WASHINGTON -- Sprawled across a tabletop in a Northern Virginia office building are the armies of Saddam Hussein, moving by tens of thousands deep into Saudi Arabia and threatening the left flank of the U.S. Army.
What happens next is up to Mark Herman, a war-game designer and strategy consultant who is giving orders for both sides. He launched the whole thing on a huge map marked off in hexagons with small chips of cardboard representing units of opposing forces.
Yes, it's a game, one of several U.S.-Iraq war games that will soon be available at hobby shops. But it's a sophisticated game, similar in many ways to the ones the Pentagon plays when planning for the real thing, and its results offer insights on what might happen if war were to break out.
For instance, the Iraqi invasion going on in Mr. Herman's office founders disastrously in the desert when U.S. warplanes lay waste to Iraqi supply lines. But a U.S. offensive being plotted on an identical map at Mr. Herman's home is not a whole lot easier to carry out, even though its hypothetical zero-hour is November, when temperatures are cooler and the United States may have 250,000 troops in place.
One thing you never want to do with a war game is try to predict the result of the real thing, said Col. John R. Carey, director of the Center for Strategic Wargaming at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
"If somebody draws those kinds of conclusions, they're open to disaster," he said.
But one can identify strengths, weaknesses and other tendencies of different strategies and plans of attack or defense, Colonel Carey said. He is fond of a quote from U.S. Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, who remarked that in World War II, war games helped prepare the U.S. Pacific campaign for virtually everything that came up except the suicide tactics of Japanese kamikaze pilots.
And those lessons aren't necessarily less valid just because they come from a game designed for tabletop generals. "Real war games are the blueprints of real war. Recreational war games are the playthings of war. Yet the good playthings are more than that," Thomas B. Allen wrote in "War Games," his 1987 book about Pentagon war-gaming. "They teach the thinking of war, and, like autopsies, they have great value in showing the living why certain actions can be fatal."
Which brings us to the lessons of "Gulf Strike," Mr. Herman's game-in-the-making for Victory Games Inc., and "Arabian Nightmare," a military-political game just completed for 3-W Games by James F. Dunnigan, a New Yorker whom Mr. Herman describes as his mentor.
Mr. Herman and Mr. Dunnigan are among a handful of recreational war-game designers who have been consulted by the Pentagon in developing its own games, and similar interplay has continued on official and non-official levels as "Arabian Nightmare" and the new "Gulf Strike" have come into being.
The most prominent tendency that emerges from test-playing their games so far is the advantage offered by the superiority of U.S. air power, despite the vast numbers of Iraqi troops and tanks manning the lines in Kuwait. It is an advantage that reaches its zenith in the barren expanses of the desert, where warplanes holding the upper hand can easily find enemy targets.
"Even at night or in a sandstorm," Mr. Dunnigan said, in the open reaches of the desert one can better use radar and other equipment to "detect large masses of metal or something else that doesn't belong."
Thus, in both games, under just about any attack or defense scenario, Iraqi supply lines become almost immediately vulnerable to U.S. air strikes when war breaks out. And that quickly becomes crucial on a battlefield that provides no sustenance.
"If you can't supply the beans and bullets, then the troops get hungry and can't fire their weapons," Mr. Dunnigan said. "So you eliminate a unit by eliminating its ability to fight, not necessarily by eliminating all of his troops. That never happens in wartime unless you're the Nazis or the Mongol hordes."
So, for the Iraqis, "you now have a situation where it's realistically possible to shut them down logistically through the air and let them dry out a bit, then send in your troops," Mr. Dunnigan said. "Soften them up, as they say."
Or in the cases where the Iraqis attack first, even though they may gain a lot of ground initially, "they come across all this desert and the airplanes are just beating the hell out of them," Mr. Herman said. "They run out of gas. They lose force very quickly. Within a matter of a week, an armored division would be more or less impotent. And of course water is a problem very quickly."
If the United States launches the attack, it almost invariably proceeds well in the games as long as the war is fought in the air. That's not to say there couldn't be mishaps.
What if, for instance, the Iraqis score a bull's-eye with a Scud missile on a major Saudi oil refinery? "If the refinery goes away," Mr. Herman said, "we may be stuck with $50-a-barrel oil for a while even if we win."