What we should have learned from MC02

by Dag von Lubitz, Ph.D., M.D. and Chairman of the Board of MedSmart

To: Fabius Maximus

My dear Cunctator,

Millennium Challenge 02

I am sure it is a long time somebody called you by your venerable nickname! I read the major “position papers” on Millennium Challenge 02, the subsequent blogs with growing trepidation. The entire exercise cost us 250 million dollars, yet it emerged from its inception as an evolution doomed to failure, a creation of well-meaning desk-bound gentlemen with a lot to gain by forcing their ideas through who, in similarity to the British Army and its response to Fuller, became quite defensive when faced with the unconventional methods used by General Van Riper.

Defensiveness is to be expected after having one’s massive fleet decimated by a concentrated attack of (essentially) converted pleasure craft, especially when such attack was not part of the original plan. Van Riper was about to scuttle the entire effort by declining to play using the approved orthodoxy, and, in order to continue to the preordained victory, ships had to be “refloated”, and Red assets “rearranged” to assure greater comfort of the Blues. In the world of research, such approach is known as “bad science.”

Cooking the books?

But, since deus ex machina interventions can hardly be explained to curious audiences, it is not really surprising that, had Admiral Myer said anything but “I want to disabuse anybody of any notion that somehow the books were cooked…” , his flag would be hauled down quite rapidly and without much ceremony. After all, major intellectual blunders to the tune of millions of dollars are not allowable in any navy, even one as rich as the USN. General Kernan’s hot repudiation of Van Riper’s unflattering comments was equally embarrassing, but, after all, what could the General say? It had to be a success, since the mantra of practically all large-scale exercises demands nothing but sterling, unmarred conquest, or else uncomfortable questions will be asked by the irate legislators.

Van Riper is correct in his scathing critique of Millennium Challenge 02. Whether the Olympians like it or not, the exercise was scripted. Whether consciously or not, is immaterial: the element of intellectual and military dishonesty appears to have been built into the exercise already at its planning stage. The Blues had to succeed, and any “free play” had to be contained within the preplanned rules – freedom of action had a leash attached to it.

Test or validate?

The comment by the Joint Forces Command spokesman, Captain John Carman, USN who “said the experiment had properly validated all the major concepts” gives the whole thing away more loudly than a blunt “no comment” ever would. The initiators of the exercise wanted to “validate” rather than “test.” “Validation” indicates a practical test of a hypothesis accepted a priori as fundamentally true. More to the point, in the present world of political games, had “validation” demolished the theory, heads would roll. Thus, following yet another slogan (the collection of which seems to provide the motor oil of the armed forces today,) “failure was not an option.”

Van Riper put it in elegantly intellectual terms: “You don’t come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out…” In science, the approach is known as “testing the null hypothesis,” where the fundamental assumption is that hypothesis to be tested does not reflect the reality. One attempts to prove oneself wrong rather than right. If, nonetheless, the experiments fail to prove the null hypothesis the opposite is true, and the tested concept can be considered as valid and true. Thus, had Van Riper’s tactics failed, the validation claimed by Captain Carman would be found. As it stands now, we have accepted falsehood for truth on which we structure the new doctrine, require procurement appropriations, create training manuals, etc.

Millennium Challenge 02 was a perfect example of bad science, and, had the same thing happened to FDA testing a drug supposed to cure a dangerous disease, a lot of high standing people would be looking for very low-paying jobs today, a lot of pharmaceutical stock would be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and a lot of scientists would have the proverbial egg all over their faces. In times when the medical and military world speak so much about “ethics” and “values,” it is important to remember that intellectual honesty applies equally strongly to both.

Could MC02 have “worked”?

Part of the problem with Millennium Challenge 02 being tightly scripted is its purpose, and it seems that the exercise did not have a clearly defined intention. If one wishes to prove methods, whatever Van Rip did or failed to do is insignificant – methods (e.g., logistics, communications, or even the composition of adequate strike force) would still be adequately tested. On the other hand, if the principal objective of the test was to see whether a landing operation in Iran would succeed, the designers of the exercise, and the commanders of the “Blue Force” are guilty of major intellectual blunders, and of surprisingly short memory of Normandy assault where, in the absence of heavy fleet units (bottled up either in Norway or Baltic), the major danger to the landing forces were the German motor torpedo boats (Schnellbote or E-boats), submarines (including the miniature ones,) and human torpedoes (Negers), supported by a very small number of small destroyer escorts and fleet destroyers.

In the present world, the majority of nations would be essentially defenceless against the USN. Unless, of course, they attempted to exploit unconventional means: a large pirogue equipped with a missile launcher can eliminate a DDG quite effectively providing it can launch successfully, and if the missile hits a sensitive part of the ship (severe damage to the Cole shows clearly the vulnerability of a modern warship to a relatively small explosive charge.) Hence, viewed in the context of the operational environment and the national characteristics of the Reds, simultaneous assault by a large number of fast, rapidly maneuvering ex-civilian craft that have been cheaply converted into missile launching platforms should be considered as one of the pre-eminent threats.

Van Riper’s implementation of these tactics has not been particularly original: it was obvious and highly legitimate. Mines should be considered as an equally serious threat – cheap, readily available, and can be deployed in very large numbers by non-specialized vessels (e.g., “white boxes” dropped from Iranian fast motor boats during the recent incident in the Strait), and USN’s mine countermeasures are still highly inadequate. Most significantly, mines need not necessarily belong to either contact or the sophisticated influence variety. They can be remotely activated – a method used by the British as the means of defence against either French or German invasion.

While Van Riper seems not to have thought of mining the approaches, there is a strong possibility the Iranians may already have. After all, it is a cheap, highly effective deterrent/defence measure readily available to any small, technologically unsophisticated navy. Finally, there is also the issue of conventional submarines whose sophistication grows rapidly, and which are rapidly acquired by “lesser navies” (Iran has three Kilos which, in view of the recent tests, could be considered as missile-capable, thus adding another element to the general confusion.) However, the discussion of this issue does not belong here

MC02 and Iran

In the context of Millennium Challenge 02, Iran has neither a strong navy, nor truly awesome counterstrike capabilities – what they have are people who think, who are patriots, who are willing to defend their ideology and their country, and who will utilize any unconventional means to attain a very conventional goal – successful defence of their country against aggression. Van Riper did nothing but develop a strategy and its operational implementation based on the understanding of the mindset of Iranians subjected to attack.

Blue Force, on the other hand, adopted the disastrous philosophy of “fighting our war” – technology-based, “effects-based operations”-rooted (another slogan-based concept – if operations are not conducted to attain a measurable, definitive effect, they should not be contemplated at all!) nonsense altogether better suited to Fulda Gap than the realities of Hormuz Strait. Unfortunately, it was the same mentality that failed in its numerous Iraqi/Afghanistan permutations. One needs not to go further for the proof of a disturbingly naïve thinking (hubris?), and the near-total lack of understanding of the involved issues: the Blue ultimatum of either surrender or destruction rings more as a poor joke than the test of political/military force crisis management.

The actions of Van Riper show operational adaptability, soundness of tactical concepts, an exemplary ability to think rapidly and to evolve together with the operational environment. He simply exploited the weaknesses of the Blues (or, simply put, of our own Armed Forces), did it fast, elegantly, and not only drew our pants down, but threw them away, and quite far at that. Unsurprisingly, the orthodoxy was insulted, then rallied together, and vehemently branded the good General not quite a traitor, but surely a spoil-sport. I wonder what Mr. Rumsfeld’s reaction would be to all that: I presume quite a few people would feel the lash of his magnificently sarcastic tongue. Which brings me to the final point (although there are many that have been revealed by the exercise, and are intensely deserving further discussion): what is that “transformation” we talk so much about (or, with Mr. Rumsfeld gone, nearly stopped talking about), and what is the role of synthetic exercises.

Network-Centric Warfare

Network-centricity has been invented (or popularized) by the Navy (Adm. Cebrowski), and the concept makes a pre-eminent sense. Navies fight in the environment of three dimensions (four, if time is included): subsurface, surface, and air. Hence (and Millennium Challenge 02 is a good example of such environment), intelligence preparation of the battlefield, accompanied by real-time updating of operations/ tactics-relevant information/knowledge are essential for task force commanders, squadron commanders, and even individual unit commanders. During assault operations like those tested in Millennium Challenge 02, a destroyer captain faces real, even if only potential, threats emerging from all three battle space environments. Only a commanding officer of such ship will know the challenges involved in escorting/protecting assault ships in restricted waters, with all combatants severely hampered by lack of space, slowness of movement, and the need for the potential rapid and sequential posture changes. It has never been a simple task, and the more one knows about developments within one’s sector of operations, the better for all concerned.

NCW provides the platform for the automated dissemination, acquisition, and management of the required information/knowledge. However, the role of NCW is not to tell how to fight, but to tell the recipient of what dangers or opportunities exist or may present within the next few operational tempi either potentially or in reality. In short, network-centricity does not make people think better or faster. It merely dissipates (or should dissipate) information overload, provides better link among seemingly disconnected elements characterizing the battle space, and helps to make some sense out the often chaotic nature of the latter. NCW affords the user a degree of cognitive cohesion in the environment where cognitive chaos exists as a norm rather than exception.

Transformation and NCW

However, speaking of “transformation” in the context of NCW, we have converted the functionality of a hammer into the philosophy of physical interactions in the Universe. In reality, NCO provides nothing more than a tool which, if used intelligently, will drive the nail into the wall quite neatly. If used poorly, it will necessitate a visit to the nearby emergency room for emergency repairs to the shattered finger (as it happened in Millennium Challenge 02). Therefore, the statement by General Kernan that Millennium Challenge 02 was nothing less than “the key to military transformation” will surely be counted by him as one of the more awkward utterances made during the otherwise very impressive career.

In truth, the entire notion of “transformation” is a patent nonsense, an embarrassing catch-all, and one of many that the desk warriors of nearly every department or ministry of defence spit out in competition with schools of business for a better sounding, and even more meaningless non-sequitur. In reality, the advent of radio did not transform anything (apart from making many captains unhappy by leashing them firmly to the whims of their distant superiors), the airplane did not transform anything, nor, for that matter, did the tank. They have dramatically changed the conduct of warfare: new weapons alter strategies and tactics, often very significantly. But that’s not transformation.

In an operational/tactical context (and even in the strategic one), network-centricity is a weapon (a variety of it, at least) that improves the execution of operations, but does not transform it. One might, however, argue that the invention of the General Staff by Scharnhorst might have transformed the conduct of war by providing the setting for the intellectual development of doctrines, strategies, plans of operations. If seen in this light, von Moltke’s information-gathering travels necessary for such activities were, frankly, nothing else but NCO performed in a more “traditional” manner. Had he lived today, I am sure, the “Old Man” would have embraced NCO with a glee, and still insist on a good operational plan. So good, as a matter of fact, that, had he been present during Millennium Challenge 02, he’d go to sleep as he did when operations against the French started in 1870 in full knowledge that his commanders “knew what they should be doing” ( to quote another military genius, de Saxe). The Blue Force command “did what they knew” – apparently not much has changed transformationally or otherwise since mid XVIII century when Maurice de Saxe noted this essential command problem.

Synthetic environments: exercises and simulations

Exercises in synthetic environments” are extremely useful for the exercise of “street smarts,” i.e., readiness rather than preparedness, for a very simple reason: preparedness can be developed conceptually on paper, and is, to a large degree, a “scripted function” based on the knowledge of the past, reasonable assumptions for the present, and sensible predictions for the foreseeable future. Development of readiness, on the other hand, can be either trained by the “real thing,” i.e., actual combat or, much better, in the synthetic space, where the unthinkable can be introduced readily and with a high degree of success. I have done that by preparing our trainees studiously for activities within very well scripted scenarios, then exposing them to something completely different.

In order to deal with the unexpected they had to base all their actions not on prepared notions but on the entirety of their professional knowledge, experience, intuition, and all the other factors that Boyd elegantly put together within the “Orientation Stage” of his Loop. Not surprisingly, many who were “prepared” were entirely “not-ready” when the unexpected happened: they either froze or implemented the most unimaginative or improper solutions. However, with sufficient training, the level of cognitive readiness grew rapidly and measurably. So did the level of success. Had Millennium Challenge 02 been run sensibly, and without vast sums of money distributed to participating entities (the exercise could be repetitively executed in a distributed, synthetic environment, and with a much better results, for $ 30-40 million), the true “concept validations” would have emerged earlier, Van Riper’s approach would be vindicated (and greatly appreciated), and we would have developed foundations for a sensible operational approach rather than proceed to develop a doctrine based on fallacy. For sure, all would be much happier.

Synthetic environments when used in strategic/operational concept make sense only when senior commanders are tested (and they can be tested quite brutally in these exercises). Translation of “lessons learned” to the level of tactics is relatively straight-forward, and participation of ground units entirely superfluous (even if impressive, when the press is showed around!). Altogether, simultaneous combination of operational and tactical training in synthetic environments is either unrealistic (too simple) or chaotic (too complex, and often associated with too many technology failures – seen also in Millennium Challenge 02.)

Did Van Riper win?

Ultimately, it is all about using technology in the way that improves performance of people. It is, after all, people who matter, not gadgetry which, when seen as a reason upon itself, simply deflects from real issues: had General Kernan and his staff been less preoccupied with validation of transformation, and more with elimination of motorcycles, we would not be explaining whether 250 million have been spent wisely, or merely given away to “military-industrial complex” as a most welcome gift. In essence, Van Riper employed the OODA Loop (Marines do it quite well, actually) and won. Neither Myer nor Kernan did – and lost.

Whatever the reason for Van Riper’s decision to withdraw as a Red Force commander might be (and I believe he must have been absolutely livid in order to make such a drastic step), the most disturbing aspect of the controversy is the fact that, despite the most elementary dictum of military operations concerning “unity of command,” there was a blatant lack thereof in the Red Force – van Riper’s second hand served two masters, and also served in a situation where conflict of interests has been built into the structure of the exercise. That, in turn, serves to emphasize the amazingly poor design of the event, the levels of subservience and sycophancy that permeate such grand designs, and the urgent need to eliminate the latter in every form of military life. Moreover, Admiral Myer’s comment that “In anything this size, certain things are scripted, and you have to execute in a certain way, or you’ll never be able to bring it all together…Gen. Van Riper apparently feels he was too constrained. I can only say there were certain parts where he was not constrained, and then there were parts where he was in order to facilitate the conduct of the experiment and certain exercise pieces that were being done” confirms the fundamental, intellectual fallacy of Millennium Challenge 02, and similar grand tests.

Embarrassingly for designers of the exercise, there is quite a lot written on the subject of synthetic/simulation-based training to clearly warn of potential problems. One must, however, bother to read these nasty scholarly epistles. Sometimes the egg-heads may be quite perspicacious, and some of them discuss at length the TOPOFF exercises – expensive, complex, and associated with quite embarrassing outcome fiascoes from which the Armed Forces should have learned the necessary lessons.

In the end, a fellow retired marine officer said of Van Riper: “What he’s done is he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it…He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that as possible.” Frankly, the statement does not make much sense. Van Riper learned to play a real war, using any means at his disposal to win it. The luminaries on the Blue side learned to push a lot of paper, use grand words, fence with ill-described, and seemingly ill understood concepts, and failed. It rankles. Therefore, to say of Van Riper that “…he’s a great guy, and he’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons” is rather silly, and surely condescending. Had he not been a patriot, he would not have worn the uniform of a US Marine. On the other hand, one surely wishes that the rest of the “guys,” whose patriotism is equally beyond doubt (the argument altogether singularly misplaced in the overall context of the debate) did all “those things” using more intellect and less infatuation with technology and preconceived notions. Open-mindedness never harmed anyone.

Servus, Cunctator, D

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