In 2002, the United States conducted a three week war game called the Millennium Challenge. This exercise was a simulation of a war between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. The following article outlines the result of this exercise. Let us hope that the military has learned from this $250 million game that we lost. The larger question is how much of this information will Iran use against our three aircraft carriers and their auxiliary ships currently in the Persian Gulf when war breaks out?
Of those generals who have stepped forward to criticize Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his conduct of the Iraq War, none has pointed out the mistakes of a man who admits no error with more specificity than retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper.
Van Riper is widely respected as a military thinker who emerged from combat in Vietnam determined to help get to the bottom of what went wrong there and why and how it should be fixed.
One event that shocked Van Riper occurred in 2002 when he was asked, as he had been before, to play the commander of an enemy Red Force in a huge $250 million three-week war game titled Millennium Challenge 2002. It was widely advertised as the best kind of such exercises — a free-play unscripted test of some of the Pentagon’s and Rumsfeld’s fondest ideas and theories.
Though fictional names were applied, it involved a crisis moving toward war in the Persian Gulf and in actuality was a barely veiled test of an invasion of Iran.
In the computer-controlled game, a flotilla of Navy warships and Marine amphibious warfare ships steamed into the Persian Gulf for what Van Riper assumed would be a pre-emptive strike against the country he was defending.
Van Riper resolved to strike first and unconventionally using fast patrol boats and converted pleasure boats fitted with ship-to-ship missiles as well as first generation shore-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. He packed small boats and small propeller aircraft with explosives for one mass wave of suicide attacks against the Blue fleet. Last, the general shut down all radio traffic and sent commands by motorcycle messengers, beyond the reach of the code-breakers.
At the appointed hour he sent hundreds of missiles screaming into the fleet, and dozens of kamikaze boats and planes plunging into the Navy ships in a simultaneous sneak attack that overwhelmed the Navy’ s much-vaunted defenses based on its Aegis cruisers and their radar controlled Gatling guns.
When the figurative smoke cleared it was found that the Red Forces had sunk 16 Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier. Thousands of Marines and sailors were dead.
The referees stopped the game, which is normal when a victory is won so early. Van Riper assumed that the Blue Force would draw new, better plans and the free play war games would resume.
Instead he learned that the war game was now following a script drafted to ensure a Blue Force victory: He was ordered to turn on all his anti-aircraft radar so it could be destroyed and he was told his forces would not be allowed to shoot down any of the aircraft bringing Blue Force troops ashore.
The Pentagon has never explained. It classified Van Riper’s 21-page report criticizing the results and conduct of the rest of the exercise, along with the report of another DOD observer. Pentagon officials have not released Joint Forces Command’s own report on the exercise.
Van Riper walked out and didn’t come back. He was furious that the war game had turned from an honest, open free play test of America’s war-fighting capabilities into a rigidly controlled and scripted exercise meant to end in an overwhelming American victory.