One Expert Fought a New Korean War in a Simulator. You Should Be Scared.
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Key point: A conflict on the Korean peninsula could take millions of lives.
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I bought a war game called Next War: Korea in 2013 and tested it at the time.
The Korean Peninsula is one of the most militarized places on earth, hectare by hectare. I expect losses to be high, just like a real showdown between North and South Korea and their respective allies.
Next war: Korea is playing on a large map-sized map of the Korean Peninsula, on which all major cities, lakes, rivers, fortifications, ports, airfields and the DMZ are modeled. Ground and air units on both sides are represented by cardboard counters, with NATO-style unit symbols and their attack, defense and movement capabilities summarized in raw numbers. The goal of the main scenario is for the North to invade and occupy South Korea - or at least a significant part of it
Seven days after the end of the war, death and destruction on both sides is a sobering reminder of what happens when large armies go to total war.
People have been killing themselves in games for thousands of years. Combat simulations are so common that we don't imagine the simplest ones like checkers and chess to be war-related at all. They are just games, their warlike past has been lost to history.
War games have taken on a whole new dimension since World War II. They have become more complex, and complicated rule sets and encyclopedic information are being pumped into increasingly sophisticated simulations. The goal was a more scientific understanding of war at a time when nuclear weapons have made avoiding extensive war a question of human survival.
Today, the Pentagon regularly conducts war games, from fake aerial combat with the red flag to strategic exercises like the controversial Millennium Challenge 2002. We can't all take part in these games as often as we want - many are classified. But that doesn't mean we can't play our own war games.
Using simulations like Next War: Korea to anticipate the outcome of possible real battles is problematic. The game is fundamentally subjective, especially assessing the effectiveness of various armed forces.
The game designer has to take in a lot of information and make abstractions and comparisons of almost everything, using all the data points he can find. The F-16 fighter has a long battle record that allows fairly accurate modeling. The fighting ability of North Korea's 105th Armored Division, which has not seen a fight since 1953, is only a matter of suspicion.
Next war: Korea reduces the quality and quantity of armies and air forces on both sides to numerical values. For example, a North Korean mechanized brigade has an attack rating of five, a defense rating of five, and a high level of road mobility on roads and clear terrain. A mechanized US brigade has a slightly higher value. If this is not true, keep in mind that the North Korean Brigade has lower quality vehicles, but many more.
An American F-15C fighter has an air combat rating of five, while a North Korean MiG-21 has a value of two, making the F-15C more than two and a half times stronger in air-to-air combat. A B-52 bomber wing is twice as powerful as a North Korean Su-25 bomber wing. That may also sound inaccurate until you consider the range and failure generation.
This abstraction converts entire armies and air forces into cardboard counters fighting from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other.
The map of the game itself is useful for examining how the war in Korea could take place. Many Wargame cards do an excellent job of reducing overwhelming amounts of card data to the most critical information. The maps usually emphasize political and military targets such as cities, airfields, ports and weapons of mass destruction.
They usually exaggerate the main terrain features such as rivers, bridges, mountains, roads, railways and cities. Cards with inflated features are easier to read and can help you make more informed decisions. For example, a river could be a thin blue line on a regular map, but this thin line could be completely impassable for regular infantry or even tanks.
Next war: Korea's map tells you a number of things. First, the mountain ranges in the center of the peninsula divided every conflict into two different wars, a west coast war and an east coast war. Second, there are obstacles to the invasion of the south, rivers like the Han and the mountain ranges that flow through the middle of the country. These are huge obstacles.
Seoul is only a day's walk (or an hour's drive) from the DMZ, making defense difficult. To top it off, the low, flat plain between Seoul and the DMZ, though attached, is like a shotgun barrel aimed at the South Korean capital.
Wargames are also great for data visualization. Quoting the number of infantry, tanks, and planes stationed on the Korean Peninsula is one thing, but seeing individual units at their actual defenses or stacking them in attack planes north of the border can illustrate how dangerous the situation is korean peninsula it really is and how high the chances of survival of each side actually are.
Run all this information through a simulation, and things that look like real war will start to happen.
In theory, the game should, to some extent, be a reflection of an actual war. Fidelity should be somewhere between a documentary and a cartoon. A cartoon isn't that useful, but a documentary is certainly.
This appeared for the first time in 2013 and was reprinted earlier this year due to the interest of the readers.
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