War Games Rigged?
Sean D. Naylor
The most elaborate war game the U.S. military has ever held was rigged so that it appeared to validate the modern, joint-service war-fighting concepts it was supposed to be testing, according to the retired Marine lieutenant general who commanded the game’s Opposing Force.
That general, Paul Van Riper, said he worries the United States will send troops into combat using doctrine and weapons systems based on false conclusions from the recently concluded Millennium Challenge 02. He was so frustrated with the rigged exercise that he said he quit midway through the game.
He said that rather than test forces against an unpredictable enemy, the exercise “was almost entirely scripted to ensure a [U.S. military] ‘win.’”
His complaints prompted an impassioned defense of the war game from Vice Adm. Marty Mayer, the deputy commander of Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va. The command, which sponsored and ran the war game, is the four-star headquarters charged with developing the military’s joint concepts and requirements.
“I want to disabuse anybody of any notion that somehow the books were cooked,” Mayer said.
The Defense Department spent $250 million over the last two years to stage Millennium Challenge 02, a three-week, all-service exercise that concluded Aug. 15. The experiment involved 13,500 participants waging mock war in 17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites.
Set in a classified scenario in 2007, the experiment’s main purpose was to test a handful of key war-fighting concepts that Joint Forces Command had developed over the last several years.
Gen. William “Buck” Kernan, head of Joint Forces Command, told Pentagon reporters July 18 that Millennium Challenge was nothing less than “the key to military transformation.”
Central to the success of the war game, Kernan said, was that the U.S. force (or Blue Force) would be fighting a determined and relatively unconstrained Opposing Force (otherwise known as the OPFOR or Red Force). “This is free play,” he said. The OPFOR has the ability to win here.”
“Not so,” Van Riper told Army Times. “Instead of a free-play, two-sided game as the Joint Forces commander advertised it was going to be, it simply became a scripted exercise. They had a predetermined end, and they scripted the exercise to that end.”
Van Riper, who retired in 1997 as head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, is a frequent player in military war games and is regarded as a Red team specialist. He said the constraints placed on the Opposing Force in Millennium Challenge were the most restrictive he has ever experienced in an ostensibly free-play experiment
Exercise officials denied him the opportunity to use his own tactics and ideas against Blue, and on several occasions directed the Opposing Force not to use certain weapons systems against Blue. It even ordered him to reveal the location of Red units, he said
“We were directed ... to move air defenses so that the Army and Marine units could successfully land,” he said. “We were simply directed to turn [the air-defense systems] off or move them. ... So it was scripted to be whatever the control group wanted it to be.”
Retired Ambassador Robert Oakley, who participated in the experiment as Red civilian leader, said Van Riper was outthinking the Blue Force from the first day of the exercise.
Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders, negating Blue’s high-tech eavesdropping capabilities, Oakley said. Then, when the Blue fleet sailed into the Persian Gulf early in the experiment, Van Riper’s forces surrounded the ships with small boats and planes sailing and flying in apparently innocuous circles.
When the Blue commander issued an ultimatum to Red to surrender or face destruction, Van Riper took the initiative, issuing attack orders via the morning call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of his country’s mosques. His force’s small boats and aircraft sped into action
“By that time there wasn’t enough time left to intercept them,” Oakley said. As a result of Van Riper’s cunning, much of the Blue navy ended up at the bottom of the ocean. The Joint Forces Command officials had to stop the exercise and “refloat” the fleet in order to continue, Oakley said.
Mayer said the war game’s complexity precluded it being a completely free-play exercise.
“In anything this size, certain things are scripted, and you have to execute in a certain way, or you 11 never be able to bring it all together,” he said. “Gen. Van Riper apparently feels he was too constrained. I can only say there were certain parts where he was not constrained, and then there were parts where he was in order to facilitate the conduct of the experiment and certain exercise pieces that were being done.”
In contrast to Kernan’s emphasis that “the OPEOR has the ability to win,” the admiral said the exercise “wasn’t about winning or losing.”
“It was about can we better plan, better organize, and make quicker, better informed decisions,” he said. “That is really a different question, rather than the rolling of the dice outcome of whether it was a Blue or a Red thumbs up.
“Blue play and Red play was merely to facilitate the experiment and enable it to look at the different pieces. It was not to see who would win.
But by preventing the Opposing Force from employing the full range of its capabilities, Van Riper said, Joint Forces Command sacrificed intellectual rigor on the altar of expedience. In an Aug. 14 e-mail he sent to “professional friends” — a copy of which was obtained by Army Times — Van Riper expressed bitter frustration with what he viewed as the experiment’s failure to challenge the command’s future war-fighting concepts, of which he
he acknowledged he had been “a vocal critic.”
“Unfortunately, in my opinion, neither the construct nor the conduct of the exercise allowed for the concepts of rapid decisive operations, effects-based operations, or operational net assessment to be properly assessed,” he wrote. “... [I]t was in actuality an exercise that was almost entirely scripted to ensure a Blue ‘win.’”
Van Riper said this approach ran counter to his notion of how an experiment should function. “You don’t come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out,” he said.
Retired Army Cal. Bob Killebrew, an experienced war-game participant who did not take part in Millennium Challenge, echoed this view. “If you want a true research game, one that really tests things and stresses concepts, Red has to be allowed to win,” he said.
But as the war game developed, Van Riper said it became apparent to him that Joint Forces Command officials had little interest in putting their new concepts to the test.
“I could see the way the briefings were going — that these concepts were going to be validated,” he said.
Navy Capt. John Carman, Joint Forces Command spokesman, said the experiment had properly validated all the major concepts. The command already was drafting recommendations based on the experiment’s results in such areas as doctrine, training and procurement that would be forwarded to Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said.
This is exactly what Van Riper feared would happen. “My main concern was we’d see future forces trying to use these things when they’ve never been properly grounded in any sort of an experiment,” he said.
A retired colonel familiar with the JFCOM concepts said Van Riper’s concerns were well-founded. “I don’t have a problem with the ideas,” said the colonel, who declined to be identified. “I do have a problem with the fact that we’re trying to suggest somehow that we’ve validated them, and now it’s time to pay for them. We’re going to buy them — that’s bullshit.”
“[Van Riper] will refuse to have his name associated with any notion of validation,” he said. “And I am completely sympathetic with him and understand him and agree with him.”
Van Riper said he became so frustrated during the game that he quit his position as Opposing Force commander halfway through.
He did so, he said, to avoid presenting one of his Opposing Force subordinates with a moral dilemma. That subordinate was retired Army Col. George Utter, a full-time Joint Forces Command employee who, as the Opposing Force chief of staff, was responsible for taking Van Riper’s commands and making them happen in the simulation.
But several days into the exercise, Van Riper realized his orders weren’t being followed.
“I was giving him directions on how I thought the OPEOR ought to perform, and those directions were being countermanded by the exercise director,” Van Riper said. The exercise director was Air Force Brig. Gen. Jim Smith, Utter’s real-life boss at Joint Forces Command.
Matters came to a head July 29. “That morning I’d given my guidance for what was to happen, and I found that [Utteri had assembled the staff and was giving them a different set [of instructionsi based on the exercise director’s instructions to him.”
To save Utter from having to choose between following the orders of his commander in the war game and obeying those of Smith, Van Riper stepped down as the Opposing Force commander. However, the retired Marine, who was participating in the exercise on a contract with defense giant TRW, stayed on at the war game as an adviser.
Van Riper said that when he discovered Smith was countermanding his orders July 29, he immediately raised objections with both Smith and retired Army Gen. Gary Luck, a senior adviser to Joint Forces Command who was serving as the Blue Force commander. Van Riper said they told him they would meet with him later that day to discuss the issue, but then failed to follow through. “They never met with me at any time in the exercise,” he said.
So Van Riper said he told his Opposing Force staff that from now on they were to take their orders from Utter, not from him.
Carman said Joint Forces Command had no record of Van Riper having quit as Opposing Force commander. But Van Riper said that in addition to announcing it to his staff, he had made it very clear in a 20-page report he submitted to the command.
Van Riper said the blame for rigging the exercise lay not with any one officer, but with the culture at Joint Forces Command. “It’s an institutional problem,” he said. “It’s embedded in the institution.”
He was highly critical of the command’s concepts, such as “effects-based operations” and “rapid, decisive operations,” which he derided as little more than “slogans.”
“There’s very little intellectual activity,” Van Riper said about Joint Forces Command. “What happens is a number of people are put into a room, given some sort of a slogan and told to write to the slogan. That’s not the way to generate new ideas.”
There ought to be more open debate over the new concepts, Van Riper said. He said he had told command officials repeatedly that they should vet new concepts with a process similar to that used in academia, in which “people have to present papers and defend their papers.”
“In the process, good ideas stand the test of the cauldron They’re put in, and come forth, and the ones that aren’t so good get killed off,” Van
Riper said, “I haven’t seen anything killed off down there fat Joint Forces Command]. They just keep generating.”
“I completely disagree with that,” Mayer said. “That’s his opinion. In my view, we have thoroughly looked at these.”
In his e-mail, Van Riper told colleagues he was speaking out to pre-empt a repeat of what happened after he participated in another Joint Forces Command exercise, Unified Vision 2001. Following that exercise, “my name was included in post-experiment materials stating that the concept of rapid decisive operations had been validated — a mistruth at best” he wrote. “I wanted to set the record straight with my professional friends early this year.”
Van Riper’s single-mindedness can sometimes rub other experiment participants the wrong way, said a retired Army officer who has played in several war games with the Marine.
“What he’s done is he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it,” the retired officer said. “He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that as possible.
“He can be a real pain in the ass, but that’s good. But a lot of people don’t like to sign up for that sort of agitation. But he’s a great guy, and he’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons.