Cold War game provides some serious insight

Guest blogger Dennis Andrews takes a look at a submarine warfare board game that benefits hugely from an inside perspective on real front line operations.

‘They Come Unseen’ (Osprey Games, £39.99) features a contest between NATO and the Soviet Navy – with the maritime forces of the West and Russia again squaring up for shadow games at sea it has gained added piquancy.

The components of ‘The Come Unseen’. Image: Osprey Games.

The game’s creator is former submarine captain Andy Benford who conceived it after devising a prototype in 1974, while Navigating Officer aboard the Porpoise Class conventional submarine HMS Grampus. Various submariners road tested the first version of the game, ‘Submarine’, while actually at sea on patrol to counter the Soviets. Further developed over time, and now with Osprey’s involvement, it is probably one of the best naval strategy/tactics board game that is neither a simulation nor computer-based ‘shoot them up’.

The prototype of ‘They Come Unseen’ being put through its paces by two officers in the wardroom of the nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine HMS Sovereign during the late 1970s. Photo: Used courtesy of Andy Benford.

Two or more persons can play (up to a maximum of five). A pair of conventional diesel-powered hunter/killer submarines represents the NATO force while the Soviets field two destroyers and three support ships. Each vessel is represented in play by a simple piece occupying a single square on a grid. The same grid is marked out on two separate boards, one smaller than the other. These are the Main Board, which charts surface activity, and the Deep Board, where submarines that have dived below periscope depth manoeuvre. On reaching ‘periscope depth’ again the NATO players return to the Main Board. The Deep Board is only visible to NATO players and to conceal submarine movements from prying eyes a card shield is provided (a bit like the technique used in ‘Battleships’ to hide opponents’ units from each other).

The rules booklet for ‘They Come Unseen’.

Set in the Barents Sea, where the Russians are depicted as possessing six Ice Stations on various land bases, the scenario for gameplay puts the Soviets on the verge of a breakthrough with the development of nuclear-powered submarines.

The NATO mission is to deploy two submarines and seek out the Ice Stations while destroying four of the six by landing Special Forces wins the game. Both sides are keen to avoid nuclear war, so outright aggression is denied – but maybe a submarine goes missing at sea? After colliding with a so-called ‘iceberg’?

That surely never happened!?

Soviet players win the game by sinking the two NATO submarines while movements across the board are taken in turn, with Rules of Engagement (RoE) provided in two accompanying booklets. While easy to understand, novice players may need to keep referring to the RoE until familiar with gameplay.

The literature that is part of the package provides some excellent insights into submarine operations by the Royal Navy during the Cold War (including a chapter on strategy and tactics). This provides ideas for complex moves in play.

Cold War cat and mouse: The masts of a Victor Class attack submarine of the Soviet Navy, which has just dived having been caught on the surface. Photo: US DoD.

‘They Come Unseen’ is a great game of cat and mouse where, even with the best of tactical efforts and sharpest of minds, nothing is certain. The vagaries of weather and temperature layers in the sea are the unpredictable factors that slew the outcomes.

It all gains enormously from real-life experiences of its creator who, during his naval career also commanded the Australian submarine HMAS Oxley and was second-in-command of the British nuclear-powered Polaris ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) HMS Revenge.

The Australian diesel-electric patrol submarine HMAS Oxley, which was in the early 1980s commanded by Andy Benford, creator of the game ‘They Come Unseen’. Photo: RAN.

The ‘History and Strategy’ booklet by Benford is a fascinating read on its own while ‘They Come Unseen’ itself takes us back to the golden era of complex and mind-bending strategy and tactics board games of the 1970s and 1980s. It is definitely not for impatient wimps and requires the participant to think in three dimensions…or die!

Contact Andy Benford direct via e-mail: theycomeunseen@gmail.com

 

 

Russians Target Ballistic Missile Defence Ship Again

For the second time in two years Russian strike jets have buzzed the US Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook, except in the latest episode not in the Black Sea but in the Baltic.

What makes the Arleigh Burke Class warship so interesting to the Russians – and therefore, Moscow feels, worthy of some close attention – is her status as a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) vessel.

Russian jets buzz USS Donald CookA Russian Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft makes a very low
altitude pass past the USS Donald Cook on April 12. Image: US Navy.

The Donald Cook is one of four forward-based US Navy destroyers (operating from Rota in Spain) that are BMD-capable. They sail European waters to provide NATO nations with a protective umbrella against potential missile attack, but Russia deeply resents the deployment of such warships close to its borders.

The Pentagon claims the patrols by the BMD-capable Arleighs are more about protecting allies and US interests, and forward-based forces overseas, from attack by rogue states than seeing off a Russian threat. The Kremlin views them as a very provocative presence, hence the Donald Cook’s encounters with low-flying strike jets.

Referred to by the US Navy as ‘several close interactions’, the latest incidents also involved a Helix helicopter adopting the Cold War tactic (used by both sides back then) of photographing a NATO vessel up close.

Helix helicopter

The KA-27 Helix flies close to the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic. Image: US Navy.

‘USS Donald Cook encountered multiple, aggressive flight maneuvers by Russian aircraft that were performed within close proximity of the ship,’ explained a US Navy statement on the episodes, which occurred as the destroyer sailed within international waters.

The Arleigh Burke Class destroyer was ‘conducting deck landing drills with an allied military helicopter’ according to the USN, when at 3.00pm European time on April 11, a pair of SU-24 jets ‘made numerous close-range and low altitude passes’.

The decision was swiftly taken to temporarily halt the deck landings (by a Polish naval helicopter). According to the US Navy the situation swiftly became unsafe, especially with one SU-24 Fencer jet passing around 30ft above the Donald Cook. This happened as a helicopter was being refueled on the destroyer’s flight-deck.

RUSSIAN-BUZZ-PAST

Two Su-24 Fencers pass very close to the USS Donald Cook on April 12, 2016. Image: US Navy.

The following day the SU-24s were back, but this time just after the KA-27 Helix had circled the Donald Cook at low altitude, it is believed to enable a photographer to take shots of the warship’s radars and other systems.

‘About 40 minutes after the interaction with the Russian helicopter, two Russian SU-24 jets made numerous close-range and low altitude passes, 11 in total,’ the USN statement revealed. ‘The Russian aircraft flew in a simulated attack profile and failed to respond to repeated safety advisories in both English and Russian.’ The boss of American naval forces in Europe, Admiral Mark Ferguson slammed the Russian actions as “unprofessional and unsafe.”

The episode has generated headlines around the world while diplomatic back channels have been buzzing; with the USA seeking to make sure Russia knows how dangerous such manoeuvres are. “We have deep concerns about the unsafe and unprofessional Russian flight maneuvers,” said a USN source. “These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries and could result in a miscalculation or accident that could cause serious injury or death.”

During the Cold War such incidents were common, with both sides going as close as they dared to test the reactions of the other side’s warships. Photography of exposed systems, in order to try and gain an insight into the opposition’s warfare potential, was a key objective of helicopter flights. Jet passes were also designed to test the reactions of the target vessel’s crew and pick up intelligence on tactics and sensor capabilities. The same dangerous game of using your own surface vessels and submarines to come as close as possible to the other’s side’s equivalent units was conducted for identical reasons.

WIFRBuzzReport2014

The news report on USS Donald Cook’s previous encounter with low flying Russian strike jets, as published in the June 2014 edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine.

The USS Donald Cook was last subjected to the same kind of jet buzz treatment while on patrol in the Black Sea at the height of Russia’s intervention in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The destroyer was sailing through international waters when a SU-24, possibly from a Russian naval aviation squadron based in the Crimea, came a little too close. The SU-24 made a total of 12 passes, going from near sea level to around 2,000ft – but never flying directly over the warship. A second SU-24 was present but remained at high altitude throughout the provocative 90 minute display.

The aircraft was not visibly armed and did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from the Donald Cook. The episode ended without further incident. The SU-24 had, at its closest, approached to within around 1,000 yards.

At the time Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren observed: “The USS Donald Cook was never in danger.” He added: “The Donald Cook is more than capable of defending itself against two Su-24s.” Warren said he did not think it was a case of a young pilot ‘joyriding’ and suggested: “I would have difficulty believing that two Russian pilots, on their own, would chose to take such an action.”

Episodes of Cold War close calls at sea between NATO and Russian submarines are detailed in Iain Ballantyne’s ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books). More information here.
Visit the Orion Publishing Group web site for more on ‘Hunter Killers’
Iain is also Editor of the global naval news WARSHIPS IFR magazine, which will be providing further analysis in a forthcoming edition. For more naval news information and details on the magazine visit www.warshipsifr.com

The Soviet Spy Who Built British Warships

The Soviet Union’s top spy in America during the 1950s used the cover name Rudolf Abel but was in truth William August Fisher. Born on Tyneside, in the north east of England, in 1903, Fisher worked at Swan Hunter as a teenage apprentice draughtsman when the shipyard was constructing both warships and merchant vessels.

In 1957 the FBI apprehend Fisher in a New York hotel after busting into his room, bringing to an end his bid to set up a spying network seeking out intelligence on American nuclear weapons, including the Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

The parents of ‘Colonel Abel’, as he was known in the USA during his trial, were anti-Tsarist political activists who returned to Russia in 1921 after the communists seized power. Fisher worked in signals intelligence for the Soviets during WW2 before utilising his British upbringing to successfully insert himself undercover in the USA in the late 1940s.

At one stage he worked alongside Konon Molody, who, as ‘Gordon Lonsdale’ in the early 1960s would run the notorious Portland Spy Ring in the UK, stealing secrets of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Bridge of Spies’ begins by masterfully plunging us into ‘Abel’s’ humdrum life in late 1950s USA as he tries to go about his espionage as unobtrusively as possible. The spy, a talented artist, takes an easel and paints with him for some landscape work to cover a visit to a dead letter drop.

Berlin-wall
An East German policeman stands guard over a worker constructing the Berlin Wall, to ensure he does not try to escape to the West. Former US Navy officer turned lawyer James Donovan had to cross from West to East Berlin to negotiate for the spy swap on the so-called ‘Bridge of Spies’, as featured in the Steven Spielberg movie. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

‘Abel’ (Mark Rylance) is later arrested in his underpants back at the hotel and put on trial (fully clothed). He is defended by insurance lawyer, and former US Navy officer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had also been an advocate at the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials. Despite public outrage Donovan manages to get Abel sentenced to prison rather than receive the death penalty.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

Fast forward to early 1962, and Donovan plays a pivotal role in springing shot-down U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) from imprisonment in the Soviet Union in exchange for ‘Abel’. The swap takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, which spans a stretch of cold water lying between West and East Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie – one of the controlled gateways through the newly constructed Berlin Wall – another release takes place simultaneously, of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) earlier arrested by the East Germans for being a spy.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

That, in essence, is the core story of ‘Bridge of Spies’. It does play fast and loose with some of the facts but succeeds in powerfully and movingly conveying the big moral issues of the time as well as plunging us convincingly into the places where it all happened.Despite its simplistic boiling down of a complex story it still presents a multi-layered yarn, never resorting to histrionics or pompous moralising. It never gives in to the temptation of having Hanks’ character indulge in ludicrous action man antics or gunplay.

Mark Rylance’s subtle performance preserves the enigma of ‘Abel’ (who during his trial did not reveal his real British identity) while still conveying the inner paradoxes of a cultured man working for a brutal totalitarian state.

‘Bridge of Spies’ (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) will be released on DVD and Blu Ray formats this spring.

This is a version of a review to be published in the forthcoming March 2016 edition of WARSHIP IFR magazine (due out on February 19). www.warshipsifr.com

Iain Ballantyne is the author of ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) which tells the story of the Royal Navy’s submariners and submarines during the Cold War.

Among other things, ‘Hunter Killers’ looks at the activities of the Portland Spy Ring and certain aspects of Soviet espionage in the UK that sought to snatch Royal Navy submarine secrets. Iain is currently writing ‘The Deadly Trade’, a history of submarine warfare from Ancient times to today, for the same publisher.

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