Friday, June 26, 2009

Wargame: Iran vs. the US

In the July/August 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs is the article “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets, the Eroding Foundations of American Power by Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. I recall speculation in a discussion group a few years back about how we or Israel might go about destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. This article provides the record of just such a wargame:

“In the summer of 2002, the Pentagon conducted its largest war-gaming exercise since the end of the Cold war. Called Millennium Challenge 2002, it pitted the United States against an ‘unnamed Persian gulf military’ meant to be a stand-in for Iran. The outcome was disquieting: what many expected to be yet another demonstration of the United States’ military might turned out to be anything but.

“The ‘Iranian’ forces, led by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, successfully countered the U.S. forces at every turn. The U.S. fleet that steamed into the Persian Gulf found itself subjected to a surprise attack by swarms of Iranian suicide vessels and antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs). Well over half the U.S. ships were sunk or otherwise put out of action in what would have been the United States’ worst naval disaster since Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, Van Riper kept his Iranian cruise and ballistic missile forces on the move, frustrating the U.S. commanders’ efforts to track and destroy them. Rather than turn his air-defense radars on and expose them to prompt destruction from U.S. aircraft armed with antiradiation missiles, Van Riper left his units’ systems turned off. Since no one could be sure of where the Iranian defenses were positioned, it was risky for U.S. cargo aircraft to land and resupply the U.S. ground forces that had deployed on Iranian soil.

“Exasperated and embarrassed at the success of the mock Iranian force, the senior U.S. commanders overseeing the war game’s progress called for a ‘do-over.’ They directed the U.S. fleet to be ‘refloated’ and compelled the enemy forces to turn on their radars and expose themselves to attack. The enemy missile forces were ordered to cease their evasive maneuvers. Recast in this manner – and with Van Riper ‘relieved’ of his command, apparently for having executed it too well – the game proceeded to a much more agreeable conclusion.”


Krepinevich paints a rather harsh picture of this 2002 wargame. Why would they have a “do-over”? Krepinevich implies, “for no good reason.” But I can think of a good reason. They were defeated the first time because they were up against a highly-skilled general who was very familiar with American tactics and capabilities. Maybe they knew that Iran had no such general; so as long as we’re all here, they might have said, let’s do it again with what we suspect are Iran’s real capabilities. If what I described is closer to what actually happened than Krepinevich’s critical account, then some useful data would have been obtained from the “do over.”

However, the U.S. would have afterward quizzed the participants for “lessons learned.” One obvious lesson learned would be that if Iran obtained a top-notch general, an invading U.S. force would be in big trouble. And then there would be the less obvious lessons which we aren’t informed of: new tactics that take account of the lessons learned.

When I was discussing this years ago, I didn’t imagine an invasion. I imagined an Operation Opera-type attack intended to knock-out Iran’s nuclear weapons’ capabilities and stores in the same way Israel knocked out Iraq’s.

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