It was July 2002. Almost a year before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And the U.S. had just delivered terrorist-sponsoring Iran an ultimatum…
Its leadership had to step down within 24 hours — or face the wrath of the new American “pre-emption doctrine.”
A carrier battle group was sent into the Persian Gulf to menace Iranian shores. An amphibious assault force of combat-ready Marines steamed alongside. Some 20,000 sailors and Marines in all.
But Iran wouldn’t budge. They wouldn’t surrender. But how could a middleweight power like Iran stand a chance against a behemoth?
Iran’s military boss gathered his commanders… mulled his options… and hatched a plan…
The U.S. Navy entered the gulf ready to read the Iranians a severe lesson in American arms. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a blizzard of green blips filled the radar screens. Swarms of anti-ship missiles came zinging from all points — from land, from commercial vessels at sea, from low-flying planes that scooted in under the radar.
How could that be?
There were no warnings, no radio chatter, nothing to indicate an attack.
The fleet’s defenses leapt into action. But the arithmetic was impossible. They were swamped by the sheer volume of incoming.
As the missiles were unloading their lethal cargoes inside American hulls, an armada of small Iranian boats barreled toward the reeling American ships. All laden with explosives. And all on a one-way mission.
19 U.S. ships were on the bottom when the smoke cleared. The carrier, the escorts, the amphibious ships, the lot of them. 20,000 sailors and Marines went with them.
The American commander in charge of the operation wailed the Iranians had “sunk my damn Navy.”
“The whole thing was over in five, maybe 10 minutes,” the Iranian commander gloated.
The pre-emptors were themselves pre-empted.
Maybe you don’t recall any of the foregoing. There’s a reason why — it never actually happened.
It was part of Millennium Challenge ’02, a $250 million war game running from July–August, 2002. And the “Iranian” commander was very much an American — retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper.
But Van Riper knew his enemy to the roots of their teeth, their strengths… and their weaknesses. And he turned the enemy’s weakness against them. In other words, he acted like a real, thinking enemy would.
He exploited the Americans’ greatest weakness. He used pre-modern communications to evade the U.S.’ fancy electronic surveillance. Motorcycles relayed orders to the troops. Light signals directed airplanes to take off, not radios. The planes, once aloft, observed radio silence to further reduce their electronic signatures.
Once the carnage ended, Van Riper described the American mood as “an eerie silence. Like people didn’t really know what to do next.”
So what did they do next?
They pretended it didn’t happen. They “re-floated” the ships and started over. The Iranians had to follow the American script from there on in. They were ordered to leave their radars going so they could be destroyed, for example.
Frustrated by the rigged process, Van Riper stepped down six days into the exercise.
The American side told Van Riper he was “playing out of character.” “The [Iranians] would never have done what you did,” they bleated.
Just so. But several months before Sept. 11, 2001, someone proposed a war-game scenario in which terrorists flew a hijacked airliner into the Pentagon.
The powers that were rejected it as “unrealistic”.
Funny how realistic the unrealistic can get. A cautionary tale, perhaps…
The U.S. is connected to the world by vast networks of communications technology these days. But that very interconnectedness — a great strength — is at once a great weakness. The U.S. is vulnerable to weaker enemies who, like Gen. Van Riper, don’t “play by the rules.”
They can’t hope to win face to face. But if they can hit Achilles in the heel, like Paris of Greek mythology, even a runt can topple a giant.
America’s the modern-day Achilles, with its vulnerable heel. And there are plenty of Parises out there, lurking.
This story originally appeared in the Daily Reckoning