Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fighting Like Insurgents: When the Bad Guys Win

When I was in my operational squadron, one of my favorite missions was being assigned as the Red Flight Lead.  For those unfamiliar with the military nomenclature, Blue forces are the good guys, and Red forces simulate the bad guys.  (Interestingly, the Chinese military plays along with this differentiation in their war-gaming as well.  They, as the "good" guys, are the Red Team and the "enemy" -- read America -- is the Blue Team.  At least we agree on something...)

Do I Look Like a Pushover?
Normally, being the Red Lead was a benign, scripted role.  But for me, it was the one chance I got to really put our Blue tactics to the test, and see how they worked against a thinking, adaptable and capable foe.  More often than not, the maneuvers and crazy shenanigans I pulled either wiped out the Blue fighters, or left them utterly confused.  More importantly, it made me think long and hard about how we employ our own fighters, and how we can be more lethal against wily adversaries.

My theory was this: when we go to war, we'll be facing an enemy that wants to win, and live, just as much as we do.  They will adapt to our tactics, and exploit our deficiencies.  It's unlikely they will simply drone ahead and be mowed over by superior technology time and again.  The history of warfare, especially the past ten years, has shown that a technologically inferior foe can overcome that disadvantage quite easily by being unpredictable and not conforming to the assumptions made by Blue forces.
This did not sit well with many of the training officers in other squadrons.  They questioned how accurate the representations were.  I was asked to tone it down -- and I did.  But every once in a while a free play, non-syllabus air-to-air hop would come up, and I'd be at it again.  The schedule writers stopped putting me on to lead the Red events, unless they really wanted to make someone sweat.

Humans, and fighter pilots especially, are a competitive bunch.  We don't like to lose, and be made to look like fools.  But from failure comes immense learning.

Below the Hard Deck Does not Count
A few weeks ago, my Executive Officer and I had a bit of extra gas and decided to mix it up, 1v1 dogfighting style.  Normally we begin fights from canned, neutral positioning.  This time we both came full speed at each other from different altitudes, and the start was a sight picture I had never seen before.  It forced both of us to react to the unknown and adapt within milliseconds.  It was the most useful training I've had in years.  In the end I lost -- out of airspeed, out of altitude, out of ideas with a perfect gun shot staring me down -- but much was learned. 

Sadly, military culture would rather show impressive victories, however contrived, than admit failure and adapt.  What I experienced as the Red Lead was this culture writ small.

In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called "How David Beats Goliath: When Underdogs Break the Rules." Among the many fascinating examples he cites, the one that caught my eye was about a civilian, completely unversed in the ways of fleet tactics, who entered a wargaming competition against seasoned, strategic military minds.  He won.

To be sure, his tactics were quite unorthodox.  Indeed, his way to victory was even considered morally questionable -- to maintain speed and flexibility, he sank or abandoned his crippled ships.  But in the end, he was victorious.  And in a shooting war, isn't that the most important outcome?  To make the other poor bastard die for his country?

After the first round, the rules of this "free-play" exercise were changed to prohibit his tactics.  He still ended up winning, and once again, the tack he took was outlawed for future competitions.  He decided to "gracefully bow out" rather than take part in an unimaginative event.  The next winners exhibited the tactics of a traditionally massed and encircled fleet.  They were duly praised. 

Some things to note from Galdwell:

1.  Insurgents work harder than Goliath
2.  Insurgents challenge conventions about how a battle is to be fought
3.  You can't fight the establishment if you are the establishment
4.  When an underdog fights like David, he usually wins

The same rejection of unorthodox tactics was displayed by the entrenched bureaucracy during Millennium Challenge 2002.  I'm just gonna go ahead and quote the whole Wikipedia entry -- it's worth the read and proves the entire thesis of this post. Things to note:  When Blue got crushed, they started over and pretended they hadn't lost.  Then they changed the rules so Blue would win:

Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper, used old methods to evade Blue's sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World War II light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications.
I Sank Your Battleship
Red received an ultimatum from Blue, essentially a surrender document, demanding a response within 24 hours. Thus warned of Blue's approach, Red used a fleet of small boats to determine the position of Blue's fleet by the second day of the exercise. In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces' electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths 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, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue's inability to detect them as well as expected.
At this point, the exercise was suspended, Blue's ships were "re-floated", and the rules of engagement were changed; this was later justified by General Peter Pace as follows: "You kill me in the first day and I sit there for the next 13 days doing nothing, or you put me back to life and you get 13 more days' worth of experiment out of me. Which is a better way to do it?" After the reset, both sides were ordered to follow predetermined plans of action, leading to allegations that the exercise was scripted and "$250 million was wasted". Due to his concerns about the scripted nature of the new exercise, Van Riper resigned his position in the midst of the war game. Van Riper later expressed concern that the wargame's purpose had shifted to reinforce existing doctrine and notions of infallibility within the U.S. military rather than serve as a learning experience. He was quoted in the ZDF–New York Times documentary The Perfect War as saying that what he saw in MC02 echoed the same view promoted by the Department of Defense under Robert McNamara before and during the Vietnam War, namely that the U.S. military could not and would not be defeated. (Emphasis added)
$388 Billion Can't be Wrong
We just never learn our lesson.  General Billy Mitchell predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor in the 1920s by carrier based aircraft -- and was summarily dismissed as crazy by the Battleship Admirals.  He was tragically proved right in 1941.  Time and again we are blinded by our inability to recognize our own fallibility at the hands of innovative foes.

In an era when we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on "game-changing" technologies like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, we should remember that old adage by Col John Boyd: "Machines don't fight wars.  People do, and they use their minds."

I'll take a courageous, bold and innovative Red leader over a multi-billion dollar Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex Blue product any day.  Technology is useful, but someone who knows how to exploit overconfidence and orthodox tactics is priceless. 

1 comment:

  1. A great example of what can happen when wargaming is not a frank, critical exercise can be found in Jonathon Parshall and Anothony Tully's "Shattered Sword," where they examine Japanese war games conducted before Midway