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iraq war game -pre invasion

Randy Downs

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I thought some members might find this interesting:

If the US and Iraq do go to war, there can only be one

winner, can't there? Maybe not. This summer, in a

huge rehearsal of just such a conflict - and with retired

Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper playing Saddam -

the US lost. Julian Borger asks the former marine how

he did it

Friday September 6, 2002

The Guardian

At the height of the summer, as talk of invading Iraq built in

Washington like a dark, billowing storm, the US armed forces

staged a rehearsal using over 13,000 troops, countless

computers and $250m. Officially, America won and a rogue

state was liberated from an evil dictator.

What really happened is quite another story, one that has set

alarm bells ringing throughout America's defence establishment

and raised questions over the US military's readiness for an Iraqi

invasion. In fact, this war game was won by Saddam Hussein, or

at least by the retired marine playing the Iraqi dictator's part,

Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper.

In the first few days of the exercise, using surprise and

unorthodox tactics, the wily 64-year-old Vietnam veteran sank

most of the US expeditionary fleet in the Persian Gulf, bringing

the US assault to a halt.

What happened next will be familiar to anyone who ever played

soldiers in the playground. Faced with an abrupt and

embarrassing end to the most expensive and sophisticated

military exercise in US history, the Pentagon top brass simply

pretended the whole thing had not happened. They ordered their

dead troops back to life and "refloated" the sunken fleet. Then

they instructed the enemy forces to look the other way as their

marines performed amphibious landings. Eventually, Van Riper

got so fed up with all this cheating that he refused to play any

more. Instead, he sat on the sidelines making abrasive remarks

until the three-week war game - grandiosely entitled Millennium

Challenge - staggered to a star-spangled conclusion on August

15, with a US "victory".

If the Pentagon thought it could keep its mishap quiet, it

underestimated Van Riper. A classic marine - straight-talking

and fearless, with a purple heart from Vietnam to prove it - his

retirement means he no longer has to put up with the

bureaucratic niceties of the defence department. So he blew the


His driving concern, he tells the Guardian, is that when the real

fighting starts, American troops will be sent into battle with a set

of half-baked tactics that have not been put to the test.

"Nothing was learned from this," he says. "A culture not willing

to think hard and test itself does not augur well for the future."

The exercise, he says, was rigged almost from the outset.

Millennium Challenge was the biggest war game of all time. It

had been planned for two years and involved integrated

operations by the army, navy, air force and marines. The

exercises were part real, with 13,000 troops spread across the

United States, supported by actual planes and warships; and

part virtual, generated by sophisticated computer models. It was

the same technique used in Hollywood blockbusters such as

Gladiator. The soldiers in the foreground were real, the legions

behind entirely digital.

The game was theoretically set in 2007 and pitted Blue forces

(the US) against a country called Red. Red was a militarily

powerful Middle Eastern nation on the Persian Gulf that was

home to a crazed but cunning megalomaniac (Van Riper).

Arguably, when the exercises were first planned back in 2000,

Red could have been Iran. But by July this year, when the game

kicked off, it is unlikely that anyone involved had any doubts as

to which country beginning with "I" Blue was up against.

"The game was described as free play. In other words, there

were two sides trying to win," Van Riper says.

Even when playing an evil dictator, the marine veteran clearly

takes winning very seriously. He reckoned Blue would try to

launch a surprise strike, in line with the administration's new

pre-emptive doctrine, "so I decided I would attack first."

Van Riper had at his disposal a computer-generated flotilla of

small boats and planes, many of them civilian, which he kept

buzzing around the virtual Persian Gulf in circles as the game

was about to get under way. As the US fleet entered the Gulf,

Van Riper gave a signal - not in a radio transmission that might

have been intercepted, but in a coded message broadcast from

the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. The seemingly

harmless pleasure craft and propeller planes suddenly turned

deadly, ramming into Blue boats and airfields along the Gulf in

scores of al-Qaida-style suicide attacks. Meanwhile, Chinese

Silkworm-type cruise missiles fired from some of the small

boats sank the US fleet's only aircraft carrier and two marine

helicopter carriers. The tactics were reminiscent of the al-Qaida

attack on the USS Cole in Yemen two years ago, but the Blue

fleet did not seem prepared. Sixteen ships were sunk altogether,

along with thousands of marines. If it had really happened, it

would have been the worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor.

It was at this point that the generals and admirals monitoring the

war game called time out.

"A phrase I heard over and over was: 'That would never have

happened,'" Van Riper recalls. "And I said: nobody would have

thought that anyone would fly an airliner into the World Trade

Centre... but nobody seemed interested."

In the end, it was ruled that the Blue forces had had the $250m

equivalent of their fingers crossed and were not really dead,

while the ships were similarly raised from watery graves.

Van Riper was pretty fed up by this point, but things were about

to get worse. The "control group", the officers refereeing the

exercise, informed him that US electronic warfare planes had

zapped his expensive microwave communications systems.

"You're going to have to use cellphones and satellite phones

now, they told me. I said no, no, no - we're going to use

motorcycle messengers and make announcements from the

mosques," he says. "But they refused to accept that we'd do

anything they wouldn't do in the west."

Then Van Riper was told to turn his air defences off at certain

times and places where Blue forces were about to stage an

attack, and to move his forces away from beaches where the

marines were scheduled to land. "The whole thing was being

scripted," he says.

Within his ever narrowing constraints, Van Riper continued to

make a nuisance of himself, harrying Blue forces with an arsenal

of unorthodox tactics, until one day, on July 29, he thinks, he

found his orders to his subordinate officers were not being

listened to any more. They were being countermanded by the

control group. So Van Riper quit. "I stayed on to give advice, but

I stopped giving orders. There was no real point any more," he


Van Riper's account of Millennium Challenge is not disputed by

the Pentagon. It does not deny "refloating" the Blue navy, for

example. But that, it argues, is the whole point of a war game.

Vice-Admiral Cutler Dawson, the commander of the ill-fated

fleet, and commander, in real life, of the US 2nd Fleet, says:

"When you push the envelope, some things work, some things

don't. That's how you learn from the experiment."

The whole issue rapidly became a cause celebre at the

Pentagon press briefing, where the defence secretary, Donald

Rumsfeld, got the vice-chairman of the joint chiefs-of-staff,

General Peter Pace, to explain why the mighty US forces had

needed two lives in order to win.

"You kill me in the first day and I sit there for the next 13 days

doing nothing, or you put me back to life and you get 13 more

days' worth of experiment out of me. Which is a better way to do

it?" General Pace asked.

Van Riper agrees with Pace in principle, but says the argument

is beside the point.

"Scripting is not a problem because you're trying to learn

something," he says. "The difference with this one was that it

was advertised up front as free play in order to validate the

concepts they were trying to test, to see if they were robust

enough to put into doctrine."

It is these "concepts" that are at the core of a serious debate

that underlies what would otherwise be a silly row about who

was playing fair and who wasn't. The US armed forces are in the

throes of what used to be called a "Revolution in Military Affairs",

and is now usually referred to simply as "transformation". The

general idea is to make the US military more flexible, more

mobile and more imaginative. It was this transformation that

Rumsfeld was obsessed with during his first nine months in

office, until September 11 created other priorities.

The advocates of transformation argue that it requires a whole

new mindset, from the generals down to the ordinary

infantryman. So military planners, instead of drawing up new

tactics, formulate more amorphous "concepts" intended to

change fundamentally the American soldier's view of the


The principal concept on trial in Millennium Challenge was called

"rapid, decisive operation" (RDO), and as far as Van Riper and

many veteran officers are concerned, it is gobbledegook. "As if

anyone would want slow, indecisive operations! These are just

slogans," he snorts.

The question of transformation and the usefulness of concepts

such as RDO are the subject of an intense battle within the

Pentagon, in which the uniformed old guard are frequently at

odds with radical civilian strategists of the kind Rumsfeld

brought into the Pentagon.

John Pike, the head of GlobalSecurity.org, a military thinktank in

Washington, believes the splits over transformation and the

whole Van Riper affair reflect fundamental differences of opinion

on how to pursue the war on Iraq.

"One way is to march straight to Baghdad, blowing up

everything in your way and then by shock and awe you cause

the regime to collapse," Pike says. "That is what Rumsfeld is

complaining about when he talks about unimaginative plodding.

The alternative is to bypass the Iraqi forces and deliver a

decisive blow."

Van Riper denies being opposed to new military thinking. He

just thinks it should be written in plain English and put to the

test. "My main concern was that we'd see future forces trying to

use these things when they've never been properly grounded in

an experiment," he says.

The name Van Riper draws either scowls or rolling eyes at the

Pentagon these days, but there are anecdotal signs that he has

the quiet support of the uniformed military, who, after all, will be

the first to discover whether the Iraq invasion plans work in real


"He can be a real pain in the ass, but that's good," a fellow

retired officer told the Army Times. "He's a great guy, and he's a

great patriot, and he's doing all those things for the right




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Guest Stephen Turner


The principal concept on trial in Millennium Challenge was called

"rapid, decisive operation" (RDO), and as far as Van Riper and

many veteran officers are concerned, it is gobbledegook. "As if

anyone would want slow, indecisive operations!




That quote is an absolute killer. AS IF ANYONE WOULD WANT SLOW, INDECISIVE OPERATIONS! I really did laugh out loud..

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Priceless. Honest and out-spoken soldiers are a real pain in the neck.

If the most powerful military nation fools itself about its own capability the consequences for the rest of us can be far-reaching - like the protracted siege known as World War l.

Alfred Graf Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1892 to 1906, was probably wise to let the Kaiser win the war games that he turned up for! However, the games where Schlieffen tested out his famous ‘Plan’ actually showed that the Right Wing could never be made strong enough to deliver the blow that would knock France quickly out of the war. In addition he failed to factor into the game some counter-moves, such as the French moving garrison forces out of their fortifications around Paris, or making good use of their own railway network, their machine-guns, and their quick-firing artillery. He also assumed that Belgium would allow the Germans to march through, and that British intervention wouldn’t happen but that if it did it wouldn’t make any difference.

The issue, again, was one of honesty. To put it another way, the General Staff was trusted for its professionalism….

‘… (Schlieffen) seems to have taken the technician’s view that his duty was fulfilled if he did the utmost with the means available … He did not consider that he had the higher responsibility of warning the Emperor and the Chancellor that the chances of success were small compared with the risks.’ Liddell Hart.

‘(What the wargames) … did was to give the Schlieffen Plan a wholly specious aura, which in turn served to justify the vast mobilization scheme which could not be halted in the1914 crisis.’ – War Gaming by Andrew Wilson, Pelican 1970.

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