How do the Pentagon's "war games" work?

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Sept. 17 2002 5:09 PM

How Do the Pentagon's "War Games" Work?

The United States military recently completed its biggest "war game" ever, a three-week-long, $235 million exercise called Millennium Challenge 2002. How do modern war games work?

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Every good war game starts with a plausible scenario. In the case of Millennium Challenge 2002, the U.S. military (known as the "Blue force") was pitted against a Persian Gulf nation controlled by a megalomaniac dictator (no, not Iraq, but the "Red force"). Specifics of the scenario are classified, but the game is widely believed to have centered on a mock invasion of the Red force's territory.

There are two components to a war game: field exercises and command post exercises. For the former, actual troops are dispatched to either defend or attack airfields, communications centers, and other militarily significant sites. Millennium Challenge 2002 involved nine such sites in California and Nevada, two states whose climate and terrain closely mimic those of the Near East. Hundreds of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, for example, were dispatched to capture a Red airfield in the Mojave Desert. Once secured, the airfield served as a staging ground for C-130 cargo planes to deliver Stryker armored vehicles, which then attacked adjacent facilities acting as chemical weapons plants. Live ammunition was verboten—electronic sensors mounted on people, vehicles, and buildings tallied the damage.

Command post exercises, by contrast, are exclusively virtual affairs. Generals, colonels, and other high-ranking officers sit in command centers and move around blue or red dots on screens, not terribly unlike Matthew Broderick playing "Global Thermonuclear War" in the 1983 film WarGames. Such exercises are good approximations of large-scale maneuvers, which cannot be easily replicated in the real world—it's one thing to stage a small airfield seizure, quite another to float an aircraft carrier group into a waterway that accurately approximates the Persian Gulf.

Many war games are scripted—that is, both Red and Blue officers are required to perform certain attacks and responses. A smaller number are "free play," which means anything goes. Controversy erupted over Millennium Challenge 2002 when the Red forces, commanded by a retired Marine general named Paul Van Riper, engaged in some clever free play tricks that deviated from what the Blues were expecting. Van Riper used virtual motorcycle messengers to relay orders to his virtual field commanders, for example, thereby negating the Americans'—er, Blue force's—ability to eavesdrop. Mere days into the game, a squad of Red digital soldiers had sunk several Blue ships in the Persian Gulf by carrying out suicide attacks with explosives-laden speedboats. That's not in the script, countered the referees, who ordered the Blue fleet to be magically resurrected.

Explainer thanks Lt. Col. (Ret.) Fred Villella of Securesoft Systems Inc., John Pike of globalsecurity.org, and William Knowles of c4i.org.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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