Is The U.S. Vulnerable In The Persian Gulf?


back to the basics
Verified SOF
Nov 15, 2007
Is The U.S. Vulnerable In The Persian Gulf – The myth of US invincibility

By Mark H. Gaffney, 17 April 2005, The Informaton Clearing House

During the summer of 2002, in the run-up to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the US military staged the most elaborate and expensive war games ever conceived. Operation Millennium Challenge, as it was called, cost some $250 million, and required two years of planning. The mock war was not aimed at Iraq, at least, not overtly. But it was set in the Persian Gulf, and simulated a conflict with a hypothetical rogue state. The “war” involved heavy use of computers, and was also played out in the field by 13,500 US troops, at 17 different locations and 9 live-force training sites. All of the services participated under a single joint command, known as JOINTFOR. The US forces were designated as “Force Blue,” and the enemy as OPFOR, or “Force Red.” The “war” lasted three weeks and ended with the overthrow of the dictatorial regime on August 15.

At any rate, that was the official outcome. What actually happened was quite different, and ought to serve up a warning about the grave peril the world will face if the US should become embroiled in a widening conflict in the region.

As the war games were about to commence on July 18 2002, Gen. William “Buck” Kernan, head of the Joint Forces Command, told the press that the operation would test a series of new war-fighting concepts recently developed by the Pentagon, concepts like “rapid decisive operations, effects-based operations, operational net assessments,” and the like. Later, at the conclusion of the games, Gen. Kernan insisted that the new concepts had been proved effective. At which point, JOINTFOR drafted recommendations to Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, based on the experiment’s satisfactory results in such areas as doctrine, training and procurement.

But not everyone shared Gen. Kernan’s rosy assessment. It was sharply criticized by the straight-talking Marine commander who had been brought out of retirement to lead Force Red. His name was Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, and he had played the role of the crazed but cunning leader of the hypothetical rogue state. Gen. Van Riper dismissed the new military concepts as empty sloganeering, and he had reason to be skeptical. In the first days of the “war,” Van Riper’s Force Red sent most of the US fleet to the bottom of the Persian Gulf.

Not all of the details about how Force Red accomplished this have been revealed. The Pentagon managed to keep much of the story out of the press. But a thoroughly disgruntled Van Riper himself leaked enough to the Army Times that it’s possible to get at a sense of how a much weaker force outfoxed and defeated the world’s lone remaining Superpower.

The Worst US Naval Disaster Since Pearl Harbor

The war game was described as “free play,” meaning that both sides were unconstrained, free to pursue any tactic in the book of war in the service of victory. As Gen. Kernan put it: “The OPFOR (Force Red) has the ability to win here.” Much of the action was computer-generated. But representative military units in the field also acted out the various moves and countermoves. The comparison to a chess match is not inaccurate. The vastly superior US armada consisted of the standard carrier battle group with its full supporting cast of ships and planes. Van Riper had at his disposal a much weaker flotilla of smaller vessels, many of them civilian craft, and numerous assets typical of a Third World country.

But Van Riper made the most of weakness. Instead of trying to compete directly with Force Blue, he utilized ingenious low-tech alternatives. Crucially, he prevented the stronger US force from eavesdropping on his communications by foregoing the use of radio transmissions. Van Riper relied on couriers instead to stay in touch with his field officers. He also employed novel tactics such as coded signals broadcast from the minarets of mosques during the Muslim call to prayer, a tactic weirdly reminiscent of Paul Revere and the shot heard round the world. At every turn, the wily Van Riper did the unexpected. And in the process he managed to achieve an asymmetric advantage: the new buzzword in military parlance.

Astutely and very covertly, Van Riper armed his civilian marine craft and deployed them near the US fleet, which never expected an attack from small pleasure boats. Faced with a blunt US ultimatum to surrender, Force Red suddenly went on the offensive: and achieved complete tactical surprise. Force Red’s prop-driven aircraft suddenly were swarming around the US warships, making Kamikaze dives. Some of the pleasure boats made suicide attacks. Others fired Silkworm cruise missiles from close range, and sunk a carrier, the largest ship in the US fleet, along with two helicopter-carriers loaded with marines. The sudden strike was reminiscent of the Al Qaeda sneak attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Yet, the Navy was unprepared. When it was over, most of the US fleet had been destroyed. Sixteen US warships lay on the bottom, and the rest were in disarray. Thousands of American sailors were dead, dying, or wounded.

If the games had been real, it would have been the worst US naval defeat since Pearl Harbor.

What happened next became controversial. Instead of declaring Force Red the victor, JOINTFOR Command raised the sunken ships from the muck, brought the dead sailors back to life, and resumed the games as if nothing unusual had happened. The US invasion of the rogue state proceeded according to schedule. Force Red continued to harass Force Blue, until an increasingly frustrated Gen. Van Riper discovered that his orders to his troops were being countermanded, at which point he withdrew in disgust. In his after-action report, the general charged that the games had been scripted to produce the desired outcome.

Later, Van Riper also aired his frustrations in a taped-for-television interview: “There were accusations that Millennium Challenge was rigged. I can tell you it was not. It started out as a free-play exercise, in which both Red and Blue had the opportunity to win the game. However, about the third or fourth day, when the concepts that the command was testing failed to live up to their expectations, the command at that point began to script the exercise in order to prove these concepts. This was my critical complaint. You might say, ‘Well, why didn't these concepts live up to the expectations?’ I think they were fundamentally flawed in that they…leaned heavily on systems analysis of decision-making. I'm angered that, in a sense, $250 million was wasted. But I'm even more angry that an idea that has never been truly validated, that never really went through the crucible of a real experiment, is being exported to our operational forces to use.

“What I saw in this particular exercise and the results from it were very similar to what I saw as a young second lieutenant back in the 1960s, when we were taught the systems engineering techniques that Mr. [Robert] McNamara [Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson] had implemented in the American military. We took those systems…to the battlefield, where they were totally inappropriate. The computers in Saigon said we were winning the war, while out there in the rice paddies we knew damn well we weren't winning. That's where we went astray, and I see these new concepts potentially being equally ill-informed and equally dangerous.”

“We didn’t put you in harm’s way purposely. It just...happened.”

As a result of Van Riper’s criticism, Gen. Kernan, the JOINTFOR commander, faced some pointed questions at a subsequent press briefing. In defending the operation, the general explained the embarrassing outcome as due to the unique environment in which the war simulation, by necessity, had been conducted:

Q: “General, one thing that Van Riper made much of was the fact that at some point the blue fleet was sunk.”

Gen. Kernan: “True, it was.”

Q: “I want to set-aside for a moment the allegation that the game was rigged because the fleet was ‘re-floated.’ I mean, I understand, I've been told that happens in war games.”

Gen. Kernan: “Sure.”

Q: “And I'm curious. In the course of this experiment or exercise, your fleet was sunk. I'm wondering if that did teach you anything about the concepts you were testing or if that showed anything relevant.”

Gen. Kernan: “I'll tell you one of the things it taught us with a blinding flash of the obvious, after the fact…And of course, it goes back to live versus simulation, and what we were doing. There are very prescriptive lanes in which we…conduct sea training and amphibious operations, and these are very, obviously, because of commercial shipping and a lot of other things, just like our air lanes. The ships that we used for the amphibious operations, we brought them in because they had to comply with those lanes. Didn't even think about it.

“Now you've got basically, instead of being over the horizon like the Navy would normally fight, and at stand-off ranges that would enable their protective systems to be employed, now they're sitting right off the shore, where you're looking at them. I mean, the models and simulation that we put together, it couldn't make a distinction. And we didn't either, until, all of a sudden, whoops, there they are. And that's about the time he attacked. You know?

“The Navy was just bludgeoning me dearly because, of course, they would say, ‘We never fight this way.’ Fair enough. Okay. We didn't mean to do it. We didn't put you in harm’s way purposely. I mean, it just, it happened. And it's unfortunate. So that’s one of the things that we learned…”

Gen. Kernan’s nuanced defense was that the simulation had necessarily been conducted in the vicinity of busy sea lanes, hence, in the presence of live commercial shipping; and this required the Navy to “turn off” some of its defenses, which it would not have done in a real wartime situation. All of which is probably true, but the general’s remark that in a real Gulf war the fleet would be deployed differently, in a stand-off manner, with its over-the-horizon defenses fully operable, was a misrepresentation of the actual situation in the Persian Gulf, today. The US Navy’s biggest problem operating in Gulf waters are the constraints that the region’s confined spaces impose on US naval defenses, which were designed for the open sea. The Persian Gulf is nothing but a large lake, after all, and in such an environment the Navy’s over-the-horizon defenses are seriously compromised. Nor can the Navy withdraw to a safe distance, so long as its close-in presence is required to support the US occupation forces in Iraq. The serious implications of this simple fact for a possible future conflict, for instance, involving Iran, have never, to my knowledge, been discussed in the US press.

Gen. Kernan’s remark was not a misstatement. He repeated himself again, later in the same interview, while fielding another question:

Q: “As a follow-up...Van Riper also said that most of the blue Naval losses were due to cruise missiles. Can you talk about that and say how concerned you are about that?”

Gen. Kernan: “Well, I don't know. To be honest with you, I haven't had an opportunity to assess...what happened. But that's a possibility, once again, because we had to shut off some of these self-defense systems on the models that would have normally been employed. That's a possibility. I think the important thing to note is that normally the Navy would have been significantly over-the-horizon. They would've been arrayed an awful lot differently than we forced them to because of what they had to do for the live-exercise piece of it....Yeah, I think we learned some things. The specifics of the cruise-missile piece...I really can't answer that question. We'd have to get back to you.”

Safely Over-the-Horizon?

Gen. Kernan’s remarks are surprising, because at the time he made them, in August 2002, as he well should have known, at least two separate studies, one by the US Government Accounting Office (GAO,) based on the Navy’s own data, and another by an independent think-tank, had already warned the Office of the Navy about the growing threat to the US fleet posed by anti-ship cruise missiles. As recently as 1997 some forty different nations possessed these awesome weapons. By 2000 the number had jumped to 70, with at least 100 different types identified, and a dozen different nations actively pursuing their own production and research/development programs.

While the numbers are not available for 2004, there is little doubt that the technology has continued to spread rapidly. And why are anti-ship cruise missiles so attractive? The answer is that they are relatively simple to develop, especially in comparison with ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles can be constructed from many of the same readily available parts and components used in commercial aviation. They are also reliable and effective, easy to deploy and use, and are relatively inexpensive. Even poor nations can afford them. One cruise missile represents but a tiny fraction of the immense expenditure of capital the US has invested in each of its 300 active warships. Yet, a single cruise missile can sink or severely disable any ship in the US Navy.

According to the GAO report, “the key to defeating cruise missile threats is in gaining additional reaction time,” so that ships can detect, identify and destroy the attacking missiles. The thorny problem, as I’ve pointed out, is that the Navy’s long-range AWACs and intermediate-range Aegis radar defense systems are significantly less effective in littoral (or coastal) environments, the Persian Gulf being the prime example.

The other important factor is that cruise missile technology itself is racing ahead. The GAO report warned that the next generation of anti-ship missiles that will begin to appear by 2007 will be faster and stealthier, and will also be equipped with advanced target-seekers, i.e., advanced guidance systems. In fact, one of these advanced anti-ship cruise missiles is already available: the Russian-made Yakhonts missile. It flies at close to Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound), can hit a squirrel in the eye, and has a range of 185 miles: enough range to target the entire Persian Gulf (from Iran), shredding Gen. Kernan’s glib remark that in a real war the US expeditionary force will stand-off in safety “over the horizon” while mounting an amphibious attack. Nonsense. Henceforth, in a real Gulf war situation there will be no standing off in safety. The Yakhonts missile has already erased the concept of the horizon, at least, within the Persian Gulf, and it has done so without ever having been fired in combat---yet.

Gen. Kernan should have known also that, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly and other sources, Iranian government officials were in Moscow the previous year (2001), shopping for the latest Russian anti-ship missile technology.7 By their own admission the Russians developed the Yakhonts missile for export. No doubt, it was high on Iran’s shopping list.

The 2000 GAO report’s conclusions were not favorable. It stated that for a variety of reasons the Navy’s forecasts for upgrading US ship defenses against cruise missile attack are overly optimistic. The Navy’s own data shows that there will be no silver bullet. The technology gap is structural, and will not be overcome for many years, if at all. US warships will be vulnerable to cruise missile attack into the foreseeable future, perhaps increasingly so.

But the GAO saved its most sobering conclusion for last: It so happens that the most vulnerable ship in the US fleet is none other than the flagship itself, the big Nimitz-class carriers. This underscores the significance of Force Red’s victory during Millennium Challenge. Just think: If Van Riper could accomplish what he did with Silkworms, the lowly scuds of the cruise missile family, imagine what could happen if the US Navy, sitting in the Gulf like so many ducks, should face a massed-attack of supersonic Yakhonts missiles, a weapon that may well be unstoppable.

It would be a debacle.

So we see that the 2002 US war games afforded a glimpse of the same military hubris that gave us the Viet Nam War and the current quagmire in Iraq. The difference is that the peril for the world today in the “Persian Lake” is many times greater than it ever was in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Mark Gaffney’s first book was a pioneering study of the Israeli nuke program. His latest is a best-selling book about early Christianity, Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes. Mark can be reached for comment at
Iran encounter grimly echoes '02 war game
Iran encounter grimly echoes '02 war game

By Thom Shanker
Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2008

WASHINGTON — There is a reason American military officers express grim concern over the tactics used by Iranian sailors last weekend: a classified, $250 million war game in which small, agile speedboats swarmed a naval convoy to inflict devastating damage on more powerful warships.

In the days since the encounter with five Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, American officers have acknowledged that they have been studying anew the lessons from a startling simulation conducted in August 2002. In that war game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships — an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels — when they were sunk to the bottom of the Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.

"The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack," said Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the war game as commander of a Red Team force representing an unnamed Gulf military. "The whole thing was over in 5, maybe 10 minutes."

If the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved to the public how terrorists could transform hijacked airliners into hostage-filled cruise missiles, then the "Millennium Challenge 2002" war game with Van Riper was a warning to the armed services as to how an adversary could apply similar, asymmetrical thinking to conflict at sea.

Van Riper said he complained at the time that important lessons of his simulated victory were not adequately acknowledged across the military. But other senior officers say the war game and subsequent analysis and exercises helped to focus attention on the threat posed by Iran's small, fast boats, and helped to prepare commanders for last weekend's encounter.

"It's clear, strategically, where the Iranian military has gone," Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Friday. "For the years that this strategic shift toward their small, fast boats has taken place, we've been very focused on that."

In the simulation, Van Riper sent wave after wave of relatively inexpensive speedboats to charge at the costlier, more advanced fleet approaching the Gulf. His force of small boats attacked with machine guns and rockets, reinforced with missiles launched from land and air. Some of the small boats were loaded with explosives to detonate alongside American warships in suicide attacks. That core tactic of swarming played out in real life last weekend, though on a much more limited scale and without any shots fired.

According to Pentagon and Navy officials, five small patrol boats belonging to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps charged a three-ship Navy convoy, maneuvering around and between an American destroyer, cruiser and frigate during a tense half-hour encounter. The location was where the narrow Strait of Hormuz meets the open waters of the Gulf — the same choke point chosen by Van Riper for his attack.

In the encounter last Sunday, the commander of one American warship trained an M240 machine gun — which fires upward of 10 armor-piercing slugs per second — on an Iranian boat that pulled within 200 yards of the American vessel. But the Iranians turned away before the commander gave the order to fire.

That was not the case in the simulation, sponsored by the military's Joint Forces Command. The victory of the force modeled after a Gulf state — a composite of Iran and Iraq — astounded sponsors of what was then the largest joint war-fighting exercise ever held, involving 13,500 military members and civilians battling in nine live exercise ranges in the United States, and double that many computer simulations to replicate a number of different battles.

Van Riper's attack was much more complex and sophisticated than anything that could have involved the Iranian boats last weekend. The broad outline of the 2002 war game was reported at the time, but in interviews since last weekend's episode, Van Riper and other officers have provided new details about the simulation.

In the war game, scores of adversary speedboats and larger naval vessels had been shadowing and hectoring the Blue Team fleet for days. The Blue Team defenses also faced cruise missiles fired simultaneously from land and from warplanes, as well as the swarm of speedboats firing heavy machine guns and rockets — and pulling alongside to detonate explosives on board.

When the Red Team sank much of the Blue navy despite the Blue navy's firing of guns and missiles, it illustrated a cheap way to beat a very expensive fleet. After the Blue force was sunk, the game was ordered to begin again, with the Blue Team eventually declared the victor.

In a telephone interview, Van Riper recalled that his idea of a swarming attack grew from Marine Corps studies of the natural world, where insects and animals — from tiny ant colonies to wolf packs — move in groups to overwhelm larger prey.

"It is not a matter of size or of individual capability, but whether you have the numbers and come from multiple directions in a short period of time," he said.

Although Washington and Tehran continue to duel over details of the encounter, American officials say the Iranians may have been seeking to provoke a violent confrontation as President George W. Bush was about to visit the region. Or, the officials say, they might have been hoping to test the American reaction. Yet there is no certainty that the encounter was ordered by the government in Tehran.

Pentagon officials on Friday said there were two encounters with small Iranian boats in the region last month. In one, a Navy warship fired warning shots and in the other a warning whistle was sounded. Both encounters ended without injury after the Iranian vessels turned away.

Regardless, American sailors have not forgotten how a small boat that hid among refueling and garbage vessels off a port in Yemen detonated alongside the American destroyer Cole in October 2000, killing 17 Americans and crippling the warship.