RogerBW's Blog

Third Harpoon PBEM AAR: The Russians Are Coming 21 November 2014

This third game went a lot faster than the last, taking about twelve days of real time to run.

The scenario was The Russians Are Coming, from the now-obscure 1987 GDW scenario book Battles of the Third World War (largely superseded by 2003's High Tide but I still find the contents interesting). A Soviet surface action group takes on a Norwegian picket ship and supporting forces, aiming to destroy it with as little consumption of resources (especially missiles) as possible, and as far as can be achieved denying the enemy information on which specific ships and classes were involved.

This is where having hidden information became really important. I gave the players briefings out of the book, but they didn't know exactly what opposition they'd be facing. In particular, the Soviets were quite reasonably worried about the Norwegians' Ula-class diesel submarines. In fact, the Norwegians just had a flotilla of eight fast missile/torpedo boats (of the Hauk, Snøgg and Storm classes).

The Soviets set up in two groups, putting a Kara, a Sovremennyy and an Udaloy forward while keeping the Kirov-class BCGN and supporting Krivak/I frigate well back. In fact, the rear force ended up playing no part in the battle except by providing a little helicopter support.

(All images are links to larger versions.)

The Soviets put up a helicopter advancing with their forward group, and the patrol ship Andenes was able to spot it at once by ESM. It didn't help to locate the Norwegian patrol boats, which were not only very small radar targets over its horizon but tucked away in a fjord near a steep rock wall.

Andenes started moving towards the coast for protection against radar-guided missiles, then traversed back and forth for ESM cross-bearings. The Soviet forward force crossed the radar horizon, but at this point everyone was still claiming to be non-hostile, and the Norwegians weren't allowed to open fire until fired on. The Soviet helicopter conducted dipping sonar operations, looking for those elusive diesel boats.

They did however put up Andenes' Lynx helicopter. The Soviets did their best to warn it away by locking on SAM guidance radar, but the pilot was undeterred, and moved in close enough to the forward force to get visual identification of all three ships.

The Lynx landed at the local airfield at Svartnes, on the basis that it had done its job: it had no search radar, its torpedoes were only capable against submarines, and Andenes probably wasn't long for this world.

The Soviets opened fire on Andenes. Knowing that radar-guided missiles wouldn't work, and becoming impatient with the slow progress towards gun range, they used a pair of Metel missiles (SS-N-14 Silex). This is a curious device, which began its life as a torpedo-carrying rocket for anti-submarine work (like the ASROC or Ikara); later generations use a lighter torpedo, so there is also room for an IR guidance package and anti-ship warhead as well. IR guidance is not confused by proximity to the coastline.

Andenes spotted the incoming missiles fairly late and couldn't do much about them, but did get off a distress call and snap-launch her own Penguin missiles towards the enemy before being sunk. They were taken down by SAM fire.

The patrol boats got under way towards the last known Soviet positions. As they rounded the headland, they got ESM hits for guidance.

This is probably the most complex ESM plot I've produced to date.

Several things happened at once. The patrol boats turned on their own radars just as they were coming into Soviet detection range (only about ten miles given their small size). The Udaloy opened up with 130mm gunfire, but didn't have much luck at first. The patrol boats launched their own Penguin missiles at the Soviet force, some forty in total.

Over the next few minutes, the Soviets sent up a wall of SAM fire, whittling down the incoming missiles at the cost of draining their own magazines. In the end just one Penguin hit, striking the Sovremennyy and damaging his rudder.

One Soviet helicopter moved in from the Kirov in the hope of providing torpedo support. The Norwegian boats fired their Tp 61 torpedoes and continued to close in behind them, exchanging gunfire with the Soviets (and, with one very lucky hit, causing major flooding aboard the Kara) as they were whittled down. The Soviets had reduced speed after the Sovremennyy was hit, but even so were unable to detect the torpedoes until they were very close. At which point they went into evasive manoeuvres, and started actively pinging, looking for that [censored] submarine…

The Norwegian boats were all sunk by gunfire, but their torpedoes kept running. Some were off target, some missed, but three hit the Kara and two the Udaloy, sinking both.

Which was enough to give the Norwegians a major victory, even with the total loss of their own forces (which to some extent was expected). A decisive victory would have seen them sinking the Kirov, but apart from one brief ESM contact they didn't get a sniff of him.

Thanks to Todd (Blue) and Luiz and Peirof (Red) for playing. The moment-by-moment maps as shown to each player are available here. Things I've learned from running this game:

  • Once again everyone started pretty close. We had detection of the Soviet helicopter from the very first turn. When I'm designing scenarios I plan to start forces further apart, and have more of a search phase, as in Gulf Escort Déja Vu.

  • This is the first time I've had occasion to run surface-to-surface gunfire, ditto torpedoes, ditto sonar detection. I still don't think I'm fully conversant with the current rules (I want more practice with sonar, and I've barely touched submarines at all), but I've had a pleasantly graduated introduction. (I played a fair bit back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but my memory is hazy and in any case the rules have changed a bit since then.)

  • I am not a robot moderator. If a player says "hey, there's a airfield over there on the map, I want to land at it", I can look up details and agree that it's a possibility rather than refusing because it's not in the scenario notes. We're all in this to have fun, and just as in a role-playing game it's often more interesting to say "yes, but" rather than "no" when the rules don't give an explicit answer.

  • I like asymmetrical scenarios, something that's missing in a lot of games with tournament activity. I'd much rather play something like this, where one side is clearly going to dominate the battlefield but the victory conditions are skewed so that domination on its own is not enough, then an equal-point-value brawl.

  • Calculating a leading intercept course (i.e. the target is going in a straight line, what course should you steer to reach him in the minimum time, as opposed to simply pointing straight towards him which will take longer) isn't as complex as I'd thought it would be, and I've now added it to the orders system. (The trick was to transform the coordinate systems. If you put yourself at the origin and your target is directly up the Y-axis, his transverse (X) speed is his speed multiplied by the cosine of his course angle, and in order to keep the bearing constant your transverse speed should be the same.)

  • Denying information is fun, at least for some sorts of player. Having to work with the limited information available from an intelligence brief, rather than knowing exactly what your opponent is bringing to the fight because you've both read the same scenario notes, adds a layer of realism and makes everyone's job that bit more challenging.

  • And I still haven't had enough. I hope to start another game shortly.

  1. Posted by Luiz Cláudio Duarte at 05:39pm on 21 November 2014

    Roger, thank you very much for your guidance in this scenario.

    For the record, I was the commander of the Soviet forward force, and I can say that it was a very nail-biting experience. And you're quite right, playing with little or no information is fun. Ok, perhaps it's a masochistic kind of fun, but fun it is.

    Mental note for next time: expect the unexpected.

    Congratulations to my NATO counterpart, very well played.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:52pm on 21 November 2014

    Very glad you enjoyed it.

    I don't want to make these into the style of professional wargames such as actual navies use (there's some fascinating stuff at the USNWC site, but it's very much bigger, more high-level and complicated than these have been), but the main thing I look for in a wargame is decision-making: does the player have to make the same decisions with roughly the same information as the real commander would? That's my guiding principle here.

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