War Game: When generals play “Risk”. War Gaming is not new. It enables men and officers to simulate situations they might encounter in real life. Although the impact of such War Games may vary depending on their size and scope, their results may very well dictate deep changes in training and procurement to better prepare and overcome any challenges that may arise. That is the theory, anyway. In practice, lessons are not always learned and conclusions may be cast aside. Sometimes, War Games may also reveal uncomfortable truths or chilling (potential) consequences. Here is a little selection of War Games illustrating the examples given above.
Back in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, the US Navy often organised large-scale exercises, simulating combat with an Asian or European attacker. In its 1932 edition, the War Game was dubbed Fleet Problem Number 13. Rear Admiral Harry Yarnell would simulate an “Asian island nation” (very subtle) and attack Pearl Harbour to test its defences. Back then, carriers were usually seen as scouting tools, and not capital ships. The battleship still reigned supreme in many admirals’ minds. However, Yarnell was at the time developing new carrier-centric doctrine and tactics. He was also convinced that should Japan attack, it would do so utilising the element of surprise, without a prior declaration of war.
While the US officers in Pearl Harbour geared up to repel a battleship-led attack on their base, Yarnell, instead, positioned his fleet North-East of Hawaii, out of sight, and attacked Pearl Harbour with airwings from the two carriers at his disposal: 152 planes in total! He attacked the airfields, first, taking them completely by surprise. He then moved on to engage the Pacific fleet. His planes dropped flour sacks on their targets to simulate hits. His attack was a complete success.
Lessons hard learned, perhaps? Well… Perhaps not! The Navy top brass dismissed the results: For a start, Yarnell had attacked at dawn on a Sunday. This was apparently “inappropriate”. His planes attacking from the North-East had simulated planes arriving from the mainland. This type of ruse was considered unfair. Finally, precision low-level bombing was deemed impossible to achieve by an Asian nation since it was a well known fact Asians lacked the necessary hand-eye coordination to achieve this. Not even making this up! The defenders were declared the victors of Fleet Problem Number 13 and that was it…
This War Game’s conclusions were not heeded. As such, Fleet Problem Number 13 would come back to bite Washington ( and the US Navy) hard, 9 years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in an operation that was almost a carbon copy of Yarnell’s moves back in 1932…
War Game number two: 7 days to the River Rhine!
In 1979, Soviet military planners came up with a simulation for WWIII involving NATO and Warsaw Pact.The scenario saw NATO as the aggressor. NATO would launch nuclear strikes in Poland along the Vistula River valley as well as in East Germany and Czechoslovakia while simultaneously invading East Germany. The nuclear strikes in Czechoslovakia and Poland were aimed at preventing the Warsaw Pact from sending reinforcements to East Germany while NATO troops moved in.
The envisioned Soviet plan was to counter-attack with nukes dropped in Antwerp and Brussels (Belgium), Vienna (Austria), Padova, Vincenza and Verona (Italy), Nuremberg, Cologne, Munich, Bonn and Stuttgart (Germany), Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and Roskilde and Esbjerg (Denmark).The simulation saw the Soviet and Warsaw Pact armies moving in following the multiple nuclear strikes and reach the Rhine in 7 days where they would regroup and resupply. The Soviets hoped that the fact they did not nuke any targets in France or in the UK would prevent those countries from escalating and launch nukes in turn. They also hoped the fact they spared France and UK would split NATO cohesion and European public opinion, thus, facilitating negotiation for a cease-fire. In the event a cease fire did not look likely, the Warsaw Pact would push for the North Sea and the Atlantic, reaching Lyon in France by day 9 and then make a rush toward the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea.
Several members of the Warsaw Pact saw this plan as overly simplistic and optimistic. They also balked at the huge number of casualties estimated by this simulation: East Germany and Poland would effectively be erased from the maps and millions of civilian casualties were expected. And that is even before counting on a potential NATO nuclear counterattack on other Warsaw Pact countries and on the USSR itself! The Eastern Bloc had caught a glimpse of what a nuclear apocalypse would look like…
War Game number three: Able Archer 1983.
NATO used to conduct annual command post exercises throughout the Cold War. In 1983, NATO decided to spice things up by including a simulation for a nuclear launch, ferry thousands of troops from the US to Europe, operating in radio silence, only use heavily cyphered means of communication and moving officers from peace time headquarters to alternate command posts…
This exercise was very realistic… Too realistic, maybe… It completely freaked out the Soviets who thought NATO was really about to attack the Warsaw Pact! As a response, The USSR placed its forces in East Germany, Poland and Russia on high alert. Tension rose steadily throughout operation Able Archer 83 with on the one hand the Soviets believing a nuclear attack was being prepared against them and being tempted to strike the West pre-emptively. On the other hand, the NATO bloc forging ahead with its exercise while at the same time noticing a stronger than usual response from the Soviet side and taking steps to keep up with it…
By the time the exercise wrapped up, the world was on the edge of a full nuclear exchange.
War Game number four: Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, The American officer who defeated America. (Controversy ahoy)!
In 2002, the US armed forces organised a giant war game called “Millennium Challenge”. It ran for over 20 days, involved over 13,000 participants, included both live exercises and computer simulations and cost $250 million to run.
For the purpose of that exercise, the might of the US armed forces was pitted against a fictional Middle Eastern enemy (Iran *cough *cough).The Armed Forces tasked Van Riper, a retired Marine General, with leading the Red Forces (The enemy). Paul Van Riper was an old school warrior with 41 years of service in the Marine Corps. He saw combat from Vietnam to Iraq. When Van Riper was not busy stacking bodies on the world’s various battlefields, he studied at the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, The College of Naval Command and Staff, Army War College, and the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools… His Ribbon Rack is bigger than your average dining table and he’s got an instinct honed by 4 decades spent in operational deployments…
They wanted him to lead the OPFOR… He did so beautifully! From the word go, he improvised, thought outside the box and went asymmetric on the US forces opposing him… It started with a preemptive strike on a carrier battle group, blending land based, aircraft launched and ship based AshM with suicide speed boats. The whole battle group (19 ships, 20,000 men) was defeated and sank in under 10 minutes.When the US forces destroyed his command and control nodes, he reverted to motorcycle based couriers to carry messages and dispatches, alongside hidden messages broadcast from minarets during prayer times and other coded means of communications.
The Blue Force (officers leading the US forces) were less than impressed… The whole exercise was restarted and Van Riper was not allowed to oppose the landings on his shores, had no radar and could not shoot down incoming aircraft. The whole thing was rigged for a US victory.
The retired Marine said “Nothing was learned from this, a culture not willing to think hard and test itself does not augur well for the future”. He walked out. He subsequently submitted a complete report on the whole experience, which was instantly classified… One thing for sure is that Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper embodies the motto:”Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young”!!
War Game number five: US vs Russia, China and North Korea… Simultaneously!
Dr. James Lacey is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Marine Corps War College. In 2019, he organised an interesting war game for his students: He created a Russian team, a North Korean team and a Chinese team. Those would be faced by Taiwan, Indo-Pacific Command (Korea conflict) and European Command. He gave the US team £200 billions and the Russian and Chinese had to share another £200 billions. Teams could spend that money on whatever they wanted (75 items to chose from. They could invest in new carriers, more combat brigades, various other weapon platforms, spend money on diplomacy or spend money on R&D to try and develop new technologies). He also gave them 8 years to get ready prior to the conflict.
Obviously, the Russians are the bad guys and they invade the rest of Ukraine and all three of the Baltic states before starting to lust all over Poland. As the US armed forces react to this situation, Beijing takes advantage of Washington being distracted to launch a full-on assault on Taiwan. Pyongyang takes its cue and invades South Korea. How did it play out?
Well, the US had to make choices as they do not have the resources to fight on all three theaters at once… The US focused the bulk of its ground troops and air force in Europe, while most of its Navy assets were deployed against China and North Korea. Some US ground units made it to South Korea (2 infantry divisions and 2 Marine regiments), but overall, Taiwan and South Korea were left to fight their respective ground wars alone. The Russians would face most of the US air assets, as well as 8 Army Divisions and most of the Marine Corps and the rest of NATO.
Korean theater: The North Koreans initially attempt to bypass Seoul and quickly break through the South Korean lines, however, the arrival of US forces helps the South Koreans establish a new defensive line. The North Koreans then shift their focus on Seoul. The fighting there becomes very intense: North Korea can only sustain 10 days of war operations and cannot afford to be behind schedule. As the North Koreans stalls, China intervenes by sending two armies into that theater. Pyongyang, desperate for results, deploys chemical weapons, causing tens of thousands of military casualties to South Korean and American units. The INDOPACOM commander, under pressure, requests the authority from Washington to use nuclear weapons.
Taiwanese theater: The Chinese invade Taiwan but are hampered by US air operations. The Taiwanese forces, reinforced by Japanese units, retreat toward Taipei and the mountainous area inland where they settle into defensive operations. They are not strong enough to expel the Chinese, but the Chinese can’t bring in enough reinforcements to gain the advantage, due to the US air operations. However, the Americans do not gain complete local air superiority as their carriers are way back, staying out of range of the Chinese intermediate range missiles. US assets, however, can operate from South Korean and Japanese airfields. The Taiwanese are forced to wait for more US reinforcements, which depends on the situation in the other theaters of operations. The Chinese troops on the Taiwanese beachheads are in the same situation and have to wait for more Chinese forces to be made available to reinforce them.
European Theater: US and NATO troops establish a solid defensive line from where they want to counter-attack en masse. But the Polish high command refuses to pull its troops back and trade space for time. As a result, the Polish armed forces crumble under the weight of the Russian assault. As Russian forces break through the Polish lines all along the front, the US commander must abandon his idea for a concentrated counter-attack and instead commit his forces piecemeal to plug the gaps. While those actions slow the Russians down, it also dilute NATO units overall strength. The result is 60,000 NATO casualties on the first day of the conflict. The 1st US Cavalry and 1st US armoured division counter-attack the Russians in the South. This move cost US and Russian units a 50% loss rate in 72 hours. After several days of intense fighting, NATO retakes the advantage and starts pushing the Russians back. The Russian commander requests his leadership for the authority to release nuclear weapons.
Conclusion of the War Game…US carriers are vulnerable to Russian and Chinese missiles. As such, their effectiveness, when they are held back, is diluted, at best. The poor grunt fighting the land-war might have little air support, initially, as all air forces involved first try to gain air superiority over the battlefield. So for the initial first few weeks, the air-war and land-war seem almost completely disconnected from one another. NATO is politically fragmented. Several of its members had to be convinced to take up the fight against Russia to defend the Baltic states and Poland. The US does not have the necessary infrastructure and logistics to sustain a long term high intensity war against a peer adversary situated on the other side of the globe. US commanders did not have an answer to counter the Russian or Chinese use of massive fire complexes and neither did they have useful tools to counter North Korean chemical weapons. Most importantly, the US and its allies suffer 150,000 casualties in the first week of fighting. That’s several brigades lost every day. All actors burned through their reserves in both men and machines at a tremendous rate. Modern high intensity fighting looks strangely like WWI, from the casualty rates point of view. This attrition rate is simply not sustainable in the medium to long term. Not for the Americans, not for the Russians, not even for the Chinese. As such, every theater commander ended up requesting the authorisation to use nuclear weapons within weeks of the start of the war. A war between Russia and the US or China and the US would very quickly escalate from a small localised clash to total war.