Don’t tell Trump: In 2002, Iran beat the US military in a simulated war

The National Interest | David Axe: The problem is that Washington hasn’t learned from its past mistakes and Iran could still sink a carrier under the right circumstances.

As tensions escalate in the Persian Gulf region, it’s worth recalling a 2002 Pentagon war game in which a U.S. Marine Corps played the part of an enemy commander waging a bloody defensive campaign against a much more powerful U.S. force.

Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper’s own hodgepodge of troops, ships and planes was similar in organization and capability to Iran’s actual forces. Van Riper’s success in blunting a simulated American assault could reveal how Tehran might fight in the real world.

“The exercise was called Millennium Challenge 2002,” Blake Stilwell wrote for We Are the Mighty.

It was designed by the Joint Forces Command over the course of two years. It had 13,500 participants, numerous live and simulated training sites, and was supposed to pit an Iran-like Middle Eastern country against the U.S. military, which would be fielding advanced technology it didn’t plan to implement until five years later.

The war game would begin with a forced-entry exercise that included the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Marine Division. When the blue forces issued a surrender ultimatum, Van Riper, commanding the red forces, turned them down. Since the Bush Doctrine of the period included preemptive strikes against perceived enemies, Van Riper knew the blue forces would be coming for him. And they did.

But the three-star general didn’t spend 41 years in the Marine Corps by being timid. As soon as the Navy was beyond the point of no return, he hit them and hit them hard. Missiles from land-based units, civilian boats, and low-flying planes tore through the fleet as explosive-ladened speedboats decimated the Navy using suicide tactics. His code to initiate the attack was a coded message sent from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer.

In less than 10 minutes, the whole thing was over and Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper was victorious.

Micah Zenko provided some context in a piece for War on the Rocks. “The impact of the [opposing force’s] ability to render a U.S. carrier battle group — the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy — militarily worthless stunned most of the MC ’02 participants.”

The shock compelled exercise planners to rig the rest of the war game for U.S. forces.

[Joint Forces Command commander Gen. Buck] Kernan received an urgent phone call from [exercise planner, retired Army general Gary] Luck: “Sir, Van Riper just slimed all of the ships.” Kernan recognized that this was bad news because it placed at risk [Joint Forces Command’s] ability to fulfill the remaining live-fire, forced-entry component of the exercise — a central component of MC ’02.

The actual forces were awaiting orders at Fort Bragg, off the coast of San Diego, and at the Fort Irwin National Training Center. Kernan recalled, “I didn’t have a lot of choice. I had to do the forcible entry piece.” He directed the white cell [exercise planners] to simply refloat the virtual ships to the surface. [Army general B. B.] Bell and his blue team — now including the live-fire forces operating under his direction — applied the lessons from the initial attack and fended off subsequent engagements from the red team.

That and other interference by exercise planners made Van Riper “furious,” Zenko wrote.

Not only had the white cell’s instructions compromised the integrity of the entire process, but also his own chief of staff — a retired Army colonel — was receiving conflicting orders about how his force should be deployed. When Van Riper went to Kernan to complain, he was told: “You are playing out of character. The OPFOR would never have done what you did.”

Van Riper subsequently gathered the red team and told them to follow the chief of staff’s orders. The independence that he believed a red team must be granted to do its job had been corrupted. Six days into the exercise, he stepped down as commander and served as an advisor for the remaining 17 days.

During that time, the blue team achieved most of its campaign plan objectives by destroying the OPFOR air and naval forces, securing the shipping lanes, and capturing or neutralizing the red regime’s WMD assets. The OPFOR was capable of partially preserving the red regime, but it was substantially weakened and its regional influence was much diminished.

Of course, in a real shooting war no one can tweak the rules to preserve an American advantage. If Iran actually were to deploy Van Riper’s brutally effective tactics, it just might inflict even more damage than Van Riper’s own hamstrung forces did in their simulated, and rigged, war.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix,War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared earlier in 2019.