Archive for October, 2012

Insurgent’s Creed

Posted: October 30, 2012 by bafriedman in Uncategorized

Probably without realizing it, Ubisoft created an insurgency training simulation when they designed Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. They did so in a unique place and time for a video game: Rome in 1499. AC:B is almost worth playing just for the tour of a digital Renaissance Rome populated by swarms of people, shopkeepers, guards, pickpockets, and prostitutes. But, let’s be honest, people play video games for action. Fortunately it’s the action and plot of AC:B that impart some key lessons about how to run your own insurgency.

First, the background. The Assassins and the Templars are both secret societies that first coalesced during the Crusades. Both groups want to capture “Pieces of Eden,” artifacts that can grant their possessor great power and wisdom. The Templars want to use this power to control the world and the Assassins want to stop them. In 2012, the groups are still waging a secret war behind the scenes of society. Both groups utilize technology, called Animus, that allows someone to relive the memories of their ancestors stored in their DNA. Enter Desmond Miles. Through Desmond, a descendent of Assassins, both sides want to unlock the whereabouts of the artifacts. The first ancestor examined with this technology is Altair ibn-La’Ahad, a Crusades-era Assassin. The second is Ezio Auditore da Firenze, an Assassin in Italy during the Renaissance-era where the Borgia family controls the Templar order.

Ezio cuts a bloody swath across Renaissance Italy in Assassin’s Creed II, but my focus is on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the second game to feature Ezio and the one that best captures an insurgent dynamic. In ACII, Ezio simply wants to kill as many Templars as he can, including Pope Alexander VI, then retire to a nice villa with Caterina Sforza (If you don’t know who this is, I highly recommend reading about her). In the beginning of Brotherhood, the Borgia assault Assassin headquarters at the villa and scatter the group. The game literally starts out with a lesson about the inability of conventional tactics to defeat an ideological movement, presented in grand style as the player defends the villa with cannon and the Borgia assault with siege towers, siege guns, and waves of troops in formation. After being overwhelmed, Ezio escapes and travels to Rome to wrest control of the ancient capital from the Borgia.

This is where Insurgency 101, courtesy of Ubisoft, begins in earnest. Ezio, being only one man, cannot attack the Templars, who control the Vatican, vast armies, and Rome itself, directly. He has to start small and utilize guerilla tactics.

Lesson One: Information Operations

Step one for any insurgency is to prove that the ruling regime is not so big and bad after all. Delegitimizing the political power that you wish to oust will garner popular support later. Fortunately Ezio has a pretty good plan to embarrass the Borgia: go to one of their isolated guard posts, kill everyone inside, then set it on fire.

Ezio isn’t one for subtle information operations

Lesson Two: Popular Support

While popular support may or may not be the key to an insurgency, it is still important. Insurgencies depend on the civilian population for a source of recruits, supplies, camouflage, intelligence about the enemy, and counterintelligence to prevent the enemy from finding out too much. As Ezio travels through Rome, the player is presented with situations where Borgia troops are beating or attempting to kill local civilians. The player can choose to interfere and then recruit the liberated peasant as a new assassin. Just as in real life, the more allies you recruit the more abilities you can unlock, like calling a swarm of friends with crossbows to ambush enemies that are too strong for you to fight alone.

Some forms of popular support are more fun to seek than others.

Lesson Three: Guerilla Tactics

Truth be told, you can make it through the game quite easily by just running around and stabbing every bad guy you can find. It is a game after all. But, if you choose to operate more as a guerilla, the game rewards you with a higher score and unlocked rewards. Guerilla warfare is key to a force that is weaker than its opponent and seeks a strategy of erosion. Eroding the enemy’s strength over time is much easier if he can’t ever find you.

Lesson Four: Build an Alternative System

Once you’ve sliced and diced your way through counterinsurgent outposts and proved to the people that you’re stronger than the status quo, it won’t do to just sit on your laurels. It’s time to exploit the space you’ve earned. As the player frees sections of Rome from Borgia control, they can invest cash in those areas to open up an economy. The more your economy thrives, the less items such as weapons, armor, clothing, and artwork cost. While there will always  be some hardcore malcontents that will support an insurgency with supplies, sustaining a guerilla force is easier the more people you have on your side. If they’re making money, they’ll be more willing to let a little slide your way.

By the end of the game, the player’s Assassin insurgency has reached critical mass and the Borgias control only the Vatican. This sets the stage for the last act of the game. Ezio can… ahem, roam the streets of Rome pretty much at will, a worthwhile endeavor since the game acts as a virtual tour guide to the Eternal City. Upon approaching a notable building, like the Colosseum for example, the player can bring up an article that describes the buildings origin and importance. Ezio’s journey is not complete though and he must finish what he has started. The ending takes a decided turn to conventional warfare, as insurgencies sometimes do, but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is a rollicking trip through a Renaissance insurgency, helped along by historically based characters like Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci. Assassin’s Creed 3, which comes out today and is set in the American Revolution, should offer insight as well. Expect to see a post on it in the near future.

Charlie Kenobi’s War

Posted: October 28, 2012 by Crispin Burke in Uncategorized

Episode 5.02: “A War on Two Fronts”

Lesson: “Aiding an insurgency is not counter-insurgency.  Rather, that’s counter-counterinsurgency

Our story arc begins with a request for assistance from insurgents on Onderron, who are currently battling to overthrow a pro-Separatist puppet dictator, a predicament which mirrors absolutely no real-life situation whatsoever.  Anakin Skywalker pleads with the Jedi Council to intervene–thousands of worlds contain freedom fighters who simply need advisors to overthrow their Separatist-aligned masters.

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan Kenobi, ever the strategist, urges caution and restraint, lest the Republic be seen as supporting terrorism.  Plus, the Separatist-backed king is a legitimate leader; overthrowing him would lead to “dangerous possibilities”.  Silly little details like this never stopped the CIA, but I guess we need to move the plot along somehow.

Anakin convinces the council that Jedi advisors could link up with the insurgents to give them training and non-lethal arms for use against the Separatist drones.   The Jedi Council agrees, noting that foriegn advisory missions could be a “great new weapon for us”.

The Jedi, scrapped for resources, try to sell foreign advisory missions at the next AUSA Convention, lest the Republic Navy get that 300-Star Destroyer fleet they’re always asking for.

Episode 5.03, “Front Runners”

Lesson: “This is indicative of an insurgency is in its death throes”

Obi-Wan, Anakin, Ahsoka Tano, and Clone Trooper Rex link up with the insurgents.  After a brief training session, the insurgents infiltrate the city of Iziz, where they wage an urban guerrilla campaign against isolated droid patrols.  The insurgents plan to stage a high-profile attack on a large power station, located within a droid bastion in the middle of the city to demonstrate their new-found strength.  Which is silly, because everyone knows that spectacular attacks on huge bastions are really indicative of weakening insurgencies!

I think we need to re-adjust our success metrics…

Following the battle, Count Dooku promises to surge the number of droid troops on Onderron, placing them under the command of a new general.  After all, Dooku’s been looking for a new general ever since the previous tactical droid made some outlandish comments in Rolling Droid magazine.

Episode 5.03 “The Soft War”

Lesson:  “Sometimes there aren’t any snarky COIN comments to come out of a Clone Wars Episode.  This is one of them”.

Episode 5.04, “Tipping Points”

Lesson: “You know, maybe the CIA was right after all”

Population-centric COIN be damned, the Separatist droids embark to smash the main insurgent base.  Because all insurgent movement have one main, smashable base, and doing so crushes the entire insurgency.  To do so, the droid armies unleash massive, missile armed gunships, which wreak havoc on the insurgents.  Receiving a call for help, Anakin and Obi-Wan mull how best to aid the failing insurgency.  What would you do if giant floating gunships rained down death from the sky on your proxy insurgency?

In an allegory to absolutely no event in living memory, Anakin and Obi-Wan conspire with shady arms dealer Hondo Ohnaka to illegally provide the insurgents with shoulder-fired guided missiles which possess the ability to destroy giant missile-firing gunships.

Thanks to the timely arrival of MANPADS, the rebellion is saved, and the insurgents go on to govern the planet in a completely just manner, without giving rise to any sort of dictatorial rule or becoming a haven for terrorism.

Well, until Episode 5.05 comes out, I guess…

Dreadnought Sweet Dreadnought

Posted: October 23, 2012 by kdatherton in Uncategorized

Every game in the Fallout series opens with a monologue about the immutable nature of war:

“War never changes,” the narrator growls before describing a war unlike any that has happened so far in human history.  If you abstract the essence of war far enough, then you get unchanging constants: fallible & temperamental human nature, friction, a duel dragged until one side is unwilling or unable to resist. The background dynamics of war are unchanging, but the specifics of war vary a great deal.

These specifics have spilt into a recent rhetorical conflict over the ideal size of the US Naval Fleet, with concern expressed that the US fleet is smaller now than it was in 1916. In response to this public back-and-forth

 Navy officials argue that just one or two of the Navy’s modern destroyers and submarines could take out the entire 1916 fleet with ease.

I am no naval historian, but I have played one in video games, so let me offer up an abstracted cross-era perspective.

In the RTS game Empire Earth, players guide a nation through 14 ages, starting at prehistory and ending a century in the future, with mech-warrior-esque machines. Despite the fanciful end, the game does a good job representing change in conflict, showing gradual improvements in the sword-and-spear era until the advent of gunpowder radically changes military structure, and then again showing a transition from pike-and-cannon to armor, machine guns, and airpower. Naval combat similarly experiences a transition, from its first appearance in the stone age with war rafts to an end state involving attack submarines, aircraft carriers, ICBM transporting submarines, cruisers, and a strange continuance of battleships.

For an idea of the scale of that change, here is the first frigate compared against a modern-era Warrington:

War Raft contrasted with a Warrington Frigate

Ah, the glorious days past, when a warship consisted of two guys in loin clothes throwing rocks off a boat.

In the interest of game balance and mechanics, the disparity is less than reality (where a modern frigate could just sail over the war raft and call it a day). Even in constrained game logic, the frigate hits 5.7 times as hard and has 7.25 times the HP, all for the same cost. That’s another game world quirk – upgrades are paid for at once, across a class of unit, and available immediately upon reaching a new era; such is simplification in the service of gameplay. The broader point still holds: at least 6 War Rafts are needed to perform the job of a single Warrington, so it makes sense that one could reduce fleet size while still increasing the power of the fleet. Such is the advantage of technological progress.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a Stone Age ship to a modern vessel. (Okay, it’s definitely unfair).  Here, then, let’s look at a couple of Battleships and a modern submarine.

Dreadnought Bismark and an Attack Sub

If the game had a battleship more modern than the Bismarck to use I would have, but the game doesn’t expect them to be made again until the 2050s.

In Empire Earth, the changes in warship effectiveness between a single era are very modest. While unaided the Dreadnought would fall to the Bismarck, if a single allied ship supported the Dreadnought it would probably be a fair fight, and if it was two Dreadnoughts against the Bismarck they would both probably survive. The Nautilus, however, would be able to defeat either battleship on its own, as the game limits anti-submarine attacks to a few units, none of which is a battleship. (A U-Boat would also win for this reason). So by this simulation, a pair of Nautilus submarines could in sequence defeat all WWI-era frigates before proceeding to wreak havoc against any number of battleships unchecked.

This might stretch the realism of analysis one expects from a science fiction blog weighing in on a debate soundbite. Fair. Let us instead turn to a case where WWI equipment is actually in service against a modern force. As C.J. Chivers observed in his Foreign Affairs article on the small arms trade, infantry rifles have a striking durability.

One of the Lee-Enfields captured by the marines in Marjah bore a date stamp from 1915. This was a rifle that was manufactured as Kitchener’s Army was massing for service on the western front, using ammunition made for service against the Third Reich, and now firing on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

It helps, of course, that infantry rifles are as a rule made in large quantities and with durability in mind. This surplus of parts is on a scale unavailable to naval vessels, which are significantly more complex and can be rendered obsolete in the way that a reasonably good rifle never will be. This is the fundamental contrast at work here – naval power needs change in different ways than infantry combat. As has been noted, the quip that “we have less bayonets and horses now, too” ignores that the US Marines still train with bayonets (while the US Army only  stopped in 2010 ED 10/23/12removed bayonet training from basic training in 2010), that the UK had a bayonet charge in Afghanistan in 2011, and that horses were used in 2001 by special forces fighting against the Taliban. In naval affairs, technological advance has enabled the US to field fewer ships while still increasing combat effectiveness, while in Afghanistan armies & insurgents incorporate both durable technologies & modern weaponry, as (unlike in naval combat) one does not necessarily exclude the other.

Of course, there may be times (in fiction, at least) where technological disparity is so great that evolutionary changes in equipment suddenly are of no use. Take, for example, the scenario explored in “Rome Sweet Rome”, the reddit-originated  flash fiction that is slated to become a Warner Bros movie. The 35th Marine Expeditionary Unit finds itself transported back in time to face off against the Roman Empire under Augustus Caesar. Some equipment becomes immediately useless, like anything designed for electronic warfare. Most everything else becomes limited by the finite supply of fuel and ammunition available. Divorcing a fighting unit from its logistical support, and indeed the whole era capable of manufacturing more fuel & ammunition, radically alters that way that unit operates. Of course, the Romans lack anything with the killing power of an assault rifle; an M-16 out-ranges a Roman ballista by at least 100m. This strange asymmetric relationship between two conventional armed forces makes for great fiction (and hopefully a great film), but it also illustrates the limits in how far back technological disparities matter.

Tools for war fighting are designed, improvised, improved, and evolved through each era of combat, but they are fundamentally a product of their era, designed for use against relatively similar foes. Within an era, number & quality of combatants matters greatly, but between eras? Just another statistic for fantasy wargamers.

By the fourth series of the rebooted Doctor Who, Earth has faced numerous crises and is beginning to come to terms with the fact that humans are not, in fact, alone in the universe (generally the presence of aliens tends to be especially conspicuous right around Christmas). In response, the Unified Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), established by the United Nations as the planet’s main line of defense against extraterrestrials, and commanded by a British brigadier is on high alert, keeping a constant vigil against invaders from the sky. The overall command and organizational structure of UNIT is…opaque at best, but is at the least multinational, with the UK contributing a sizable contingent.

What struck me as interesting, however, was a scene in the fifth episode of the fourth series, “The Poison Sky.” The second of a two-part episode, “The Poison Sky” deals with the menacing Sontarans, a warrior species bent first on converting the entirety of Earth into one giant clone breeding habitat, and when that plan is foiled, killing every living being on the planet. Part of the UNIT response is a nuclear strike on the orbiting Sontaran mothership, coordinating the worldwide nuclear grid – which is already at the NATO Defence System’s “DEFCON 1 initiatives” – to simultaneously launch the world’s ICBMs. The countdown can be seen here around 1:11:

Of note, though, is the sequence of activation:

North America: online.
United Kingdom: online.
France: online.
India: online.
Pakistan: online.
China: online.
North Korea: online.

Some very, very peculiar facts about this global nuclear defense grid. For starters, one glaring, glaring omission: where’s Russia in all of this? One’s first thought might be related to the fact that in some unspecified way this nuclear grid is under both NATO and UNIT auspices (a “NATO Defence System” can be seen onscreen). Perhaps a super-recalcitrant Russia might have never been persuaded to join a now massively-expanded NATO, but the presence of Pakistan and India together in some sort of common alliance strains credulity to the point where it should probably be assumed that this is more of a loosely-bound grid than a mutual defensive alliance (i.e., closer to the UN General Assembly than to the UN Security Council). Either way, Indo-Pakistani relations have apparently improved to the point where they can cooperate on matters of nuclear weaponry and targeting, at least against an existential threat.

But how does this explain Russia? The Soviet Union cooperated with both the UK and UNIT throughout the Cold War, and in 1979, specifically placed its entire nuclear arsenal at the disposal of UNIT command. The only hint of a fate for Russia different from that of our world is in the “Year that Never Was,” when virtually the whole of Russia is turned into massive shipyards to create missiles – but this alternate timeline was erased. It is also unlikely that Russia would have rid itself of the ICBM leg of its own triad without reciprocation from the United States (while the inverse is possible, this would not account for the lack of Russian participation). So, for whatever reason, Russia does not participate in the aborted nuclear strike on the Sontarans.

Another omission, though far less blatant, is that of Israel. Israel does have an ICBM capability, but whether this is enough to reach a ship in a high-Earth orbit is another story (as is, for that matter, the abilities to do this possessed by the countries that do appear on the map). Presumably, the use of a nuclear weapon, in whatever context, would violate Israel’s self-imposed policy of nuclear opacity and confirm to the world officially that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. Some things, it would seem, never change.

However, some things certainly do change: like North Korea contributing to world security and stability in any way whatsoever, in developing an long-enough-range ICBM to hit an orbiting target, and in the international community not only tolerating this but in welcoming them with open arms. I mean, we all know that nuclear weapons contribute to world peace, but North Korea doing so? Through use of their nuclear weapons? It defies all logic. Perhaps in the world of Doctor Who, the Kim family has decided to faithfully pursue measures towards Korean reunification under the Sunshine Policy or something similar. But still, for a North Korea still separate from the South to participate in a global nuclear strike…the one positive attribute of North Korea as a world citizen on display here puts everything Parag Khanna wrote to shame.

The other countries involved in the strike make more sense. But check out the nuclear sites, especially those in the US:

The “Worldwide Nuclear Grid,” as seen on Doctor Who

There’s a site or two in the West, but also it would appear as if we’ve stationed some nuclear weapons just outside Chicago, in upstate New York, in Texas (or is that Mexico?), and that we’ve allowed Alabama to possess the most destructive weaponry in human history. Also, it seems Canada has gone nuclear, with weapons stationed somewhere around Saskatchewan (granted, probably a decent location for them in Canada). Perhaps our update force dispersal patterns are in response to a specific or general extraterrestrial threat.

All of this is rendered rather irrelevant by the fact that UNIT never even manages to launch the nuclear weapons, as an inside threat continuously cancels the launch whenever the system re-cycles. Which points to further flaws in UNIT’s nuclear command-and-control infrastructure, but we can leave those aside for now.

In case of future alien enemies above, it’s good to know who’s really on the side of defending the Earth. With weapons measured in kilotons.

Twenty five years ago we were first warned against two classic blunders,  “The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia*,”” but the Princess Bride has far more to offer strategic thinkers.

Before delving into lessons, it’s worth establishing that none of the strategy comes from an actual war. Instead, and much like In the Loop, the entire film concerns the machinations of a government to justify starting a war. (Unlike In the Loop, the rest of story is about resisting those machinations, rescuing a princess, and something about True Love?). Prince Humperdinck, confident of his ability to win and eager for glory, wants a war against neighboring Guilder, and with this in mind he manages to get his fiance kidnapped (and, later, [spoilers] attempts to get her killed). Now, on to the lessons!

A Map of Guilder & Florin

A Map of Guilder & Florin

False Flags

When Princess Buttercup is kidnapped by Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik (all of whom are in the employ of Florin), they place insignia torn from the uniforms of Guilder soldiers on her horse. Then, they take her across the narrow sea and it’s eel-infested waters to Guilder itself. Ideally, this would have been all Humperdinck needed: a kidnapping + known attackers = war! No such luck, as his plan was stymied by…


The Dread Pirate Roberts operates, like many self-made non-state actors, in the ungovernable spaces of the world. As a trade in which to learn security, nothing beats piracy, especially given the Renaissance setting.  As a captive,** Westly was able to watch how power was exercised first hand, all while acutely aware of his own imminent demise. As the successor to a long line of Dread Pirate Roberts, he learned that a fearsome reputation has a utility all its own, and that it’s easier to maintain a reputation than build one. Besides the reputation, Westly built up a variety of martial skills suitable for those in less reputable work – swordfighting of course, but also a knowledge of poison (and an immunity to some), a willingness and ability to navigate ungovernable spaces, and a first-rate ability for bluffing. Also: perhaps this was learned from his time as a captive, but Westly is perfectly willing to dispatch his opponents with non-lethal force. In return, this ends up paying off big, as those he defeated without killing eventually seek him out and join his cause.


After defeating Buttercups’ captors, Westley leads her down a gorge and through the fire swamp. After surviving snowsand, bursts of flame, and Rodents of Unusual Size, Westley and Buttercup are confronted by a superior number of pursuers at the edge of the swamp. While Westley intends for them to return to the fireswamp, Buttercup instead offers to surrender in exchange for Humperdinck’s promise to spare Westley’s life. (Quick sublesson: somepeople will trade a lot for stability, others never will, and those with all the weapons are free to renege on promises they made once they’ve disarmed their opposition.) Instead of escaping, Westly finds himself captured and subject to an experimental pain machine. The purpose behind his torture is not for the extraction of any information (well, besides data points for Count Rugen’s study of pain), but to break the man before killing him. It’s arbitrary, horrific, and leaves him mostly dead. Beyond cruel, the torture program is less useful than execution. Being only mostly dead, Westly is rescued, and revived.

Inigo and Fezzik

Our Accidental Guerrillas

Accidental Guerrillas

Westly is rescued from the dungeon by two armed goons formerly contracted to Prince Humperdinck. The first, the giant Fezzik, had been recruited into the brute squad the king formed to clear the Thieves Quarter (itself a loosely-governed place that Humperdinck at times draws mercenaries at covert services from, and at other times declares a threat to the very survival of Florin and his bride.)*** Upon finding his fellow kidnapper Inigo Montoya in the Thieves Quarter, Fezzik abandons his post and turns on his former  employer, driving the brute squad away and quitting their ranks. Fezzik’s reason for turning is simple: it was easier to side with a friend than to jail him.**** Inigo Montoya’s motives for resisting are multiple: first, no one skilled and armed and drunk likes getting caught up in a sweep; displacement is rarely a smooth process. Secondly, Inigo Montoya is so driven by revenge that he is practically synonymous with it. Inigo seeks the help of the man who bested him in order to continue his quest for revenge. Driven by friendship and feeling no sympathy for the king that sought to turn them against each other, drove them from their home, and (in Inigo’s case) killed their family, Fezzik and Montoya turn to Westley, despite the lack of an ideological tie to his cause.


Three men do not an insurgency make, but a mastermind, an expert swordsman, a giant, a wheelbarrow, and a holocaust cloak are certainly enough to give the appearance of one. Using the holocaust cloak, wheelbarrow, and giant, Westley is able to scare away a guard detail at the gate numbering 50 men, and force the regiment’s leader to hand over the keys to the gate. Once inside the palace, the security detail is overwhelmed. The prince is left alone, while Count Rugen, Humperdinck’s chief of intelligence and right hand man, attempts to flee. Humperdinck is confronted by a reclining Westley, who manages to take being barely able to move and play it off as an elaborate ruse, all while threatening a horrific sort of death following their duel. Humperdinck blinks first and flees, only to be knocked unconscious as his captive princess bride is freed.

Targeted Killings

Meanwhile, Inigo Montoya confronts and pursues Count Rugen, who killed Inigo Montoya’s father rather than pay a fair price for the custom sword Diego Montoya had made him. Inigo witnessed his father’s murder, vowed revenge on the spot, and in return had Count Rugen scar his face. Since that day, Inigo Montoya had trained and traveled so that he may better be able to fulfill his vow. Inigo’s object was Count Rugen’s death, and he was willing to join a three-man assault on a castle to get it. People other than his died along the way (Montoya honing his skills without life being on the line? Inconceivable!), but ultimately he killed the right six fingered man.


It is worth noting that, while it has the trapping of soldiers and kings, the entirety of Princess Bride concerns law enforcement, irregular forces, and covert warfare. On the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, it’s worth noting that everything new in war is old again.

Commenters: I’m certain I missed lessons, like an easy metaphor about Fezzik’s fighting style being unsuited for a duel. What other strategic wisdom can we gain from this?

Footnotes and asides:

*Fun fact: when Princess Bride first came out, Russia was currently in its 8th year in Afghanistan and things weren’t going smoothly. But for the 25th anniversary edition, the United States (along with others) is in its 11th year in Afghanistan, where things do not appear to be going smoothly. The “fun” in this fact comes from the amount of whiskey you’ll need to drink to forget it.

**Depending on Westly’s age at the time of his captivity, it’s entirely possible he’s a child soldier in service of a warlord who will have suffered Stockholm Syndrome and is now a warlord himself. In case you were wondering how I was going to work a Joseph Kony reference into this, there it is.

***Insert FATA/Pakistan joke here.

****Here’s the green on blue joke. I…I’m sorry.