Russian T-14 Armata battle tanks overturn cement in the streets as they stream into the Latvian capital of Riga. Red army helicopters buzz overhead, their machine guns clacking out rounds into any resistance they face. The few helicopters that NATO can muster are plowed out of the air by world-class surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Maneuverable and reinforced Russian battalions tear through the city. Only the screams of fleeing civilians can offset the gunshots of the lingering NATO forces, cornered, and about to be destroyed.

Then a whistle screeches and the session is concluded. Veterans climb out of their parked tanks, helicopter pilots head off to land, and infantry members share some drinks. Russia wins the simulation again.


Welcome to the Modern Wargame

Yes, the Pentagon has an elite team of role-players. Instead of attending medieval sword fighting festivals on a Saturday, some of the most brilliant minds that the U.S. has to offer dream up and meticulously plan this performance.

The modern general is a far cry from the cigar-smoking, command-barking, cold-hard veteran of the past. The modern general is familiar with video games, studied Political Science at UCLA, and is an excellent game theorist.

The wargaming industry’s entire purpose relies on a single question.

What if?

What if Russia invaded the Baltic States?

What if the U.S. secured a collapsing North Korean State?

What if China attacked Taiwan?

To an individual just trying to piece together a fraction of an answer to these questions is overwhelming. There are so many chaotic, moving pieces in a war, and no matter how long a group sits in a room brainstorming and debating, some things won’t be anticipated.

So they construct scenarios that can be acted out in real life, in smaller numbers, of course, but with the complexity and randomness of real-life war scenarios. And in 2015, their job was to explore how well NATO would defend against Russia.


And the Winner Is!

NATO Battlegroup Latvia
A soldier from NATO Battlegroup Latvia during an exercise in the Baltic states in 2020. (DVIDS)

What surely wasn’t anticipated was that NATO would lose to Russia. Initially, they thought it was a fluke, so they ran it again and again. But time after time, Russia won. Worst of all, the longest it took Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian or Latvian capitals was 60 hours.

A few key factors were responsible for this domination.

A US merchant ship was ‘harassed’ by the Russian military in the Baltic Sea

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NATO allies would only receive about a week’s notice of the invasion. Additionally, while the Russian troops only needed to travel around 200kms from their border to either capital, NATO troops had to cross 300kms to 600kms. Further, to get anywhere from Poland, NATO troops would have to traverse stretches of territory between the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus. This gap is optimal for ambushes with long-range artillery and flank attacks from both sides.

Furthermore, in a last-minute scramble to assemble troops to stop the rapid invasion, local Estonian and Latvian battalions had to be used; they ended up comprising almost half of the initial resistance. However, Estonian and Latvian battalions are extremely light, lack tactical mobility, and are poorly equipped for fighting against an armored opponent. The wargames found that the only armor in the NATO force would be “light armor in a single Stryker battalion.” The armor had deployed from Germany during the crisis’s buildup prior to the conflict. NATO couldn’t deploy heavy battle tanks to the field.

Without adequate ground forces to slow the attack’s momentum, there was no way for NATO to halt the Russian assault.

As Rand put it in their report, “The outcome was, bluntly, a disaster for NATO.”


A Wake-Up Call for NATO

Before RAND’s report was published in 2016, not many people were seriously questioning the ability of NATO members to fend off a single authoritarian country, but the wargame exposed deep weaknesses.

As a result, NATO members have taken substantial action such as establishing NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Forces and rotationally deployed U.S. armored brigade combat teams in Central Europe.

Without the pivotal addition of these wargames to our arsenal, we couldn’t have taken steps to effectively prepare for the darkest possibilities we might face.

So, scenarios created by teams of insanely bright people can one day be used to defend our country from any threat.