Recommended reading: an autopsy of the 2002 Millennium Challenge war games

War games rigged?  General says Millennium Challenge 02 ‘was almost entirely scripted’, By Sean D. Naylor in the Army Times (16 August 2002).

Lt. General Paul van Ripper
Lt. General Paul van Riper.

Vignettes like this illustrate the structural ills of our defense apparatus better than any theoretical analysis can.

The most elaborate war game the U.S. military has ever held was rigged so that it appeared to validate the modern, joint-service war-fighting concepts it was supposed to be testing, according to the retired Marine lieutenant general who commanded the game’s Opposing Force. …

What happened?  The set up…

The Defense Department spent $250 million over the last two years to stage Millennium Challenge 02, a three-week, all-service exercise that concluded Aug. 15. The experiment involved 13,500 participants waging mock war in 17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites.

Such games, staged at vast cost, are powerful tools — a great competitive edge of conventional military forces.  But only when conducted by officers with the courage to subject their doctrines to a fair test, in organizations that allow BOTH innovation and failure during testing without risk to the careers of the innovators.

Gen. William “Buck” Kernan, head of Joint Forces Command, told Pentagon reporters July 18 that Millennium Challenge was nothing less than “the key to military transformation.”  Central to the success of the war game, Kernan said, was that the U.S. force (or Blue Force) would be fighting a determined and relatively unconstrained Opposing Force (otherwise known as the OPFOR or Red Force).  “This is free play,” he said. “The OPFOR has the ability to win here.”

Sounds good so far…

“Not so,” Van Riper told Army Times. “Instead of a free-play, two-sided game as the Joint Forces commander advertised it was going to be, it simply became a scripted exercise.  They had a predetermined end, and they scripted the exercise to that end.”  … Exercise officials denied him the opportunity to use his own tactics and ideas against Blue, and on several occasions directed the Opposing Force not to use certain weapons systems against Blue.  It even ordered him to reveal the location of Red units, he said

“We were directed … to move air defenses so that the Army and Marine units could successfully land,” he said. “We were simply directed to turn [the air-defense systems] off or move them. … So it was scripted to be whatever the control group wanted it to be.” …

{General Ripper quit}, he said, to avoid presenting one of his Opposing Force subordinates with a moral dilemma.  That subordinate was retired Army Col. George Utter, a full-time Joint Forces Command employee who, as the Opposing Force chief of staff, was responsible for taking Van Riper’s commands and making them happen in the simulation.  But several days into the exercise, Van Riper realized his orders weren’t being followed.

“I was giving him directions on how I thought the OPFOR ought to perform, and those directions were being countermanded by the exercise director,” Van Riper said. The exercise director was Air Force Brig. Gen. Jim Smith, Utter’s real-life boss at Joint Forces Command.

Matters came to a head July 29. “That morning I’d given my guidance for what was to happen, and I found that [Utter] had assembled the staff and was giving them a different set [of instructions] based on the exercise director’s instructions to him.”

This kind of exercise might be worse than none at all, by giving false conclusions which become war-fighting doctrines.  Like sending new fighter aircraft into combat without testing, the cost of failure increases.  From a larger perspective, it short-circuits the testing process, potentially a powerful tool to drive innovation.  Perhaps worst of all, incidents like this likely demoralize innovators.

Another perspective:  could we have better spent this money?

The Defense Department spent $250 million over the last two years to stage Millennium Challenge 02, a three-week, all-service exercise that concluded Aug. 15. The experiment involved 13,500 participants waging mock war in 17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites.

What could we have done with that $250 million to prepare for other threats?  We know so little about Global Warming and Peak Oil, despite the reams of reports published about both.  For $250m we could have a detailed audit of the major global climate models, “third party” reviews by appropriate experts that could settle this aspect of the debate.  As for Peak Oil, most of what we know results from inspired guessing and calculations done on the back of envelopes.  For $250m we could have experts do data collection (i.e., buying private databases) and modeling that would tell us much more than we know today — and prepare a foundation on which to build a reliable national energy policy.


A follow-up article at the Army Times:  “Millennium Challenge chief defends exercise’s integrity.”

Zenpundit’s note on this series is (as usual) worth a look.  Esp. his comments on the nature and function of gaming, both military and in general.

For More Information

Hat tip to Abu Muqawama, whose article sparked this!

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.Also see these posts for more about this topic…

  1. Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq  (note section about America’s senior generals)
  2. War games, the antidote to “Victory disease”
  3. Are war games a competitive edge of conventional forces vs. non-state 4GW foes?
  4. The Achilles’ Heel of military simulations
  5. During Millenium Challenge 2002, by Ed Beakley (Project White Horse blog), posted at the DNI blog
  6. What we should have learned from MC02, by Dag von Lubitz, posted at the DNI blog

16 thoughts on “Recommended reading: an autopsy of the 2002 Millennium Challenge war games”

  1. Do you have a link to Kenan’s letter to Army Times? I could not find it. Also, thanks for the additional color on this valuable vignette.

  2. All I have on this PC is a reference from a CRS report (William F. Kernan, “Joint War Games,”
    Army Times, Sept. 16, 2002, p. 52 (letter to the editor)). I’ll check my old Outlook archives to see if I can find the text and post — unfortunately the Army Times “Search” function only applies to news articles, not opinion pieces….

  3. “In the days since the encounter with five Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, American officers have acknowledged that they have been studying anew the lessons from a startling simulation conducted in August 2002… (that included) an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.”

    As related by “deichmans” in comment to the original Blog, there is much to Millennium Challenge 02 and mostly behind the scenes. At the time of its planning, all services were actively involved with warfare/warfighting/battle experimentation. These efforts had legitimate history in the Army’s Louisiana Maneuvers and the Navy fleet experiments in the 20’s and 30’s on how to execute aircraft carrier based strike operations. (Can’t see much to fault with results of the future war in the Pacific.)

    To cut to the chase, MC02 intended to demonstrate broad joint capability in utilizing TTPs that information technology made possible. Not the least of the objectives was to demonstrate the ability to put on an event of this magnitude. Multiple ranges and facilities were to be linked in the same scenario, timeline, geography, and OPFOR context. Use of internet capabilities and simulation was critical. From a financial and availability standpoint, aspects of test events, training exercises and warfare experimentation were all embedded.

    I was heavily involved on the Navy side in event design for one of the T&E range organizations. We had actually conducted similar Navy events linking test assets with training for Commander Third Fleet. This had included the use of both live and simulated battle groups with live C2 for the virtual battlegroup. (Real fast boats were involved) This scenario was evolved to reflect the MC02 “Access Assurance” portion but was never examined by the Navy lead exercise designers at the War College in Newport R.I. Instead, the focus (as far as I know) included little to no live and endeavored to push forward a simulation scheme high in priority.

    Two real lessons that this event demonstrates:1)The ability to examine the level of complexity required an equally sophisticated “environment.” That environment needed to be develped and evaluated/fixed first, then run the event; 2) Despite probably thirty years of working the issues that came to be known as network centric warfare and transformation, imo, these systems of systems were never stressed in the manner to which they were intended to be employed – in a highly coupled state in a dynamic chaotic environment. They were certainly never evaluated on what would have been the edge of their operational envelop – Fourth Generation Warfare. Train as you intend to fight; Test as you intend to employ.

  4. Well said, PWH. If I can add to your final point, the complexity of the threat environment was something that routinely frustrated us at USJFCOM J9. In fact, it frustrated us almost as much as the way many of my colleagues underestimated that complexity. One of General Rip’s tendencies (as our “Red Team Senior Mentor”) was to dissect J9’s concept papers and underscore where they had resorted to polemics versus rational argument — always to the chagrin of the concept writers. While the “Operational Net Assessment” concept purported to ascertain an enemy’s dependencies so they could be exploited, it never accounted for the enemy’s adaptability. Similarly, the “Effects Based Operations” concept did not consider the latency of the “effects” that would be generated through (primarily) a liberal application of kinetic energy in the battlespace. These two notions (and their shortcomings) led to the same fallacious reasoning the French suffered with “methodical battle” in the early 20th century, and to Rumsfeld’s dispute with GEN Shinseki on required force structure for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

  5. ProjectWhiteHorse and deichmans,

    Thanks for the great comments! Here is a question for both of you… In an ideal world, what should have happened during MC 2002 after General Riper took the exercise “out of the box”, outside its designed conceptual frame?

  6. From the Guardian report on Millennium Challenge 02:

    QUOTE: 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. :ENDQUOTE

    My questions are these:

    It seems as though MC02 officialdom initially didn’t wish to learn from van Riper’s actions, hence the “refloating” and general irritation at his email — and it also seems as though Gladwell’s book brought a lot of informal attention to the exercise, in ways which tend to support van Riper — so, weaving those two strands together, what are the actual “lessons learned” thus far?

    What if anything have Nagl, Kilcullen and / or Petraeus had to say about this?

    Do we have any sense of the “bigger picture” responses to van Riper’s moves?

  7. hipbone — That is a good question. There is a discussion being posted that expands on this thread , probably tomorrow, on the DNI blog. Hopefully one of the experts on that can answer your question.

  8. FabMax,

    Belated reply to your question regarding “ideal outcomes of MC02” follows. Feel free to repost at DNI if you wish.

    1. Internal Conduct: Rip should have been an integral part of the “senior mentor” roundtables. Every day at lunch and sometimes after hours, LTG B.B. Bell and the senior mentors had open (and candid) dialog about the event, the concepts, and the methodology for evaluating them. Rip was deliberately frozen out of these discussion — primarily because he called J9’s kid “ugly” during one of the precursor Limited Objective Experiments a few months prior, when the J9 Director (MG Dean Cash) tried to fire him from the “Senior Mentor” contract. By including Rip in the dialog, the analysts (who were busily transcribing just about every word spoken in the senior mentor sessions — far more so than during the more-mundane OPFOR tactical planning sessions in Test Bay 2 at the Joint Warfighting Center in Suffolk, VA) would have gotten far more input from the adversary’s perspective. This in turn would have enriched the data used for event analysis and reporting.

    2. External Message: USJFCOM failed to manage the message, particularly after the event, and has allowed the stigma of a “rigged” and “scripted” exercise to dominate the mainstream media’s memory of the premier event in the history of modern defense transformation. They should have been (a) far more inclusive with Rip in their analysis, (b) far more open with the media as to what REALLY transpired (model timing errors, review of tactical lessons from the surprise naval strike, Blue assessment of Red communications strategies, etc.), and (c) far more accommodating to outside requests for the Experiment Final Report and (even more importantly) the Official Command History of MC-02. The “FOUO” stamp on their “findings” has hindered their ability to articulate a cogent counter-story, so the Shankers and Gladwells of the world rely on the only sources available to them (namely, Rip himself and Sean Naylor at Army Times who broke the original story after receiving Rip’s broadcast “apologia” email in mid-August 2002 distancing himself from USJFCOM’s output.) BTW, Rip’s apologia was entirely justified since, just the year before, USJFCOM had *misattributed* supporting comments to Rip in the UNIFIED VISION-2001 literature.

    3. Transformation Management: Ideally, any organization with a responsibility for “creating a new order of things” must have reliable accountability to external agencies. USJFCOM had none — their nine-figure Defense Transformation budget at the time was provided with scant oversight, and few firm product deadlines. The laxity of organizational oversight coupled with a business model designed to shove money out the door as quickly and effortlessly as possible (through a multi-year omnibus contract with a prime contractor who provided nearly 80% of J9’s total manpower) created the conditions where a massive event like MC-02 could be staged — and all they have to show for it was that they staged it.

    I’ll chime in some more on the DNI thread when you get that rolling.

    sf/ shane

  9. Pingback: During Millenium Challenge 2002 « Defense and the National Interest

  10. Pingback: What we should have learned from MC02 « Defense and the National Interest

  11. Excellent exercise and we had many unpublished successes.
    1. Got the Marines into the Joint play as we had the whole brigade down from NY when their unti was called up aftwer 9/11. Marines were behind the gun ever since desert Storm and had a hard time fitting into the play since they bosses had kept them out for so many years!!
    2. Fought off service procialism such as the Air force who kept trying to opt out of the play but we keep them in it!!! The mentor General did an excellent job calling the 4 stars on the carpet to tell them to get with the show and give us quick time tasking support!!
    3. Intell still behinf the curve but they worked with the ops guys and tried to get us what we needed even though it was like asking for “black Holes”.
    4. All who played at Norfolk got the impression that this is real stuff and we may be in the thick of it based on the scenario some day.
    5. The head mentor a 4 star ret general, bless his heart, kept us exercise folks appraised of the war on terror not only from the exercise but from a perspective of combining national resourses with military (they always give the 150%) but also State, Treasury, etc. Can’t win with military alone need tio take it to the bad guys bank accounts, political havens, etc.

  12. And here´s the counterversion: Riper blatantly ignored the rules of the exercise.

    Specifically, his problem was with three rules that

    a) prevented him teleporting assets within missile range of major US units without warning at times of his own choosing.

    b) prevented him adding units wholesale to the order of battle with which he was provided and endowing said added units with unattainable levels of firepower and mobility

    c) prevented him from disregarding the destruction of the scheduled assets and simply re-inserting them into the battle as if nothing had happened.

    Not precisely a rule break but he also spent a lot of his time thinking up complicated reasons why the people controlling the U.S. Navy units should not be allowed to do routine, sensible things (err, like launching aircraft before dawn to provide cover at dawn). He also brought the exercise to repeated halts by arguing with every single rule that had been laid down in the documentation – usually on specious grounds. He openly admitted that he knew his objections were baseless but if he “argued everything and got five percent of his objections approved he was still ahead” FYI he got zero percent approved and his constant disruption was the primary reason why he was kicked out.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Interesting material. Do you have any documentation for this?

  13. The sort of things he was doing was that he claimed an LHA was sunk when a missile craft fired four SSN-2s into it. Which, to be fair would have sunk her (the damage control on the LHAs is abysmal). The problem was that there was no missile craft in a position to do that. Riper’s argument was that it was hidden in the fishing fleet.

    There wasn’t a fishing fleet. Riper’s argumentw as that there is always a fishing fleet but the US Navy ignored it.

    The US Navy doesn’t ignore fishing craft. Riper’s response was that they didn’t have the manpower to watch.

    There was no such craft on the OOB Riper’s response was that it was a converted fishing carft

    Where did the Iraqis get the missiles from Riper’s response was that they bought them on the black market.

    An arab fishing boat can’t carry four anti-ship missiles. (The missiles would weigh a lot more than the boat itself and likely sink it. As well as certainly sink it the moment you try to fire the first one.) Riper’s response was that proved how stuck in the mud and conservative the authorities were.

    And so it went on.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Interesting material. Do you have any documentation for this?

  14. Pingback: Learning Curve: Iranian Asymmetrical Warfare and Millennium Challenge 2002

  15. Pingback: Trump’s Israel-Pushed War with Iran Would Be Illegal, Idiotic, Disastrous | National Vanguard

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