Monday, December 14, 2015

Millennium Challenge 2002

Everyone has probably heard of the Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame.  Heck, it’s almost become a legend.  The exercise offered some outstanding lessons all around though not necessarily those that are routinely claimed.  Let’s take a closer look.  For those who may not be familiar with it, here is a brief summary. 

Among various other aspects, both physical and simulated, the US conducted a simulated wargame involving the overthrow of a Middle East dictator of a country on the Persian Gulf.  The enemy, or Red force, was commanded by Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, USMC(Ret.).  The exercise was two years in the making and reportedly cost $250M.

The game was, apparently, intended as a free play exercise in which both sides would try their best to win and, at least in the beginning, was conducted as such.  The short version is that Van Riper, leading the Red force, used a combination of civilian aircraft and small boats for surveillance to pinpoint the US forces and then proceeded to launch swarm attacks, suicide attacks, and cruise missiles to annihilate the US fleet in short order.

Faced with an additional couple of weeks of scheduled exercise time, game officials opted to restore all the “killed” units and continue on.  At this point, the game ran off the tracks with the imposition of highly scripted actions designed to validate US concepts and ensure a US “victory”.  Van Riper eventually resigned from active participation in disgust.

The game concluded with pronouncements of a US “victory”.

ComNavOps has no problem with reconstituting the US forces in the context of a wargame.  After all, if you have the personnel assembled for a couple week long game and it ends in the first day or two, why not start over and gain some more benefit?  The problem is that the subsequent restart and scripted operations appear to have been a blatant attempt to force a pre-determined outcome.

If you want to ensure a desired outcome by using unrealistic scenarios and conditions, why go to the trouble of conducting a wargame, at all?  It would be cheaper and easier to just skip the exercise, announce that your concepts are unbeatable, and save some money.

ComNavOps also has no problem with scripted exercises intended to test a narrow, specific capability.  For example, suppose you want to look at the use of a particular decoy in the context of an aerial strike against a land target.  You could play an open-ended, free form game but the opportunity to conduct the strike might never arise.  If that were the case, you would have wasted your time.  Better to initiate a specific scenario with scripted actions and conditions as long as the actions and conditions don’t predetermine the outcome of the decoy’s performance.

There are two types of wargames: 

  1. Games in which the enemy is allowed freedom of action and concepts are put to a realistic (though simulated) test.
  2. Games in which pet weapons and concepts are exercised in scenarios with pre-determined outcomes in order to “validate” their procurement or adoption.

The Guardian offers a write up and comments from Gen. Van Riper (1).

Gen. Van Riper
Contrary to what many believe, the game did not demonstrate that swarms and suicides and whatnot are unstoppable and that ships stand no chance.  Instead, it demonstrated that conventional Navy commanders are totally unprepared to deal with the unconventional and unexpected.  It also demonstrated that unless the US is prepared to accept significant collateral damage, we’ll be fighting with our hands tied (our ROEs are ill-suited to major combat operations).

I also note that such a free play wargame has not been conducted since, to the best of my knowledge.  You can draw your own conclusion as to why not.

On an ominous and related note, Navy and DoD leadership is committing the US to an “offset strategy” of networks and unmanned vehicles intended to ensure US military supremacy.  All well and good except that ComNavOps has expressed severe doubts about the wisdom and effectiveness of such an approach.  Perhaps a free form wargame is needed to validate the concept before we gut the military and wander off in an unproven direction?

(1)The Guardian, “Wake-up Call”, Julian Borger, 5 September 2002,


  1. Has anyone taken a good look at what China is training for and how they run their wargames?

    1. My concern is that we are concentrating so hard on fighting brushfires against poorly equipped & trained people, like the stuff in the middle east, that we are completely losing grasp on how to fight against a real opponent.

    2. An excellent question. The photos and announcements that I've seen about Chinese amphibious assault exercises show them training to get fairly heavy armor ashore early in an assault. That contrasts markedly with our light infantry concept of assault. I have no details beyond that.

    3. Agree Mat, we are fighting the last war or some goat herders, not what we might be facing tomorrow.

      As far as the Chinese, you can find quite a lot of pictures of both army and Marines? training. Not as much about their air force, although they have created something like a Red Flag. The difficulty in all this is knowing what results and realism are in these exercises. They do seem to focus on lot of armor and artillery.

      I would venture to say that they appear to have increased the pace and size of their exercise but it's more a subjective thing. Chinese aren't saying a lot about what they are training

  2. Simply the Chinese are training to win. Think we again. We're short of forces and the enemy runs around unmolested for 6 months except this time we won't be able to rebuild our fleet so easily

  3. What is alarming is that the USN seems to be suffering from a rather severe case of "confirmation bias".

    They filter out information about terrorism or anything else (like weapons reliability) that does not favor them and refuse to consider the hard questions. Meanwhile, those that toe the party line get promoted, while those that don't get the boot. It's the opposite of what it should be.

    One serious danger with all of this is that the US military will end up with a very conformist culture, where officers refuse to take risks. I know that Asians are often stereotyped for being conformist and being unable to think or improvise, but perhaps the US needs to take a hard look in the mirror it would seem.

    On the note of training for terrorists vs war, I would agree. I'm not saying that Islamic Fundamentalists are not a threat - they clearly are. But the bigger dangers seem to be ignored.


    1. Good addition to the discussion. I hadn't seen that. Thanks!

  5. "My concern is that we are concentrating so hard on fighting brushfires against poorly equipped & trained people, like the stuff in the middle east, that we are completely losing grasp on how to fight against a real opponent."

    ...and yet... despite trying to face off against guys driving HiLux's with pintle mount machine guns or boghammers with RPGs, we seem to end up with multi-billion dollar platforms (F-35) that are ridiculous overkill, existing platforms (F-18's) that are ridiculous overkill, or corvettes (LCS) that won't help us in that regard anyway.

    Our Navy doesn't know what the hell it wants to do. The lack of an anti ship missile is just stupid/insane. A 3 billion dollar destroyer with cruiser displacement that doesn't do anti-air very well is insane. The LCS is a platform in search of a mission.


    I honestly don't know if there is an end in sight here. If we ever get into a major war we have very big, very expensive ships (Carriers) with air wings that have limited range, launching missiles that are old and don't work well against modern air defenses. The rest of the surface fleet mostly doesn't have AShM's; so they are overmatched for the most part. The Submarines are the best bet, but IIRC they are limited to their torps. Which isn't bad but somewhat range limited.

    Against a peer we may well face some very unpleasant results, even if our Navy is bigger. That will clear out the cobwebs, but that's a stupid way to do it.

    The limits on this exercise later are ridiculous. Its the senior people saying 'LALALALALALA' with their fingers in their ears.

    It reminds me of something I heard about; Von Moltke took a risky step in the Imperial German Army when he took a stand and said that for annual war games, he was doing away with the tradition that whatever side the Kaiser was on was automatically the winner.

    Here, its whatever side the Navy orthodoxy is on is automatically the winner.


    1. Until there is an open question of doctrine, all US Armed Forces will be stuck walking down the dusty road of dead policy.

      What Gen. Van Riper exposed was a failure of imagination on the part of decision makers and flag staff. Instead of embracing that shock, those ADM's were more concerned with saving face.

    2. Jim, the theory is that if the LCS can just go fast enough, it might eventually catch up with a mission.

    3. There is an ominous precedent for Millennium Challenger 2002. During the Imperial Japanese Navy's planning for the Midway campaign, a tabletop wargame was held. The Americans were played by IJN intelligence officers and naval officers who had lived in the United States, headed by a rear admiral who had served as naval attache. These were officers who were familiar with USN doctrine and American culture, ways of thinking and so on.

      During the wargame, the Japanese officers playing the Americans managed to catch Nagumo's task force off guard and sank two carriers while severely damaging a third. This was striking close to what actually happened when the dive bombers from the USS Enterprise appeared overhead during the actual battle.

      Admiral Ugaki, who was Yamamoto's chief of staff, objected and pressured the referees to change the outcome. They ruled that only one carrier had been sunk and a second lightly damaged. In addition, the sunk carrier was "resurrected" for the operation that had been planned as a follow-up to the capture of Midway. The IJN chose to ignore the warnings from the wargame in order to achieve a scripted outcome, and we all know what happened next...

    4. Blueback, I had never heard that one. Thanks for the timely info!

  6. Look at the corruption of the people and the system. You have a well funded (more than most countries' Defense Budgets) and the results did not support continuing the bigger, more complex, expensive model.

    So what did the system do? Conduct another wargame? No. It just discredited the conduct and therefore could ignore he results. Gen Van Riper has a good reputation as a thinking leader, so when he resigns that should send up some flares.

    After MC 2002, what did we see in Iraq? Homemade IED that wipe out HMMWVs to M1 tanks. Insurgents that baffled the high tech, heavy force we sent in. The Navy was only spared because the fighting was inland between Sunni and Shia.

    The Scientific process says you have to rethink or adjust your hypothesis when you get data that doesn't fit. The Pentagon process is to discredit anything that MIGHT affect the money flow.

    1. Did you know that the Navy were among the first to rapidly respond to the IED threat using very high tech countermeasures?

      The problem with MC was that its exercise design was flawed from the beginning - creating an event to be an unscripted wargame, a White House directed Tier I COCOM exercise, a Service-level exercise, and a tactical training event at the same time was a recipe for failure. The event failed to properly identify the training audience.

      Wargames and exercises, both formal and informal, happen all the time, and often BLUE doesn't win. Participants learn, adjust, and try again.

    2. From 2006 to 2009 there were more than 13,000 IED attacks on coalition forces in Iraq. - Wired Magazine Article

      Attacks not foiled, but attacks. SO much for the high tech negation.

      Bottom line is MC showed that an enemy using unconventional means could seriously disrupt the High tech weapons approach. We DID NOT LEARN FROM THIS, we poo-poo'd the approach and lost $5T in treasure and thousands of lives.

      BTW in 20 years, I never once saw Blue get beat, looks bad to the promotion boards. And worse I have never seen a Flag officer busted for letting us get our behinds handed to us.

    3. Trons, do you have any concrete documentation of Blue not winning a wargame? It may have happened but I've not heard of one.

    4. CNO – Wargaming for Leaders: Strategic Decision Making from the Battlefield to the Boardroom (Herman, Frost, Kurz) discusses several dozen vignettes where the initial assumptions and hypotheses of the BLUE side were challenged and proven wrong, forcing the participants to adjust the approach. Wargaming is an iterative approach, if you’re not adapting to the gaps identified, you’re not using it properly, and will continue to lose.

      The Sevice Title 10 wargames have been used to adjust operating concepts. Recent Navy Global Series wargames hosted by Naval War College have explored, sea control, command and control, and contested battlespace. The results of the games have demonstrated gaps that have been publicly addressed in the Director of Surface Warfare criticism of the LCS in the Pacific Theater and resultant distributed lethality concepts. That many internet commentators do not like the proposals does not mean they weren’t thoroughly studied and wargamed.

      Though not a wargame per doctrinal terms, BLUE Forces are regularly tested against robust OPFOR. From a recent US Army JRTC service level exercise: ‘The Opposing Force quickly gained the advantage. “The Army got it handed to them,” Waring said. “No other way to put it.” Opfor “killed” the entire Army force twice, forcing it to “regenerate”’ This type of training happens regularly at JRTC, NTC, Nellis, Fallon, etc. I assure you, the professional adversaries don’t water it down, they don’t pull punches, they don’t roll over just to make the flag officers feel good or make the training audience look good. In fact a lot of professional adversaries are reservists, so they don’t have to be worried about “their career”.

      For Anon – There are over 32,000 jammers now deployed on US ground vehicles. Those tools, combined with airborne electronic attack assets from all services provide a measurable sanctuary for ground forces in and IED environment. If you don’t believe me, head to the Center for Army Lessons Learned, Fort Leavenworth, KS and do your own study. Jammers aren’t sexy, high-dollar acquisitions, either – and that career field rarely leads to Flag Ranks.

      BTW, If you joined an organization, and after a time came to realize that the organization neither rethinks nor reframes its hypotheses or positions, does not hold leadership accountable, and is corrupt at its core, did you either (1. speak up and were rebuked, or (2. say nothing at all. In either case, why would you choose to remain in that organization for 20 years?

    5. TA, thanks, I'll check that book out and see if I can find a copy for a reasonable cost.

  7. As far as I understand, this millenium challenge thing was just a joke.
    He magics his whole swarm into existance right around the US ships, uses instant, unjammable/undetectable communications, mounts missiles far larger than what any of these boats/aircraft can carry, etc

    Then he resigns when they tell him thats not the purpose of the exercise, and to quit clowning around.


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