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"Can We Re-Recruit This Guy?"

Via Rebecca Blood, a story in the Guardian on a US military exercise that didn't go as planned:

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."

Who was running this exercise? The referee from the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game?

So how did Van Riper pull it off? Through deception and surprise:

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."

As Rebecca says, "can we re-recruit this guy?"

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