Wargaming 101: A Tale of Two Forces

Another article from William “Chip” Sayers. This article addresses some his work at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and his attempts to do some basic combat modeling efforts. The Gulf War ended in February 1991 with the defeat of the regular Iraqi army and the liberation of Kuwait. This article picks up four years later, when he had taken over the DIA’s Kuwaiti desk. As it is a nice integrated PDF discussion with maps and charts.

——-Bolding is mine ———–

Wargaming 101: A Tale of Two Forces

In September of 1994, Saddam Hussein ordered his Republican Guard to rush the border with Kuwait to test our resolve and reaction time. Inheriting Defense Intelligence Agency’s Kuwaiti desk a year later, I studied this exercise and pondered several questions. First, putting together the timelines showed that — in contrast to what the Clinton Administration claimed — Saddam began pulling the RG back before US troops ever landed in theater. This proved that he wasn’t contemplating an actual re-invasion unless, perhaps, the US failed to react at all to the provocation. 

In the event, the US unilaterally imposed a “no-drive zone,” similar to the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. While Iraqi military aircraft were not allowed to fly in the NFZ, only the Republican Guard was prohibited from entering the no-drive zone: The Iraqi Regular Army — not seen as a threat — was allowed to stay and operate in Southern Iraq. While the timelines imposed by the no-drive zone appeared to be sufficient to keep the Republican Guard out of Kuwait until reinforcements could arrive and fall in on prepositioned equipment at Camp Doha in Kuwait City, the question arose in my mind, “could the Regular Army spearhead an invasion and defeat the Kuwaiti Land Forces before we could intervene?” 

To explore this question, I needed two things: good intelligence on the forces and plans involved and a way to evaluate their probabilities of success. I was well supplied with excellent reports by observers in theater, so no problem there. The evaluation took a bit more creativity. I decided to use a version of Col. Dupuy’s technique he introduced in his book, The Options of Command. There, Col. Dupuy scored the armies facing each other in the May 1940 campaign in France and laid them out according to their historic dispositions. He then adjusted the forces by using the relevant terrain, posture and troop quality modifiers. Comparing the resultant power ratios, he surprisingly deduced that the French Army deployed itself exactly as though the Maginot Line fortifications did not exist. Taking the Maginot fortresses into account, he then suggested an alternative deployment that he convincingly portrayed as being capable of stopping the German advance through the Ardennes.

I proposed to do the same for the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations. The first order of business was to establish an order of battle for the two sides. The Kuwaiti Land Forces OOB were fairly easy: they were all in against an existential threat. Where things got complicated was the mish-mash of equipment the KLF was in the middle of procuring and the fact that the KLF was woefully undermanned and undertrained. The Kuwaiti Emir and Parliament believed that it was paramount that they get as many strong allies as possible interested in their survival, so their military procurement plan was to make a significant purchase of top-shelf equipment and weapons from as many different, militarily strong nations as possible. These countries included the United States, the UK, Russia, China and others. It didn’t matter that the equipment wasn’t necessarily designed to work together, it only mattered that Kuwait had many friends in high places. 

At the same time, the KLF had no equivalent to the US military’s Uniformed Code of Military Justice. If a KLF soldier failed to show up for training one day, there was no legal recourse to make that happen. Consequently, the KLF wasn’t making the progress in soldier training that it should. While their weapons were new and generally very good, they didn’t have enough trained soldiers to man them. It was as though the Kuwaitis had one boot on and one boot off.

For the Iraqi side, I chose the Regular Army’s southernmost command, III Corps, with a possible reinforcement from IV Corps stationed just to the north. I gave them credit for having their full Table of Organization and Equipment (undoubtedly optimistic, but serving my purposes) and I scored the individual units using Col. Dupuy’s methodology and normed the scores to make them easier to work with. This resulted in the following table:

Note: DW = Desert Warrior IFV; PLZ-45 = Chinese SP Howitzer; M-84 = Yugoslav T-72 variant; 9A52 = Russian “Smerch” 300mm SP MRL; DIVARTY = Division Artillery; Lt Recce Bn = HMMWV battalion

The next piece of the puzzle was the KLF’s deployments. Fortunately, the KLF had been running exercises that attracted much attention from observers, and there were few subtleties to add to what was fairly obvious on a map study. Their rough dispositions looked something like this:

KLF dispositions are in blue, while Iraqi formations are in red.  Note that the 6th Brigade’s maneuver battalions are on the border, constituting a covering force for the KLF.

At the time, the KLF 26th brigade was awaiting its compliment of M-1A2 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, so was relegated to observing the western approach to Kuwait City with its lightly armed HMMWVs. In a throwback to Patton’s 1944 XIX Tactical Air Command, they shared responsibility for stopping any Iraqi thrust down that road with the Kuwaiti Air Force.

Overall, the two sides’ force ratios don’t look promising for the attacking Iraqis.

However, looks can be deceiving. While the conventional wisdom that the attacker requires a 3:1 superiority to succeed, the Soviet/Russian Correlation of Forces Methodology is more sophisticated and recognizes that as long as a commander can do economy of force operations in some sectors to enable concentration in others sufficient to overcome the defender, even an overall inferiority of combat power can be made to work. In this case, a 1:1 will serve the purpose. Consider the following CoFM formula:

Thus, on an overall frontage of 80km, the attacker can array his forces such that he can achieve a 3:1 superiority in a 16km wide strike sector. In this case, he has to allow a defender superiority of 2:1 outside the strike sector, but this isn’t a problem as the defender is not likely to recognize an opportunity to attack until it is too late, and even if he did, he would make little headway (the line of contact doesn’t begin to move rapidly until one side achieves a 3:1 superiority) while his forces inside the strike sector are frantically calling for help.

I set up the covering force battle like this:

The IZ 6th Armored Division can get a fairly overwhelming force ratio over the entire width of his zone of attack, and by loading up on its shared border with the 6th AD, the Iraqi 51st Mech Division can add a further 19km — for a total breakthrough zone of 46km, right in the middle of the line.  The KLF’s 6th Mech Bde would have to move fast to keep from being cut in two and swept away from its MLR positions.

The IZ 51st MID’s frontage in the Covering Force Battle

The Iraqi 11th ID is the weak sister of the force, but it merely has to keep the battalion opposite them occupied while the other two divisions blow through the center of the covering force area.

As this modified version of the Dupuy model does not assess casualties, the KLF 6th Mechanized Brigade is assumed to have broken contact and occupied their positions on the MLR without damage — a best case scenario for the Kuwaitis, to be sure.

Clearly, the assault on the main Kuwaiti defense positions will take some creative planning. However, all the Iraqis need is a breakthrough in one zone as there is virtually nothing behind it. The IZ 10th Armored Division has so far been held back as an exploitation force. If a normative breakthrough is achieved, the 10th AD will slip through the hole in the KLF lines and it will be game over. If the 10th is forced to assist in the breakthrough, things will be less certain for the Iraqis.

Many Iraqi senior officers attended Soviet academies where they learned CoFM calculations. The norms they would have learned to look for were a division breakthrough zone of 4km for a division and 2km for a brigade. So the question becomes, could they achieve at least one attack zone with a force ratio of at least 3:1 and at least 4km in width?

The negative number circled above indicates that the IZ 11th Inf Div cannot achieve a breakthrough.

Calculations for the IZ 6th Arm Div.  Note that it achieves a 4:1 ratio in the breakthrough sector and is twice the necessary width.

Again, the IZ 51st Mech Div cannot achieve a breakthrough.  The best the 51st can do is to make a fixing attack on the KLF 15th Arm Bde and keep them from interfering with the 6th AD’s breakthrough.

This constitutes a win for the Iraqis as 6th AD has achieved a breakthrough on twice the frontage required and can pass 10th AD through as an exploitation force. Further, this was done with a superiority of 4:1 as insurance to protect their vital main effort. While the breakthrough frontage may seem somewhat narrow to those with NATO army perspectives, the Iraqi units are somewhat smaller than their Soviet/Russian counterparts. Iraqi doctrine was a mix of east and west, but if they had applied CoFM calculations to this situation, the breakthrough frontage would have seemed somewhat spacious to their eyes.

Feeling somewhat satisfied with my results, I tried several other variations, including one with the KLF 15th Brigade deployed with its ultimate TO&E of Abrams MBTs and Bradley IFVs, and others with equipment substitutions and expansion. However, the most interesting scenario concerned with the training and manning issues within the KLF. I posited that if the Kuwaiti Government instituted a form of UCMJ and could then get its soldiers to show up for training, a 50% troop quality superiority could probably be justified when fighting the Iraqi Regular Army. The Kuwaiti Air Force had received its full compliment of F-18 fighters and its pilots had been trained up to excellent standards by the best trainers the US Navy had to offer.  They literally went from zero to the best air force in the Gulf region in the matter of a few short years. Perhaps some good discipline and training would have a similar effect on the KLF.

I set up the battle exactly as I had before, except that I included a 1.5 modifier for the KLF to represent a 50% superiority over the Iraqi Regular Army in training. This, I believed, was not excessive given the mass surrenders by the Regular Army in 1991 and (in retrospect) their non-appearance in 2003. We didn’t know until later that Saddam had essentially stripped the RA of useful equipment and soldiers to keep up the Republican Guard. In any event, the overall force ratios looked like this:

Starting out, this looks to be a much bigger challenge than in the base case. The covering force battle was still a likely win for the Iraqis, but again, not as easy as before.

The 6th Armored and 51st Mech can still breach the covering force area, albeit on a smaller but still sufficient frontage, than in the base case. However, it’s the fight for the KLF’s primary defensive positions that will tell the tale.

The 11th Infantry Division is, not surprisingly, a lost cause and no amount of adjusting frontage can give them any possibility of stopping the KLF’s 35th from mounting a counterattack with a 2.3:1 force superiority, generating a 6:1 superiority on a breakthrough frontage of 9km. Or better yet, shifting half its combat power to bolster 6th Mech Bde.

Continuing with the IZ 6th Armored Div/KLF 6th Mech Brigade’s sector, the Iraqi force can generate a 4:1 ratio over the minimum required 4km.  As in the base case, a 4:1 ratio was chosen to add a pad for insurance on the main effort axis. However, if the Kuwaiti 35th Brigade extended its left-flank boundary far enough to the west to allow half of its combat power to defend against the 6th Arm Div, as suggested, above.

As can be seen, this case drives the breakthrough frontage to an insufficient 1km, even while only requiring a 3:1 superiority. With the IZ 51st Mech Div starting out with a .3:1 inferiority opposite the KLF 15th Armored, it’s clear that they won’t be able to stop a shift of forces to eliminate any possibility of a breakthrough in the center sector, or better yet, a left-hook counterattack at a superiority of 6:1 with the possibility of rolling up IZ III Corps in its entirety.

This seems to prove fairly definitively that III Corps has no chance of winning the battle for the KLF’s main line of resistance without reinforcement from IV Corps’ 10th Armored Division. Even at that, the Kuwaitis could likely make an orderly withdrawal to positions west of Ali al Salem Air Base extending to Wadi al Batin, where the terrain is still favorable for armored warfare, while leaving small forces to block any advance down Kuwait City-Safwan highway (the infamous “highway of death”) where the road comes down off the Jal Az-Zor escarpment, and the coastal road at the base of the escarpment.

The KLF redeploys to its 2nd MLR. The 26th Bde picks up reinforcements from the other three brigades and picks up the mission to delay or block any Iraqi attempt to come down off the Jal Az-Zor escarpment (approximate location shaded in yellow).

None of this analysis has included the role of the Kuwaiti Air Force. Without turning this into an air forces analysis piece, 40 well-flown F-18s would have made quick work of the Iraqi Air Force. These fighters and the KAF’s 16 Apache Longbow attack helicopters would have added a powerful layer of interdiction and Close Air Support firepower to the mix.

Satisfied that I was onto something with this initial cut, I wanted to involve the Iraqi senior analyst and others in the process. I had seen the pitfalls of doing a study like this with no one to play Red Force or even give advice on how the other side would really play in such a scenario. However, my pitch fell flat: no one could conceive of a situation in which the Republican Guard would not lead such an operation, and that rendered this study moot. No matter how I argued for the need to study this scenario, or some of the interesting things I had pulled from the initial run, I got no interest. So, the project collected dust in a filing cabinet. 

All was not lost. I had learned a great deal on how to do such a project and some of the information did make it into a report for which I received a handwritten note of commendation from Defense Secretary William Perry. I had wanted to introduce wargaming into the analytical process as a tool for those who saw a use for it. We had some great success in training new analysts with wargames and earned high praise from students who didn’t understand how military forces worked until they had to learn their force capabilities and make decisions of consequence in a dynamic simulation. However, when those same analysts graduated and dispersed to their various desks, most never gave another thought to wargaming. I suspect they didn’t have confidence in the utility of our simulations in the real world where lives are on the line. That’s on me — I obviously did not explain sufficiently where this model came from and how well it had performed in real situations. 

Still, if this effort was to get anywhere, I needed management buy-in. And for a brief moment at the end of the 1990s, I thought I had that. But that’s a topic for another post.


A link to a .pdf of the article is here: KTO.

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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  1. Very good analysis. However I do not understand why people rely on Force Ratios rather than wargame the tactical battlefield at the unit level on a table with terrain. The tactics used by one side can be decisive, regardless of Force Ratios. For example, I expect that if you used Force Ratios Alexander the Great would have lost to the Persians. His tactical brilliance and leadership made all the difference. Force Ratios seem to ignore this.

    Wargaming is valuable but battlefield tactics are central. Force Ratios may be OK for a first approximation but only for that.

    • I bought my first commercial wargame over 50 years ago, have been an avid player ever since, and have even designed a couple of my own. I also spent a lot of time in the basement of the Pentagon playing theirs and taught new analysts using wargames throughout my career. Further, I acted as the White Cell for my classmates at USMC Command and Staff College and School of Advanced Warfighting. So, I don’t think you will ever find anyone who feels more passionate about using full-up wargaming to explore operational possibilities.

      However, I would point out that gathering a full compliment of players and support staff to do that kind of wargaming is very difficult to do. Further, getting everyone sufficiently familiar with the “rules” to get valid results often proves to be a bridge too far. It is simply too difficult to do on a routine basis without having a full-time wargaming staff — a resource sink few organizations would be willing to invest in.

      This study actually did take maneuver into account, with the KLF 26th Brigade guarding the flank and breakthrough sectors being stacked next to each other to drive defending units apart. However, I think you’re missing the fact that no matter how you maneuver, wargames always come down to how much combat power the two sides have at the pointy end of the spear. The only way to avoid a combat power ratio at some level is to game out the individual weapons systems firing on one another. I think we can all agree that the history of operations research proves that madness lies that way.

      As for Alexander, I can only say that — by definition — he had more combat power at the tip of the spear, be it from his troops’ superb training and morale, their superior weapons, tactics and morale, or even (and especially) Alexander’s own generalship. I could cite Clausewitz’s statements on the importance of numbers, but he did so while admitting that the Napoleonic era armies were essentially interchangeable in terms of troops and weapons.

      Having said all this, I would generally agree with you that I was doing a preliminary assessment that could have benefited from a more intensive examination, and that the more explicitly maneuver can be integrated, the better the results will be.

    • To be applicable in a combat environment, the model has to be kept simple, accessible, and clearly structured.

      Perhaps our view on Alexandrine tactics and history is greco-centric and the Persians may have never enjoyed such a favourable force ratio in the first place, at least not at the point of impact.

      • I can see what you mean, but couldn’t you create a high level model for practical use based on the findings of a detailed war game?

        Alexander is glorified still is an example of the tactical genius who could upset outcomes based on force ratios.

        I think the issue Chip raised about gathering and keeping a team of expert war gamers may be the real stumbling block. It does surprise me though. As a keen historical war gamer I would think I was in heaven if offered a full time role as a professional war gamer. In a military organisation I would have thought you would have any number of similarly motivated officers.

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