Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The essential nature of war games

War gaming is a serious academic discipline, not least at military academies, but the scenario has changed since the end of the Cold War when war used to be like symphony music -- now it's like jazz


Last summer the Pentagon played the largest war game in history. Using 13,000 troops and a vast array of both real and virtual hardware, the blue forces -- the goodies -- took on the red, a rogue state in the Middle East. No one was in any doubt about Red's actual identity.

The three-week game, named Millennium Challenge, was always expected to end in a US victory and that's just the way things turned out -- but not without some hugely embarrassing cheating along the way. Millennium Challenge was billed as free play -- anything goes -- and the commander of the red forces, a retired Vietnam veteran, Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, took the Pentagon at its word.

Within the first few days of the exercise, Van Riper, using surprise tactics involving coded messages broadcast from mosques during the call to prayer rather than radio transmissions, had sunk most of the US fleet in the Gulf, effectively ending the US campaign. Whereupon the Pentagon cried foul, claiming that the red team, or rather Iraq, wouldn't have acted like that and promptly refloated the fleet and brought its troops back to life.

That wasn't all. Van Riper was also ordered to look the other way while the US made amphibious landings, and long before the end of the war game he had ceased to issue any instructions to his troops on the grounds that it was pointless.

Far from being free play, the game was heavily scripted to give the Blues an easy victory -- to warm up the army, and, more importantly, the American public, for the conflict that everyone knew was coming.

So who was fooling whom? Van Riper was concerned that come the real event, US troops would be on the wrong end of unproven tactics and would rapidly come unstuck, while the Pentagon claimed that the whole point of Millennium Challenge was that it was a learning exercise.

"You kill me on the first day and I sit there for the next 13 days doing nothing," said General Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, "or you put me back to life and you get 13 days' more experiment out of me. Which is better?"


Hindsight leaves the case unproven. The US did secure a relatively straightforward victory, but who knows what might have happened if Van Riper had been commanding the Iraqi forces? Furthermore, within the timescale of the campaign, there was a great deal that didn't go to plan.

So is this a failure of the war game, or merely an acceptance that such exercises are always an inexact science and that, no matter how many variables you factor in, there will always be something you haven't thought of to go wrong?

For most people -- students in particular -- war gaming is a bit of fun albeit very serious fun, as no one plays to lose, ranging from online shoot 'em ups to highly detailed, modelled reconstructions.

But war gaming is a serious academic discipline, not least at the military academies, where a great deal more than mere pride is at stake.

Britain's own run-up to what was to be the second Gulf war was far lower profile than the Americans', apart from the discovery, on exercises in Oman in 2001, that its tanks and various other items of equipment couldn't cope with the sand. But it is unlikely that any of its war games would have been so heavily scripted as Millennium Challenge.

"Training is not the same as mission rehearsal," says a military spokesman for the defense research agency, Qinetiq. "During training simulations you are trying to encourage soldiers to be flexible -- not to narrow down their options. Besides which, if you script a scenario too closely, you find that people get terribly upset and confused when the same things that happened in the training don't happen in real life."

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