Saturday, January 13, 2007

War games are useful, if you actually pay attention

(Cross-posted at Ezra's.)

With all the talk of escalating against Iran lately, it might be worth remembering that the last major war game the Pentagon conducted with Iran as the enemy was Millenium Challenge, where the "Red" [mock-Iranian] forces were commanded by Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper. How did that go for the "Blue" [mock-US] forces?

From Wikipedia:

In the early days of the exercise, Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps general Paul K. Van Riper, launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles, overwhelming the Blue forces electronic sensors, destroying thirteen warships. Soon after that offensive, another significant portion of Blue's navy was "sunk" by an armada of small Red boats carrying out both conventional and suicide attacks, able to engage Blue forces due to Blue's inability to detect them as well as expected.

For those who don't recall, the Pentagon responded to this direct challenge to their preconceived notions by essentially calling a do-over. Now, I don't think the US Navy is going to be sunk. But that's not the real lesson of Millenium Challenge. What's the real lesson? Let me turn that over to the Lt. Gen. himself:

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 systems, which had good if not great utility in the acquisition of weapon systems, to 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 the war. That's where we went astray, and I see these new concepts potentially being equally as ill-informed and equally dangerous.

The "concepts" that Van Riper is talking about are the broad concepts of "transformation" and how information technologies were, according to the geniuses at OSD, changing the fundamental nature of warfare. Van Riper is a very vocal critic of those ideas, the kind of solider who quotes Clausewitz and other military theorists and believes that the fundamental nature of war never changes. (No surprise: in this debate, I'm far closer to Van Riper than, say, Rumsfeld.) If the worst fears about recent personnel changes in the military are correct -- that it's a prelude for an air war against Iran -- than I fear the ideas of "transformation" are going to be tested again against Iran.

In which case, the McNamara comparison is going to be more apt than Van Riper knew when he made it: McNamara's (and more importantly) Walt Rostow's ideas were also tested in war games prior to the escalation of the Vietnam War. A pair of war games in 1964 (SIGMA I and SIGMA II) tested the ideas that North Vietnam could be deterred by aerial bombing or by American land forces. How did that go? From H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty (p. 156):

The game's results raised troubling questions about the viability of the Rostow thesis. After initiating a bombing campaign, the United States confronted "the question of what to do since escalation of the war into NVN [North Vietnam] had failed to achieve desired results in SVN [South Vietnam], and the enemy appeared to be raising the ante toward major ground warfare." The American "team", however, remained "anxious to continue trying to force the DRV out of the war through air attack." Lincoln noted that once open hostilities began, consideration of "possible alternative strategies such as to negotiate" was minimal and the United States "followed through with escalation of pressures against North Vietnam to include wiping out all all DRV industrial targets" and the mining of North Vietnamese ports. The bombing, however, had minimal effect and actually stiffened North Vietnamese determination, as the Viet Cong used existing stockpiles and civilian support to sustain the insurgency in the South. General Wheeler seemed particularly impressed by the game's findings that the Viet Cong's low demand for supplies, coupled with the agrarian nature of North Vietnam's society, made the enemy resistant to the use of air power.

Or, from those hippies at the CIA:

Like the SIGMA I war game played earlier in 1964, however, SIGMA II and its depressing outcome had no apparent dampening effect on senior decisionmakers' certainty that the way to save South Vietnam was to bomb the North and employ US combat forces in the South. Strategists continued their contingency planning toward those ends as if the outcome of SIGMA II (plus SIGMA I and Robert Johnson's earlier NSC working group study) had not occurred. The realism of SIGMA II would, however, get an early confirmation: the officer playing the role of the President committed a US Marine expeditionary force to South Vietnam's defense on 26 February l965 of the game's calendar. President Johnson did send just such a Marine force on the actual date of 8 March 1965, only 10 days later than in the war game. According to Walt Elder, McCone's former Special Assistant, the DCI participated in only one session of Sigma II because he "hated all war games"; on this one occasion he went out of "innate snobbery, when he learned that the other seniors would be there."

Ah, the best and the brightest.

I don't know what the future holds for America in the Gulf. I really, really hope that Bush isn't about to launch an air war against Iran -- the potential for disaster is simply too high. If I were a religious person, I'd be about ready to pray right now. But we won't be able to say we -- or they -- weren't warned. But, we aren't able to say that about Iraq, either.

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