War games must give honest results, or we risk war mistakes

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This month, great and good American servicemen converged in Newport, RI, to test ideas about high seas warfare. Hosted at Naval War College, the rated “Global 14” war game explored a scenario taking place in the theater of the Pacific, presumably with China as a hypothetical enemy. Its main objective: to test whether the Pentagon is procuring the right mix of naval, air and land forces to prevail in ocean and coastal combat, and whether senior commanders have developed the appropriate methods to put these forces to work for operations. operational and strategic. Gain.

Afterwards, department heads were left speechless on Global 14, disclosing few details on how things turned out. Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro made an optimistic note, expressing confidence that America is ready to succeed in an increasingly contested Pacific.

I hope he is right.

Apparently, authorities will spend the next few weeks and months studying how the game unfolded, drawing conclusions and recommendations that are actionable for the Pentagon and Congress. A few tips as they do it: First and foremost, they should consider whether the game played out on solid assumptions about the operating environment, US and friendly forces, and the potential enemy. They must be frank. Any system of reasoning proceeds from axioms considered obvious. Such precepts cannot be proven or disproved in the system. The problem is, with people being the imperfect beings that we are, it is not uncommon to raise ideas that can be proven or disproved within the high status system of hypotheses.

Wrong assumptions portend poor results. In July 1965, for example, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara issued a memorandum which declared that a battalion of South Vietnamese troops was equal to a battalion of Viet Cong insurgents. In fact, it was lower. McNamara also claimed that one battalion of the United States Army or Navy was worth two or three VC battalions. And he assumed a conventional war expected in Indochina. If Communist forces came out in the open to fight traditional battles, rather than rushing into the hinterland, Washington and Saigon could get away with a lower friendly / enemy ratio than they would need to fight. stealthy insurgents. Anyway, McNamara faked. Over the next decade, the Allies put the prevailing assumptions to the test and saw them debunked by extreme prejudices.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Vietnam was not an isolated case either. In 2002, the United States Joint Forces Command organized a multi-service warfare game dubbed the Millennium Challenge, hoping to justify the Pentagon’s concept for networked amphibious combat. Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper orchestrated operations for the “Red Team,” or mock enemy force. The organizers of the game attributed the resources available to him to Iran or Iraq, a country in the Persian Gulf resistant to the American invasion by sea. They pitted the red team against the “blue team”, a joint force comprising a task force of US Navy aircraft carriers plying the Gulf. Van Riper has proven to be a cunning opponent. After the Blue Team turned off their electronic communications, for example, they issued orders through old-fashioned methods such as motorcycle messengers and flashing lights from mosque towers. It is the creative use of scarce resources.

And rather than wait for the assault on the sea, Van Riper ordered a preemptive strike against American force. A flock of cruise missiles spurted from coastal batteries, commercial ships and low-flying fighter jets. At the same time, speedboats loaded with explosives invaded the American fleet, carrying out suicide attacks. The Red Team blitz sank 19 US Navy ships, including the aircraft carrier. Exclaimed the commander of the blue team: The red team “sank my damn navy”.

The results of the Millennium Challenge were quite confusing. Much worse was when the hunt supervisors gave in to their worst instincts. They reset the game, which made sense. A great advantage of war games is that a game can be relaunched quickly to perform new experiences. But the organizers of the Millennium Challenge have changed the rules to the detriment of the red team. They banned Van Riper from shooting down American transport planes, a key part of any amphibious assault and an obvious target for the defenders. They forced the Red Team to place their anti-aircraft weaponry in the open, where the Blue Team could find and destroy it, rather than hiding it like any competent opponent would. They denied the Red Team permission to use chemical weapons, then a significant part of the Iranian and Iraqi armories.

In other words, they changed the assumptions under which the game was played, reducing the Red Team to a stupid, inert, compliant foe. They ratified their concept of war, but only by scripting the exercise to achieve a predetermined result. China is a much more formidable potential antagonist than Iran. It is hoped that the game designers and administrators of Global 14 have avoided the bureaucratic and intellectual traps of the Millennium Challenge, and that the analysts who study the conduct of the game make a point of drawing honest results, rather than results. intended to please their military and political superiors. .

The Millennium Challenge 2002 should have shattered an established “paradigm”, or theory on how to use maritime forces to subdue a coastal adversary. But as science philosopher Thomas Kuhn warned half a century ago, “paradigm shifts” are difficult. People invest in orthodoxy for professional, prestige or financial reasons. They act as guardians of the paradigm, explaining its flaws until the “anomalies” between the paradigm and the observed reality are too glaring to be ignored. Then the paradigm shatters, giving way to something better.

Scientific researchers have it easy. They conduct field research, test their hypotheses against reality, revise them afterwards, and organize future rounds of experiments. Failure may not be desirable; it is expected.

Orderly experimentation is a luxury. The fighting forces do not have such luxury. After all, a fighter may only have one “field try”. Battle, that is. This is why Pentagon analysts must be extremely sincere when evaluating Global 14. Better to demolish a false paradigm in peacetime, if necessary, when the costs and dangers are minimal. Defeat and disaster could arise if department heads deceive themselves in peacetime, so that wartime exposes their bad ideas.

The Pentagon may not have the time or the resources to recover from a failed experiment. Let’s get it right now.

James Holmes is the JC Wylie Chair in Maritime Strategy at Naval War College and a non-resident member of the Brute Krulak Center at Marine Corps University. The opinions expressed here are those of him alone.

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