Leadership: August 28, 2002


In August, 2002, the Department of Defense conducted a $250 million training exercise called Millennium Challenge 2002. Years in the planning and involving hundreds of staff officers, over 13,000 troops plus scores of aircraft and ships, the undertaking quickly became embroiled in a controversy over accusations that the outcome was rigged. The officer commanding the enemy (OPFOR, or opposing force), retired marine general Paul van Riper, complained that every time he came up with a maneuver that hurt the good guys, he was overruled and any damage done was declared undone.

The Department of Defense described Millennium Challenge as a wargame, an exercise and an experiment, often in the same paragraph. Millennium Challenge was also described as a “joint certification.” Actually, it was all of that at one point or another. But often it was just a Power Point briefing of various courses of action followed by a brief discussion of what the enemy might do. This was hardly a wargame, but could be described as a, well, a briefing followed by a discussion. The problem is that, despite spending over a billion dollars during the last ten years to produce a computerized system for Department of Defense wide wargaming, the system does not yet exist. So everyone had to improvise. Moreover, the War on Terror has caused everything to be speeded up, including planning for Millennium Challenge. In true “can do” fashion, the Pentagon charged ahead with whatever they had. And what they had was some bad habits that made defeat impossible.

The exercise (the most accurate description for Millennium Challenge) was a success from a planning point of view. The officers and bureaucrats who have to sort out how to organize world wide military operations learned a lot. But not a lot was learned about what a thinking opponent might do to your carefully laid plans and new ideas. This is consistent with Department of Defense thinking about wargames. Despite the generally accepted idea that a wargame is a competitive exercise, this is not the way it works in the Pentagon. The higher level wargames tend to be driven by procedures, not a war of wits on a simulated battlefield. While this sounds absurd, it’s a long used practice. There is a purpose to this approach, and that is to make sure the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of staff officers in a major operation know the many procedures required to get such a large organization functioning smoothly. In effect, this kind of “wargame” is used to see if everyone can follow the same script. Winning or losing is measured by how well everyone communicates and executes administrative drills. Or, as the military puts it, the main objective is to perfect ones “tactical decision making process” (TDMP). Thus much Department of Defense wargaming results in showing our commanders and staffs how to lose neatly, rather than how to scrape and scramble to a victory. Real world battlefields favor the latter, peacetime perfectionists favor the former. Military training for officers concentrates on learning procedures, not investigating different, and perhaps better, tactics.

The Department of Defense has always insisted that wargames are not to be used, “to validate courses of action or specific tactics and techniques.” In other words, testing tactics or “fighting to win” is not allowed. Often, this is a result of computerized wargames that cannot handle novel (but realistic) tactics such as the ones developed by general van Riper.

At the very least, Millennium Challenge was not presented to the public, or some of the key players, accurately. Moreover, general van Riper was not told exactly what his role was to be. Van Riper has been around the Pentagon for a long time, and he’s an original thinker. Making him the head of the enemy force is making a statement, and the statement is that you want an imaginative and formidable foe.

The effects of this ridiculous approach to wargaming can be seen in recent real life battles. When NATO began bombing Serbia in 1999, to force them to leave Kosovo, they were shocked to discover that, after a few days bombing, the Serbs did not fold. The bombing went on for over ten weeks and only ended when NATO bribed Russia to withdraw support for the Serbs, and then offered the Serbs better terms. In the meantime, NATO kept bombing. It was the only weapon they had. When NATO quickly ran out of targets to hit, the bombers were ordered to hit targets that had already been bombed and declared “destroyed.” The reason for this was to pile up statistics on targets bombed so that the folks back home could be reassured that the NATO air forces were doing all that could be done, even if it wasn’t working. To this day, the air force insists that the bombing made the Serbs fold, and the withdrawal of Russian support and less onerous demands on the Serbs had nothing to do with it. This is what happens when you play wargames to perfect your plans, not to test them against a resourceful foe.

There is competitive wargaming in the Pentagon, but it is still considered rather daring and dangerous (at least to your career.) The competitive wargaming crowd is making progress, but it is a slow slog. Any large bureaucracy will, by it’s very nature, prefer procedure over future performance.




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