Here is an expose of just how war games are routinely rigged to insure success - or, more to the point, to insure that the commanding officers (not to mention Rumsfeld and Bush) look good. But this sham could have deadly consequences for men and women in the field in a real war, who have only been taught how to fudge results, not how to achieve them with the actual means at hand. The multiple debacles that occurred in Afghanistan - from fatal accidents to improper bombings, to embarrassing escapes - reflect this unpreparedness. But what is more frightening is that the field of rag-tag warriors on horseback that confronted our troops in Afghanistan could be considered easy going compared to what they may confront in Iraq.

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! 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

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