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Islamic Militants Bloody US Forces In Big Army Wargame

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

US ARMY WAR COLLEGE: It’s a week into the war, and things are getting ugly. Fifty American and allied troops are dead, four hundred are wounded — some in city fighting against Islamic militants, some when the surprisingly sophisticated foe shot down their aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles and anti-helicopter mines.

Now the US-led task force has seized the two seaports that were its objectives, only to find the enemy has sabotaged the dock facilities. No supplies are getting through to the refugees that the intervention was meant to protect in the first place. Meanwhile, cruise missiles and cyber-attacks have hit the coalition’s staging bases in Italy. Reports have come in of radiological “dirty bombs” and a toxic chemical spill at an industrial site too ill-timed to be an accident. The enemy irregulars fight, while across the border the hostile nation-state that armed them in the first place is threatening to unleash its own regular military in the guerrillas’ support.

Fortunately, of course, all this is fiction, a status update yesterday morning at the Army’s annual wargame held here at the War College. (Click here for full coverage). Even the warring countries are fictional, with the imaginary Muslim-majority nations of “Greenland” and “Redland” superimposed on the real-world geography of the Balkans and Ukraine respectively. (Wargame planners use this trick so they can assess their moves against real-world terrain and transportation infrastructure without seeming to rehearse a war against any real nation).

A few doors down, however, the second front of the “Army Future Game” is taking place with hypothetical operations in real countries. Which ones? That’s classified. A wargame organizer would only say the scenario involves “a failing state with nuclear weapons” — which could only mean North Korea, the real-world Pacific Command’s foremost concern. Is the Pacific part of the game a war with China? “No, it is not,” the organizer said emphatically. “We’re not laying China out as the threat or a threat.” That said, in any Pacific scenario, he went on, “they definitely have to be accounted for because they’re the big boy on the block.”

So why treat the two scenarios so differently — one unclassified with fictional countries, one classified with real ones? Decades of focus on the Middle East, ever since 1991, means the Army has a well-developed scenario involving imaginary Muslim nations, but they didn’t have fictional version of the Pacific “that could give us the level of challenge we were looking for,” the organizer said. Wargaming with real countries, however, potentially involves real-world political sensitivities, contingency planning, and intelligence data, requiring classification. The Army likes to get the perspective of foreign officers in its wargames, though, and since relatively few of them have clearance, it wanted to have an unclassified scenario as well.

So it’s a British officer who gives the bad news about the Mideastern operation at the morning briefing. “You needed ports, [the enemy] knew you needed ports,” he said. “They were ready for you.” While the US-led task force maneuvered elaborately by sea and air to deceive the enemy commanders where they would land, ultimately the coalition had no way to bring in the supplies its own forces needed, let alone humanitarian aid, without controlling a handful of major seaports. So the enemy commanders ignored the feints — their militiamen lacked the kind of mobile reserve force that would have been needed to try to counter them anyway — and simply dug in where they knew the US would eventually have to come to them.

“We had to go here; we’re very predictable,” sighed one US Army officer later in the briefing. The military has invested in the capability to bring forces ashore where there is no port — formally called JLOTS, Joint Logistics Over The Shore — but the Army and Navy together only have enough such assets to move supplies for one reinforced Army brigade, while the Marines can land another brigade-plus. That’s only a fraction of the force required in this scenario. While the the resulting dependence on established infrastructure — seaports, airfields, bases in friendly countries — is often thought of as a purely logistical problem, in this kind of conflict it can have bloody tactical consequences.

The Army’s playing catch-up on addressing these deployment problems, having spent the last eight years laser-focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US already bases built up. Meanwhile, the Air Force and Navy have developed their “AirSea Battle” concept to break through sophisticated enemy defenses, what military jargon calls “anti-access / area denial” systems. But as military guru Frank Hoffman argued in a recent interview with Breaking Defense, AirSea Battle focuses on the long-distance fight to get air and sea forces into a region, not the close-in fight once Marines and Army soldiers hit the ground.

Likewise, in this wargame, said the same Army officer who lamented American predictability, the initial planning spent too much time on the long-range threat, which proved relatively small, and not enough on the short-range surprises the enemy could pose once the US tried to seize the seaports, like the anti-helicopter mines — a real-world technology available from Bulgarian arms makers — or sabotage of the port facilities. “When you get onto shore, what happens next?” the Army officer asked. The Air Force and Navy concepts didn’t address that question, he argued. “AirSea Battle wasn’t holistic,” he said. “It’s not large enough” as a concept.

The Army doesn’t have the answer yet, either, but it’s an improvement just to be taking the question so seriously. Past Army wargames have often handwaved the problems of getting to the fight. The tendency was to assume either easy access to nearby bases in friendly countries — like those Kuwait provided for the invasion of Iraq — or as-yet-unrealized technology like futuristic transport airships or giant versions of the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, capable of carrying lightweight tanks. “For this game we’re stuck using the current stuff that we have,” lamented one participant.

Given tightening budgets, the Army will have to tackle this problem without new technology for years to come. It’s a good thing they’re thinking through the hard parts now, when the only casualties are virtual ones.

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