues it is a completely proportionate reaction to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Tabletop vs full          

Tabletop wargames treat all terrain as equal, which is why there were many critics of the exercise conducted by RAND Corp. RAND’s wargame assumed NATO would be able to deploy to all ‘Polish coastal cities, which is impossible due to Russian missile capabilities… In our simulation, it would take about 10 days for the Russians to defeat the Baltic states,’ but thanks to NATO’s recent deployment it would now be ‘15 days, and Kaliningrad would already go dark by then,’ stated a military expert on condition of anonymity.

All war games start with a different set of assumptions, and in the case of this full simulation conducted jointly by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation and the Virginia-based Podomac Foundation, the challenges of moving heavy equipment across difficult terrain were taken into account from St. Petersburg to Berlin.

Learning lessons on the cheap

‘It is particularly important for us to continue to develop this very close relationship with Poland,’ affirmed British Brigadier General Paul Tennant, Chief Joint Fires and Influence with NATO. He then went on to say that wargames allow the military to learn things the ‘non-expensive way’.

General Breedlove also discussed the financial aspects, particularly when it comes to what governments should purchase. With military tension comes demand, and Poland is considering purchasing used F-16 fighter jets that would be refurbished in order to replace the Polish Air Force’s Russian-made Su-22s and MiG 29s. All of this taking place just months after Poland decided to scrap a $3.5 billion helicopter deal with Airbus, opting for Polish-produced Black Hawk helicopters from American-owned Lockheed Martin.

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based journalist and former media advisor to the Casimir Pulaski Foundation. He writes mostly about European politics, Poland and foreign policy.

Photo (c) NATO