Millennium Challenge 2002 or “That Time A Retired Marine General and His Fictional Iran Defeated the US Armed Forces”

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The Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC ’02) was a major war game conducted by the US Armed Forces between July 24th and August 15th in 2002.

It costed approximately $250 million and involved both live drills and computer simulations. Its principle purpose was to test a future military “transformation.” To present a way for the US Armed Forces to transit towards new technologies, which would allow them to carry out network-centric warfare and provide more effective command and control of the current and future weapons and tactics.

The simulated combatants were the United States, referred to as “Blue”, and an unknown adversary in the Middle East, “Red” (most experts speculated that this was side was Iran).

The exercise became famous as “That time a retired Marine general led a fictional Iran against the US Military – and won.”

The exercise was organized and led by the now defunct U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and it was a complete failure.

It pitted the U.S. military (with capabilities projected five years into the future) against a nameless potential adversary, with outcome intended to inform future strategy and procurement decisions. Controversy immediately arose when the opposition force, or red team, learned that the results were scripted to assure that the U.S. forces would win.

Spoiler Alert: They didn’t.

Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper had a force of 90 people, adopted an asymmetric strategy, in particular, using old methods to evade Blue’s sophisticated electronic surveillance network.

Which for a while now, and currently the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and specifically its Navy employ – asymmetric warfare.

Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World-War-II-style light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications.

The U.S. blue team of 350 personnel led by Army Lt. Gen. B. B. Bell.

At the start of MC ’02, to fulfill the forced-entry requirement, blue issued red an eight-point ultimatum, of which the final point was surrender.

Red team leader Van Riper knew his country’s political leadership could not accept this. As a result, he believed would lead the blue forces to directly intervene.

These decisions were made by Van Riper just recently after the George W. Bush administration announced the US Armed Forces “preemptive doctrine.”

As he knew that as soon as a US Navy carrier battle group entered the Persian Gulf, he would preempt the preemptive strike.

Once US forces were within range, Van Riper’s forces unleashed a barrage of missiles from ground-based launchers, commercial ships, and planes flying low and without radio communications to reduce their radar signature.

These were accompanied by swarms of speed boats, loaded with explosives launching kamikaze attacks.

The Carrier Battle Group (or what is called currently a Carrier Strike Group), with an Aegis radar system was overwhelmed.

19 U.S. ships were sunk, including the carrier, several cruisers, and five amphibious ships.

“The whole thing was over in five, maybe ten minutes,” Van Riper said.

The red team had struck a devastating blow against the blue team. The ability of the enemy fighting an asymmetric fight and winning stunned the organizers, specifically as the war game was “rigged” for Blue to win from the get-go.

Van Riper described the mood as “an eerie silence. Like people didn’t really know what to do next.”

General Bell admitted that Red had “sunk my damn navy,” and had inflicted “an extremely high rate of attrition, and a disaster, from which we all learned a great lesson.”

JFCOM Commander Gen. Buck Kernan, who was in charge of the exercise then got a phone call, saying that Van Riper had destroyed all of the Blue team’s ships.

This made continuing the war game nigh impossible, because it removed the JFCOM’s ability to fulfill the live-fire, forced-entry component of the exercise – which was a central component of MC ’02. It was supposed to show that the US could come with a superior force and quickly overwhelm the enemy, then land and finish the job.

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.”

Essentially, he ordered the organizers to “refloat” the sunken ships so that the forced-entry scenario could be played.

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.

So far so good, after losing and “miraculously” getting its ships back, the Blue team was ready for the landing.

Van Riper’s red team prepared itself for an amphibious assault by the Marines. Since the scenario was played 5 years into the future, the Retired General expected Blue to use the V-22 Osprey, a multi-mission, tilt-rotor aircraft that would be introduced into the army in the next 5 years from 2002.

The V-22’s twin 38-foot propellers gave the transport aircraft a notoriously large identifiable radar signature that could easily be identified and tracked with crude radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Red was preparing to start shooting down the enemy V-22 Ospreys as Van Ripper’s chief of staff received a message that hostile fire against the V-22s or blue’s C-130 troop transport planes was forbidden.

The white cell also directed the chief of staff that the red team had to position its air defense assets out in the open so the blue forces could easily destroy them.

Even after some were not destroyed, the red team was forbidden to fire upon blue forces as they conducted a live airborne drop.

Van Riper asked the white cell if his forces could at least deploy the chemical weapons that he possessed, but he was again denied.

He was furious and went to Kernan to complain and was told this:

“You are playing out of character. The OPFOR [Red] 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 continued being simply an adviser for the remaining 17.

The failure of the exercise was left as an example of the propaganda belief that the US military could not and would not be defeated. That must be drilled in, even through scripted and obviously fake war games.

There are other concept-development exercises, but according to Van Ripper the MC ’02 did not realistically reflect likely future U.S. military capabilities or the threats posed by a thinking, motivated adversary. As he recalled:

“War-gaming is not normally corrupted, but this whole thing was prostituted; it was a sham intended to prove what they wanted to prove.”




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