September 24, 2022

Battle Lab ~ Defining “Logistics” for Wargames

Brant Guillory, 14 March 2022

Anyone watching the news knows that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not off to a great start1, for a litany of reasons. While the poor tactical performance of the Russian troops can generally be accounted for in a wargame design, their overall logistics failures are much tougher to quantify in a “gameable” way. There are a number of reasons for this, so let’s explore them, primarily through the lens of US Army standards, but this is largely applicable to most Western/NATO forces.

First, a quick note: this article is likely to get shared across a variety of social media wargaming channels. Heck, we share it in a number of them! And I can already predict at least half of the social media comments will be: “Just play OCS – that has realistic logistics!” or “Race to the Rhine is nothing but logistics!” and the inevitable “no game has a more detailed logistics model than CNA!” As you read this article, you’ll note that some of those statements have little to do with what we’re about to discuss, and you can guarantee that anyone making a similar comment on the social media hasn’t bothered to read this column.

What are “logistics”?

Many wargamers conceptualize “logistics” as “supplies.” That’s not a completely unexpected way to approach logistics from a game perspective. It’s a simple enough “counting” tool to limit the choices a player has in the game. Additionally, it’s easy to add or subtract granularity in the types and quantities of “supplies” being tracked to suit the tastes of the designer and/or players.

Supplies are only one tool in the logistics toolbox, however. Supplies are useless without transportation to get them where they are needed, which requires assets to move them, and some form of a transportation network on which they travel (road, rail, sea, air, river, etc.). To keep both the transportation assets and the combat assets operational, there’s a certain level of mechanical maintenance needed. To keep all of those assets adequately crewed, there’s also a vital medical aspect to the overall logistics plan. Readers that are knowledgeable of US Army doctrine will recognize all of those tasks at the brigade level are the brigade S4’s responsibility, with the TRANS, MAINT, and MED companies in their support battalions as the key operators.

Moreover, those functions are all mirrored in the maneuver battalions, where the BN S42 (and to an extent, the S13) are the primary logistics planners. They have at their disposal a support platoon for hauling fuel & cargo, an expansive maintenance team that includes contact teams detailed directly to maneuver companies, and a medical platoon with ambulances and an aid station. If you are interested in how these assets interact and how they would be positioned on the battlefield you can find much more information in this video from The ACDC back in January 2021.  Crucially, the assets needed to adequately model the battlefield logistics used to sustain a kinetic engagement (or a series of them) don’t even exist in most wargames at the tactical / grand-tactical level, and are barely present at the operational level.

Supplies

Let’s talk some terminology. The U.S. military breaks supply into various “classes” where the three most important during a shooting war are I, III, and V4. Those correspond to food & water, fuel and lubricants, and ammo, in that order. Other classes of supply include things like class IV, barrier & construction material (for obstacles or defensive positions), or class IX, which covers repair parts. Class VI are “sundry” items like toothpaste and deodorant, but also includes alcoholic beverages, which is why so many members of the US military patronize their on-post “Class VI Store” as it’s essentially a DoD-run package store.

BL-ClassSupplyMany wargamers are immediately drawn to this specific facet of “logistics” as it’s the easiest thing to bolt on to most game systems. It is, essentially, a spreadsheet drill. You have X amount of each type of supply on hand, and you are replenished at a rate of Y/turn, which limits your actions based on a need of Z amount of each type needed for the operations you’re trying to conduct. The level of granularity can be varied by the designer (are you tracking “supplies” in general, or breaking down into “ammo” and “fuel” separately, or breaking down “ammo” into specific calibers of ammunition) and you can vary the replenishment rates based on the conditions in the game (such as an economic/production model). But ultimately, this is predictive addition and subtraction, aggregated across multiple rows of a spreadsheet. Some gamers want that, some don’t. YMMV

Transportation

Speaking of mileage… the transportation function is the next-most-likely “logistics” function to incorporate into most wargames. There are various ways to do this, from maintaining lines-of-supply5, to assessing capacities of roads, to stacking limits based on the ability to transport supplies across the terrain to the units. There might be a tool used to limit the resupply capacity based on a number of available transportation assets, either as actual counters on a map, or a more ethereal number of transportation assets tracked off-map.

What is almost never incorporated into hobby/commercial wargames is the actual on-the-ground transportation location planning, as described in the logistics video mentioned above. Some games offer supply dumps or logistics units on the map, with a need to maintain them within a certain range on the map to be effective. Not addressed is the actual usage of the road network to move things around. Which roads are set aside for logistics usage vs tactical usage? What traffic has priority on those roads? Who is responsible for securing those roads? What about non-military traffic on them? Many of these questions can be answered within the game design itself, but the designer needs to make sure that they are actually addressed when incorporating transportation as a logistics function into a game.

Maintenance

Maintenance is a very challenging part of logistics to track in a wargame, and perhaps the easiest choice is here to just degrade the overall combat power or movement allowances of units that are bad at it and be done with it.

But for those of you interested in greater detail about the broader maintenance processes, the general flow is something like this: vehicle operators have a variety of checks they are expected to make (daily, weekly, before/during/after operations) and should be working out of an actual manual specifying those maintenance checks; they document their maintenance defects to submit to their mechanical support organization, which then either ships the appropriate parts to the vehicle operators or shows up to fix it themselves; sometimes those defects involve a needed supply item (repair part, lubricants like motor oil, etc) and need to be moved through the supply system if they are not on-hand.

BL-PSPages
US Army maintenance “comics” have been around since the 1950s, are issued monthly, and contain a wealth of details about current maintenance issues across the entire force

But simply knowing what that maintenance flow should look like doesn’t address its actual execution. The successful execution of a competent maintenance process requires operators to actually check their vehicles and equipment on a regular basis, and accurately document their issues. That documentation needs to be handed off in a timely fashion, which requires some freedom of movement to get that data where it’s needed. It also needs the maintenance team to accurately assist in diagnosing the problem and actually having the needed repair parts on hand to be able to fix the issue. Aside from tracking the overall quantity of “supplies” in general, or “repair parts” specifically6, how would you incorporate the maintenance “flow” into an actual game? How do you create an enjoyable mechanism of having vehicle crews and equipment operators grabbing their manuals and going through item-by-item in their books to check all of the appropriate steps in their maintenance checks, and then documenting that info to submit to their logistics teams?

There’s a certain level of abstraction that necessary in the maintenance function of the overall logistics toolkit, otherwise you’re just playing the “auto shop simulator game” and that’s a very different experience. As our man Rocky has pointed out, air warfare games capture this by having aircraft move from Landed–Rearmed–Ready, so perhaps there’s some ability to incorporate a similar maintenance statuses for ground combat games. Doing so requires a game that tracks vehicles and the individual level, and over enough time that the “maintenance window” between battles is a part of the game. Face it, no one is checking their engine oil levels while under fire.

Medical

Finally, medical support is wargames is a many-varied function. Some tactical games have actual medics present. Occasional games have some sort of broader “repair” function that allows units to be reconstituted, which inherently includes having equipment on-hand for those units, but is useless without the people to use it. The level of abstraction is often inherently high because absent that abstraction, you’re now just playing a hospital game, and that’s not usually what wargamers are after.

The forces you’re representing in the game have real-world on-the-ground medical issues to deal with, and not just from gunshot wounds. Are you dealing with frostbite because you don’t have the correct winter gear issued to your soldiers? Even if all your equipment is working perfectly, and supplies are flowing as needed, are your soldiers fatigued from not getting enough sleep? Once the fur starts to fly, do you have enough ambulances to evacuate your casualties, and are your troops trained in the ability to provide first aid to stop the immediate damage before moving those casualties to the ambulance, and once they ambulance has them, where are they headed? Who takes care of them once they’re there? How do you get them back? Again, these are real-world discussions that matter to the boots on the ground, but don’t make for a very satisfying wargame experience. They just collectively contribute to the degradation of the combat power of the unit as they pile up on you.

 

In the field

When tracking these things in US/NATO command posts, you’ll often hear a report about “135MM”7 – pronounced “one, three, five, mike, mike” – that is actually 5 different things: Class I – Class III – Class V – Maintenance – Medical
For each of those 5 items, you typically get a color-coded status for it: green, amber, red, or black. Individual units will have their own thresholds for GARB, depending on their SOP, but it’s usually

  • Green = 90% or better
  • Amber = 70-90%
  • Red = 50-70%
  • Black = below 50%

So a radio report might sounds something like
“This Dragon 4, one-three-five mike-mike follows. Green, red, red, amber, green.”

The command post immediately knows that the unit is OK on food & water, hurting for fuel & ammo, has some sort of breakdowns, and has taken very few casualties. There may be a threshold to launch an emergency fuel & ammo package to that unit based on the 3/5 part of the report.

But here’s the key: those reports are immediately understood, will sometimes trigger specific actions based on decision points established in the plan, and flow with regularity to all the correct people in the support part of the organization, because they are consistently used during training. These things become second nature because in a high-stress environment like combat, muscle-memory takes over, and these sorts of actions and reports are executing almost unconsciously.

Most Western militaries operate under the oft-heard adage that you should “train as you fight” – that is, whenever possible, your training should mirror as much of your in-theater experience as it can. If you typically operate while wearing body armor when deployed, then you wear body armor whenever you’re in the field in training. If you typically send a specific kind of report on a regular schedule when deployed, then you do the same report every time you’re in the field in training. When training, you still specify your night shift for security, put them out there as a part of your personnel rotation, even if all they’re guarding against are stray raccoons trying to raid your extra bag of chips you left in the back seat of the HUMMWV. This training included the regular rotation of all of those elements of logistics we’ve mentioned above – your regular food rotation showing up with the fuel & ammo resupply, the regular maintenance checks on all your vehicles and equipment, the regular medical checks of your soldiers, etc.

And while Western militaries will “train as you fight” it’s because the reverse is also true: you fight as you train. I mentioned “muscle memory” above. Training is what creates that muscle memory. Repetition is what ingrains that muscle memory. When Western armies head to the field, everyone knows what to do because they’ve done it, over and over. The Russian troops in Ukraine? It’s clear they’ve hardly done anything. Wait, that’s not entirely fair. The Russian airborne troops made some dope-ass YouTube videos.

 

Putting it into a game

So when we talk about “logistics” in a wargame, what is it we’re really describing? Are we talking about the proper execution of your daily flow of logistics needs? If so, what reporting is that based on? Are we talking about trying to aggregate the overall competence and diligence of the individual soldiers and their immediate supervisors at caring for their equipment? Or are we assessing the organizational effectiveness of a higher-level unit at planning, resourcing, rehearsing, and executing the successful movement of needed assets throughout the battlefield?

The vast majority of wargamers – including all those yutzes that are commenting on social media without bothering to read this article – are focused on the Campaign for North Africa spreadsheet drill to track individual calibers of bullets by type and quantity and calculating throughput/day based on the intensity of combat and declaring it “the most detailed logistics model in wargaming!” 

…and they’re flat wrong.  

Yes, there are also naval wargaming equivalents of this, too, that track individual missile reloads and 30mm gun ammo. Granularity in supply tracking is an accounting exercise, not a “model” of logistics. Yay, you can work a spreadsheet. You passed 4th-grade math, and you can do it in Excel. Here’s your gold star on your homework, now kindly step aside so we can get back to work on the full spectrum of logistics.

BL-LogAll
From theater-level sustainment (top) to individual platoons rotating thru a company LOGPAC (bottom), the execution of logistics is a complex, multi-layered dance that requires constant usage to maintain proficiency

Logistics cover so much more than just consumption-rate math. A more robust model of logistics will include, 1) some sort of exercise that uses logistics as a limiting factor in the type, timing, and volume of actions that you can take in the game, but will also, 2) incorporate some sort of transportation model that forces you to get those supplies to the right place, or else your actions are constrained until they arrive. Whether it’s supply wagons of gunpowder, or the more nebulous “supply” counters of OCS games that need to move around, there’s at least a need to put the supplies in a particular place at a specific time, and that level of planning gets much closer to the execution of battlefield logistics than just crunching numbers on what’s needed, and assuming it’ll get delivered as you expect.

The full spectrum of on-the-ground logistics execution, from your First Sergeant picking up the LOGPAC at the LRP8 to delivering it to each platoon in sequence, to the platoons restocking their supplies and turning in their maintenance paperwork, to the LOGPAC returning to the field trains, to the supply sergeants requesting the needed supplies (water, food, ammo, fuel) and the mechanics providing the appropriate parts to reload the next LOGPAC, and then back through the cycle again, is not one of those ‘cool’ things that people want to do when playing a wargame.

Moreover, the brigade-to-division-to-corps bulk supply flow is even more complex, never mind actually shipping the appropriate orders into theater for an over-the-horizon expeditionary force. And we haven’t touched on airdrop-only behind-the-line resupply, for a very good reason (it sucks).

What else haven’t we even touched? Assume you put a perfect replication of the daily churn of your force’s logistics system in place, and you’re able to fine-tune it to a perfectly-humming machine where supplies are flowing forward and information is flowing to the rear, and the right pieces are in the place at the right time to execute all your tactical and operational missions, and your wargame now includes a nice, clean model of how the 135MM process all works in perfect harmony. Yay!

Now the enemy takes a shot at your trucks. Whoops.

If you’re going to bolt on a logistics engine of some sort into your wargame, you also need some mechanism through which is can be disrupted by enemy action. Otherwise, the only way your logistics get interrupted is your own incompetence. In every conflict, your enemies get a vote, and there are a great many ways in which they can cast a ballot to screw with your logistics processes. Are they attacking your supply convoys? Your supply dumps? Are they simply disrupting or delaying your logistics flow? Are their attacks in one location forcing civilian evacuations that disrupt your use of the roads in another location? Are their attacks forcing your combat units to displace to the point where you’re out of logistical support range? Are you now burning through your lovingly-balanced spreadsheet estimates faster than expected to the point where your delicate hands are no longer caressing the numeric keypad, but rather avoiding the sweat dripping off your brow as your balance sheet is upended?

 

Wrapping it up

Yes, we’ve all heard the mandatory quote that “amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics”9 but what’s often forgotten are two key reasons for this: (1) the depth of knowledge of the intermingled logistics systems needed to make them operate in anything close to ‘harmony’ is its own dedicated professional body of knowledge that exists completely parallel to the tactical world, and (2) delivery trucks & maintenance checks aren’t as sexy as blowing shit up the guys on the ground executing these operations might survive a bad tactical plan, but will be hard-pressed to survive a bad logistical plan, and will be unable to sustain operations at all without any kind of plan.

What remains a challenge is how to implement that logistical model in a game. As noted above, the combination of supplies-plus-transportation gets reasonably close to the level of detail most wargamers are willing to accept. It is possible (depending on the echelon scale of the game) to include some relevant logistics locations on the map, such as all the logistical points described in the earlier video. Simply putting those locations on the map as an additional layer on the supplies-plus-transportation model enhances the robustness of the model.

All of these questions can be answered. How often are they actually answered by a game that claims to have a robust “logistics model”?

Implementing game effects for degradation of those assets gets to be much more challenging. What’s the game effect of having your combat trains command post put out of action? What happens to your units if your maintenance team is unavailable because they’ve been forced to displace? How do you account for the incremental-but-nonzero loss of your combat power when you’re forced to detail part of your unit to guard the MSR? All of these questions can be answered. How often are they actually answered by a game that claims to have a robust “logistics model”? It’s bad game design to have those things present in the game without having a game effect described for them.

As we wrap this up, let’s return to current events. The Russians rolling into Ukraine are clearly facing a variety of logistical challenges, and many of them started before the war began. Shoddy garrison-based maintenance practices have resulted in a large number of equipment breakdowns, both combat and non-combat vehicles. Those aren’t the result of forgetting to check the oil before driving off on your convoy today. Those breakdowns are the cumulative result of neglecting maintenance literally for months at a time. For comparison, most US units are in the motor pool at least 1x/week to do nothing but their weekly maintenance checks and repair any parts that have arrived; mechanized units are usually there more often.

Moreover, their lack of adequate flow of supplies seems related to two very separate issues, one at the highest level and another much lower. The high one is the oft-reported corruption in the ordering and procurement worlds where those responsible for outfitting thousands of trucks bought substandard tires and pocketed the savings. This results in crappy items being delivered through the supply system. The second issue seems to be an incompetence in executing large logistical actions under field conditions and at operational distances. This requires a delicate synchronization of moving parts – supplies and transportation assets in the same place at the same time, being delivered to someone ready and expecting to receive them at a certain place and time, and with a clear primary/alternate route to deliver them (and return!) and necessary comms along the way maintain situational awareness. This proficiency comes through practice & repetition, not unlike a collection of individual musicians rehearsing as an orchestra, rather than as soloists.

So far, there’s been virtually no demonstration of even basic competence on the part of the Russians of this part of the logistics mission. In a combat zone, they’re going to have 2 options here: (1) get better at it, or (2) die while continuing to suck at it.

Most importantly (for this column, at least), beware of anyone looking at the stalled 40km ‘convoy’ outside Kyiv and thinking “man we need a wargame that can do that” without being able to accurately articulate what “that” is in game terms.

  • A tactical engagement of a shooting gallery of light vehicles in a line along a road? You don’t need a logistics model for that.
  • An inability to move supplies with even basic field skills? You can just degrade the combat forces they’re expected to be resupplying.
  • The breakdown of vehicles across the force for poor maintenance? Again, random degradations of combat power can be included without having to graft on an entire logistics system.

But don’t ever confuse “granularity” with “robustness”. Both are detailed, but in very different ways. As with all things in wargames: what are you trying to model in the game, and why? And what levers do the players have to pull on within that model to make changes to inputs/outputs in the game? Figure that part out before asking a logistics-in-wargame question, or you’re going to get some chucklehead in the peanut gallery just yelling out “Campaign for North Africa!”10 without bothering to even parse through what you actually asked.

 

special thanks to Rocky for his editing & advice in helping pull this together


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Footnotes

  1. well, anyone watching the news outside of Russia
  2. logistics officer
  3. personnel officer
  4. not sure why the US Army uses Roman numerals for these, but we’re sticking with that standard for now
  5. or lines-of-communication, if you prefer that term
  6. if you’re trying to get down to the specific details of tracking individual parts, or even parts-by-type-of-vehicle, in a game that’s supposed to be ‘fun’, we have a nice padded cell for you at a state-run facility where you can track individual repair parts in a game all day long
  7. yes, this report name switches from Roman numerals to Arabic ones, and no, we can’t tell you why
  8. LOGistics PACkage and LOGPAC Release Point
  9. we’ve now met the contractual obligation to include this quote in a discussion of logistics; carry on
  10. probably the same chucklehead that reflexively yells out “Play Freebird!” during every lull at a concert

Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

9 thoughts on “Battle Lab ~ Defining “Logistics” for Wargames

  1. What I think is missing in discussion of modeling logistics is the decision of a commander’s priorities of them. This could be where logistics effects in a hobby game could be better explored outside the dreaded Excell spreadsheet. A commander could set priorities of supply for X level of unit, that in turn, drives that unit’s characteristics for that game turn. You could go full Euro game and use tiny markers to represent fuel, munitions, etc or you could use a logistics resource tool to enable a commander to put more focus on offense, defense, and reconstitution. These in turn provide modifiers (or singular) for the following turn of a unit’s action.

    This takes logistics out of the dreaded space of just adding time to a game, into making it an important (but quick!) part of the prep phase of a turn and using it to enable decisions. Enemy actions could inhibit use of some of these markers or provide negative modifiers (scale matters here). If a unit if logistically supported to conduct an offense with a focus on fuel and instead they are attacked and needed ammunition for defense instead, this could penalize them. Creating a logistics “state” of play based on commander decisions that’s based on an abstracted ability of that unit to receive and utilize these things. A logistics node network could even be on the table, enabling enemy action with an opponents logistics ability, decreasing effectiveness of logistics stances or removing their pretty Euro chits.

    Priorities within logistics exist at all levels of warfare and well argued, have a greater effect above the tactical level. However, a commander makes a decision on logistics priorities and then has to deal with that decision as the game unfolds. In a manner more in line with a modern commander making decisions about logistics, not actually doing them. Players then get to explore a space where a simple priority change can hinder or enable their plan(s). More importantly, it puts logistics where I believe it should lie in most games that aren’t trying to be a logistics simulator, abstracted but with a potentially significant effect if you get it wrong. You can explore this space even more if you limit ability to change priorities based on time, distances, etc. all, hopefully, without having to bog the game down too much.

    1. Commanders’ priorities can certainly be an important facet, but wouldn’t that be true for for the shooters, too? Who does the commander specify for priority of fire support / air support? What about priority of recon (which wargames *also* get wrong pretty consistently)? Those sorts of professional-focused considerations are hugely important for real execution of the missions, but rarely seen anywhere in a wargame.

      1. Absolutely concur but I think we find that a lot of those priorities occur, abject scale again, by how you move and utilize the already robust combat units within the game. I believe most of the common priorities are baked into a standard game turn by how you move and shoot. If you have Divisional/Corps artillery and can only apply that modifier to one combat or fire it at one unit, you’ve done your priority of fires. GMT Next War series modeling of air support is an example of this, you allocate your air support and have rotary wing support modeled by individual counters (they even state it in the design notes that they believe this force modifier needs to be modeled individually) specifically for these decisions.

        My default here is more modern wargaming because it’s easier to apply in my monkey brain. I think it would also be worth exploring how this concept of logistics priorities applies to the gunpowder age and even ancients. Armies maneuvering prior to the battle provoke wear and tear on the unit capability that is sometimes modeled but often not. Pre-battle rest/resupply determines how prepared your units are but rest costs initiative you’re ceding for the enemy. I think the earlier we go back in time for logistics, the more we see that stuff applying both pre battle and post battle versus in the moment, inevitably effecting larger scale actions.

      2. Fumbling around with something like this right now… it may turn out to be merely noisy and tedious, though with wooden bits.

  2. “ … you also need some mechanism through which is can be disrupted by enemy action. Otherwise, the only way your logistics get interrupted is you own incompetence. ”

    Unexpected weather has entered the conversation.

    Also depending on who “you” includes, the command chain can revise plans and expect conformance quicker than physically possible. Thought, I guess in some terms that could still be “the enemy”. 🙂

    1. Weather can definitely be a factor. How you react to it, of course, is a measure of your own competence!

  3. Good summary of LOG but I did think it might have nothing to do with logistics down to the Kiev region (causing the traffic jam) but merely be the crappy weather, ground conditions and lots of delaying forces on the flanks,,,they seem to be advancing perfectly happily in other areas,,,

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