Why Cold War Warsaw Pact Tactics Work In Wargaming

by John Curry


I have played more Cold War Warsaw Pact games versus NATO than most, at least in terms of the number of different rule sets I have used. This has included the many civilian wargame rules such as WRG modern warfare rules and Tim Gow’s NATO Brigade Commander, but I have also played professional military games such as ‘Contact!’ (Canadian Wargame rules, 1980), Dunn Kemp (1978-, American), Battlegroup Trainer (UK Army) and games with BAE Systems Ltd. While playing these games, I have noted one major trend , I have never lost playing the Warsaw Pact side. Whether playing with 1/35 scale tanks on Knuston lawn to traditional wargames on the tabletop, to games played in 1/300 scale on the floor of a WWII aircraft hanger, my ‘side’ has won. Some of these game were using rules of my own devising, but the majority were rules written by others, including operational analysis establishments. This article is about why Russian Tactics seem to work in wargaming.

For the purposes of this article, I have used the terms Russia, Soviet and Warsaw Pact with reference to tactics as interchangeable.

Russian Tactics ‘The tactics were based on the Russian experience on the Eastern front during World War II; where very similar tactics successfully overcame problems of largely inferior technology, motivation, a multitude of languages and a frequently illiterate army to beat the Germans back to the gates of Berlin.

In the West, it has become common to deride Soviet style tactics as inferior and second rate. This is incorrect; Soviet tactics were different as the Soviet commanders had to solve very different tactical problems than those faced by the technology based NATO armies. ‘ (Curry, 2008[1] )

In NATO flexibility, was seen as essential part of junior commanders training in direct contract to the more rigid Soviet system. NATO tactics were more a system of principles, that junior ranks would learn to apply in innovative ways on the battlefield. For example, Mass, concentration, economy of force, all round defence etc… and a series of battle drills as the basis for commanders developing their own tactics.

An example of a good NATO tactic against an enemy advance is for NATO tanks to find positions where they can fire 1 shot at the attackers and then reverse quickly into cover. i.e. before the enemy can locate them and return fire. The NATO tanks then retreat out of sight to another prepared position. Using this tactic on the table top can allow the defender to get the majority of their tanks to fire 5 or 6 shots while retreating, say 2/3rds of the way down the table. At this point the tanks should combine with the dug in infantry to fight the main battle on the defenders chosen ground. This tactic works well on a wargaming table covered with a realistic amount of scenery to obstruct the line of sight.

The only problem is that just like real life, it takes the wargamer time to learn and practise NATO type tactics.

By contrast, Russian tactics are straightforward and can be learnt in an afternoon by reading a good book on their tactics. My suspicion is that given two novice wargamers, the novice commanding the Russian side would win as their tactics are easier to learn.

Concentration Many years ago, I learnt the value of concentration in wargaming while playing a fantasy wargame. The enemy dragon was coming and it was the most deadly potential weapon on the Middle Earth battlefield. My solution was to concentrate the fire of every single archer on my side against this single target. Even at long odds, the sheer number of attacking dice brought down this potential battle wining dragon before it could cause significant damage.

Russian tactics are excellent at encouraging concentration of fire. Russians units had less artillery observers than western counter-parts, which encouraged Russian divisional commanders to use the maximum of artillery when a target was identified. Russian tactics are very clear about the value of positioning forces so the maximum number can engage the enemy at the same time.

Close to Contact Some Soviet weapons were largely inferior (perhaps at 2/3rds of the effectiveness of western weapons), in particular at long range. Their method of counter acting this was aiming to keep the advance moving in column until hit by effective enemy fire (e.g. first tank is blown up), then spend a minute forming into line abreast, followed by a charge.

If a company was engaged at the range of a mile, then it would aim to be on the enemy position in three minutes if it was in column (i.e. not expecting to be hit by effective fire) or 2 minutes if already formed for an advance to contact. Russian units do not fire and manoeuvre at below company level (at least while in a mechanised battle). The second company would aim to be on the enemy position as soon as the tactical situation permitted e.g. 2-3 minute after the first company has reached the enemy position. On the battlefield it meant that defending enemy anti-tank guided missile launchers would get perhaps 2 missiles off, and hand held anti-tank weapons perhaps 1 or 2 before the battle was fought at point blank range.

On the wargaming table, the rapid ‘close to contact’ minimises the NATO advantage in weaponry. Advantages, such as superior NATO weapon sights, matter little if tanks and AFVs are firing at targets at less than 200 metres.

Morale By this I am referring to the morale of the actual players, not the simulated troops on the table top. The correct application of Russian tactics can undermine the morale of opponents. I first noticed this at a free kriegspiel invasion of the Isle of Wight, where as a Russian advisor I planned the invasion force to arrive in the same order as the order of march of a Soviet regiment. It took me 15 minutes to produce the shipping and logistic plan based on Soviet doctrine. Apparently, the other HQ found it most off putting for their opponents to plan so quickly and then be so confident as to sit around drinking beer for the next two hours. As the game proceeded, the other HQ was ‘psyched’ out by the speed of the decision making within the Russian HQ.

Whether playing alternate or simultaneous moves, after the initial plan, it normally takes moments for the Russians to move all of forces compared to the NATO side. While NATO is planning the position of each smallest unit, the Russians simply decide the correct Axis of advance and then all the armour lines up behind the lead vehicle. It can be very disconcerting for a player to find their opponent finishes their move in a fraction of the time they need. To work, NATO tactics take more time and effort to apply on the table top, just as they do in real life. The combination of speed, concentration of armour and artillery support and sheer numbers, seems to undermine the other players.

Modern Misconceptions various Arab armies have used Russian taught tactics, with Russian equipment, and lost, such as in the Arab Israel wars or the first Gulf War. In the first Gulf War, Coalition tanks were immune to Iraq tank guns, even at short range.

As reported by James Dunnigan in his Book ‘How to Make War’, the Iraq’s economised by using cheaply produced local tank shells, instead of the expensive high cost Russian kit. A tank shell is 60% of a modern main battle tank and the Russian equivalent of an American depleted Uranium tank round would have penetrated Western armour at 1-2km. The western military use PC based, training tools for tank crews; some ignorant people criticise the tool developers for not making the Western tanks immune to enemy fire (as they were largely in the 1st Gulf War). This criticism is not justified as it should be assumed that an enemy might have bought a consignment of modern tank shells, anti-tank guided missiles etc. from Russia or China. Therefore, suggesting that a main battle tank is practically immune to enemy fire might teach a very wrong lesson to their crews.

Arab tactics differ from Soviet tactics significantly. Tactics of Soviet Ground Forces, (Army Code 71031, Restricted, 1975, page v) states ‘differences between Soviet Tactics and those reported as used by Arabs. Although the latter had Soviet equipment and advisors, it does not follow that Arab tactics were intended to be carbon copies of Soviet tactics, and in many cases they were clearly not.’ Soviet advisors were reportedly frustrated by Arab armies not applying what they were taught. The Soviet view was their tactics were designed for a poorly trained, illiterate army with communication problems, using Soviet kit, and the Arabs were wrong not to apply them straight out of the training manuals. The Soviet studied military history more thoroughly than any modern army and to suggest that the result of this work was to produce tactics that did not work is a misconception. They are different from NATO tactics as they had different problems to overcome. The fact the Arabs failed to apply the tactics as taught is a reflection on the military and society culture in those countries.

Example 1: The scene was set in a WWII aircraft hanger used by BAE Systems limited for some experiments on situational awareness on the modern battlefield. The game was played over a 1/300 scale model, representing a portion of West Germany near the ‘Hof Gap’, that was large enough to be walked on.

The scenario had been played 80 times before, as repetition was necessary to produce valid data. I was on the attacking team against staff who had knew the rules, terrain and the scenario inside out (and back to front). What the staff did not realise was that all of the attacking team had commanded ‘Orange forces’ at various levels during NATO exercises. We were Russians and we intended to act like them.

The terrain analysis was simple. A stream ran across our front, overlooked by high ground on the other side. There was a town to the left as we faced our axis of advance and in the far distance (15k) was a larger river, with a few crossing points dominated by a few hills. There were an appropriate number of woods, farms, roads and tracks.

Our plan was simple, we would advance on three axis, with a reserve behind. Which ever axis broke through first would become the main axis of advance and all support would be shifted to that axis. We took approximately 10 minutes to make our plan, which caused much amusement to the other side. They expected us to spend 2 hours discussing phased lines of advance, artillery targets, giving detailed orders etc…

The battle started with an artillery/ rocket/ mortar barrage reminiscent of the Somme. While NATO armies might carefully recce enemy positions or rely of calling in supporting fire as targets were required, we were a Russian army and we had little confidence in getting the necessary support quickly. We simply identified any likely positions overlooking the stream and hit them hard with a pre-prepared fire plan.

There could have been minefields to our front, but Russian doctrine was to advance as if they were not there. So the NATO defenders were a little surprised as there was no tentative recce, no checking for minefields but mechanised companies advancing at maximum speed on three axis. This ruined their plan of taking time to identify our main thrust and counter-attacking it.

As we entered the town on our left, it became obvious that the town was well defended. So, in line with Russian doctrine (Towns should be bypassed), infantry were debussed to engage in FIBUA, while the main column identified a gap in the defences, one street wide, and the battalion went straight through the town and out the other side… the defenders were shocked at being bypassed and their commander had what can only be described as ‘command paralysis’.

The NATO counter-attack hit our centre axis of advance. Our centre axis ground to a halt. rather than reinforce failure, the reserves switched to follow another axis. The divisional artillery support also switched to the other two successful axis.

Our advance was difficult to halt, as every time a main road was blocked, the advance switched to the next adjacent road. Russian policy was any road heading west would do (as they come from a country of poor roads).

At every possible opportunity, the Russian advance switched back to column formation for maximum speed. The speed reduced NATO support, as their mortar/ artillery positions had to move as they felt threatened by the speed of our advance.

The other side started to panic as the situation was changing too quickly and we seemed to be playing by different rules to what they were used to. I knew we were winning when an umpire tried to warn me about potential ambushes and why my column should slow down (just in case).

The game ended with the right hand Russian axis occupying the high ground overlooking the crossing points the enemy needed to retreat over. It had a full division’s worth of artillery to supplement its tank guns and anti-tank missiles. The scattered NATO forces had been bypassed and were out of supply and their retreat route was covered by direct enemy fire and artillery.

Example 2: Conference of Wargamers, July 2007

As the Iraq defenders of Kuwait Airfield, we were playing Tim Gow’s NATO Brigade Commanders Rules. Historically, we were playing merely static targets for the American’s to practise their gunnery. Under Mike Elliot’s command, Bde commanders John Salt and I deployed just behind the ridge line well forward of the Kuwait Airport.

We were somewhat concerned by the clear superiority of the American kit. A lot of their kit was lightly armoured, but could easily destroy us at 3-4km range. Therefore we waited in our reverse slope positions (with some trepidation).

The first American’s arrived and dropped straight down the valley between 2 companies of our tanks either side. Our somewhat surprised 4 companies of tanks opened up at 1 km at the soft skinned vehicles and upset them somewhat.

The Americans then retreated back down the valley while they brought up tanks in support. We were somewhat surprised to find they decided to reorganise just out of sight, but just 1 km away from us.

As per our plan, we then err… charged. We put a motor rifle battalion straight into the American column from the front, while our two companies of tanks took up firing positions either side of the enemy flanks. Of course, we took huge casualties, but our waves of attacks finally rolled up the American battalion. When the first motor rifle battalion was destroyed, we sent in the next. We even threw our recce vehicles and the Bde HQ into the battle.

On the other flank, the American tanks finally arrived and although we hit the American soft skinned vehicles who were first around the corner of the hills, we had to withdraw behind the nearest build up area to avoid destruction in a long range gunnery duel in the open.

At the end of the game our heavily attrited division was reorganising at the Bagdad Airport, with the surviving American’s occupying the ridges overlooking the airfield.

The rules work well and reflected the outcome I would have expected using other sets of wargaming rules. American kit is awesome, but you must keep your distance. A lot of the vehicles are lightly armoured. Never let Russian style armies get within 1 km of you. They will use the one tactic they have perfected, the charge. At point- blank range, Western armies technological superiority is less of an advantage. Poor tactics can make even the best army in the world loose.

Wargaming and Warsaw Pact Tactics Russian tactics seem to work as they are simple to learn, encourage concentration of firepower and the speed of their application can be most off putting to the other side. For me, applying Russian mechanised tactics has worked on the table top to the extent that I have never lost a game as the Russians. The big question is would they have worked if the Cold War had turned hot on the Central Front in Europe?


[1] Curry John (editor) 2008 Contact! The Canadian Army Tactical Wargaming Rules (1980)



11 thoughts on “Why Cold War Warsaw Pact Tactics Work In Wargaming

  1. This is a really good article!
    Do you ever play computer based wargaming stuff? RTS and the like?
    Also, do you ever find that upon meeting more experienced NATO commanders these rush tactics are just cut short by artillery, mines, air power, infantry, missiles etc., and hit a stagnation across all fronts?

  2. I played “games” at every level from platoon level through army group. as a NATO army group planner, I played games for Conventional Forces Europe planning. Additionally, we did analytical gaming to support actual plans. the unknown factor always seemed to be what each side accepted as predictable losses. the air forces refused to accept they would be shot down in large numbers by any system; army commanders did not like to accept that artillery would negate holding positions or that communications or control would be destroyed by artillery fires. the continuing debate over improvements in air delivered systems posed problems. whenever unacceptable results were obtained, the claim, it is only a game was heard. The games produced insights, mainly that gamers learned to play the game to match numbers, and that doctrine was predictable. the ability to think outside the box was unwanted in an opponent and uncredited by all G2’s who never believed the Soviets could think, despite their history.

    Generals are poor losers. We always crashed any system that proved embarrassing in an exercise at high level—-a principle of war learned from the Fuhrer himself I was told by a senior German general.

  3. Just a couple of thoughts (from an amateur)

    You state there is a morale advantage for the Soviets as they can make their movement quickly, as the NATO player has to position each vehicle, where as WP is a mass movement. Of course in real life the vehicles have crews, so all that movement happens simultaneously.

    And for me the biggie in any wargame set – how do you model morale? The physics is easy. Knowing how men react seems to be the key thing here – If a tank is exploding near you every 6 seconds (say) you rely on men to keep their nerve. An AI – not scared of dying – may well match the mathematics, and the ‘Acceptable losses’ but people panic. Say a 5:1 attack, and you know each defender will get at least 1 kill, because they get the first shot for free, and probably 2-3 once it gets hot. That’s a 20% chance of being killed. Those I would think are hard odds to sell.

    1. Me either Fabrizio! I found this interesting article of John Curry sometime ago in a web page which is no longer available and I wanted to repost it.

  4. Very good article, and interesting insights about the ease of learning Warsaw Pact vs. NATO tactics. Similar considerations apply in WWII. I have a good friend who was an officer in the US Army, and I remember trying to root his Germans out of the bocage. He was very good at the “shoot and fall back to the next hedgerow” response to my rather textbook “locate enemy concentrations with infantry, then bring up the Sherman 75s to fire HE” approach.

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