The Battle of Turkmenbashi turned out to be a pivotal event in the game. It is interesting from a game design point of view and it has results that are interesting from the point of view of the outcome of the game. In terms of game design, the umpires had the question of time compression to deal with. Each turn represented five years, and yet the hostilities represented only a few days, possibly a couple of weeks, in time. How ought we to have dealt with that time compression?
Our first view was that, unless argued to the contrary, the non-combat processes would be dealt with first. In Turn 5, Iran continued a policy of economic and social development that had originated in previous turns, so Iran moved first. The Taliban moved to contest elections in Afghanistan. Once again, this was a process that had been undertaken in previous turns, so they moved second. The Chinese move was to further build out the BRI from Tashkent to Turkmenbashi. Once again, this was part of a long term strategy that had unfolded during the game, so China moved third. The development of a Chinese military facility at Turkmenbashi was the logical extension of this move. It proved to be central to events in 2045. Kazakhstan was next to move. Their move consisted of developing the Kazakh water infrastructure further, but also allowing Russia to expand the military port facilities at Aktau.
These were all relatively long term activities that fit well into a five year turn. The Russian move was to enhance the naval and air facilities at Aktau - a long term process - and to establish a naval blockade of Turkmen commercial shipping in the south Caspian Sea - s process of much shorter duration. At this point, the time element in the move was becoming quite compressed. For this reason we scheduled the Russian turn as fifth in line. Finally, the US turn consisted of a cruise missile strike , a surface to surface missile strike, and a long range air strike, all on southern Turkmenistan. The duration represented here would be hours, so we placed the US turn as the final one. As a final response, the Chinese player was allowed to retaliate with a surface to space attack on Russian and American satellite networks.
It could be argued that the order of appearance made a difference in the eventual outcome. We have great sympathy with that view. However, none of the players argued to move first, as they could have done in the Matrix framework, which left it to the umpires to settle the issue of the compression of time. Having made those decisions, how did the battle unfold?
In logical time, the Chinese forces had started to build up the naval facility in Turkmenbashi and the Russian navy had secured port facilities in Aktau. This was against a backdrop of increasing tension in the region, as the Taliban had seized control of the government of Turkmenistan; had nationalised Russian, American, and Kazakh commercial entities in the country; and had halted the flow of hydrocarbons across the Karakum Desert. Both the Russians and the Americans had attempted direct military intervention previously with local forces, but had failed completely to dislodge them. It was felt that a more determined approach was needed.
The Russian Caspian Flotilla - consisting of two frigates and eight corvettes - sailed south from Aktau to position itself across the Baku to Turkmenbashi trade route. The Berkarar, the sole vessel in the Turkmen commercial fleet, set out to Baku from Turkmenbashi. It was intercepted by Astrakhan, a corvette in the Russian Caspian Flotilla, and ordered to heave to. The Berkarar failed to respond, so the Astrakhan fired a warning shot across its bows. The Berkarar again failed to heave to so a boarding party from the Astrakhan landed and seized control of the Berkarar. As the entire Turkmen commercial fleet had now been impounded, the Russian Caspian Flotilla was ordered back to the home port of Astrakhan.
As the Russian Caspian Flotilla sailed northwards, the Turkmen navy - consisting of three missile boats - was ordered from port at Turkmenbashi to shadow the Russians sailing northwards. Once the Russians had reached port, the Turkmen considered three targets in the region - the Russian naval port at Astrakhan, the Russian naval facility at Aktau, or the Kazakh desalinisation plants at Tengiz. Chinese diplomats urged restraint upon the Turkmen to no avail. The Taliban decided to strike against the Kazakh desalinisation plants at Tengiz. The missile strike was largely ineffectual and only caused minor damage, failing to disrupt water production at all.
Having spent their ammunition, the Turkmen boats were ordered to return to Turkmenbashi. As a response to the missile salvo at Tengiz, the Russian Caspian Flotilla was ordered to intercept the Turkmen fleet, which it did just north west of Turkmenbashi. There was an exchange of fire with two of the Turkmen missile boats being sunk and the remaining missile boat being severely damaged. The Turkmen authorities called upon their Chinese allies for military assistance. The shore based Chinese missile batteries opened fire on the Russian Caspian Flotilla, sinking one frigate and all eight corvettes. The remaining frigate was severely damaged and returned to Astrakhan for repairs.
At this point, the United States entered the fray. The US Fifth Fleet, anchored at the base port of Bahrain, fired a salvo of 20 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles aimed at targets in southern Turkmenistan. The route of the missiles involved overflight across Iranian territory. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard successfully hacked into the guidance systems of 6 of the missiles and effected a 'return to sender' programme, causing all six missiles to detonate on the ships from which they originated. There was significant loss of life and severe damage to the US Naval ships in Bahrain. Six vessels were either crippled beyond repair or sunk. The remaining 14 missiles flew on to detonate on their targets in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, causing substantial local damage in the vicinity of their targets. They did not seriously degrade the Taliban anti-aircraft missile systems, which were their targets.
The cruise missile salvo was followed by a salvo of five long range surface to surface missiles fired from US bases in Afghanistan at targets further into Turkmenistan. Trajectory tracking software suggested that the intended targets would be close to the town of Mari and the capital Ashgabat. China considered these as important points on the BRI transit route and deployed a battery of anti-missile missiles to intercept the incoming American missiles. All five US missiles were successfully intercepted and detonated in the upper atmosphere.
The United States also scrambled a long range bombing mission against targets at Turkmenbashi. Originating from Incerlik airbase in Turkey, after a fierce debate between Turkey and the US, permission was granted by the Turkish authorities for the use of Turkish airspace for this purpose. Five planes were deployed on the bombing mission. As they entered Turkmen airspace, the Chinese anti-aircraft missile batteries opened fire on the incoming US bombers and shot down all five of them over the Caspian Sea. No crew were recovered.
At thins point, the Chinese commander in the region went onto the offensive. Sufficient anti-satellite missiles were deployed to severely degrade both the Russian and American satellite networks in the region, depriving both nations of the ability for reconnaissance, communications and missile guidance within the region. This dealt a severe blow to US plans to establish a radar site at Baikonur and an airbase at Almaty, both in Kazakhstan.
At this point, all sides were left wondering if World War III had started?
There are aspects of events within the game which were quite instructive and elements that were unsatisfying. The umpires took the view that both the US and the Russian players had underestimated the degree to which the balance of power had changed once the Taliban had allied to China. The missile protection offered along the BRI route, especially at key nodes, was a surprise. Admittedly, the dice rolls had favoured the Taliban. However, that left us with a sequence of really interesting 'what ifs?'. What if the Turkmen navy had been more successful at Tengiz? What if the Chinese missile salvo hadn't sunk most of the Russian Caspian Flotilla? What if the American missile strikes had been more successful? These imponderables have left us wanting to re-run the Battle of Turkmenbashi again in the future, only starting with the dice roll going the other way.
As it happens, World War III hadn't been started. In the following turn, all of the combatants took a step back from any further escalation. That was just as well because the umpires had previously resolved to frustrate any further escalation and to keep the game strictly within the region. It did leave me with a final question. Is this what World War III looks like? A short, nasty, and bloody exchange between the great powers in an obscure region of the globe? I can't say, but it is an interesting question to ponder.
© The European Futures Observatory 2020