Looking Good at All Costs: The Routine Rigging of Military War Games
By Lt. Col. Ralf W. Zimmerman, Ret. U.S. Army
Reprinted with author's permission
The Pentagon operated again in standard denial mode over the questions
raised about a war game with major impact on the future of Joint Warfare.
Had it been pre-programmed to lock in victory for the expertly and
courageously led Blue Forces (BLUEFOR)? Retired Marine General Paul Van
Riper claimed that the whole thing had really been about validating the
military's and its contractors' foregone conclusions and not honest
feedback. As Red Forces director, he had been denied the realistic tools to
fight and test BLUE FOR readiness and capabilities. On one occasion he had
successfully negated high-tech eavesdropping devices with motorcycle
messengers, only to be told: "against the rules!"
From training experience at many levels, I know that decent exercises must
have a solid structure to prevent them from becoming senseless Cowboy and
Indian shoot-outs. That structure comes from specific scripted events,
allowing for focused testing and evaluation of essential tasks or critical
capabilities. These key events become important for a well focused, quality
After Action Review (AAR).
Unfortunately, our modern military is often not interested in honest
feedback of operational and tactical principles or when testing
"would-love-to-have now" technologies. In recent years, it's been more
about pet peeves and careers. And a successful career can only flourish
when those in charge, especially when under their bosses' microscopes,
produce spectacular successes.
I can recall countless occasions that clearly showed the close connection
between exercise success and the careers of senior officers. During one
divisional "Warfighter" exercise, I found one of my fellow combat battalion
commanders truly demoralized during our morning shift change brief. The
previous night's fights had been tough but everything looked okay to me. A
few casualties here and there, but after an encounter with superior armies
of red electrons, it seemed standard fare for any simulation. I was
impressed that my friend had even managed to cross a major river with all
our brigade's tanks. Pleased to see our "Panzers" across the water
obstacle, I inquired if we had finally received the long requested engineer
support to build a decent bridge. Frowning, he told me that there hadn't
been any bridge assets but lots of "other help from above."
During a personal visit, the Division commander had instructed him to find a
way to cross the river to allow his Division to bag the Reds, ignoring the
opponent's successes at dropping all critical bridges. Now, the river in
question was over 100 feet deep and much too fast flowing to ford with heavy
vehicles. Bill explained that dilemma, only to be stopped cold in his
briefing tracks: "Battalion commander, you aren't listening, are you? Didn
't I say I want to cross the river? Nod your head. I'm not going to do it
for you! But.you could go to the exercise facilitator and find a computer
work-around - hoooah?
There wasn't much of a choice. Somehow, 70-ton tanks were electronically
"airlifted" across the water obstacle by transport helicopters. Once again,
we were experiencing not "Force XXI" but "Farce XXII."
The good guys won and our general declared a success. He soon commanded at
the next level, which showed that exercise victory, no matter how they are
achieved, do matter for careers.
And don't believe that our combat training centers are much different from
the electron simulations. At the training centers, the tables are often
turned. Here the OPFOR, often desperate to defend its reputation as the
world's best enemy, uses any means available to achieve victory. Yes, there
is much hard work and skill but many successes are based on pure
gamesmanship: manipulating the MILES laser tag game; rotating rested troops
from the rear; using tactical methods that the "Blue Force" isn't allowed to
apply - "not you official/approved doctrine." Surprisingly, the OPFOR doesn
't do much better than BLUEFOR, when given the same equipment, the same
limitations and doctrinal straight jackets.
What can we do about exercise corruption? Not much I fear, since all is
closely tied to careerism and deficient ethics. Similar to the CEOs of
major corporations, many military commanders have learned to "cook their
books." That includes reporting inflated readiness figures and manipulating
exercises of every kind through extreme gamesmanship.
Sadly, it may take a major conflict to expose some of the readiness fraud to
cause our political leadership and the public to demand honesty in feedback.
Unfortunately, as in business, the honest and brutal truth is often the most
solid basis for profound improvements and groundbreaking innovation.
Ralf Zimmermann is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and lives in Colorado
Springs, CO. He commanded a tank battalion and is a decorated veteran of
Desert Storm. He regularly writes opinion columns for Army Times and other
military publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org