Paul Bracken – National Post March 17, 2013
War games have been used for a long time to discover and test strategies. During the Cold War, analysts at the Rand Corporation used games to explore the strange new world of nuclear strategy. Such games need a scenario: hypothetical plot outlines of plausible future developments. As nuclear weapons have spread in recent years, basic questions needed to be asked about the difference a nuclear context makes. To discover these questions as they apply to the Middle East, games have been played in the United States and Israel. I have been involved in some of these exercises and find them insightful — and troubling.
In free-form games, teams are set up for the principal actors — the United States, Israel, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. The members of each team are told to roleplay what they believe their countries or groups would do. The participants are diplomats, retired officials and military officers. Games bring different agencies together in a protected and confidential setting. Often these agencies have never talked to one another before, except through official bureaucratic channels. Games force senior officials to pay attention to problems that many of them would rather not think about.
Let’s consider a game of a nuclear Middle East, where Iran has built the bomb (the scenario I describe here is actually a synthesis of several similar games). The game starts with an incident: Hezbollah kidnaps Israeli soldiers, or there is a big terrorist strike inside Israel. Israel hits back with air strikes on villages believed to be Hezbollah ammunition dumps. Next, the West Bank and Gaza flare up.
After the Israeli air strikes on Lebanon, Hezbollah fires Scuds with cluster bomb warheads into Haifa and Tel Aviv. This is new. These weapons came from Iran. There even are Iranian “advisers” with them. Hezbollah also has new, advanced anti-ship missiles. No Israeli warship can defend against them.
The expectation of most players was that the deadlier conventional weapons would accelerate Israeli attacks. But they did the opposite: Israel slowed down.
In the Gaza war of 2009 and the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel quickly upped the ante. The other side might get in the first punch, but Israel was going to immediately answer with quite a wallop. But not here. I noticed that players, on whatever team, were perking up, curious about how Israel was going to handle this. There was a lot more Israeli caution here. Hesitation even. And everyone saw it.
And that was the heart of the matter, something I don’t think anyone really appreciated beforehand. Israel knew how to escalate in a conventional war or against an intifada or an insurgency. But a nuclear context was different.
And Israel wasn’t at all confident in this game. What would Iran do? That’s what the Israel team needed to know. The Mossad couldn’t say. They debated but couldn’t agree on what the red lines were. Maybe at the higher levels of escalation there weren’t any recognized limits.
Now the tempo increased. Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah pressed harder. Israeli civilian casualties climbed from the cluster-loaded Scuds. The Israel team debated a big escalation to shock Iran. It was tricky, though, because the biggest unknown was the results of escalation itself. Some on the Israeli team argued that perhaps they should de-escalate: Put out peace feelers, work the back channels and ask the United States to demand an immediate cease-fire.
But how to de-escalate when Iran was emboldened? The conventional rockets kept coming in from southern Lebanon. So the Israel team considered the unthinkable: explode a nuclear warhead 100,000 ft over Tehran. Israeli plans since the 1970s had called for doing this as a last-ditch alternative to firing all-out atomic attacks. It would shatter windows throughout the city, but wouldn’t kill anyone, or hardly anyone. Surely it would shock Iran into a cease-fire. Iran would pressure Hezbollah to stand down and fold its cards. That was the hope of the Israel team, anyway.
But what about the United States? Should Israel just do it, or discuss it with Washington first? The Israel team couldn’t agree one way or the other.
Events overtook debate, as they so often do. Iran upped the ante by declaring a full nuclear alert. Iran’s tactics were fascinating. Tehran barely had a nuclear force. But a great deal of thought had been devoted to it. Atomic rockets on truck launchers were flushed from their peacetime storage bases, along with hundreds of conventionally armed rockets and shorter-range missiles that could hit U.S. bases throughout the Middle East. The Iranian government placed some mobile missiles in city parks in Tehran, Esfahan and Mashhad. Some were concealed, but others were right in the open for every U.S. and Israeli satellite to see. Other nuclear rockets were mixed in with hundreds of conventionally armed missiles.
U.S. and Israeli intelligence couldn’t tell a conventional missile from a nuclear one. Given time, CIA experts might be able to distinguish them. But the mobile missiles — nuclear, conventional, and the dummies — kept scrambling about to new locations. This process was faster than the intelligence cycle times needed to make accurate estimates.
Putting missiles in cities meant that tens of thousands of innocent people would be killed if Israel or the United States attacked them with conventional arms. Iran then might hit back at Israel with atomic weapons. As for an Israeli nuclear attack, that would drive casualties into the millions because it meant firing bombs directly into Iran’s cities. No one thought Iran would hold back after that.
Iran also kept a few nuclear missiles in hardened, underground silos. It looked as if these were for quick-reaction firing, ready to launch on short notice. Mobile missiles could take hours to move and set up. Someone in Iran had thought through the various possible scenarios to understand that Iran needed a prompt firing deterrent.
Iran’s nuclear alert did something else. It stretched Israel’s relations with the United States to the breaking point. The U.S. team wanted to act as if nuclear war was completely unthinkable. They didn’t want to go there, even hypothetically.
But the Iran team didn’t see things this way. Not at all. Iran had a small, crude nuclear force, true, but its political strategy for using that force was complex — shrewd, even. This came as a surprise to the United States team. They had come into the game convinced that the two nuclear deterrents, of Israel and Iran, would produce a mutual standoff. But this wasn’t happening. The dynamics were taking an ominous new turn, and it didn’t look good.
The Israelis knew how to deal with an intifada or rocket attacks. But this was new. Desperate, they considered the unthinkable: Detonating a nuclear ‘warning shot’ above Tehran.
Another surprise to the U.S. and Israel teams arose from the communications they had with each other. Certain delicate matters that should have been discussed in peacetime were ignored because it would have meant actually discussing how nuclear weapons might be used. But now, in the time-compressed, stressed fever of a crisis, it was impossible to analyze all these issues adequately.
So the two teams spoke past each other. Israel wanted to know concretely what the United States would do to stop Iran. The United States had said that Iran wouldn’t be allowed to go nuclear. Now Tehran had done so. Moreover, Iran was threatening Israel with nuclear weapons. The U.S. team responded to the Israeli question with a message that Washington “would take all measures necessary.” But the Israel team wanted to know exactly what that meant. Would the United States join in a pre-emptive strike on Iran?
The U.S. team was worried that the crisis would accelerate the bomb’s spread. But the Israelis weren’t in any mood to receive a U.S. lecture on the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Their survival was at stake. So they ordered two Jericho missiles alerted under a special plan, certain to be photographed by American satellites. It was a plan that had been worked out years ago to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The intent of this esoteric communication from Tel Aviv to Washington, obviously, was to shock the White House. “We hope it leaks to the media, too; maybe we should make sure it does,” one Israel team member said.
Israel’s move forced a U.S. decision. Washington wanted to restrain Israel, defend Israel and scare the living daylights out of Iran. So the United States publicly gave Israel a nuclear guarantee. Making it public was an escalation, because it put the American reputation on the line. If one atomic missile hit Israel, the United States solemnly announced, well, that would be it for Iran. But the guarantee didn’t specify which weapons America would use. The term nuclear made reference only to Iran’s attack on Israel.
There was more going on than in the game play itself. At the sidebar coffee breaks, several U.S. team participants expressed genuine frustration with the designers for putting them in this terrible position. There was also anger at the Israel team and, actually, with Israel for having nuclear weapons at all.
The U.S. team wanted to end the crisis. But here they were getting pulled more deeply into it. What if payment on the U.S. guarantee was demanded? So many issues hadn’t been thought through. The Joint Chiefs were screaming for guidance. What if the United States actually had to launch against Iran? What, exactly, would they fire at, and with what weapons? The chiefs needed to know in order to make plans and get airplanes and ships in position. You can’t just pick up the phone and order someone to do something that hasn’t been considered for decades.
The chiefs pointed out some unsettling facts. Iran’s atomic missiles, presumably the legitimate targets, couldn’t be located. Perhaps Iran’s cities should be hit? The individual playing the president said that he didn’t want to go down in history as the first leader to kill five million people in an afternoon.
Some on the U.S. team called instead for a massive conventional strike. They added that if Iran’s leaders ordered nuclear retaliation they would be put on trial for war crimes in The Hague, and hanged. That sounded great, but the president asked if Iran would simply kick back and watch an attack unwind over 10 weeks’ time, withholding an atomic strike on Israel (and others) as it rolled in. The president was very angry. He asked why better options and intelligence hadn’t been developed over the years as the world watched Iran go nuclear. Everybody talked about deterrence. But now Iran had an offensive deterrent. Why hadn’t anybody seen this coming?
Attention shifted back to Israel. The Israelis didn’t like the U.S. nuclear guarantee one bit. It gave Iran and Hezbollah a green light to throw more conventional missiles at Israel. Tension, fear and stress increased. This wasn’t faked, at least in my view. People were getting angry outside of the game. But at whom? That, they weren’t sure about.
Distrust infected the Israel team. Maybe it was paranoia. Was America selling Israel out with cheap talk about stopping the spread of the bomb? Maybe it was like 1975, they said, when the United States watched South Vietnam go down while debating lofty issues of presidential power and purpose. Given Jewish history, who could blame them for thinking like this?
The crisis was spinning out of control.
Iran’s next move jacked the tensions to a fever pitch. It was an inspired move, actually. Without saying anything, Iran evacuated its big cities. The population rode out to the distant suburbs and beyond. The United States watched this fantastic exodus over satellites. Soon, CNN put videos taken on the ground on the Web. Iran was now poised for nuclear attack. Its population would survive an Israeli counterstrike.
Israel, by contrast, was in chaos. There was nowhere for the Israelis to go. Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv was closed by the rockets bombing it. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were mobbing the coastal marinas, desperately trying to escape to Cyprus in small boats. TV showed the panic. Deterrence, and the myth of Israeli invincibility, the bedrock of Israeli security, were disappearing.
But suddenly Iran declared that in the interest of world peace it would step back from the brink, having exposed the true nature of “the Zionist nuclear entity.” This came as a welcome relief, especially to the U.S. team. They wanted out.
So the game ended. I believe this abrupt termination was artificial, but it was no accident. I’ve played in games that just got too intense. The design team had to break it off to prevent the animosity from getting out of hand.
Lessons were drawn, as they always are after a game. The United States needed better intelligence. Cruise missiles are a problem. The list went on with the usual items.
But there was an overarching lesson. Iran had thrown Israel into pandemonium without firing a shot. The population was terrified. The economy was in ruins. Israel’s reputation as the Prussia of the Middle East was smashed. Yes, nuclear war had been avoided. Deterrence worked. But who in Israel, the United States, or, for that matter, Iran would claim this was the real lesson? Iran had used a small nuclear force to overturn Israeli deterrence and rupture the Middle East order. Tehran was now empowered with a tremendous psychological victory. Iran had stood up to the Israelis and the Americans and had gotten away with it.
What fascinated me almost as much as the lessons of the game was the mood. Games have moods, just as dramas do, which after all is what these exercises really are. Fear is the overriding mood I’ve seen in nuclear crisis games. In each instance, whether in Pentagon simulations or in actual crises, it’s this fear more than anything else that stands out. It’s a very different type of fear than the fear of being in combat. Participants have to make life-or-death decisions for millions of people. The stress is over making a wrong choice — and losing cities.
The players in this game were too young to have known this type of fear. I don’t think any of the game participants believed such monumental life-and-death choices could actually exist. Yet they surely did exist for leaders in the first nuclear age. Now, as we enter the second nuclear age, they are back.