War Gaming Iraq: Seven Years Later

Operation Millennium Challenge, perhaps the most lavish war gaming exercise in U.S. military history, was conducted in late 2002.  The enemy in this war game was a rogue commander in the Middle East.  Even more interesting is the date when the plans for Millennium Challenge were hatched. Seven years after the invasion of Iraq, we're still there. It seems clear that an attack on Iraq was planned well before America was attacked on 9/11. It also seems clear that anyone with any influence on the operation ignored all the warning signs of failure.


Paul Van Riper was a very successful company commander in Vietnam. Everyone who knew him respected him. He achieved great success against the Vietcong armies in his area of operations.  His study of war tactics made him almost a walking encyclopedia.  He wasn't surprised then when, in 2002, he was invited by Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) to participate in Operation Millennium Challenge.  According to the gaming scenario:
A rogue military commander was threatening to engulf the entire [Middle East] region in war.  He had a considerable power base from strong religious and ethnic loyalties, and he was harboring and sponsoring four different terrorist organizations.  He was virulently anti-American.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, p. 102

Sounds like they were talking about Saddam Hussein, don't you think?

Paul Van Riper was asked to play the part of the "rogue commander". The American forces filled the Persian Gulf and prepared to storm the rogue commander's territory. Before they knew what hit them, however, Van Riper
Without warning...launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles, overwhelming the Blue forces' electronic sensors, destroying sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five out of the six amphibious ships. The equivalent of this success in a real conflict would have resulted in the death of over 20,000 service personnel. Soon after the cruise missile offensive, another significant portion of Blue's navy was "sunk" by an armada of small Red boats carrying out both conventional and suicide attacks, able to engage Blue forces due to Blue's inability to detect them as well as expected.

As JFCOM's friendly forces took out Van Riper's communication links, Van Riper improvised by using couriers and signal lights to continue to take the fight to the enemy. JFCOM was flabbergasted.

How did JFCOM react to having been drubbed by the rogue commander? They halted the exercise. They made several new rules of engagement, including that Van Riper could no longer use any of the tactics that he had previously used. JFCOM couldn't imagine that their intended enemy could be so smart. Assuring them that their enemy could indeed be so smart, Van Riper resigned from the war gaming exercise in utter disgust, stating that the $250 million spent on the exercise was essentially a complete waste.

The next year, American forces thundered into Iraq to take out the rogue commander Saddam Hussein. After apparently very light resistance, American forces occupied Baghdad. America shortly thereafter declared victory and prepared plans to rebuild the nation of Iraq.

That was seven years ago, and we are still there. It looks like Paul Van Riper was right. We severely underestimated our enemy.

What makes Millennium Challenge even more interesting, though, is when the plans for the war gaming exercise began. Paul Van Riper, who had retired after a long and distinguished career in the military, was approached by Pentagon personnel in the Spring of 2000--almost a year and a half before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--to take part in the war game seemingly tailor-made for attacking Saddam Hussein.

 I've never really thought that United States foreign policy would have been much different had Al Gore been President in 2001 instead of George Bush.  Now that I know more about Operation Millennium Challenge, I'm pretty sure I'm right.  The wheels for attacking Iraq seem to have already been put in motion during the Bill Clinton administration.

If we derived any benefit from these exercises, baleful both in the planning and reality phases, I hope it's that we learned that America should never have gone to Iraq in the first place.  Unfortunately for us however, it seems to have already been a foregone conclusion.


  1. I hate to break it to you, but the military plans war games for a variety of different scenarios, including the likely and unlikely ones. None of them means that war is any more likely or unlikely with that country. It simply means the our military is prepared to excecute a wide variety of political decisions. Please see this post from a visiting professor at the Army War College for more:

  2. Morgan: The War Game beneath the link you provide seems to be talking about something that is both far fetched and far into the future. I have no proof that Millennium Challenge was specifically about Saddam Hussein, but if not, it's surely ironic (coincidental?) that that scenario so closely resembled the reality of attack only about a year later.

  3. Whether this specific war game was explicitly designed to prepare for the Iraq invasion, I don't know. What I do know is that invading Iraq was a colossal mistake and that we have not learned our lesson and are likely to repeat it.

    Even if it were morally defensible to invade and occupy other countries because their leaders don't follow orders from Washington, we simply cannot afford imperial ambition. The world needs a policeman, but the American taxpayer should not be saddled with the cost.

  4. 9/11 has yet to have an unbiased investigation. Isn't it time?


  5. What is the difference between a game and a puzzle?


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