Beauty of Gray

Friday, September 06, 2002

Wargames, invasions, and fleet sinkings

Reports of the outcome of a recent wargame, Millennium Challenge, sparked a tempest in a teapot (amply discussed over at Quasipundit or Shouting Cross the Pacific, IIRC) a few weeks ago. But the Guardian sensed a chance to get a few kicks in, has come a little late to the story with this article (found via Vodkapundit), spotlighting the Red force commander and critic of the experiment) Gen. Van Riper. There are a number of issues tangled together here, with several big misconceptions in the mix.

The first and most prevalent misunderstanding is that this wargame was a dress rehearsal or test for an upcoming invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t. Wargames like this, integrating real forces with computer simulations and predicted future capabilities, are very difficult to plan and this one has literally taken years to set up and organize. In other words, it’s been on the drawing board long before and action against Iraq was planned.

Another clue that it’s not intended to test for an upcoming invasion is in the press releases, which detail that the wargame is intended to simulate conditions as of 2007. That means they were not limiting themselves to current capabilities on either side, but were projecting what they would be able to do in the near future.

The idea that it’s intended to be a simulation of an upcoming invasion is apparently based on the fact that the opposition country is a Persian Gulf dictatorship. There are several reasons for this choice, though, which have nothing to do with any imminent action. First, you want your experiment to accurately reflect the capabilities of a likely opponent. The best way to this is not to make up a whole new geography and a fake country from whole cloth. That would take too much time and would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, they piggyback on the billions of dollars of effort that the various intelligence services have already committed to just that question—projecting future threats. Second, and less importantly, a semi-real opponent in this sense also keeps players’ heads in the game.

Getting on the meat of the criticism of the experiment, the point that has been most highlighted, the sinking and subsequent “reconstitution” of the main blue fleet, is a complete red herring. The experiment control did exactly the right thing, in this case. And the article gives the explanation for this, in a quote from one of the Air Force generals who helped to run the thing:

"You kill me in the first day and I sit there for the next 13 days doing nothing, or you put me back to life and you get 13 more days' worth of experiment out of me. Which is a better way to do it?" General Pace asked.
If they hadn’t reconstituted the fleet, they would have been wasting all the millions of dollars that it cost to set the experiment up. Van Riper complains that they weren’t interested in learning anything from the experiment; but if they’d left the fleet dead, then they really wouldn’t have learned anything, because the game would have been over.

Van Riper’s complaints about later issues, that he was overly constrained in his operations and that the experiment control disallowed some actions and forced him to do some other things that aided blue, are potentially more troubling. But the fact that he complained about the fleet issue makes him an untrustworthy source. He clearly doesn’t understand the underlying point of the experiment, so it’s very possible that his later complaints are equally unjustified (although maybe not.)

It’s worth noting that being a great soldier and rising to the level of a 3 star general does not thereby make you an expert in experimental planning or analysis, even if you were the CO of a department that planned a lot of wargames. The type of scientific thinking and focus on rigorous tests rather than ephemeral outcomes in simply not that common in any walk of life, including military commands. That’s why they give some officers special training and hire outside analysts who have scientific background to work on these issues. And I can think of plausible reasons for each of the decisions Van Riper took offense to—it seems possible to me that he got too caught up in trying to win the game, and lost sight of the underlying purpose, which was to test out new ideas and concepts.

On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to his claims that a lot of the military’s new proposed doctrines and the “revolution in military affairs” are a lot of hot air—pretty power point slides and no substance. At its worst, this sort of future concepts planning can be a collection of platitudes, clichés, and obvious points strung together in high sounding phrases, which at the core are essentially meaningless.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to know from the outside which side—Van Riper or the official Pentagon position—is the correct one concerning Millennium Dragon. Without knowing in detail what the experimental plans were, what concepts they were trying to test, what measures of effectiveness they were using, and seeing the after action analytical reports and reconstructions, you can’t tell whether the game really was so fixed it was worthless, or whether all the constraints were reasonable. I’m hopeful that the experiment planners and analysts didn’t end up gaming the game, and instead will bring clear thinking to the evaluation of the concepts and tactics that the Millennium Challenge were supposed to test.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:23 PM

Wednesday, September 04, 2002
Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Deterrence

An important part of the debate around Iraq centers on their possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the possibility for their use. The pro-invasion side sketches out a nightmare scenario where Hussein acquires nuclear weapons and gives them to terrorists who then blow up Manhattan. Alternatively, he passes along bio and chemical weapons for similar terrorist attacks.

On the side opposing invasion, a common argument is that this won’t happen, because deterrence will prevent it. The threat of a US nuclear counterstrike would prevent Iraq from passing along any WMDs to terrorists.

I think the anti-invasion argument is misguided, for reasons which I will discuss below, but I also think the threat isn’t quite as bad as it is often made out to be. Basically, if Iraq does acquire nuclear weapons, there is no way that Hussein would give any of them to a third party. According to most discussion I’ve seen, the biggest bottleneck in acquiring nuclear weapons is not technology or engineering, it’s simply getting your hands on enough suitable radioactive material.

Given that, Iraq (or any undeveloped country) will be seriously constrained in the number of nukes they can produce. Iraq would likely only be able to make a few, maybe half a dozen. And they would be the most valuable things in the nation, and a tremendous source of power and prestige for the country. There is no way Hussein or any other leader would give away such a rare and incredibly valuable commodity to an unreliable third party.

That doesn’t mean it’s not something to worry about, however. If Iraq were to acquire nuclear weapons, they would then be able to deter the US. We would be limited in our ability to directly confront them, since there would be the threat of a nuclear attack on our troops or on Israel. Which is bad enough. But chemical and biological weapons are different. Once you’ve figured out a good process and weaponized a biological agent or chemical, then it’s not that hard to produce it in relatively large quantities. The inspectors found tons of stuff, literally, in Iraq after the first Gulf War.

This poses two threats. The first is that a country with this technological capability could pass along that expertise to a terrorist group. A meeting or two, a scientist slipping off or “defecting,” and suddenly a country has given a tremendous aid to terrorists in pursuit of WMD’s, essentially untraceably. The other option is for Iraq (or some other country) to simply hand over chemical or biological weapons to the terrorists. These can be effective in small enough quantities that, again, it would be difficult or impossible to trace.

And that’s why the deterrence argument breaks down. Deterrence presupposes that you know where an attack came from, that you know whom to retaliate against. But terrorist intermediaries allow a country plausible deniability. They insulate any leader from the actual acts of murder and terrorism. The despot can sit secure in his country, like a mafia godfather, pulling the strings but never allowing them to be traced back to him to give a just cause for war that the UN would find acceptable.

Consider—if Saddam Hussein had supported and helped plan and finance the Oklahoma City bombing, the first world trade center attack, and the 9-11 attacks, would we know? I think the situation would look pretty much identical to the way it looks now. A few hints, some shady unknown suspects, a John Doe #2, some unconfirmed and unexplained meetings in Prague or the Phillipines, a planner who may or may not be an Iraqi intelligence agent, some fringe journalists and bloggers making connections but generally dismissed as conspiracy theorists. This is it—whether or not Iraq had any involvement, if and when they do it will look just like the past 3 attacks looked. And that’s why deterrence won’t work.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:33 PM

Tuesday, September 03, 2002
The question of coups

So, putting together the info form my last two posts with a few more I facts, I think I’ve come to a satisfactory explanation for the lack of military coups in early modern Europe. The first fact is that the armies in ancien regime nations were very small. They simply weren’t large enough to dominate a country the way armies now can. For example, around the period of the American Revolution, the English Army had only around 50,000 regulars worldwide—in England, the New World, and their various outposts in East Asia. Paradoxically, the weakness of the central governments actually protected them from a military insurrection, since they didn’t have the money or logistical capability to support a large standing army. So the armies that did exist were not completely pre-eminent even inside a country, where local militia organizations could wield a similar strength.

The fragmented nature of the military commands accentuated this weakness. For most soldiers, their everyday allegiance was to their captain (or maybe a colonel) who was responsible for paying and provisioning them. This would make it difficult for a high officer who might theoretically command a large enough force to topple the government to actually command the loyalty of the troops to carry out such a task.

The third major piece of the puzzle is supplied by looking at the actual make-up of the officer corps. It was primarily aristocratic, made up of those who had a vested interest in the status quo. They had a vested interest in preserving the existing governments, since it was those governments that raised them to their privileged place. Almost by definition, an hereditary aristocracy will be strongly conservative.

Finally, related to the third point, is my original hypothesis of the strong sense of legitimacy of the kingships in most countries. This legitimacy derived from the same source as the legitimacy of the aristocracy, so the nobility couldn’t directly challenge it. And in the cases where the kings were overthrown in England, France, and Russia, it triggered years of civil war and discord with, in two of the three cases, an eventual return to monarchy.

Unfortunately, none of these factors can really be transferred into a modern developing country. The central problem is exactly that there is no government which the people feel has a strong claim to their loyalty. And the militaries are generally large and centralized. Decentralizing the military could decrease the chance of a coup but at the cost of increasing the chance of civil war and general collapse, so that’s not really a viable solution either.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:08 PM

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