What I learned as the armchair general of a paper Israeli air force.
This weekend, I sat down on my dining room table and prepared to set the Middle East aflame. I was playing Persian Incursion, a board game of a hypothetical Israeli air campaign to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. Or, at least so far it's hypothetical. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report suggesting that Iran has continued to build up its nuclear weapons program. And with Israel making serious noises about dropping bombs before Iran develops The Bomb, fiction could soon become reality. I set about seeing which side would win.
Persian Incursion is a paper war game, one of those fascinating yet complex beasts that appeals to armchair generals -- it combines the fun of a strategy game like Risk with the intellectual stimulation of reading contemporary nonfiction. The game was co-designed by techno-thriller writer Larry Bond, best known for co-authoring Red Storm Rising with Tom Clancy. (Clancy actually tested the plot for another bestselling book, The Hunt for Red October, on Bond's Harpoon naval war game.) But Persian Incursion isn't a novel -- it's a reference library inside a game. The background information included is staggering. Besides the rules book, there is a target folder and a briefing booklet listing the precise dimensions of Iranian nuclear facilities down to the meter, as well as air defenses (all of which Bond swears he obtained from unclassified sources).
Persian Incursion is basically two games in one. There is a highly detailed military game of a seven-day Israeli air offensive in which Israel plans and executes its strikes while the Iranian air defenses try to stop them. But there is also a political game that unlocks the military aspect. Persian Incursion assumes that an Israeli attack is only possible if one of Iran's neighbors -- Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or a U.S.-influenced Iraq -- either publicly or tacitly allows Israeli entry into its airspace for the strike on Iran. (The rules state that though Israel could chance an initial airstrike without an agreement, it would need permission for follow-up attacks.) With that in mind, the game comes with various starting scenarios, such as a super-radical Iran that scares its neighbors into allowing Israeli access, or Turkish support for an Israeli strike (note that the game came out in 2010, before the current Israeli-Turkish spat). So I choose the "Saudi Connection" scenario, in which the Saudis permit Israel to do the dirty work of taking down their Shiite archnemesis. I play the Israeli side, while my good friend Colonel Noob plays the Iranians.
As U.S. history has demonstrated for the last 65 years, before you blunder into a war, it's best to figure out exactly how you're going to win. Although Persian Incursion is a war game, destroying or protecting Iran's nuclear sites is only a means to victory -- not victory itself. The real prize is political. If Israel or Iran can knock down the other's morale enough through military or political action, it wins. Part of the goal, then, is to score points on "political tracks," which measure public opinion and morale. But it's not just Israel and Iran that have political tracks; the game simulates the pressure and acquiescence of other countries that have a dog in this fight, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Russia, China, Jordan, and the United Nations (representing Europe and the rest of the world). Basically, the more supportive a country is toward Israel or Iran, the more political, intelligence, and military points it will provide to that belligerent. And these points are the currency of Persian Incursion; most every Israeli or Iranian action, from airstrikes to missile launches to terrorist attacks, requires them. Think of it as the Monopoly money you need to build your hotel empire.
To add to the unpredictability, Persian Incursion gives each player a chance before the game to purchase extra goodies. Iran's Colonel Noob buys GPS jammers to frustrate Israeli guided weapons, plus a couple of Chinese HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. And knowing that missiles will soon be headed Israel's way, I choose a third Arrow 2 anti-missile battalion, plus extra tanker aircraft for longer bombing sorties. The political tracks begin with Saudi Arabia somewhat supportive of my Israeli attack and with the United States, Turkey, and the United Nations offering lukewarm endorsement. On the other side, Russia is somewhat supportive of Iran, while China is a full-on ally. This situation is tenuous and fraught with danger for both players. If the Saudi political track shifts more toward Israel, Saudi aircraft could join in the fun. ("Oops, sorry Tehran! We were trying to attack the Jews' aircraft, but we accidentally bombed your reactor. Our king is most distraught.") On the other hand, China's support for Iran could mean an emergency airlift of Chinese weapons.
And so it begins. Colonel Noob sets up a potpourri of Soviet- and Chinese-made SAM batteries and stations the Iranians' jet-fighter interceptor squadrons on various air bases around Iran. I've got some tough decisions to make. I can knock down Iranian morale by destroying nuclear sites or battering its oil infrastructure (the premise being that either would induce Tehran to abandon its nuclear program). Oil sites are less heavily defended, and they're closer to the Israeli flight path over Saudi Arabia, which means my planes can carry more bombs and less fuel. But oil installations can absorb an awful lot of damage before going offline, and attacking the world's petrol supply could trigger an international backlash. Oh, hell, I finally decide: If I'm not going after Iranian nukes, what's the point? For starters, I pick the Natanz and Isfahan atomic sites, which are closer to the Saudi border.
I begin with a special-forces operation that puts spotters on the ground to improve the accuracy of my airstrikes. Iran responds with a "propaganda barrage" and dice roll to see if it can get Saudi support for Israel to decline -- fortunately, for me, the gods decree otherwise. Israel executes its first airstrike. Combat basically involves Israeli aircraft progressing through successive "nodes" of Iranian interceptors and anti-aircraft weapons. I get lucky again: Iranian interceptors, outdated and often short of spare parts, can't hit worth a damn, and Israeli radar-jamming prowess helps neutralize Iranian surface-to-air missiles. Then, one of my F-16s is shot down, which means a hit on Israeli public opinion. But I've heavily damaged the Isfahan uranium conversion facility, and Iranian morale takes a hit.
The first game turn continues as Iran responds with missile strikes on Israeli cities, designed to lower Israeli morale. But one missile blows up on the launch pad, and another is shot down by my Arrow missiles. Of the two remaining missiles, one hit is a dud, but the other inflicts "major damage," which hurts my political track. Colonel Noob's turn is done.
The game continues like this in a tit-for-tat fashion. Despite several Iranian attempts to sway Saudi Arabia, the kingdom continues to open its airspace to Israeli jets. I lose only two aircraft to Iranian defenses, but on the other hand, the heavily reinforced structures at Natanz prove difficult to damage. Iran's missiles continue to land on Israel, but public morale proves resilient. In the end, Israel squeaks by with a victory. Several Iranian nuclear sites have been damaged (thank you, bunker-buster bombs), but the cost is captured Israeli pilots paraded on Iranian TV and Israeli kids spending their days in bomb shelters.
So is Persian Incursion actually useful for understanding how an Israeli strike on Iran might unfold? No and yes. My first reaction is that it's a lovely game set in an alternate universe where Turkey is still an Israeli ally and the Arab Spring is still winter. But to be fair, we are talking about the Middle East; any game would be obsolete three months after it hit the shelves.
Militarily, the game demonstrates that Iran has as much chance of stopping an Israeli strike as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does of becoming an ayatollah, but then again, Iran doesn't need to shoot down many Israeli planes. Every F-16 burning in the desert reaps Tehran a rich political harvest. Think Gilad Shalit multiplied by nine or 10 captured Israeli airmen.
The game does allow for some surprise events, such as a "press leak" or "anti-war riots," that influence the political tracks. And there are unpleasant surprises, like an "industrial accident" in Iran that damages a nuclear site or an "intifada" against Israel.
But there's also the glaring omission of Iran's proxy force, Hezbollah. Bond, the game's creator, told me that the Lebanese organization would not have time to react to an Israeli air campaign. This seems a bizarre oversight: Clearly, Hezbollah would have military as well as political roles in the conflict. Ten minutes after the first bombs fell on Iran and well before Israel launched any follow-up strikes, southern Lebanese skies would be milky with Katyusha rocket trails, and the swarm of Israeli Air Force drones on the border would fill the air with the buzz of propellers.
Additionally, the game doesn't allow for an Iranian military response on any country but Israel. If Saudi Arabia allows Israeli jets to transit its airspace, might not Iran respond with military action against it (which in turn could drag in the United States)? Persian Incursion cries out for some rule updates. But that's the beauty of an old-fashioned board game versus a video game. No need to wait months for a software patch. With just a few strokes of a pen, you can add your own rules to simulate the effects of Hezbollah or the Arab Spring.
Despite its flaws, I learned a lot from this game. It managed to capture the essence of an Israeli-Iranian conflict, which is that both sides would wage war by very different means. I focused on the nuts and bolts of conducting a complex and difficult Israeli air campaign, while Colonel Noob had to be more patient and subtle, compensating for Israeli military superiority by judiciously striking at public opinion with missiles and terrorist attacks, seeking to politically isolate Israel and deny it allies.
The real question of this exercise, however, is whether an Israeli strike on Iran is a good or bad idea. Persian Incursion's answer is an unqualified "maybe." Israel can't stop Iran from retaliating with missile attacks and terrorism. But it also can't guarantee complete destruction of Iran's nuclear program. Perhaps most importantly, the key to victory is winning the public-opinion, political war.
So was it fun? Sure, but let's just hope it stays a game.
Clash of Arms Games