Beware The Buzzard: Arma 3 And The Future

Image: Bohemia Interactive

It is the year 2035. The Buzzard flies above you in lazy loops, a fixed-wing symbol of death. The aircraft has taken out the larger prey and is still on the hunt. In concert with various Altisian infantry sections, all major NATO outposts on the Mediterranean island have been decimated. All that remains are the smaller targets such as yourself: disconnected stragglers without any effective command.

The Buzzard’s lethality comes as a surprise. Many of the Altisian airframes are older than the pilots that fly them; the first ones were sold secondhand from the Czechs to the Altisians in the early 2020s. Altisian ground forces use equally haggard equipment; their armory almost entirely composed of obsolete systems donated by NATO peacekeepers. NATO viewed the strength of the force as essential to reconstruction mission following Altis’s civil war. A demilitarized Altis would be unable to defeat any resurgent insurgency.

The Altis Armed Forces (AAF) is an immature force, yet the situation on the ground was undeniable. Altis had won the day, defeating the world’s greatest global alliance. Welcome to the future as told by the video game Arma 3 from Bohemia Interactive.

The Arma series has historically attracted the attention of defense leaders; Virtual Battle Space (VBS), a training program used by the United States Marine Corps and Australian Defence Force, is based upon the Arma series’s earliest title. A first-person shooter that also places players in combined arms positions such as rotor aircraft, armor, and medium transport vehicles, Arma is beloved for how accurately it depicts warfare. Arma, unlike other modern shooters such as Call of Duty or Battlefield, is obsessed with details. Ballistics, the effectiveness of weaponry, and the sounds of combat are portrayed as near to life as possible. For this reason, many refer to Arma as more of a simulation than a game. VBS and Arma both provide an authentic, accurate playground for squad and platoon sized teams to experiment with tactics and decision-making in a simulated late 20th and early 21st century battlefield.

With Arma 3, the series shifts towards the realm of science fiction. Therefore, it deserves a different type of attention from defense leaders; whereas earlier Arma releases and VBS are tools to learn how contemporary wars can be won, Arma 3 is a demonstration on where and how the next war will be fought. The game’s next iteration due out July 11, Arma 3 Apex, will reach further into the future yet with a futuristic South Pacific warzone, Tanoa.

In its Mediterranean campaign, the underdog AAF overruns American positions with ease; however, the real strategic force in the region is CSAT: The Canton Protocol Strategic Alliance Treaty. CSAT, similar to current organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is an alliance organization headed by Iranian forces, but supplied by Russia and affiliated with China. CSAT’s equipment is equal to or better than what is fielded by NATO’s forces. CSAT heavy equipment is able to fight toe-to-toe with their NATO peers, while CSAT uniforms offer greater integrated protection and technologies, such as temperature control systems. Both factions operate UAVs, with no particular advantage for NATO as CSAT has been able to reverse engineer Western systems. Playing through Arma’s vision of the future, you quickly learn what conflict could be like if NATO loses its technological edge during the next 20 years.

Arma takes some liberties, to be sure. For example, NATO’s main battle tank in the game is the Israeli Merkava; however, the realities of a peer v. peer can be found in both the single player and cooperative multiplayer sections for the game. The most striking example is the return of contested skies. Simple aircraft like the AAF Buzzard and more advanced CSAT fixed-wing and rotor aircraft present an active challenge to NATO forces; in the worst case scenario, as seen in the opening of the single-player campaign, players must abandon vehicles and retreat into the woods to avoid hostile close air support. In multiplayer mode, players must consider the presence of hostile anti-air units and air forces when planning a mission. Airmobile assaults are hard to pull off without taking on massive casualties. If players wish to incorporate helicopters; they must disembark ground forces far outside the area of operations and walk to the objective, losing the initiative of a rapid assault. Arma 3 presents a not too distant world where the enemy has far greater say in how NATO and American operations are conducted.

Aside from the technical components of the game, Arma also offers a relatively robust commentary on where the next war will be fought. The opening newsreel style sequence references a failed European Union, or at least one where Altis has been removed; Greece, the geographic equivalent of Altis, has faced an existential threat to their EU membership through the recent 2014 debt crisis. Facing such fiscal and political pressure, It is also may be looking to recast its alliances. The current Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias has reportedly stated that “Russia is a potential military and economic ally that they respect and appear to know relatively well.” Russia is also a noted military supplier for Greece. Greece has historical ties with Russia; Catherine The Great of Russia at one time planned to restore the Byzantine Empire through a so-called “Greek Plan”. Greece today and Altis in 2035 are both at points where major realignment could occur.

Arma 3 is worth serious consideration by policymakers for its realistic, if pessimistic, vision of the future of war. Whether that future is fulfilled – or not – depends on how US and allied policymakers interpret the game’s lessons.

Nathanael Callan is an undergraduate at The George Washington University. He is an Army ROTC Cadet and Simulation Designer at Strategic Crisis Simulations, a wargaming group at his university. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not in any way represent the views of the aforementioned organizations.