What Can We Learn From Combat Mission: Black Sea?

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by friend of the podcast, Savage, the man behind the War Takes twitter.)

Any casual student of military wargaming will know that the use of commercial wargames – whether off-the-shelf or specially modified – by militaries across the globe is nothing new. The United States and its allies use a variety of computer games with varying focuses and levels of detail for the purposes of training, professional military education, or even experimentation. Even then, not many games make the cut to be utilized by the military, and those that do usually end up being modified in some shape or form to meet the military’s specific requirements.

However, if there was ever a game that seemed to be ready for the military’s purposes right out of the box, with little or no tweaking required, it would be Combat Mission: Black Sea by Battlefront.com. The most modern entry – in terms of setting – in the Combat Mission series, CMBS revolves around an escalation in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict that leads to full-scale open war and the intervention of the United States – a scenario that is timely given the recent escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine that lead to a war scare.

I’ve played my fair share of wargames over the years – though I’m still a dilletante compared to many experts I know, and I certainly can’t say I’m any good at all of them. CMBS is one of those games that feels like it was made for the military first and then released to the public, not the other way around. I admittedly have never served a day in uniform, my role in national security being purely as a civilian. But CMBS certainly feels hard enough to be the real thing based on how badly I botched my first mission after completing the game’s basic training mode.

But the difficulty isn’t what makes CMBS realistic. Realistic isn’t even the right term to use. No computer wargame is ever going to be able to 100% realistically simulate the conditions of combat – nothing can match that. But what CMBS does do is simulate the conditions of combat in a way that feels believable to the player. It gets across the key elements of modern combined-arms warfare at the low-tactical level that is still very useful for training leaders or even for experimenting to contribute towards developing new approaches, methods, and capabilities.

What makes CMBS believable? I could write you a book rather than an article on that topic alone, but I can offer you a list of some highlights. For one, it demonstrates how fragile humans can be in high-intensity combat. So many video games – even some of the more serious wargames – tend to allow your soldiers to soak up a fair amount of punishment before their effectiveness suffers – let alone they die. In CMBS, it doesn’t take a lot for your soldiers to get stressed and lose cohesion or retreat. Aside from mental limits, your soldiers are just flesh and therefore are “squishier” than in many games. If you try to charge an infantry squad across open ground to attach a prepared defensive position, chances are they’ll not make it very far before they’re cut to ribbons – especially if the enemy has heavy weapons or vehicles their disposal.

That’s another factor that demonstrates CMBS usefulness is the way it treats heavier duty weapons. It treats them as the key to infantry combat that they are. Most of the time, it won’t be an infantryman’s personal weapon that will be dealing the most damage to the enemy; it’ll be heavy weapons like machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, missile launchers, and vehicle-based weapons like autocannons and tank canons. While many games certainly represent this as well, they still often tend to tone back the sheer destructive power of the heavy weapons in the name of balance and fairness. CMBS does no such thing, letting them reach their full destructive potential in how they can reduce things – both living and inanimate – to ruins in short order.

This is not to say that infantry is useless in CMBS, however. Far from it. And this is another way in which CMBS shows its utility as a military tool, in that it shows how important it is to use infantry in conjunction with heavy vehicles and weapons – despite being “squishy.” I found this out the hard way in the middle of a mission when I got too cocky after destroying a Russian tank platoon and pushed my own tank platoon out a little too far. What I got for my daring maneuver was the loss of one of my tanks to a guided anti-tank missile launched from a nearby house – something I would have been able to spot and either destroy or suppress if I had thought to move up one of my infantry squads through the houses parallel to my tanks as they advanced. Heavy weapons may be effective, but they are not invincible nor are they all seeing. CMBS drives home the importance of true combined arms warfare, making use of infantry, armor, and off-map artillery and air support to destroy your enemy. Favor one too much and neglect all the others and you’ll likely not have much success or you’ll buy it at great cost to your own forces.

The focus on combined arms warfare between peer or near-peer powers is another reason why CMBS is believable as a military tool. In an era where conventional wars between great powers are once again a possibility the United States and its allies find themselves having to prepare for, CMBS’ scenario revolving around a conventional war with Russia to help defend Ukraine is apt. The United States military now has an entire generation of officers who have spent their entire careers fighting counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locales. Now these same leaders have to learn to fight a completely different war to the one they’ve been fighting, with the military as a whole having to regear back to what its original focus was before 9/11 and the War on Terrorism. With its main setting being a war against a well-trained, well-equipped, near-peer adversary, CMBS definitely has a potential use in helping to teach both new leaders and veteran ones to appreciate the difficulties and consequences of fighting against another modern army as opposed to a lightly armed and equipped irregular force.

Combat Mission Shock Force 2, sister game to Black Sea, sees American forces fight irregular units in a hypothetical war in Syria.

Now, is CMBS perfect? Absolutely not. I know I keep asking myself why I can’t run it on its highest graphical settings without it chugging despite the fact that I have a 1080 GTX graphics card and 16 gigs of RAM, but that’s a different gripe. No wargame is perfect, whether it be CMBS, or one of the other games utilized by the U.S. military and allied forces – such as Virtual Battle Space or Command: Professional Edition (the government and military-only versions of ArmA and Command: Modern Operations respectively). This is just as well though, as wargames can’t solve all the military’s problems anyway – something that any wargaming expert will be quick to tell you and anyone who can listen. What wargames are meant to do more than anything else get their participants thinking about problems that they face in modern combat and how to deal with them, rather than give them clear and actionable paths to success.

If that is the goal, then CMBS clearly could be useful in that regard. It’s no surprise to me that the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) began using one of the Combat Mission games – along with several other popular commercial wargames – for research and experimentation. CMBS certainly has the right elements to make it a useful tool in a larger toolbox of games and software to approach pressing questions about the nature of warfighting going into the future. Whether is experimenting, or training or even retraining leaders on the nature of high-intensity combat, CMBS definitely is robust enough to be considered an aid for dealing with the thorny questions of conflict in the modern day and near future.

For more of Savage’s thoughts, be sure to follow him on his main twitter here.

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