7 years ago: Red leader

April 25, 2006, on this blog: Red leader

By all accounts, Van Riper is a wily general, but his approach to the Millennium Challenge shouldn’t have been all that surprising to people in Washington — a city that is, after all, named after a general who defeated a superpower by fighting asymmetrically. (“Asymmetric” is the current buzzword for the no-duh realization, as old at least as the Book of Judges, that it doesn’t make much sense to go toe-to-toe in open battle with an obviously superior army.) But not only was the Pentagon braintrust flummoxed by Van Riper in the war game, they were just as surprised, months later during the actual invasion, when Iraqi insurgents began employing many of these same tactics. This was, they said, just another one of those calamities that “no one could have predicted.” Except that everybody had.

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  • ns

    Why does that post show up as “by kruthar”? Who is kruthar?

  • Rakka

    Sounds like someone with mighty thews.

  • I remember reading about this Millennium Challenge ’02 many years ago while sitting in a jury duty waiting lounge. More than anything else, that undermined my willingness to trust the Bush administration on their justification for an Iraq invasion. Given how much they prepared for the conflict, when it came time to actually justify it, it felt like a rationalization of a course of action they had already decided to go ahead with.

    As for the people who “rigged” the war games such that it made the American military look good, I get the feeling that they were trying to cover their own asses to their own higher ups. Unfortunately, they missed the point of war games (the expense of which I would defend as being necessary for military preparedness reasons) is to figure out where the weak points in the planning and doctrine are before any potential conflict breaks out. That way when the fecal matter does hit the rotary air impeller, fewer lives and material are lost due to “bugs in the system” of the military structure.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Oh, man, it’s taken me seven years to get the Star Wars reference. /hangs head

  • MaryKaye

    This story reminds me of the anecdote in Feynman’s autobiography where he found that it was rather easy to pick the locks of safes in Los Alamos, especially if he got a look at them while they were open. He dutifully informed his superiors of this serious security problem, and they sent around a memo which said: Don’t let Dick Feynman near your safe!

    I have seen my own institution do this kind of thing too. It seems endemic to big institutions. Feynman does note in another book that one part of the Space Shuttle process (I think the software engineering) was enormously more robust than the others due to a design process that was not tolerant of goalpost-moving and other self-deceptions; but I don’t know how to get that kind of culture if you don’t have it. (Neither does my institution, which got slammed for Medicaid fraud but has probably not corrected the underlying cultural problem that made it happen.)

  • David S.

    I thought the memo told people to keep their safes closed. As that was a pain in the ass, the people involved directed their frustration at Feynman. It’s not just big institutions; there’s a clash between what’s secure and what’s convenient everywhere, and the compromise is hard to make. In reality, given how open the Manhattan Project was internally, it probably wasn’t a serious security problem.

    One problem is, goal posts have to move sometimes. Part of the problem with the Space Shuttle (and many programs like it) is the 1:100,000 failure ratio that the management expected. (Engineers figured on 1:300; reality gave us one failure per 100 launches.) That was not possible, so aiming for it required stopping the program (unacceptable) or bending the numbers. That was part of the case in the war games; if your options are declare Iraq impossible (unacceptable) or return unacceptable casualty reports, the only option is to cheat. It’s the Kobayashi Maru, and everyone, just like Kirk, is willing to cheat if that’s what it takes to win.