Among defense insiders, Millennium Challenge 2002 stands out as one of the most controversial red team exercises in American military history. MC2002 suspiciously resembled the looming invasion of Iraq, as it involved a conventional BLUE force facing RED military forces of a small Middle Eastern nation. In theory, either side could win the free play exercise–but it was no secret that the stakes were extremely high. Facing a massive BLUE air/ground force, RED force commander Marine Corps Lt. Gen Paul Van Riper gave a coded signal for civilian boats swarming around US coastal bases, ships, and air units to attack. His deft usage of suicide attacks and anti-ship missiles caught BLUE by surprise, inflicting steep losses on their invasion fleet.
When electronic warfare planes fried Van Riper’s communications, he used mosques and motorcycle messengers to command his subordinates. At this point, Van Riper claims that the military fixed the outcome in order to avoid an embarrassing loss. The threat from swarming attacks was later vindicated by multiple incidents in the Straits of Hormuz in 2007 and 2008 featuring the use of Iranian fast craft to harry slower-moving ships. For homeland security, Millennium Challenge 2002 is more than just a disputed wargame. MC2002 is a painful reminder of war’s dangerously nonlinear nature and the need to embrace similarly unorthodox measures to counter emerging threats.
An adaptive human mind that frustrates elaborately laid plans is the most dangerous weapon an opponent can employ. If necessity is the mother of invention, danger similarly unlocks flexibility and creativity in some individuals. Unfortunately, many of them are on the other side. Weaker opponents will rarely ever fight us in a manner that allows us to bring all of our advantages into play. Like Van Riper, asymmetric opponents will counter by targeting weaknesses and employing innovative strategies. We also do ourselves no favors by handicapping ourselves with the erroneous projection of BLUE force strategic culture, doctrine, and decision-making onto an opponent.
Fortunately, there have been many advances in the construction of tactical and operational adaptability. The Terrorism Research Center (TRC) takes police, military, and other security professionals to specialized training grounds where they consume jihadi literature, learn the adversary’s assassination and ambush techniques, and develop operational plans. The real importance of such learning is to situate the participant outside his or her organizational and cultural context, which can often stifle innovative thinking. Homeland security professionals can also use tactical decision games (TDGs) and free play games developed as part of Major (ret) Donald E. Vandergriff’s Adaptive Leadership Methodology (ALM). These games focus on improving implicit decision-making and creating a common orientation among security professionals. In the purely intellectual realm, analytical red-teaming—the challenge of old concepts or formulation of alternative analysis–also can cover a wide range of outcomes from terrorism to criminal insurgency. The last topic is one of increasing importance, as the bloody cartel conflict against the Mexican government shows signs of crossing the border.
Perhaps the best means of preventing strategic surprise, however, is to look to the future. Futures working groups on seemingly esoteric technological, political, and social subjects can help to anticipate emerging threats and opposing force capabilities. While it’s impossible to create a completely accurate and holistic long-term portrait of the future, the process is more important than the outcome. Debating, planning, and examining multiple futures and strategic narratives creates a nimble mindset that can deal with divergent change.
We can never prepare for every eventuality. But sustained training and investment in analysis can create the conditions for us to both respond to wild card events and perhaps even anticipate them. For that reason, we need many more Millennium Challenges to expose the gaps in our knowledge and point the way to a means of vitality and growth.