Korea is an interesting wargaming subject.
It is the first confrontation between the Cold War superpowers. In the scheme of things, it may seem an unlikely corner of the globe for that to take place, but there are a few factors that funneled us to the Korean war.
I was recently reading the book Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East that is worthy of its own review. It is particularly noteworthy in contrast to a handful of other recent histories on the same subject. A number of books have been written based on the opening of the Soviet archives, and so are written from the Russian perspective. This one is German-centric.
The book explained how Hitler assumed, with each major battle fought and victory not won, that he had weakened the enemy to the breaking point. The Soviet Union in the second World War (in a pattern soon to be repeated with practically all communist armies) wasted huge amounts of Manpower and equipment in the winning of their battles. Hitler assumed that the Russians must exhaust themselves of their man and material resources and thus succumb to Germany. Of course, that never happened. However, the book speculates that perhaps by the end of the war the Soviets had truly depleted their ability to fight and reached that breaking point, if only the German forces hadn’t been even more spent. If so, the perception that the West had about this massive Soviet Army, having just defeated the Germans, may have been overblown. The Russians, at some level of government, may well have had the only realistic picture of their strength relative to the West.
In addition, whatever their beliefs about their conventional forces, clearly for the first few years after the second World War the Russians lacked the atomic capability possessed by the United States. This clearly prevented the Russians from pushing the West too hard.
Back to Korea.
The conflict in Korea start as did so many of the conflicts of the Cold War. The defeat of the Japanese left a vacuum of power and authority on the Korean peninsula, and the barely-on-the-same-side powers of the United States and the Soviet Union vying for post-war influence. The solution was to arbitrarily divide the administration of the country between them, until such time as a reunification under self-government could be implemented. Of course, the influence of the Soviets versus that of the West produced very different governments that offered little hope of a smooth reunification.
In Korea, as the respective governments became self-sufficient, both the North and the South wanted to invade the other so that unification would take place under their respective terms. It is particularly interesting that both the US and the Soviets did not want that to happen for fear of provoking a larger war with their opposite number.
In Russia’s case, however, once the Chinese communists had won Civil War they became open to allowing Kim to invade the South with Chinese backing. China could then shield the Russians from any unplanned escalation.
On the US side they actually withheld arms from South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, in an effort to prevent the south from initiating a war.
In terms of wargaming, this opens up all kinds of what ifs.
What if either the North or the South had started a war before the Chinese Civil War was complete? This would essentially create a sprawling war between communists and the West covering China and Korea. With such a mix of some combatants, it would be likely likely the Soviet forces would be drawn in, just as Chinese were in the real war, and it could have quickly spread from there.
There were not only plans, but active orders to use atomic weapons against the Chinese as they entered the war as well as plans to nuke the Soviets if they joined in. Seeing how close the U.S. came to actually using their atomic arsenal, one can easily imagine how even a small escalation might have quickly ramped up into World War III.
This is all ripe for wargaming on all levels. The tactical scale can focus on both the real operations and the what-ifs that might bring in more Chinese or Soviet troops. The operational scale has a unique conflict which consisted of large-scale conventional warfare that was nonetheless confined both politically and geographically to the Korean peninsula. A strategic treatment, involving the nuclear options, could be fascinating as well.
Given all of that, the conflict seems terribly under served. Games, of course, do exist and I’ll future posts to look at some others not covered today.
My Flying Machine
One exception to this perception of slight is the air war. The serious flight simulation market doesn’t have the raw numbers that the game market in general has, but the Korean War era gets proportional attention.
In addition to being strategically interesting, the Korean War era was technologically fascinating. In some ways, the forces look like World War II. New weapons, such as those atomic bombs, the helicopters, called airstrikes, and medical evacuation all made the Korean battlefield look a bit different than Germany just a few years early. But the most dramatic, especially to most of us today, was the introduction of the jet fighter.
The War started out using essentially the technology which ended the Second World War. The North Koreans were flying Soviet equipment from the end of the War. The U.S. had a mix of end-of-war and post-war aircraft, but the technology was still essentially what was coming on line as the war was ending.
In particular, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was a 1943 design. Lockheed had a contract to produce the aircraft for use in the Second World War, but the platform was never brought on-line. Unfortunately, it’s straight-wing design (as was used on propeller-driven aircraft) made it unable to take full advantage of the upgrade to a turbojet power plant. It was, in fact, inferior in performance to its almost-contemporary, the Me 262. Even more unfortunately, the Soviets had captured German plans and personnel and had based their own jet program on Germany’s foundation. That program produced the MiG 15, which was superior to both the Shooting Star and the other propeller-driven aircraft that were being used in Korea.
But fortune did smile on all of us wargamers yet-to-be.
At North American (the developer of the still-in-use-in-Korea P-51 Mustang) they had found themselves unable to distinguish their jet designs in government procurement competitions. At the end of the war, like the Russians, they gained access to the German design and testing data.Their subsequent redesign led to a production fighter, the F-86 Sabre, rolling out just before the start of the war. When MiG 15s began to appear in the skies over Korea, the F-86s were moved in to counter the new threat.
And thus was born a match-up that has captured imaginations ever since. MiG Alley. Jet age dog-fighting. The near-even contest between the best of Soviet pilots and technology against the best of the West.
But first, let’s start from the beginning.
The first game is a user-made (Community, in their own lingo) scenario for Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. Affectionately dubbed C:MANO by its fans (to differentiated from the 237 other wargames out their called Command), an acronym I will use from here on out. And for those of you playing at home, I like to pronounce it si mano, as a Spanish-speaking George Costanza might.
The scenario is called Fall of Seoul, written by George Ross. It covers the first three days after the North Korean invasion of the South on June 25th, 1950 from a U.S. perspective.
The United States had virtually no forces on the ground and was forced to sit mostly helpless and watch, against all expectations, as the communist forces overran their ally. America did have air and sea assets which, in the scenario, are put to use evacuating key personnel ahead of the invading armies. You have a multitude of air resources in Japan, some airfields in Korea, and a few warships.
The scenario is a wonderful example of what can be done with the game system. The battlefield is huge, particularly for a “real time” scenario, covering the entirety of South Korea, the surrounding seas, and portions of Japan. Despite the large area and high unit count, the gameplay is quite manageable as the scenario design guides your actions. Various tasks are pre-constructed, allowing you to simply add the units their assignments rather than figure it all out on your own. Tasks include things like the various Combat Air Patrol (CAP) locations (high and low altitude for jets versus props), air-lift missions, and sea patrols.
Decisions still have to be made, however, but the pace of the decisions are rather slow. With the bulk of your air force based in Japan, you cannot respond to events around Seoul as they happen. Instead, you must plan well ahead so that the CAP in place, when the enemy shows up, is sufficient to the task. Do you base part of your force forward in Korea? How much? It all balances out very well so as to be enjoyable and engaging without the micro-management that could easily consume the player when the scale is real-time/ one unit per aircraft.
The time period pushes the game and the interface to its lower limit. The database of aircraft and weapons is limited to the Cold War era and beyond, so the ability to create scenarios from an earlier time is limited. In addition, the graphical interface is very appropriate for the level of command when talking about modern combat. Certainly in today’s environment, when a new contact is identified, the location would be expected to be almost immediately available to the command center, and reaction could be nearly instantaneous. It surely feels realistic if a modern commander were to immediately reroute a pair of fighters based on an unknown contact, and to have those fighters respond almost instantaneously. The interface itself, look and feel, is in this way “realistic” when applied to modern operations.
In 1950, however, nobody had big, animated screens showing the current location of aircraft. In fact, even the state of the art probably wasn’t available given the surprise nature of the attack. Whatever manual support would normally be available for a complex air/sea operation was probably not set up for a war nobody expected to happen. Yes, radar technology existed, but was generally lacking in this time and place, again for the same reason. One is tempted to jump on any new piece of information almost immediately when, in fact, responses certainly were in minutes (if not hours) rather than seconds.
The game model does account for this. It is very difficult to spot, identify, or track enemy units. This is probably meant to model the communication issues more than a situation where my pilots keep losing track of enemies that are right in front of them. Nose-mounted cannons and 250-lb bombs are all, of course, fully modeled by the C:MANO system and database, but the game is clearly designed for the age of missiles.
The scenario was challenging, and in a good way. I scored “average,” probably at the low end, which leaves me feeling satisfied I put up a good fight. There were a number of things I should have done differently, had I understood what was going on. Initially, I was instructed by the scenario designer to establish air-superiority over Seoul and then use my transports to accomplish the evacuation mission. I know from reading about the Korean War that air and, especially sea, superiority was a given for the U.S. forces, particularly in in the initial days. So I figured my goal was just to keep 2-4 jets in the air to make sure my reconnaissance and transport aircraft weren’t caught without escort.
Once my patrols first starting contacting groups of enemy fighters; Yak-9s, La-9s and IL-10s, I realized that without numerical superiority, I was just going to be swapping kills. Even coming across some Po-2s, an early-WWII biplane that was, in fact, successfully employed by the North Koreans during the war, I found it very difficult to down them with my Shooting Stars. I also encountered some early shock when I first tried using my A-26 Invaders. The scenario briefing warned me that these were not to be used for combat support for the South Koreans, at least initially, so I held them back. At some point, however, I got reports of a South Korean commercial vessel being shot up by the North. I figured a couple of A-26s could, if not provide direct support, at least spot and identify the culprit. For some reason, however, I had several bombers (it recurred later in the game as well) take off without fuel. When they immediately tried to turn back to base, I figured they had got confused and again ordered them towards the sound of the guns. They ended up ditching in the ocean.
In about the final third of the scenario, I finally got into the swing of things. I had enough of a CAP to prevent getting my jets wiped out by unexpected enemies, plus I had some “alert” Shooting Stars on the runway just south of Seoul to deal with any surprises. I figured out what targets the scenario had in mind for the Invaders, and was starting to take out some key bridges and other assets as the Korean People’s Army swept south. I also managed to keep my airlift going, not losing any of the transport planes.
Then I hit a bump. A group of half-a-dozen-to-a-dozen IL-10s appear minutes away from my airfield, headed towards my train of transports headed, fully loaded, back for Japan. I vectored all my air assets to an intercept point just south of the airfield (at Suwon). I kept my alert jets on the ground, figuring (given how much trouble I’d had against IL-10s), the last thing I’d want to do is give up my speed and altitude advantage by trying to engage the enemy on take-off. Turns out, the “Beasts” target was the airfield itself. I ended up suffering severe damage to all my grounded planes, and point-wise lost a good chunk of my hard-earned score.
In the end, as I said, my score was satisfactory and the game was fun. However, my losses were hugely unrealistic. As far as I can tell, the U.S. did not lose any fighter aircraft in the initial days of the war. The specific operation covered by this scenario was notable in the vast air-superiority of the U.S. planes and pilots. It makes me wonder why the discrepancy. It could be in the scenario design. If the North Koreans are modeled to be much more aggressive than they actually were, it could result in higher air casualties all around. It may also be due to the models in the underlying game. Possibly in the jets versus propellers, the guns-only attack mode, or the experience gap between the U.S. pilots and their North Korean counterparts.
Clearly, there is something in the way of the game’s ability to simulate the actual battle. But as far as a compelling scenario goes, I’d say this one works.
No, I Want to Fly Jets!
Of course, when one speaks of simulating air combat, one is often talking about flight simulators; That sub-genre of wargames where the player actually experiences the game as a pilot in a single aircraft. The world of simulators is an entirely different one that those inhabited by most games. The premium put on realism exceeds almost any other genre and, indeed, sometimes the belief of non-flight-simmers. To those outside the flight-sim world, this focus puts the flight simulation into a category apart for games. It seems more of an actual, dedicated hobby.
For myself, I’ve yet to take it that far. I generally struggle with take-offs and landings and usually rely on my simulated squadron-mates to get the bulk of the mission accomplished. Still, it is one of the most immersive ways to go back in time; To actually experience a battle as one of its participants.
As I started taking a look at the state of some of the older games, I was really surprised at the level of dedication for some of the older flight sims. Perhaps I’ll come back to others later, but for this battle I’m using the IL-2 simulator, and in particular the package IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946, the final release of the original IL-2 series. The 1946 refers to the inclusion, in this release, of various end-of-war aircraft that didn’t quite make it into combat in the second world war.
IL-2 was released more than 15 years ago, and the even the 1946 release is 10 years old. However, as I said, the fans of the game have been busy adding to, enhancing, improving, etc. I’ve installed the Community Universal Patch, an amalgamation of various mods built and support by users over the years. This package is broken into different modules by time frame, including one called The Jet Age 1946-2016, aiming at the cold war period.
Simulating jet combat is very different than simulating WW II combat, and I’ve read criticisms about the later Korean War and Vietnam simulations. This can wait, however. In the initial days of the Korean War, as I said, the combatants were using essentially second world war technology, albeit technology that was not quite fully deployed by the end of the war. I expect that this is one that, whatever its capabilities once you get away from WWII, the IL-2 engine fully on the mark.
Up until this point, I’d only played with IL-2 in WWII, either the Russian front scenarios or the Pacific War (the Pacific Fighters expansion). It was pleasantly surprised to find what the CUP mods did for me “right out of the box.” A map of the Korean’s theatre is already put together, with the right airbases all in place. The “Quick Mission” generator has Korean War missions already, to be thrown together with a few mouse-clicks. Add to that, the current version of the full mission editor makes it fairly straightforward to map exactly the tactical situation that I’m looking at on the CMANO screen into a flyable IL-2 skirmish.
And I did exactly that.
On top of all that, the Jet Age package has, as one of the default campaigns, the opening weeks of the Korean War. It’s a little different than the Fall of Seoul. It takes place a few days later after the arrival of Task Force 77 for support. You play as a Grumman F9F pilot flying from the USS Valley Forge.
One of the “Quick Mission” setups is nearly identical to the raid that did me in during my CMANO game. With a couple of clicks, I have the same aircraft attacking the same airfield, me with the same dozen or so planes on the ground. Except this time, I’m actually scrambling my fighters, not waiting until they’re blown up in their hangers.
My first impression with the P-80 was how I encountered the same, unexpected difficulties in the pilot’s seat as I was seeing as the commander. When I encountered equal numbers, I was trading losses pretty evenly. It was only with significant numeric superiority that I’d see clean victories. I also tried shooting down the Po-2, and the result looked just like in my CMANO game; In pass after pass I was missing my target, unable to get a good shot on the slow moving biplane.
Of course, as I’ve said, I’m not much of a flight simmer.
I Ain’t Got No Where Else to Go
Even with that caveat, I had a problem.
I’m using a flight stick and throttle combination that I’ve had for, also, somewhere between 10 and 15 years. I’d not used it for a while, but broke it out again about a year ago. As the year progressed, I’d noticed a number of problems. First off, the whole setup had gotten sticky. Both, literally, sticky on the grip surfaces but, more annoyingly, the controls would have a tendency to lock in place. The shove needed to move them would of course throw off whatever I was actually trying to accomplish in-game. I also noticed that several of the controls, but especially my throttle, was out of tune. One game I’d be unable to throttle all the way down to zero. The next game, I couldn’t throttle up past the 80% mark.
I finally got the hang of re-calibrating before a session. But with my Korean flights, even that didn’t seem to do it. The calibration wouldn’t necessarily survive past a flight or two.
Then it got even worse. In flying the Shooting Star I was getting constant engine trouble. Any time I’d try to increase throttle, I’d get a couple of compressor failures and the finally an engine flame-out. The first time I tried the base defense mission, I spent the entire battle coasting over the airfield, trying to get my engine restarted while the commies destroyed the place.
Again, not all that different than the C:MANO outcome.
While I applaud the modelling of the engine characteristics, which were genuinely a problem with that plane’s operation, I couldn’t believe the real aircraft was as bad as this. I would think that, in the heat of a battle, pushing the throttle forward in an attempt to save one’s hide wouldn’t be uncommon. If the engine were really this sensitive, surely they’d have been dropping out of the sky like summer rain.
By contrast, the Grumman Panther did not have the same tendency to flame out. Again, whether the design was less sensitive or the model for that plane less realistic, I wouldn’t know enough to say.
Finally in my last game, back in the Shooting Star, I was starting to get compressor failures without even touching the throttle. It seems that my flight controls were throwing all kinds of crazy numbers into the program.
Time to buy some new equipment.
I ended up buying a Thrustmaster Hotas X, incidentally at considerably less than I originally paid for my old Saitek.
As I write this, I only have a couple of flights with the new setup. So far, much improved. My only compressor failure was because the new throttle sticks at midpoint, and I gave it too hard a shove to get it out. Control is a lot smoother, and I get the performance I’d expect from a jet. So far, I haven’t got all my controls remapped quite right, so I’m still performing miserably. (I usually dump all my ammo without any kills).
But at least now, I have only myself to blame.
Way to go, Paula. Way to Go.
So my conclusion from this episode?
While I’d played C:MANO before, this scenario really impressed upon me the capabilities of a well-designed scenario. I look forward to playing more.
I think I’m going to be a lot happier with my new flight stick, and I look forward to more of that, too.
I suspect that the USAF and USN pilots during the Korean war were a lot better, and the North Koreans considerable worse, than the computer simulations of their skills predict. In particular, the it may have been that if the North could have exploited their initial air superiority in this battle, they would have had the confidence to use their skills to the full potential. I’ll be interested in other simulations of asymmetric warfare to see how such one-sidedness gets handled.