The Guardian (London) September 6, 2002
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
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 Dollars 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 whistle.
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 Dollars 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 says.
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 battlefield.
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 life.
"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 reasons."
Copyright 2002 Guardian Newspapers Limited