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Posted on Oct 30, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

The Practical Art of Moving Armies – On the Computer Screen

By Larry Levandowski

In March of 1944, the Japanese Army launched its last major offensive of the war; a thrust into NW India from Burma. By capturing the Allied bases at Kohima, and Imphal, Japanese air and ground forces hoped to cut off, or at least disrupt the Allied India to China supply route. In the initial phases of the campaign, the Japanese swept forward, catching the Allies off-guard. During the first weeks, the Japanese 33rd Division nearly surrounded the Indian 17th Division, and it seemed the Japanese were within reach of taking both bases.

But the Japanese success was to be short-lived. The Japanese 15th Army Commander, Lt. General Renya Mutaguchi, had been over-optimistic in assessing the logistical readiness of his army. Even as he prepared his attack, the Japanese supply net could barely meet the needs of his troops while they sat idle, and could certainly not meet the needs of an offensive. The supply route, over primitive Burmese road and rail links, made re-supply slow enough. Even worse, constant Allied air attacks reduced the Japanese supply convoys to only night movement. Before the attack, Mutaguchi’s troops were only able to stockpile three weeks of rations; not enough for a sustained offensive.


With overconfidence and great bravado, Mutaguchi seemed to ignore his supply issues. Japanese “warrior spirit” (bushido), helped by “Churchill’s rations,” would see the attack through. Mutaguchi, who had learned his craft in the early days of the war, remembered how entire campaigns were fought using captured supplies. So for the March offensive, Mutaguchi’s plans targeted key Allied supply dumps for capture, and the Japanese would once again eat at Churchill’s table. As the Japanese would learn however, it is never a wise strategy to rely on your enemy to feed you.

The Japanese made another error in logistics. They assumed that the Allies would not be able to operate armor units in the difficult terrain around Kohima and Imphal. So to speed movement and victory, Mutagachi’s men left behind their heavy artillery as they advanced. When surprised Japanese troops met Allied armor just where they did not expect it, the Japanese paid a high price for leaving behind their only anti-tank capability.

After only a few weeks of battle, it soon became clear that despite early success, the Japanese were losing the logistics battle, and therefore the campaign. Allied troops, even when surrounded, could count on adequate air-dropped supplies to keep them fighting. Contrary to Japanese assumptions, Allied armored forces operated in the difficult terrain by using air-dropped spare parts and fuel. The much needed “Churchill’s rations" did not materialize, as Japanese forces found that captured supply dumps had been emptied of food. Within a month, Mutaguchi’s offensive ground to halt, as both the 15th Army and its soldiers began to starve. By May, the situation was so dire that the Allies counter-attacked, and the Japanese could not effectively resist. In the end, the Japanese Army lost over 50,000 troops, and suffered such a defeat that its Burma operations would never recover.

As the Burma campaign illustrates, in the modern era, logistics plays a critical role in warfare. But what is the role of logistics in wargames? Sadly, this aspect of conflict is often not well depicted. Operational and strategic level games usually give only the slightest nod to logistics; a requirement to trace supply back to a source, tracking supply levels, are common. But such attempts are really like salad without dressing; giving the player only a bland shadow of the logistics concerns of the real-life commander.

Not all is lost however, there are several great games on the market today that give the player the full ability to manipulate the logistics battle. These games allow the player to establish supply and transport routes, manage transport capacity, and align the “logistics tail” towards the strategic goal. Examples of these games are: Civ IV, War in the Pacific, and the Settlers series. Most (RTS) Real Time Strategy offerings also have many of these elements as well.

So to compete in these games, and win the logistics puzzle, I propose using a logistics “tool box” of four simple but very powerful concepts: Route, Capacity, Supply, and Focus.

Corporal Charles H. Johnson of the 783rd Military Police Battalion, waves on a
`Red Ball Express’ motor convoy rushing priority materiel to the forward areas,
near Alenon, France." Bowen, September 5, 1944. 111-SC-195512


In his autobiographical work, “War as I Knew It,” George Patton claims to have predicted major battles in Normandy, just by looking at a road map. He says, “surely the study of war is the road net.” Likewise, computer generals need to study the map and determine major routes of transport and supply; in the real world, these are called main supply routes (MSRs). Usually these are routes that offer the shortest travel time from the supply source. Transit time is the key here, so these routes may not be the shortest distance wise, but they must be the fastest. On land, these are rail and road nets; paved roads being faster than dirt ones.. Air transport routes are very fast, and usually defined by straight flight-paths between airbases. Water routes are usually defined by shortest travel paths between port facilities.

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