Communications, confusion, and potentially bad decisions

In my most recent review of the book ZONES OF CONTROL, I mentioned my part in a game about the Cuban Missile Crisis that took place in November 2012. I took on the role of Fidel Castro, and during the game I communicated with my Soviet ‘friends’ by text. I kept a copy of these texts, and these are shown below in time order.

Cuban Signal Log

  • Time: From/To: Text of message
  • 12.40: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: We have engaged unidentified high-flying aircraft with SAMs and have shot two down.
  • 12.50: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Congratulations on shooting down United States planes.
  • 12.51: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: We could not have protected our airspace without the help of our Soviet brothers in arms.
  • 12.52: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Can you ask our people in Cuba to contact us?
  • 12.52: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: I have passed on your request.
  • 13.02: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: I have moved three divisions (1 x trained & 2 partially-trained) up to the border with the United States-occupied ‘base’ at Guantanamo Bay.
  • 13.02: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: We have engaged low-lying United States aircraft who entered Cuban airspace. No reports of any ‘splashed’ aircraft.
  • 13.03: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: What is your assessment of the situation?
  • 13.04: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: I have the utmost confidence that my Soviet brothers-in-arms will not allow the imperialist Americans to prevail during the current crisis.
  • 13.05: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Any feedback on American responses?
  • 13.09: Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro: Premier regards troop movements as action of loose cannon.
  • 13.10: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: May I remind my Soviet colleagues that their territory is not occupied by a foreign power nor is their airspace being invaded. Cuba will stand alone IF NECESSARY!
  • 13.17: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Can you pull back your troops from Guantanamo Bay? Threatening the Americans is our job.
  • 13.18: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: I will NOT have my foreign policy dictated by my allies! I will listen to reason … but not whilst my country’s sovereignty is being flouted by the United States.
  • 13.19: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Tell me more about what you hope to achieve. Do you plan to attack Guantanamo Bay?
  • 13.20: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: The movement of my troops toward Guantanamo Bay is purely defensive as I am fearful of a United States invasion from there. When they stop over-flights, I will withdraw my army units.
  • 13.21: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Have you told them this?
  • 13.32: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: We would like to send an AA Division to you. Would this be acceptable?
  • 13.33: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: We have asked your diplomats to pass on this message … and sufficient AA weapons to help protect our airspace would be much appreciated.
  • 13.34: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Very well, the first regiment will arrive by air shortly.
  • 13.36: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: The United States has agreed to stop over-flights. I am withdrawing my divisions from the border with Guantanamo Bay … to Santiago.
  • 13.37: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Thank you. A good result.
  • 13.38: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: I am placing the entire fleet of Cuban Army trucks at the disposal of the Soviets to enable the swift unloading and dispersal of the approaching convoy’s contents.
  • 13.39: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Thank you.
  • 13.45: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Can you mobilise the Cuban fleet to help too?
  • 13.46: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: I understand that the United States intends to stop the convoy before it reaches Havana. I will order my small navy out as far as I can to assist as best we can.
  • 13.47: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: We have ordered the merchant ships to carry on. The imperialists will have to sink them to stop them. Any reasonable assistance will be welcome.
  • 13.48: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: The 45-year old cruiser Cuba has set sail from Havana to escort the convoy into harbour.
  • 13.49: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Yes!
  • 13.55: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: My brother has had a nasty car accident and is currently hospitalised. United States sabotage is suspected.
  • 13.56: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Has the convoy arrived yet?
  • 13.57: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: Not in Havana. I understand that it is currently 250 miles away … and stopped! My B-26 aircraft can just reach them, but have no loiter time once they get there.
  • 14.00: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: News to us, we ordered it to continue…
  • 14.01: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: Cruiser Cuba reports she will reach the convoy tomorrow.
  • 14.02: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: B-26 aircraft of the Cuban Air Force are over-flying the convoy in a demonstration of solidarity. They will not loiter over the convoy and will return to Cuba.
  • 14.03: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Let us know if our convoy continues to disobey orders by not moving.
  • 14.04: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: We are preparing to welcome the convoy. Large placards are in place, crowds are organised, and a motorcade is ready to roll.
  • 14.07: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: The cruiser Cuba would be pleased to lead the convoy into Havana, and we propose to begin this welcome once you reach to 50-mile limit.
  • 14.13: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: Where is the convoy? I have lost radio contact with the cruiser Cuba, which should be with the convoy now.
  • 14.16: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Yes, agreed.
  • 14.17: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: I have been informed that the United States has gone to DEFCON 2. I am mobilising my armed forces and moving my 3 divisions up to Guantanamo Bay.
  • 14.18: Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro: Moving towards Cuba at 2 knots escorted by 2 carrier groups.
  • 14.19: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: Thanks for the information.
  • 14.20: Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro: Cuba has been sighted by convoy.
  • 14.28: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: We are now going to DEFCON 3.
  • 14.29: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: United States now at DEFCON 1.
  • 14.30: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: United States has gone to DEFCON 1.
  • 14.32: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: I know.
  • 14.34: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: United States have now gone back to DEFCON 3.
  • 14.36: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: You should have had SAMs by now.
  • 14.37: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: They have just arrived and are being deployed as soon as possible.
  • 14.38: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: A T-33 trainer has crashed near the border with Guantanamo Bay.
  • 14.38: Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro: Should be down to DEFCON 3.
  • 14.39: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Which side of the border?
  • 14.39: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: It has done so.
  • 14.40: Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro: Convoy stopped.
  • 14.41: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: On the Cuban side.
  • 14.42: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: I understand that the convoy has turned back. Does this mean that the people of Cuba will not enjoy the enhanced defences promised to them?
  • 14.43: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Any survivors?
  • 14.44: Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro: Halted not turned back.
  • 14.45: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: None.
  • 14.45: Leonid Brezhnev to Fidel Castro: I understand SAMs have been delivered.
  • 14.46: Fidel Castro to Leonid Brezhnev: Yes, and deployed.
  • 14.48: Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro: Any information gained at all, like documents etc.
  • 14.50: Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev: It was one of our aircraft!

Notes on the above:

  • Nikita Khrushchev was First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time of the crisis.
  • Leonid Brezhnev was Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (i.e. the nominal head of state) at the time of the crisis.
  • The gaps shown above are the lulls between different stages in the game.

Most of the communications used during the game relied upon text messages and phone calls (we tried to use emails, but the WiFi connections were more than a little unreliable!) … and as can be seen from the above, this led to a level of confusion and misunderstanding. This confusion was particularly bad when voice messages ‘arrived’ before players had had the opportunity to read the relevant text messages that had been sent somewhat earlier.

The danger of not having sufficient intelligence about the strength’s of one’s opponents (and allies) as well as their intentions was borne out by the game. For example, the three divisions of the Cuban Revolutionary Army that I moved up to the border with the United States base at Guantanamo Bay actually amounted to twelve battalions of infantry (only four of whom were trained), some companies of heavy weapons, and a few artillery pieces. My Soviet ‘allies’ assumed them to be equivalent to three full-scale, front line Soviet Rifle Divisions, hence the messages about my action being provocative!


As Castro I had several ‘goals’ that I wished to achieve. These were:

  1. Maintain Cuban sovereignty in the face of a possible American invasion and what could have been an ‘occupation’ by the Soviets.
  2. Maintain my position as head of the Revolutionary Government, which required me to take positive action when provoked by the ‘imperialist’ United States.
  3. Achieve some measure of control over any offensive missiles stationed on Cuba.
  4. Avoid Cuba becoming the target of a possible nuclear exchange between the Americans and the Soviets.

I think that I managed to achieve all of the above, including the second of my goals. (At one stage I overheard the Soviet ambassador to the United States and his Foreign Office/KGB colleagues plotting to remove me with an ‘accident’, and replace me with my brother. I preempted matters, and my brother had the ‘accident’ instead.)

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6 Comments on “Communications, confusion, and potentially bad decisions”

  1. Well played.

    There is no better source of confusion in a wargame than the players themselves.

  2. Ross Mac,

    It was much more touch and go than the texts convey. I understand that neither the Americans or the Soviets were able to 'read' what or how the other side was thinking. I'm not sure if any back-channels existed in the game structure or whether they were used, but at one point it did look as if things were going to go 'hot'.

    On a personal level, I had great fun!

    All the best,

    Bob

  3. Pete. says:

    I've always thought that the best way to add the fog of war into a game is to introduce more players. It has been the biggest lesson that I have taken from playing megagames.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

  4. Pete.,

    Absolutely right! More players in multi-layers of command is an ideal recipe for fog of war, especially if you restrict their ability to communicate with one another.

    All the best,

    Bob

  5. Tim Gow says:

    Oh there were back channels right enough….

  6. Tim Gow,

    I assumed that there were, but never knew for sure.

    All the best,
    bob


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