October 22, 2021

An Active Defense of Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1

RockyMountainNavy, 14 May 2021

Through a trade, I acquired a copy of Jim Dunnigan’s Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series Volume 1. My copy is the first edition published by SPI in Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82 (Sept/Oct 1980). I wanted a copy of this game because I often hear it praised. Thus, I was curious about the design and what makes it so special.

Fifth Corps originally appeared in Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82/SPI, 1980

Believe it or not, there is a niche within the niche of wargamers out there who think World War III wargames are not “true” wargames for no other reason than they are not “historical.” To me, a wargame is valuable because it can teach you about a subject in a very interactive manner. Although many “modern” wargames deal with near-future events, the “Cold War Gone Hot” genre of wargames are now a form of alternate history. Although the Cold War (thankfully) never went hot, wargames on the subject often have much to teach if for no other reason that they provide a glimpse into the past. Fifth Corps is just such a glimpse that provides insight into both the doctrinal battles within the US Army in the late 1970’s and how wargame designers of the day wrestled with depicting that doctrine in a tabletop wargame format.

IMG 1969
Cold War Hot

 

Small Package…in a Magazine

For a game with so much design influence over time the physical package of Fifth Corps is quite unassuming. First published as a magazine game in Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82 (such as my copy is) the “Standard Rules for The Central Front Series” is laid out over eight pages and “Exclusive Rules” for Fifth Corps laid out over another eight. The game comes with a 22″x34″ (thin) paper map and 200 counters (68 NATO, 80 Soviet, & 52 markers).

IMG 1889
Fifth Corps magazine version (click images to enlarge)

 

As small as the physical game package of Fifth Corps is, one cannot overlook the articles in the magazine that support the game. The feature article, written by Charles T. Kamps, Jr., is “The Central Front: The Status of Forces in Europe and the Potential for Conflict.” The main article is only four pages long but there are a further seven pages with eight “text call-out” boxes. Add in the full page ad for Hof Gap: The Nurnburg Pincer, Central Front Series Volume 2 and you see that 12 of 40 pages of the magazine (30%) was dedicated to supporting this one game/series.

 

Active Defense of a Soviet Breakthrough

A close reading of the rules for Fifth Corps and the background article and call-out boxes published in the magazine simultaneously reveal both an understanding and dislike of the then-current US Army doctrine, Active Defense. Specifically, the rules for Fifth Corps capture the essence of the Active Defense doctrine while the articles expose its weaknesses.

 

Kamps’ Influence

In the design credits for Fifth Corps, one Charles T. Kamps, Jr. is listed as the researcher. He also wrote the feature article and call-out boxes in Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82 within which Fifth Corps was published. These articles reveal a great deal of the background upon which Fifth Corps was most assuredly designed. A close reading of the articles and a study of the game mechanics reveals that Fifth Corps had much to say about the state of US Army doctrine in the late 1970’s.

The next to last supporting text box, “The Prophets,” may be the best insight into Kamps’ thinking and perspective as he wrote the articles for Fifth Corps. “The Prophets” focuses on two then-contemporary book that directly relate to Fifth Corps; General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, August 1985 and Brigadier Shelford Bidwell’s World War 3: A Military Projection. Of the two of them, Hackett’s The Third World War gets more of Kamps’ attention. Kamps points out that The Third World War, “is optimistic in that it predicts NATO success based on force improvements which seem unlikely at present. As such, it is a plea for NATO governments to rouse themselves from lethargy and adopt such improvements” (S&T Nr. 82, p. 13). His concluding thoughts on the two books are:

“Both works present reasonable assessments of action on the Central Front, given the assumptions of the authors. Additionally, each provides an excellent section dealing with the effects of nuclear weapons. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these books is the view held by the authors that the Soviets, under pressure, may very soon feel that any military solution should be initiated while they still perceive a margin of conventional superiority over the West.”

Charles T. Kamps, Jr., “The Prophets,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82 (Sept/Oct 1980), p. 13

The second text box where Kamps reveals some of his thinking behind Fifth Corps is “The Wargames.” For a gentleman who was deep into hobby wargames, Kamps apparently had little love for “professional wargaming” at the time as evidenced by this passage:

“Wargames may take the form of manual or computer -assisted map exercises, command post exercises (wherein headquarters elements go to the field), or full-fledged field exercises deploying thousands of troops under the control of umpires. Additionally, wargames serve to support the point of view of the originating high command (my emphasis).”

Charles T. Kamps, Jr., “The Wargames,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 14

Kamps goes on to relate a “Conjectural Battle Performance” derived from what was likely a then-recent professional wargame. The game depicted a reinforced US tank battalion (71 systems) versus two Soviet motorized rifle regiments and one tank regiment (~250 systems) which the US destroys in a mere 20 minutes.

The Active Defense doctrine of the US Army reflected this very (rosy) tactical view of the battlefield. As one story goes, General DePuy, the architect of the Active Defense doctrine, “repeatedly used a briefing slide that attempted to reduce the Army’s mission to two tank and one infantry platoons which were responsible for destroying sixty Soviet tanks in 7.3 minutes.”1 Kamps comments, “The only parallel one can draw is to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s wargames conducted prior to Midway, during which conditions were similarly “fudged” to provide the outcome guaranteed by the high command.” He concludes by saying:

“Having participated in Command Post Exercises in Europe wherein general officers and senior field grade officers accomplished their objectives by fraud (e.g. map movement of mechanized units through impassable terrain; ignoring or defying umpire rulings on combat resolution, etc.), the author issues a caution to regard all “official” wargames results with a degree of circumspection.”

Charles T. Kamps, Jr., “The Wargames,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 14

 

A Defense – or Condemnation – of Active Defense?

Fifth Corps was published in 1980 meaning the design and development of the game very likely took place in the last years of the 1970’s. For the US military this was not a great time. The negative effects of the post-Vietnam War drawdown were in full strength and the election of President Ronald Reagan (and his military rebuild) would occur a few months after this title was published. In Europe, the fighting doctrine of the US Army was that of “Active Defense.”

Active Defense was codified in the 1976 edition of FM 100-5. To call it controversial is an understatement. (Ed note – to call that an understatement is itself an understatement)  It was a pessimistic view of combat with defense rated over offense. Active Defense directly acknowledged the difficulty in stopping a Soviet mechanized invasion. The title of this game, Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda (my emphasis), with the “affirmative” assertion of Soviet success, reflects the same pessimism.

The Active Defense doctrine attempted to address the problem of fighting a numerically superior enemy on a battlefield dominated by armor. In the mid-1970’s, in the aftermath of Vietnam and following the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1973, the US Army understood that the airmobile doctrine used in Vietnam did not fit the mechanized battlefields of Europe, especially against a Soviet behemoth that was rapidly incorporating new technology. General DePuy of the newly created US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) was put in charge of writing a new doctrine for the Army. DePuy viewed the tank as the dominant weapon system and saw doctrine through the lens of tank and antitank warfare. He also saw modern warfare as a series of tactical engagements decided by firepower rather than maneuver. The tactical and mathematical tone of his Active Defense doctrine resulted in a very by-the-numbers approach to combat that in turn led to an emphasis on defense and prepared defensive positions. Ideally, in Active Defense a strong covering force first determined the Soviet main effort in order to allow the timely massing of friendly forces in front of the Soviet advance. Defenders sought to create favorable force ratios through lateral movement of units from areas under attack by secondary thrusts to the sector facing the enemy’s main effort. Once the main thrust was identified, friendly forces opposite the enemy’s main attack received priority for supporting fires. At it’s core, Active Defense sought to achieve a favorable strategic outcome through tactical successes in encounters with numerous Soviet forces.2

Kamps, as a Combat Arms officer in the US Army, certainly understood what Active Defense was trying to do. His feature article points out the many problems with it. In the “First Moves” part of the article he discusses the danger of a Soviet surprise attack. In “Speed” he discusses the Soviet desire to attack rapidly and advance before NATO defenses can solidify. Kamps’ discussion of “The Defense” shows that he clearly read the 1976 FM 100-5 and understood what Active Defense was trying to do. He also clearly understood the weaknesses of the Active Defense doctrine and tried to show them through “Suppression” where he discusses Soviet artillery, “Visibility” where he notes ATGMs will need to be effective at lesser ranges, and “Concentration and Timing” where he returns to the Soviets and their offensive doctrine.

SMP80
Excerpt from 1980 edition of Soviet Military Power (Defense Intelligence Agency)

 

The Exposition of Fifth Corps

Fifth Corps, the wargame, is actually a very close look at the “Speed,” “The Defense,” and “Concentration and Timing” points in Kamps’ feature article. When discussing “Speed,” Kamps writes:

“The essence of the Soviet offensive, especially in surprise scenarios, is speed. In the type of situation envisioned in this essay, the Soviets would rely on a high speed tactical advance in order to cover ground and disrupt NATO units before a coherent defense could solidify. When dealing with a light covering force, like the 11th ACR, the Soviets will attempt, as much as possible, to attack from the line of march. Overrunning weak opposition in this manner involves the least loss of momentum.”

Charles T. Kamps, Jr., “The Central Front,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 5

In Fifth Corps, a combination of repeating First Player/Second Player Phases, Operations Points, and Friction Points are used to depict “Speed.” In every Player Phase a unit has 12 Operations Points to expend to move or attack. Attacking on the March costs only 2 Operations Points whereas a Prepared Assault costs 6—rules that naturally lead to high-speed tactical advances aimed at losing as little momentum as possible. Of course, movement also gains a Friction Point (more on those later) which naturally encourages the Soviets to deploy their forces in echelons just like Kamps describes.

The rules of Fifth Corps also show a favoritism of the defense. Kamps writes in “The Defense” that, “the Covering Force will attempt to buy time for the NATO main force units as they assume defensive positions along the projected FEBA (Forward Edge of the Battle Area), usually a line along the most advantageous terrain features, located as far forward as possible.” He goes on to write, “Should the NATO line solidify in time, the Soviets will be faced with overcoming formidable anti-tank defenses including masses of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM’s), scatterable mines, and tanks….In any event, the Soviets acknowledge that a tank in a defensive position is worth five in the open” (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 5-6).

The Combat Results Table in Fifth Corps reflects this same terrain emphasis. In combat, the Combat Ratio is cross-indexed with the Defender’s Terrain to find the proper column to roll on. The best terrain a defender can be in is Rough/Woods while being in Flat terrain is least advantageous. The use of Engineers on the offense (to help overcome those pesky dug in defenders) is also reflected in their ability to favorably shift the CRT column used to resolve the combat.

In “Concentration and Timing” Kamps tells us how the Soviets were expected to fight. To quote him at length:

“To the attack, and especially the Soviet attack, the concentration of overwhelming force against a part of the defender’s line is of prime importance. Aside from the well established Soviet practice of assigning narrow attack frontages to assault units, backed up by 2nd and even 3rd Echelons of fresh troops to maintain momentum, they are constantly striving to achieve concentration of firepower through improvement of the artillery arm. In this connection, the introduction of self-propelled artillery has provided the Soviets with more or less uninterrupted indirect fire support as well as excellent direct fire capability.
….
The capstone of the Soviet offensive system is the breakthrough, which leads to exploitation and pursuit phases of the advance. Again, battlefield reconnaissance assumes great importance, in identifying the moment when NATO forces withdraw to subsequent defensive positions. At that particular time the Soviets consider NATO units will be most vulnerable to destruction at the hands of 2nd Echelon reinforcements. When a breakthrough has been achieved, the Soviets will pour in massive reinforcements for exploitation, at the expense of sectors where no breakthrough has occurred.

To counter current Soviet breakthrough attack doctrine, the U.S. Army has developed a rather feeble maneuver involving the lateral shifting of “unengaged” units to mass in front of identifiable Soviet axes of advance in a tight linear defense. This rather primitive adaptation of “piling on,” as in football, leaves open flanks and makes no allowances for events such as a sudden airborne drop or a tactical nuclear blitz, either of which would destroy a division in place and open a large gap in the NATO line.”

Charles T. Kamps, Jr., “The Central Front,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 7

The order of battle used in Fifth Corps, when combined with the rule [12.2] Warsaw Pact March Order and [15.1] Soviet Doctrine, reflects the echelons of attacking forces that are always advancing on a narrow frontage. When entering the map as reinforcements, Soviet units MUST be brought onto the map in a certain order of two columns with each in a particular march order. The order of entry for the Soviets also reflects the echelon of forces with two Motorized Rifle Divisions entering Turn 1, a Motorized Rifle and Tank Division entering Turn 2, a further two Tank Divisions on Turn 4, and a Tank and Motorized Rifle Division on Turn 5. The order of battle also reflects the preponderance of Soviet artillery. Of the 68 NATO units, 14 are artillery (~21%). The Soviets, on the other hand, have 28 artillery units of the 80 in the game (~35%). (Ed note – it’s actually worse than that, as the NATO artillery units are battalions; the Soviet ones are brigades)

IMG 1887
Fifth Corps countersheet

 

The airborne threat from Soviet forces in Fifth Corps is not only the subject of a separate text box, but also has it’s own Exclusive Rule in [17.0] Soviet Airborne Units. Likewise, the text box “Nuclear & Chemical Operations” and rules [10.4] Chemicals and Smoke and [19.5] Resolving Nuclear Attacks go hand-in-hand when describing chemical and tactical nuclear warfare. This free use of chemical and nuclear weapons is a far cry from NATO: The Next War in Europe published just three years after Fifth Corps. In the Designer’s Notes to NATO, designer Bruce Maxwell explicitly states, “if a major war does break out in Europe, it is highly unlikely to go nuclear.” He goes on to state, “Hence, the nuclear rules of this game are intended to discourage the rational player from ever pushing the button. However, players who wish to test a different assumption should feel free to ignore the high nuclear threshold built into the game.” If one plays with nuclear fire in NATO they risk immediately losing the game through horrendous penalties in movement, loss of air power, and loss of reinforcements. Those severe penalties, by design, are a very strong source of nuclear restraint. NATO, by design, is not “nuclear friendly.”

What do I mean by immediate, horrendous, or severe? Let’s look at the Tactical Nuclear Warfare rule for NATO found in paragraph 187. To begin with, if a player declares Tactical Nuclear War an immediate die roll is made (1d6) with a result of 1, 2, or 3 provoking a massive strategic nuclear retaliatory strike and immediate defeat. If one makes it past Armageddon, the penalties are:

  • No rail movement
  • All Air Attack Points eliminated with no further points coming available
  • Tactical road movement only
  • All reinforcements not arriving by road or railroad and not on the map are eliminated, all road and railroad reinforcements delayed two-three turns (and even then there is a chance they may be eliminated upon arrival).
IMG 1970
NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983)

 

Finally, there is the issue of airpower in Fifth Corps. Airpower is highly abstracted in the game, being reduced to a single die roll for Air Superiority which if won awards Air Points for use in combat. Ground Fog—the only real nod to weather in Fifth Corps—also has an impact on both Airpower and Attack Helicopters. The lack of airpower is not surprising if one read Kamps text box on “Air Support” which focuses on the dense air defense environment and the many losses expected. His discussion of low aircraft readiness and training rates telegraphs a real pessimism that close air support (or even battlefield interdiction) by aircraft will be possible, much less have any real impact on the ground war. Nowhere in the rules for Fifth Corps is there anything approaching the later AirLand Battle Doctrine which was highlighted by the close cooperation of the Army and Air Force. That’s not totally unexpected; the Active Defense doctrine did not leverage airpower though in the aftermath of its debut (and in the time leading to the publishing of a new FM 100-5 in 1982 centered on AirLand Battle) the Army and Air Force finally started working together. The lack of cooperation in 1980 is reflected in the lack of detailed air rules in Fifth Corps.

 

Friction Points

“A Friction Point (FP) is a measure of fatigue, wear and tear on equipment and personnel loss. A unit’s “front line” combat strength never changes. Instead, the Friction Point system shows the reduction (and replenishment) of a unit’s depth. When a critical point is reached (represented by the accrual of 6 FP’s in the game) , the unit ceases to exist as a cohesive combat force; but until that point, the unit will function close to its optimum capabilities.”

Commentary, [9.0] Friction Points (FP’s)

Unlike many wargames that use a step-loss system to show loss of combat potential, in Fifth Corps units gain and lose Friction Points (FP) to show present strength. Basically, the more a unit does the more FP it gains. Rule 9.1 defines how FP are gained:

  • When a unit expends Operation Points in a phase (9.11)
  • Artillery and Attack Helicopter participating in any sort of attack (9.12)
  • When called for in a combat result (9.13)
  • When subjected to a nuclear attack or as defined in an Exclusive Rule (9.14)

A unit in Fifth Corps removes a single FP (Artillery removes 2 FP) in the Friction Point Removal Segment of the Game-Turn unless the unit is out of supply.

Within the Fifth Corps game system, Friction Points are essential, if not actually core, to the design. Where Kamps talks about speed and not losing momentum and echelons of attack, designer Jim Dunnigan’s Friction Point system in Fifth Corps acts as the “moderator” or the “brakes” on the system. The Soviets, by design, will push hard against NATO defenses by rapidly throwing forces against the defenders trying to overwhelm them and create the namesake breakthrough. The culminating point of the initial attack will be when the lead units generate enough Friction Points either through relentless advances or in battle to be rendered combat ineffective. As the lead Soviet units culminate, the 2nd Echelon (or even 3rd) should arrive and create or exploit the breakthrough. On the other side, the defending NATO units must manage their accumulation of Friction Points to not die too early and maintain a cohesive defense in front of the Soviet onslaught in order to buy time for reinforcements to arrive and stem the advance and prevent (or stop) the breakthrough. The measure of either sides effectiveness in executing their strategy is measured and paid for by Friction Points.

Personally, I like the Friction Point system as it is implemented in Fifth Corps. I see what Jim Dunnigan was trying to replicate and like how I have to manage a unit’s FP. When necessary, you can push a unit in multiple activations in a turn…at the cost of FP. You can throw that unit into combat…at the risk of FP. The FP status of a unit will likely also influence the type of attack one executes; A March Attack costs fewer Operations Points (2) than a Prepared Attack (6 Operations Points) but the difference in combat results may be just enough that you can’t risk your unit. You also have to “pace” your units—pushing them along and wearing them down (gaining FP) while also making time for them to “replenish” and reduce their FP-level before they are needed again.

Many of the criticisms I see of the FP system in Fifth Corps actually revolve around the cumbersome administrative task of adding/removing FP markers. All I can say is that the conditions where FP are added or removed are so simple they should not create confusion. I wonder if the complainers are actually complaining about the FP system and what it represents or if they just lack the personal diligence to add/subtract markers when necessary.

The Friction Point system from Fifth Corps makes a reappearance in a more recent Fulda Gap wargame. Less Than 60 Miles (Fabrizio Vianello, Thin Red Line Games, 2019) uses Attrition Points in much the same fashion as Friction Points.

LessThan60Miles boxart v8 Internet-805x1024-1
Less Than 60 Miles (Thin Red Line Games)

 

Fifth Corps Lacks Transition

Fifth Corps is a snapshot in time. Like many “modern” wargames that deal with (then) near future events, the game tries to show how thing could happen. By all appearances, Fifth Corps appears to try and capture what Active Defense on the battlefields of Europe in the 1980s may have looked like. But by 1982 Active Defense was a thing of the past, replaced by AirLand Battle Doctrine. The way I see it, Fifth Corps is not only a snapshot in time, the game design “as is” means it’s also frozen in time. The rules of Fifth Corps are built around the Active Defense doctrine. Attempting to use these rules to depict battle in Europe as little as five years later is a sub-optimal experience because while doctrine was in transition, the rules of Fifth Corps cannot keep up.

By 1983, hobby wargamers could see the differences on their gaming table. Wargames like Bruce Maxwell’s NATO: Next War in Europe introduced headquarters, formations, and a more detailed air power system all reflecting the rapid changes in Army-Air Force doctrine thanks to the arrival of AirLand Battle.

I previously sang the praises of Less Than 60 Miles (LT60M), which I called “The OODA Wargame” because it tries very hard to show what the AirLand Battle Doctrine meant. It is notable that LT60M uses its own version of Friction Points, called Attrition Points in that game. Designer Fabrizio Vianello obviously gets what Jim Dunnigan was trying to communicate using Friction Points. But LT60M goes beyond what the Fifth Corps model can deliver by introducing Posture. In LT60M every unit has a Posture which determines what they can, or cannot, do. The key in LT60M is to have the right Posture at the best moment, something not always possible because to change Posture takes leadership (headquarters) and time. Interestingly, headquarters units don’t even appear in Fifth Corps because the Active Defense doctrine didn’t focus on the operational level of warfare and the power of headquarters to “adjust the plan.”

Fitting Fifth

While Fifth Corps presents a very narrow snapshot of time (literally five years—1976 to 1981) what it represents it presents very well. If one wants to see what the Active Defense doctrine might of looked like then Fifth Corps is worthy of your attention. That said, it is a bit of a pessimistic view of NATO and the US military as whole. While some might bristle at that thought (“Merica!”) the bitter truth is that the US Army in 1980 couldn’t get much worse. Fifth Corps show us what might of happened if the balloon went up. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s shown to us in a relatively small, uncomplicated, and highly playable game using a unique mechanic (Friction Points) that has stood the test of time.


1 Blythe, Jr., Wilson C., “AirLand Battle: The Development of a Doctrine,” Thesis, March 2010 (Accessed Apr 4, 2021 via https://www.academia.edu/31847297/AirLand_Battle_The_Development_of_a_Doctrine

2 Ibid

 


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7 thoughts on “An Active Defense of Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1

  1. I considered the system introduced with Fifth Corps to be an attempt to cut NATO Division Commander down to size; Dunnigan and Kamps both worked on that larger “soapbox” item.
    I remember this one and its descendents fondly, and still have them (the SPI ones, anyway).
    I think the only thing it did wrong was giving armored cavalry companies 5 FP, the same as Soviet motor rifle regiments.
    I know it’s supposed to scale but it seemed to me too optimistic to expect Blackhorse to last so long… I think they were supposed to last no more than 24 hours before being vapourized or absorbed into another formation.
    By the time BAOR came out company size units had been reduced to 3 FP which was more like it.

    1. The initial error (rightfully named!) of giving all units 5FP was almost immediately rectified in the second release of the series rules (certainly by the time BAOR was released, but possibly also in the Hof Gap boxed release). All artillery units have 5FP, all Soviet regiments have 5 also. But the smaller NATO units have but 4, and the screening cavalry companies just 3. The universal 5FP was a seriously unbalancing miscue in the original Fifth Corps release.

  2. Hi RMN,

    Very enjoyable review. Fifth Corps was a ‘first edition’ though, and the system was refined over time. The gnarly bits were fixed – including the companies’ longevity that Brian Train mentioned.

    Anyway, a community redux has been assembled that brings all 5 games up to the SPI second edition standard, available (for free) here: http://talk.consimworld.com/WebX/.ee6d04b/4163.

    1. In my (too few) plays I found the Friction Points really were the key. NATO (espy 11 ACR) really needs to be managed closely as you can all-too-easily find them swept away by being too aggressive on defense. Many times I think wargamers forget that maps have depth, and game turns are multiple which means you don’t always have to fight to-the-death at first contact nor only at the frontiers. For NATO, Fifth Corps really is a game of trading space-for-time, while the Soviets have to throw successive waves against the defenders. Ideally the first echelon makes the breakthru, but the second (or third) echelon are the exploitation.

  3. Posture is largely lifted from Dunnigan’s NATO Division Commander.

    The unrealistic part of Friction Points was that units were 100% capable, 100% capable, 100% capable, dead. History shows that units burn out their offensive capability before they can’t defend any more, much less disintegrate. Balkowski emphasized that in St. Lo (now on Kickstarter!).

    Nonetheless, the Central Front Series is a classic.

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