- During the summer of 2002, in the run-up to President
Bush's invasion of Iraq, the US military staged the most elaborate and
expensive war games ever conceived. Operation Millennium Challenge, as
it was called, cost some $250 million, and required two years of planning.
The mock war was not aimed at Iraq, at least, not overtly. But it was set
in the Persian Gulf, and simulated a conflict with a hypothetical rogue
state. The "war" involved heavy use of computers, and was also
played out in the field by 13,500 US troops, at 17 different locations
and 9 live-force training sites. All of the services participated under
a single joint command, known as JOINTFOR. The US forces were designated
as "Force Blue," and the enemy as OPFOR, or "Force Red."
The "war" lasted three weeks and ended with the overthrow of
the dictatorial regime on August 15.
- At any rate, that was the official outcome. What actually
happened was quite different, and ought to serve up a warning about the
grave peril the world will face if the US should become embroiled in a
widening conflict in the region.
- As the war games were about to commence on July 18 2002,
Gen. William "Buck" Kernan, head of the Joint Forces Command,
told the press that the operation would test a series of new war-fighting
concepts recently developed by the Pentagon, concepts like "rapid
decisive operations, effects-based operations, operational net assessments,"
and the like. Later, at the conclusion of the games, Gen. Kernan insisted
that the new concepts had been proved effective. At which point, JOINTFOR
drafted recommendations to Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, based on the experiment's satisfactory results in such
areas as doctrine, training and procurement.
- But not everyone shared Gen. Kernan's rosy assessment.
It was sharply criticized by the straight-talking Marine commander who
had been brought out of retirement to lead Force Red. His name was Lt.
Gen. Paul Van Riper, and he had played the role of the crazed but cunning
leader of the hypothetical rogue state. Gen. Van Riper dismissed the new
military concepts as empty sloganeering, and he had reason to be skeptical.
In the first days of the "war," Van Riper's Force Red sent most
of the US fleet to the bottom of the Persian Gulf.
- Not all of the details about how Force Red accomplished
this have been revealed. The Pentagon managed to keep much of the story
out of the press. But a thoroughly disgruntled Van Riper himself leaked
enough to the Army Times that it's possible to get at a sense of how a
much weaker force outfoxed and defeated the world's lone remaining Superpower.1
- The Worst US Naval Disaster Since Pearl Harbor
- The war game was described as "free play,"
meaning that both sides were unconstrained, free to pursue any tactic in
the book of war in the service of victory. As Gen. Kernan put it: "The
OPFOR (Force Red) has the ability to win here." Much of the action
was computer-generated. But representative military units in the field
also acted out the various moves and countermoves. The comparison to a
chess match is not inaccurate. The vastly superior US armada consisted
of the standard carrier battle group with its full supporting cast of ships
and planes. Van Riper had at his disposal a much weaker flotilla of smaller
vessels, many of them civilian craft, and numerous assets typical of a
Third World country.
- But Van Riper made the most of weakness. Instead of trying
to compete directly with Force Blue, he utilized ingenious low-tech alternatives.
Crucially, he prevented the stronger US force from eavesdropping on his
communications by foregoing the use of radio transmissions. Van Riper relied
on couriers instead to stay in touch with his field officers. He also employed
novel tactics such as coded signals broadcast from the minarets of mosques
during the Muslim call to prayer, a tactic weirdly reminiscent of Paul
Revere and the shot heard round the world. At every turn, the wily Van
Riper did the unexpected. And in the process he managed to achieve an
asymmetric advantage: the new buzzword in military parlance.
- Astutely and very covertly, Van Riper armed his civilian
marine craft and deployed them near the US fleet, which never expected
an attack from small pleasure boats. Faced with a blunt US ultimatum to
surrender, Force Red suddenly went on the offensive: and achieved complete
tactical surprise. Force Red's prop-driven aircraft suddenly were swarming
around the US warships, making Kamikaze dives. Some of the pleasure boats
made suicide attacks. Others fired Silkworm cruise missiles from close
range, and sunk a carrier, the largest ship in the US fleet, along with
two helicopter-carriers loaded with marines. The sudden strike was reminiscent
of the Al Qaeda sneak attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Yet, the Navy was
unprepared. When it was over, most of the US fleet had been destroyed.
Sixteen US warships lay on the bottom, and the rest were in disarray. Thousands
of American sailors were dead, dying, or wounded.
- If the games had been real, it would have been the worst
US naval defeat since Pearl Harbor.
- What happened next became controversial. Instead of declaring
Force Red the victor, JOINTFOR Command raised the sunken ships from the
muck, brought the dead sailors back to life, and resumed the games as if
nothing unusual had happened. The US invasion of the rogue state proceeded
according to schedule. Force Red continued to harass Force Blue, until
an increasingly frustrated Gen. Van Riper discovered that his orders to
his troops were being countermanded, at which point he withdrew in disgust.
In his after-action report, the general charged that the games had been
scripted to produce the desired outcome.
- Later, Van Riper also aired his frustrations in a taped-for-television
interview: "There were accusations that Millennium Challenge was rigged.
I can tell you it was not. It started out as a free-play exercise, in which
both Red and Blue had the opportunity to win the game. However, about the
third or fourth day, when the concepts that the command was testing failed
to live up to their expectations, the command at that point began to script
the exercise in order to prove these concepts. This was my critical complaint.
You might say, 'Well, why didn't these concepts live up to the expectations?'
I think they were fundamentally flawed in that theyleaned heavily on systems
analysis of decision-making. I'm angered that, in a sense, $250 million
was wasted. But I'm even more angry that an idea that has never been truly
validated, that never really went through the crucible of a real experiment,
is being exported to our operational forces to use.
- What I saw in this particular exercise and the results
from it were very similar to what I saw as a young second lieutenant back
in the 1960s, when we were taught the systems engineering techniques that
Mr. [Robert] McNamara [Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy
and Lyndon Johnson] had implemented in the American military. We took those
systemsto the battlefield, where they were totally inappropriate. The computers
in Saigon said we were winning the war, while out there in the rice paddies
we knew damn well we weren't winning. That's where we went astray, and
I see these new concepts potentially being equally ill-informed and equally
- "We didn't put you in harm's way purposely. It just...happened."
- As a result of Van Riper's criticism, Gen. Kernan, the
JOINTFOR commander, faced some pointed questions at a subsequent press
briefing. In defending the operation, the general explained the embarrassing
outcome as due to the unique environment in which the war simulation, by
necessity, had been conducted:
- Q: General, one thing that Van Riper made much of was
the fact that at some point the blue fleet was sunk.
- Gen. Kernan: True, it was.
- Q: I want to set-aside for a moment the allegation that
the game was rigged because the fleet was "re-floated." I mean,
I understand, I've been told that happens in war games.
- Gen. Kernan: Sure.
- Q: And I'm curious. In the course of this experiment
or exercise, your fleet was sunk. I'm wondering if that did teach you anything
about the concepts you were testing or if that showed anything relevant.
- Gen. Kernan: I'll tell you one of the things it taught
us with a blinding flash of the obvious, after the factAnd of course, it
goes back to live versus simulation, and what we were doing. There are
very prescriptive lanes in which weconduct sea training and amphibious
operations, and these are very, obviously, because of commercial shipping
and a lot of other things, just like our air lanes. The ships that we used
for the amphibious operations, we brought them in because they had to comply
with those lanes. Didn't even think about it.
- Now you've got basically, instead of being over the horizon
like the Navy would normally fight, and at stand-off ranges that would
enable their protective systems to be employed, now they're sitting right
off the shore, where you're looking at them. I mean, the models and simulation
that we put together, it couldn't make a distinction. And we didn't either,
until, all of a sudden, whoops, there they are. And that's about the time
he attacked. You know?
- The Navy was just bludgeoning me dearly because, of course,
they would say, 'We never fight this way.' Fair enough. Okay. We didn't
mean to do it. We didn't put you in harm's way purposely. I mean, it just,
it happened. And it's unfortunate. So that's one of the things that we
- Gen. Kernan's nuanced defense was that the simulation
had necessarily been conducted in the vicinity of busy sea lanes, hence,
in the presence of live commercial shipping; and this required the Navy
to "turn off" some of its defenses, which it would not have done
in a real wartime situation. All of which is probably true, but the general's
remark that in a real Gulf war the fleet would be deployed differently,
in a stand-off manner, with its over-the-horizon defenses fully operable,
was a misrepresentation of the actual situation in the Persian Gulf, today.
The US Navy's biggest problem operating in Gulf waters are the constraints
that the region's confined spaces impose on US naval defenses, which were
designed for the open sea. The Persian Gulf is nothing but a large lake,
after all, and in such an environment the Navy's over-the-horizon defenses
are seriously compromised.4 Nor can the Navy withdraw to a safe distance,
so long as its close-in presence is required to support the US occupation
forces in Iraq. The serious implications of this simple fact for a possible
future conflict, for instance, involving Iran, have never, to my knowledge,
been discussed in the US press.
- Gen. Kernan's remark was not a misstatement. He repeated
himself again, later in the same interview, while fielding another question:
- Q: As a follow-up...Van Riper also said that most of
the blue Naval losses were due to cruise missiles. Can you talk about that
and say how concerned you are about that?
- Gen. Kernan: "Well, I don't know. To be honest with
you, I haven't had an opportunity to assess...what happened. But that's
a possibility, once again, because we had to shut off some of these self-defense
systems on the models that would have normally been employed. That's a
possibility. I think the important thing to note is that normally the Navy
would have been significantly over-the-horizon. They would've been arrayed
an awful lot differently than we forced them to because of what they had
to do for the live-exercise piece of it....Yeah, I think we learned some
things. The specifics of the cruise-missile piece...I really can't answer
that question. We'd have to get back to you."5
- Safely Over-the-Horizon?
- Gen. Kernan's remarks are surprising, because at the
time he made them, in August 2002, as he well should have known, at least
two separate studies, one by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO,)
based on the Navy's own data, and another by an independent think-tank,
had already warned the Office of the Navy about the growing threat to the
US fleet posed by anti-ship cruise missiles.6 As recently as 1997 some
forty different nations possessed these awesome weapons. By 2000 the number
had jumped to 70, with at least 100 different types identified, and a dozen
different nations actively pursuing their own production and research/development
- While the numbers are not available for 2004, there is
little doubt that the technology has continued to spread rapidly. And why
are anti-ship cruise missiles so attractive? The answer is that they are
relatively simple to develop, especially in comparison with ballistic missiles.
Cruise missiles can be constructed from many of the same readily available
parts and components used in commercial aviation. They are also reliable
and effective, easy to deploy and use, and are relatively inexpensive.
Even poor nations can afford them. One cruise missile represents but a
tiny fraction of the immense expenditure of capital the US has invested
in each of its 300 active warships. Yet, a single cruise missile can sink
or severely disable any ship in the US Navy.
- According to the GAO report, "the key to defeating
cruise missile threats is in gaining additional reaction time," so
that ships can detect, identify and destroy the attacking missiles. The
thorny problem, as I've pointed out, is that the Navy's long-range AWACs
and intermediate-range Aegis radar defense systems are significantly less
effective in littoral (or coastal) environments, the Persian Gulf being
the prime example.
- The other important factor is that cruise missile technology
itself is racing ahead. The GAO report warned that the next generation
of anti-ship missiles that will begin to appear by 2007 will be faster
and stealthier, and will also be equipped with advanced target-seekers,
i.e., advanced guidance systems. In fact, one of these advanced anti-ship
cruise missiles is already available: the Russian-made Yakhonts missile.
It flies at close to Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound), can hit a
squirrel in the eye, and has a range of 185 miles: enough range to target
the entire Persian Gulf (from Iran), shredding Gen. Kernan's glib remark
that in a real war the US expeditionary force will stand-off in safety
"over the horizon" while mounting an amphibious attack. Nonsense.
Henceforth, in a real Gulf war situation there will be no standing off
in safety. The Yakhonts missile has already erased the concept of the horizon,
at least, within the Persian Gulf, and it has done so without ever having
been fired in combat---yet.
- Gen. Kernan should have known also that, according to
Jane's Defense Weekly and other sources, Iranian government officials were
in Moscow the previous year (2001), shopping for the latest Russian anti-ship
missile technology.7 By their own admission the Russians developed the
Yakhonts missile for export. No doubt, it was high on Iran's shopping list.
- The 2000 GAO report's conclusions were not favorable.
It stated that for a variety of reasons the Navy's forecasts for upgrading
US ship defenses against cruise missile attack are overly optimistic. The
Navy's own data shows that there will be no silver bullet. The technology
gap is structural, and will not be overcome for many years, if at all.
US warships will be vulnerable to cruise missile attack into the foreseeable
future, perhaps increasingly so.
- But the GAO saved its most sobering conclusion for last:
It so happens that the most vulnerable ship in the US fleet is none other
than the flagship itself, the big Nimitz-class carriers. This underscores
the significance of Force Red's victory during Millennium Challenge. Just
think: If Van Riper could accomplish what he did with Silkworms, the lowly
scuds of the cruise missile family, imagine what could happen if the US
Navy, sitting in the Gulf like so many ducks, should face a massed-attack
of supersonic Yakhonts missiles, a weapon that may well be unstoppable.
- It would be a debacle.
- So, we see that the 2002 US war games afforded a glimpse
of the same military hubris that gave us the Viet Nam War and the current
quagmire in Iraq. The difference is that the peril for the world today
in the "Persian Lake" is many times greater than it ever was
in the Gulf of Tonkin.
- Mark Gaffney's first book was a pioneering study of the
Israeli nuke program. His latest is a best-selling book about early Christianity,
Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes. Mark can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org