By Mark H. Gaffney
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 dangerous.”2
“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 learned”3
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
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 programs.
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