War Stories


Why the Army shouldn’t be so surprised by Saddam’s moves.

Much has been made of Thursday’s remark by Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of U.S. Army forces in the Persian Gulf. Talking about the fierce and guerrilla-style resistance of Iraqi militia groups, Wallace said, “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against.”

In fact, however, militia fighters did play a crucial role in a major war game designed to simulate combat in Iraq—but the Pentagon officials who managed the game simply disregarded or overruled the militias’ most devastating moves.

The war game, which was called Millennium Challenge 02, took place over three weeks last July and August. Planned over a two-year period, at a cost of $250 million, the game involved 13,500 personnel from all four services—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines—who waged mock war in 17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites. The scenario envisioned a war in a fictitiously named Persian Gulf country that resembled Iraq.

The objective was to test (and, if all went well, to validate) a set of new combat theories based less on massive force and more on speed, agility, highly accurate weapons, and supremely coordinated command and control. These theories—known as “military transformation” and “effects-based operations”—would serve as the underlying strategy of the real war against the real Iraq that’s happening now. (Read this.)

Officially, the war game was a great success; the theories were proven sound. However, on Aug. 12, as the game was winding to a close, a retired three-star U.S. Marine Corps general named Paul Van Riper wrote an e-mail to some of his friends, casting grave doubt on this conclusion.

Pentagon war games pit “Red Force” (simulating the enemy) against “Blue Force” (the United States). In this war game, as in many war games over the years, Van Riper played the Red Force commander. In his e-mail (which was promptly leaked to the ArmyTimes then picked up, though in much less detail, by the Guardian and the Washington Post), Van Riper complained about Millennium Challenge 02, writing that, “Instead of a free-play, two-sided game … it simply became a scripted exercise.” The conduct of the game did not allow “for the concepts of rapid decisive operations, effects-based operations, or operational net assessment to be properly assessed. … It was in actuality an exercise that was almost entirely scripted to ensure a Blue ‘win.’ “

For instance—and here is where he displayed prescience—Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to Red troops, thereby eluding Blue’s super-sophisticated eavesdropping technology. He maneuvered Red forces constantly. At one point in the game, when Blue’s fleet entered the Persian Gulf, he sank some of the ships with suicide-bombers in speed boats. (At that point, the managers stopped the game, “refloated” the Blue fleet, and resumed play.) Robert Oakley, a retired U.S. ambassador who played the Red civilian leader, told the Army Times that Van Riper was “out-thinking” Blue Force from the first day of the exercise.

Yet, Van Riper said in his e-mail, the game’s managers remanded some of his moves as improper and simply blocked others from being carried out. According to the ArmyTimes summary, “Exercise officials denied him the opportunity to use his own tactics and ideas against Blue, and on several occasions directed [Red Force] not to use certain weapons systems against Blue. It even ordered him to reveal the location of Red units.”

Finally, Van Riper quit the game in protest, so as not to be associated with what would be misleading results. As he explained in his e-mail, “You don’t come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out.” He added, somewhat ominously in retrospect, “My main concern was we’d see future forces trying to use these things when they’ve never been properly grounded in any sort of an experiment.”

The Army Times quoted some game managers who disputed Van Riper’s version of events. However, it also quoted a retired colonel who was familiar with the game and supportive of the theories being tested. “I don’t have a problem with the ideas,” the colonel said. “I do have a problem with the fact that we’re trying to suggest somehow that we’ve validated them, and now it’s time to pay for them.”

Finally, the paper quoted a retired Army officer who has played in several war games with Van Riper. “What he’s done is, he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it,” the officer said. “He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively, within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that, as possible. He can be a real pain in the ass, but that’s good. … He’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons.”

Clearly, the Pentagon needs to encourage obnoxious Red commanders, not suppress them. Scripted war-game enemies may roll over, but, as we’re seeing, real enemies sometimes think of tricky ways to fight back.