"How about a nice game of chess?"
In early 2000, the Pentagon started planning for a new wargame called Millennium Challenge 2002. It was to be the largest, most comprehensive and, at $250 million, most expensive wargame yet, testing the applicability of the DOD's new Joint Vision 2020 doctrine. The scenario was this: a rogue military commander from a Persian Gulf nation (read Iraq/Iran) has broken from his government and is in a position to threaten the stability of the entire region. He has strong ethnic and religious support and is harboring known terrorist groups. In JFCOM's words: "a high-end, small-scale contingency that had the potential to escalate to a major theater war."
Organization of the wargame fell under the jurisdiction of the newly created United States Joint Forces Command or JFCOM. Created in 1999 as a successor to Atlantic Command (LANTCOM), JFCOM's stated mission is to "lead transformation of U.S. military joint warfighting into the 21st Century". As the place where the Pentagon experiments with and tests new tactics and military organization, JFCOM's first priority as a new unified command was to plan a wargame.
The wargame included both real world units doing live fire exercises and virtual combatants in computer simulated engagements. Forces would be divided into two teams: Red Team, representing the rogue commander and his forces, and Blue Team, representing a US attack group. Blue Team would be testing new tactics developed by JFCOM which were intended to engage not only enemy forces but also their entire war-making capacity. To this end, JFCOM created the Operation Net Assessment protocol, a decision making process which broke an enemy down into its military, economic, social, and political components. Used to create a matrix, the protocol showed how all the components were interrelated as well as the most vulnerable links between the components. In the words of a senior general at JFCOM, "the Operational Net Assessment was a tool that was supposed to allow us to see all, know all."
Conversely, Red Team was intended to use conventional warfare tactics, basing their plan of action around the engagement of two forces in a battlefield. Their leaders were supposed to suffer from the fog of war, their communications supposed to be transparent to Blue's satellites and surveillance equipment, their forces supposed to be destroyed by Blue's superior capabilities. However, things didn't go exactly as planned because of who JFCOM chose to lead the Red Team: Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper.
"War is the province of chance. In no other sphere of human activity must such a margin be left for this intruder. It increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events." — Carl von Clausewitz, "On War"
Born on July 5, 1938, Van Riper joined the Marine Corps in 1956 and served for several years in the states. Wounded in 1966 while acting as an advisor to South Vietnamese forces, he returned to Vietnam in 1968, this time as a company commander. Like most military commanders, Van Riper earned a reputation as an asshole who got things done. As one soldier recalled: "I remember one time I was out with a squad on a night ambush. I got a call from the skipper [Van Riper] on the radio. He told me that there were one hundred twenty-one little people, meaning Vietnamese, heading toward my position, and my job was to resist them. I said, 'Skipper, I have nine men.' He said he would bring out a reactionary force if I needed one. That's the way he was."
Van Riper was also known for hating planning sessions and technological reliance. As he saw it, war is inherently unpredictable: the sum of two combatants attempts to adapt to a rapidly changing situation. The more you try to apply logic and systems analysis to a fundamentally chaotic phenomenon, the less effective your fighting force will be. Van Riper spent much of his career in such planning sessions, frustrated by the forced decision making process which, he felt, limited his choices to choosing between the bad and the worse. So when he was approached in the spring of 2000 to command the opposing force in a new wargame, he leapt at the chance to make the brass look bad by doing his job.
"If I determine the enemy's disposition of forces while I have no perceptible form, I can concentrate my forces while the enemy is fragmented. The pinnacle of military deployment approaches the formless: if it is formless, then even the deepest spy cannot discern it nor the wise make plans against it."
— Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"
On July 24, 2002, MC02 officially started. Blue Team immediately sent tens of thousands of troops into the Persian Gulf with a carrier battle group off the coast. They issued Red Team an eight-point ultimatum, the eighth point being surrender, and gave Van Riper less than twenty-four hours to respond. Blue was confident in their numerically, tactically, and technologically superior force and thought themselves in excellent position to be making demands. Van Riper, sensing what he felt was overconfidence, made it his goal to act unpredictably, keeping Blue Team off-balance. After receiving the ultimatum, Van Riper "simply stepped back and said, "What advantage is there for Red to wait for Blue to strike?" There was none. And that led to the natural conclusion that if they're coming, and we can't persuade them not to diplomatically, then we [Red Team] will strike."
Blue air strikes took out Red's microwave and fiber optic communications, forcing Red to use easily surveilled cell phone and satellite communications; or so they thought. Van Riper defied the predictions however, using motorcycle couriers to carry messages and lighting systems to coordinate radio chatter-less air traffic control. On the second day of the operation, Van Riper sent out his fleet—mostly composed of small fishing and patrol boats— to track and distract the Blue navy. Then he ordered them to attack. In an hour, nearly half the Blue fleet had been sunk by anti-ship missiles: 16 vessels—including five amphibious landing ships, several cruisers, and the aircraft carrier—sunk by Cessnas and armed fishing boats. In a real war it would have amounted to an estimated 20,000 American casualties.
"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 then began to script the exercise in order to prove these concepts." — Lt. General Paul Van Riper
Two days went by as JFCOM considered what to do with the unexpected development. Wargames are usually intended to showcase a new weapon or doctrine and this was turning out to be an embarrassing debut for Joint Vision 2020. So they turned back the clock to before the missile attacks. The sixteen ships were refloated, the missiles previously used to destroy the ports where Blue was landing troops had now been shot down by "a new kind of missile defense", and the pro-American leaders in neighboring countries that Van Riper had assassinated were reanimated. Then JFCOM started passing out the new rules. Red was no longer allowed to use their radar systems or resist troop landings by Blue. Blue had been given mysterious and nebulous new technological defenses which rendered them nearly impenetrable to Red's weapons. In the modified version of MC02, Blue won with in a decisive rout, just what the leadership was hoping for. But they didn't get the satisfaction of capturing the enemy commander: Van Riper had quit weeks earlier in protest.
In the end, Blue Team officially won with their conventional navy. But in actuality, the original ending of MC02 might be more likely. Consider the Falklands War where a technologically inferior Argentine air force managed to do significant damage to the British fleet with their Exocets or, more recently, the USS Cole bombing.
It must be remembered that everyone involved in the wargame had an agenda. Van Riper's goal was to make the brass look bad which, fortunately, coincided with his stated mission. The upper echelons, meanwhile, were looking to have an ideal proof-of-concept to illustrate their new doctrine—MC02 was not really meant to test Joint Vision 2020: it had already been adopted by the time JFCOM began serious planning for the operation. Instead, it was meant to demonstrate the new philosophy working under idealized circumstances, much like how a military parade glamorizes the discipline of the military. So when things started to turn south, the brass had to 'correct' reality to react the way they needed it to or else face embarrassment and disgrace.
Perhaps we are now at the end of an era in naval warfare. Just as the airplane made battleships obsolete and ironclads replaced ships of the line, the microchip inside a cruise missile may be ending the reign of the aircraft carrier as the master of the seas.
By Malcolm Gladwell