Operation No. 2: Commanders Decide – Operational Guidance in A Hot Dry Season

Players as Commanders

The echelon of command for the players in A Hot Dry Season: Operation Attleboro in War Zone C (AHDS) is a concept that runs through the whole title.  It was the determining factor for many game mechanisms: victory, length of the campaign, reinforcement determination and arrival, operational initiative fluctuation.  Where it wasn’t a determining factor, it frequently was “baked into” things; how aviation assets were presented in the game order of battle, for example.  Very early in the process of design, I decided that the most appropriate role for each player is the respective commander of all that  side’s forces present in the area of operations.  This seems and was intuitive, but not as easy to parse as you’d imagine.

While emphasizing each player’s role as the commander, while researching and developing the concept for the Campaign, these concepts were foremost in my mind:

  • Player choices must be consequential and impactful
  • Player choices and options must reflect operational guidance provided to the commanders
  • There should be player uncertainty regarding opponent’s choices
  • Victory should reflect operational guidance provided to the commanders as the Campaign progressed
  • The dynamic nature of the Campaign as it progressed should reflect strategic goals and fears that informed and sometimes altered the operational guidance provided to the commanders
  • Therefore, victory and even time limits should have elements of uncertainty, beyond player awareness at a given moment in time
  • Regardless of all the above, historicity had to be maintained.

De Saussere

Brigadier General Edward DeSaussure, Commander of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Separate) August-December, 1966.

The US Player, as the Campaign begins, is the Commander of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Separate), all Special Forces Units in the area of operations (on map) and the small number of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Regional Forces present.  The operational guidance from the strategic command, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) with regard to the area of operations was to, with equal emphasis: locate and destroy National Liberation Front (NLF) supply locations and infrastructure, be ready to defend US Special Forces units and infrastructure: Search for and destroy any NLF units.

Depuy takes Ccommand

Major General William E. Depuy (R), Commander of the 1st Infantry Division

As the size, scope and scale of the NLF offensive become more apparent, and as the threats to infrastructure and friendly forces in the area of operations grew MACV reinforced Operation Attleboro with almost the entire 1st Infantry Division and placed the area of operations under the command of the 1st Infantry Division.  As it became clear that an opportunity had arisen to degrade and possibly destroy whole Peoples’ Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) capabilities, as well as PLAF/Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) formations, MACV further reinforced the operation with II Field Force, Vietnam (II FFV) reserve units, diverted units from other less pressing assignments, and a brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, though the 1st Infantry Division Commander retained operational control of the area of operations.  With each stage of reinforcement, the operational guidance to the US Commander changed, in emphasis, and new operational goals were added – the situation was dynamic, and a strategic opportunity became operational guidance.

Cam

 Hoang Cam (Do Van Cam), a PAVN Lieutenant General above pictured circa 1999, was a Senior Colonel in the PLAF and the Commander of the 9th PLAF Division in November, 1966

The NLF Player, as the Campaign begins, is the Commander of the 9th PLAF Division.  This division has been augmented by the 101st PAVN Division and two Local Force Viet Cong Battalions, the latter already present deep in the area of operations.  The 9th PLAF Division Commander has received operational guidance from the strategic command, the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) to, with equal emphasis: isolate and destroy US and Puppet Government (aka South Vietnam) units, destroy US and Puppet Government sites and installations, defend supply locations and infrastructure (this “infrastructure” includes the 82nd Rear Services Group – precious and difficult-to-replace logistics personnel and equipment that maintain the supply infrastructure in War Zone C).

When MACV reinforced Operation Attleboro with the 1st Infantry Division, COSVN had a threshold reached that triggered a strategic fear – that forces under US pressure to the south of the area of operations (in Military Region 4) might not be able to escape to Cambodia.  These forces are ordered to evacuate immediately and enter the area of operations and are placed under the operational control of the 9th PLAF Division Commander.  When MACV further reinforced Operation Attleboro with additional II FFV formations and other assets, COSVN, fearing that the 82nd Rear Services Group and the operating force as a whole was in danger of destruction, ordered a general withdrawal to Cambodia, and provided a reserve unit, the 70th PLAF Guards Regiment as additional reinforcements to the 9th Division Commander to aid this endeavor.

MG Weyand

Major General Frederick Weyand, Acting Commander of II Field Force, Vietnam during Operation Attleboro

So how do you accomplish all that in a game?  How do you determine victory?  How do you resolve the swings in initiative?  How do determine what priority is being placed on each sides’ operational guidance by its strategic command?  How do you maintain the uncertainty to one player regarding what priority is being placed on the other player’s operational guidance by that player’s strategic command?  When is the Operation over?  It was declared over on November 25, 1966, but that doesn’t mean anything, its just a date when MACV felt nothing more could be accomplished.  When should these reinforcements or units moving through or out of the area into Cambodia occur?

Victory – Taking the Hill

Little Round Top

Taking the Little Round Top hexes won’t suffice for Operation Attleboro.  While grabbing infrastructure can be important for the NLF and possibly the US, victory is tiered, based upon the accomplishment of operational guidance and the awarding of victory layered.  I feel strongly about this in wargames, and had an interesting twitter-convo with some folks about just that a few weeks ago.

In AHDS, victory is determined by victory points.  There are several levels of victory for each side: Pyrrhic, Tactical and Operational.  Pyrrhic means you won, but no lasting effects were gained.  Tactical means that you won, and some effects on the area of operations were gained that could impact operations in the next 6-12 months.  Operational means you have gained persistent effects on the area of operations that will likely impact operations for more than a year and you may have impacted the strategic progress of the conflict.  One player must beat the other player in total VP score.  By how much indicates the level of victory.  Victory points are accrued as the Campaign progresses.

Victory Points

Both sides gain victory points (VP) by inflicting casualties of the other side, with higher values for units with specific command capabilities: division or regiment/brigade hqs.   The US player specifically gains high VP yields by destroying evacuating Military Region 4 command cadres and 82nd Rear Services Group units.

The NLF player gets higher VP yields than normal by inflicting casualties on types of US units: aviation, special forces, mechanized.  As well the NLF player gains high VP yields by destroying certain US capabilities; intelligence and training units present in the area of operations.  The NLF player also gets additional VPs for destroying US units. So, for example, destroying the US Army Security Agency Detachment unit will yield 8 victory points for that unit and 2 VPs for destroying a US unit, so 10 VPs total.  The NLF Player also gets high yield VPs for overrunning infrastructure, Special Forces Camps, US Base Hexes, a Fire Support Base.  The NLF player also gains VPs by evacuating Military Region 4 command cadres and 82nd Rear Services Group units to Cambodia.

The goal here was to make victory align with the operational guidance both sides received, but also to factor in losses to that equation.  Both sides had explicit guidance to destroy formations of the enemy.

Strategic Opportunities, Strategic Threats

Strategic Opportunities Strategic Threats

MACV reacted: when perceiving an opportunity to destroy PLAF and PAVN formations, when seeing an opportunity to degrade/destroy NLF capabilities in War Zone C, when seeing a threat to its Special Forces Camps (infiltration-interdiction infrastructure) in War Zone C, when seeing the possibility that US formations may be rendered combat-ineffective.  MACV responded to strategic opportunities and strategic threats.

COSVN reacted: launching the offensive was an opportunity to destroy US Special Forces Camps, when seeing a threat to its forces in Military Region 4, when seeing the possibility that crucial capabilities and formations may be destroyed.  COSVN responded to strategic opportunities and strategic threats.

These opportunities and threats determine and alter operational guidance and impact reinforcements, but I wanted to give the players choices in choosing how to fulfill this guidance.

Operational Guidance – The Battle of Shiloh Ends Promptly on April 7th, Sir

General_Ulysses_S._Grant_and_the_Battle_of_Shiloh

Uncertainty impacts decision making.  If Grant knew there would be no third day at Shiloh, he probably would have made different decisions on the first and second day.  Now a setting an end date or time to a historical wargame isn’t necessarily a flawed approach if there are compelling historical reasons to do so.  But it does impact player decisions, this foreknowledge of time. And uncertainty regarding it makes player choices more impactful and consequential.   Which pushes towards the real goal, trying to make the game a time machine, where the player faces the same decisions, dilemmas and uncertainty as the commander at that echelon.

The same is true about knowing what the other side’s operational guidance is.  As I said above, for both sides, guidance was present, but was often varied.  You may know what they might want to do on the “other side of the hill” generally, but knowledge of their specific objectives isn’t necessarily clear.  This plays into the VP awards; if the emphasis of the operational guidance was changed, the VP awards would also change.

SPEC_344_OperationalGuidance_NLF_BACK

In AHDS I use Operational Guidance chits (OP chits) to simulate the above and create uncertainty regarding the other sides’ goals.  They aren’t options.  They’re baked in.  Its how you play the campaign.  And in the Campaign description (and the Scenarios, they are used there too in the same way, to a more subdued effect).  Players are instructed to read the potential selections of the OP chit draws for the other side.  And it’s the first thing done, before setup.  In the Campaign each side draws three of 6 OP chits and must keep two.  This gives the player a choice in the matter of accepting the guidance.  Here is a US example:

SPEC_342_OperationalGuidance_US5

Chit 5 – MACV is concerned about the Camps!  On any Turn, if the Intensity level is 15 or higher, and Mike Force is not in play on the Map, the US Player may display this chit to the NLF Player in any Command Phase.  At that time, Mike Force is triggered as if the conditions in 16.1.2.1 in the rules had been fulfilled.  Mike Force, even if normally unavailable (due to prior commitment), are immediately available beginning that turn, and committed as per 16.1.2.1.  The US player then Immediately takes a 5 Victory Point Penalty.  If any Special Forces Camps are captured by the NLF in the game the US takes a 5 Victory Point penalty.  As well, if two or more Special Forces Units (other than Mike Force Units) are eliminated in the game the US takes a 5 Victory Point Penalty.  These two penalties are cumulative.  If the US player does not play this chit the US suffers a 5 Victory Point Penalty.  MACV’s concerns regarding the threat to the camps in War Zone C overrides it’s desire to keep Mike Force ready for other contingencies that may arise in III Corps.

So above we can see that I refer to a thing called Intensity – I’ll get to that later.  But what the chit does is two-fold.

For the US player, a capability is granted.  But the player must vigorously defend the SF Camps and protect SF detachments or lose VPs.  Or the player can ignore the emphasis for a loss of VPs (“I’m the guy on the ground, I know what’ll win this.”).

For the NLF Player is creates uncertainty.  Will Mike Force be more readily available?  Can I use the US’s concern for the camps against the US?  This occurs whether of not the chit was drawn and, even if drawn, before the chit is played.

Here is an NLF example:

SPEC_347_OperationalGuidance_NLF4

Chit 4 – Focus the Offensive on War Zone C!  Before NLF Setup (but after US Setup) the NLF Player must display this chit to the US Player.  At that time, the NLF Player must suffer a 10 Victory Point penalty, and all forces available in Reinforcing Event 272nd PLAF Regiment Infiltrates North into War Zone C (272nd PLAF Regiment and 10 Concealment Markers) may be set up on map as per the setup instructions for the 271st PLAF Regiment.  If this Chit is not played the NLF suffers a 5 Victory Point Penalty.   Historically, Colonel Cam, the 9th PLAF Division Commander and Operational Commander of NLF Forces for the Dry Season Offensive, sent the 272nd PLAF Regiment (his best regiment) south to attack a Regional Forces Camp at Soui Cao (approximately 20 miles South off-map).  This dispersed his forces, contrary to COSVN’s concepts, and provided limited gains, though it was a propaganda success.  This Chit represents COSVN providing more specific guidance to Colonel Cam to concentrate his forces.

For the NLF player it provides an immediate on-map payoff in terms of extra forces that readily could have been available at the start of the Campaign, but for a hefty VP cost.  Or the player could ignore it at a lesser cost.  The player will likely take the extra forces.  Who wouldn’t?  Maybe a player wouldn’t as the troops will arrive by the seventh day as a worst case and first may be available on the fourth day at a 70% chance.

For the US Player, the very existence of this OP chit creates uncertainty for the US setup.  The US had better be aware that the NLF at start forces may see an increase by a whole regiment, and a very good one at that. Oh, and relating to the date end and uncertainty, there is a US OP chit that allows the US to extend the operation by five days (from a game end on November 25 to November 30) and reduces the Intensity level.  For a VP price.  And both the US and NLF know that is a possibility.   Sometimes military operations have poker mixed in with the chess.  And that then gets us to Intensity and reinforcements.

Intensity – Blücher Should be Here at Teatime, Sir

Blücher_Waterloo_Carl_Röchling

Operation Attleboro was a dynamic Campaign, almost a meeting engagement, where both sides threw in reinforcements and altered operational guidance based on perceived strategic opportunities and strategic threats.  As set schedule of arrival of those reinforcements would not be appropriate to the player role as commander of forces in the area of operations.  Player behavior as a result of this approach would be fundamentally ahistorical.

This is a frequent dilemma in wargames.  If you know that Blücher is gonna be at Waterloo at 1600 on 18 June 1815 as the Allied Commander, well, great.  But did Wellington know that?  Handy foreknowledge for planning the day’s events.  Also handy for Nappy; better make hay with that mandatory 1100 kickoff for the day’s proceedings.  Leave no capability unused before the Prussians arrive.  Having said that, some foreknowledge is appropriate.  After all the Prussians were on their way, right?  And both commanders knew this was a possibility.

The mechanism I used for AHDS to represent the perception of strategic opportunities and strategic threats altering operational guidance is Intensity.  As the Campaign progresses, certain events and occurrences in the Campaign increase the Intensity level.  When thresholds are reached, this allows the introduction of reinforcing units and/or capabilities for one side or the other.  As well, the different thresholds represent each side gaining the initiative in the Campaign.

Intensity

The Intensity level is constantly increased as the game goes on by events such as: PLAF/PAVN losses, US losses, NLF attacks on SF Camps and other US Base Infrastructure, NLF occupation of SF Camps and other US Base Infrastructure, Successful US Cache Searches.  The latter also provided a handy mechanism to prevent rewarding NLF “gamey” behavior that would have been ahistorical.  Namely, not attempting to launch the dry season offensive or interfere with US operations; being passive and trying to run out the clock.  US cache finds increase the Intensity level, have potential ISR benefits (more in another essay) and may result in VP awards (again, depending on that OP chit draw/selection).

The practical handling of reinforcements fell into place after developing this concept, as did determining the Initiative Player.  When the Campaign begins on November 1, the NLF has the Operational Initiative.  Practically speaking this involves deciding whether to go first or second in the Fires Phase in the game and whether to go first or second in the Operations Phase.  The US player has the at-start forces and a battalion on the way, already dispatched by MACV to support Operation Attleboro.

When the Intensity level reaches 20, MACV, reacting to the strategic threat of the offensive, and seeing a strategic opportunity to engage an destroy PLAF formations, makes the decision to place the operation under the command of the 1st Infantry Division.  Reinforcements are then slotted to arrive; some on that day, some on D+1, D+2, etc. (that part is logistics and transport capability to the area of operations, very easy to parse, historically) and the US becomes the Initiative player.  When the Intensity level reaches 30, COSVN, seeing that its formations and capabilities in Military Region 4 could be trapped there, orders those formations to evacuate.  This practically results in those formation reinforcing the area of operations.  At that time, the NLF player becomes the Initiative Player again.  This occurs again in the Campaign as MACV reinforces with II FFV assets and other formations, and finally as COSVN orders a general withdrawal from War Zone C.  However, neither player, as the game begins could possibly determine when the above will specifically occur.  As well, OP chits for either side may alter the Intensity levels.  Intensity can escalate very rapidly (as it did historically, based on the historic decisions of the respective commanders) or could creep up slowly.

There are other game mechanics and concepts which impact uncertainty, provide players consequential and impactful decisions, all with the goal of placing a player firmly in the role as commander of the player’s forces in the area of operations in A Hot Dry Season.  Hidden and limited information, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, utilization of infrastructure; all these come into play, but are best as topics for another time.  This has been a long “operation” and essay.  I hope that as players engage with the game in the future, the concepts above contribute to their experience of this wargame as a time machine.

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