A Stunning Revelation about its Theoretic Effectiveness

An article by Thom Shanker in New York Times on 12 January contains essential new information about how U.S. Marine Lieutenant General. Paul K. Van Riper, acting as the ‘enemy’ force commander during the Millennium Challenge 2002 war game, inflicted a major defeat on ‘friendly’ forces in a Middle Eastern combat scenario. The devastating outcome of that war game has long been the subject of speculation in professional circles. All that was known up until now was that Van Riper’s team resorted to ‘unconventional tactics’, and that he has claimed ever since that day that the outcome of the war game was ‘dismissed’ by the director and that the lessons were not acknowledged by the navy.

Shanker’s article reveals that General (now retired) Van Riper’s team employed swarming tactics against their opponents and were successful, at least theoretically, in swamping their defensive capabilities, partly by the use of large numbers of small, high-speed boats, at least some of which were rigged with explosives for suicide attacks. While the ‘enemy’ forces suffered heavy losses for their efforts, the returns far outweighed the losses, which Shanker claims “astounded” the game’s sponsor – U.S. Joint Forces Command. The outcome was classified as a ‘defeat’ for the friendly force.

General Van Riper has repeatedly voiced warnings about how asymmetrical thinking can be used in conflict at sea. In fact, for any inferior force to defeat a symmetrically superior force an asymmetric approach is essential to achieving success. Technological innovation has often resulted from efforts to provide the attackers with a key advantage in overcoming the adversary’s conventional superiority. Submarines, mines, aircraft and fast attack craft have all had their origins in this type of asymmetrical thinking. Japanese ‘kamikaze’ aircraft were successful in overwhelming USN defensive capabilities at several key points during the Second World War, but limitations in coordinating their efforts and failure to concentrate on the American’s critical vulnerabilities (transports and support ships, not warships) did not deliver the hoped for results.

As the commander of a similar ‘enemy’ force during a war game at the Canadian Forces College in 1996, I also inflicted a major defeat on a ‘western alliance’ force in a North African combat scenario called Exercise Final Lance. The key to success in that event was preserving our only effective offensive capabilities (200 Scud missiles and their mobile launcher plus three Kilo-class submarines) until a critical moment in the deployment plan of the ‘evil aggressors’. Once the first heavy echelons of the force were arriving, an all-out assault on the major port of disembarkation by all the missiles (some armed with chemical and biological agents) and a coincident attack by the submarines (which had been sent to the far corners of the Mediterranean Sea to skulk for three weeks) resulted in the prolonged closure of the main port and the sinking of four 40,000-tonne strategic sealift ships that were carrying practically all of the vehicles for a mechanized corps of some 35,000 troops. A couple of the few remaining airfields and small ports were subjected to harassing attacks by conventional and suicide attackers, which further constricted the Allied flow of forces and sustainment supplies into theatre. All of the attacking submarines were eventually sunk, but the damage had been done. The result was not an outright victory for the ‘enemy’, but logistical culmination had occurred and the only options for the western leaders were either a negotiated peace or a full withdrawal. They chose the face-saving option. As an aside, the force-on-force approach (good team versus bad team) was never run again on that course at the college.

The problem in forces that depend upon conventionally superior armed formations for their credibility is ‘mirror imaging’. We tend to think that our enemy will think like we do, and employ the kinds of tactics that we know how to counter. This is almost never the case. While being the enemy force commander is often offered as a ‘carrot’ to someone who may not be in the first echelon of candidates or graduates, the real danger in doing so is exposing the weakness of conventional thinking and checklist approaches to problem solving. Intellectual agility and creative innovation seldom have much to do with tactical proficiency. In fact, it is often exactly the opposite.