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Millennium Challenge: When the US Navy Lost a Simulated War With Iran

Washington (GPA) – In 2002 the US Navy carried out war games with one team acting as Iran in a hypothetical conflict.

The Navy exercise, known as Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC02), was meant to simulate a war between the US (the ‘Blue’ team) and an unnamed middle eastern nation (the ‘Red’ team) presumed to be Iran. The Blue team was tasked with winning a war with this unnamed country using the latest technology at the time and its use in “network-based” warfare.

The Red team, led by Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, was given the task of trying to stop the simulated US invasion using non-conventional tactics and asymmetrical warfare. The Red team had to work without the cutting edge of US military technology and also had to adapt to the extensive capabilities of the Blue team.

The drills were expected to be a quick show of US force and technological supremacy over a savvy but ill-equipped enemy. With this in mind, the Blue team began the exercise by demanding the Red team surrender, and it all went downhill from there.

US Military and Intelligence Incompetence

The first move by the Blue team was to demand Red surrender within 24 hours, but by the time this ultimatum was issued, it was already too late for Blue. The Red team, realizing this was the signal for an impending attack decided to cut off the naval threat before any actions could take place.

Using a fleet of small and fast boats, Red scouted out the location of Blue’s naval fleet without being detected by the high-end surveillance equipment. Once the position of the Blue fleet was established, Red let loose a salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the fleet’s sensors.

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This initial cruise missile salvo “sunk” several ships in the Blue fleet. Had this been a real conflict, the sinking of these vessels alone would’ve been an embarrassment, but the cruise missiles were just the beginning.

Shortly after the missile salvo, Red deployed more speedboats, similar to those currently used by Iran. These boats used a combination of suicide and conventional tactics. The navy couldn’t track these ships, resulting in more losses from suicide bombings and Silkworm missiles fired at high-value targets.

This second attack on the US fleet saw the total count of destroyed Blue ships rose to 16, including one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious vehicles. The Blue fleet had no warning of this second attack due to the launch being signaled in code through calls to prayer at Mosques in the area, something entirely missed by naval intelligence.

Naval intelligence also failed to intercept other Red team communications that they had assumed would be through modern channels susceptible to eavesdropping.

Light aircraft accompanied the wave of speedboats which the Blue team didn’t even know were taking off, due to Red using light signals instead of radio to coordinate takeoffs and landings. Red also delivered messages to front-line commanders via motorcycle messengers, leaving Blue incapable of intercepting any orders.

It can’t be overstated that this opening attack by red “sank” 16 of the world’s most expensive ships at relatively low cost to Red team. Not only that but if these vessels were sunk during a real conflict, the casualties would be expected to clock in near 20,000.

Navy of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution commandos and missile boats in Great Prophet IX Maneuver in the general area of Strait of Hormuz, Persian Gulf.
Credit: sayyed shahab-o- din vajedi

‘Blue Team Must Win’

Obviously, these opening maneuvers by Van Riper’s Red team were a massive embarrassment to the Navy. Following the massive losses, the Blue team command called for a “pause” in the games to rewrite the rules of engagement.

This wasn’t just a change to the rules of the exercise but basically a script forced on the Red team to facilitate a victory for Blue. Not only did the Blue team get all their soldiers and ships back from the dead, but they also were placed on a new playing field.

Following this retooling of the “realistic simulation,” Red was placed under a ridiculous amount of restrictions to ensure a victory for Blue. At one point the Red team was even told to disclose locations of and withdraw their front line troops to allow Blue team to land troops.

Red was also forced to turn on their previously unutilized anti-aircraft systems so Blue could locate and destroy them. Even if the anti-air systems had time to take down some US aircraft, it didn’t even matter because Van Riper was told not to shoot down Blue’s aircraft.

Related: Hostile Posturing Towards Iran Proves U.S. Losing Grip On Power

Van Riper was also equipped with chemical weapons that he had managed to hide from the Blue team by finding ways to keep them moving covertly. Yet Red was told not to use these weapons and later was ordered to let the Blue team “discover” and destroy them.

Despite all this blatant cheating, the Pentagon still declared the Blue team’s victory as a shining example of US military superiority. Von Riper was so dismayed by the rigging of the games, he spent the final weeks on the sidelines refusing to indulge the Navy’s fantasies.

Von Riper spoke to the media after the drills saying they were “rigged from the outset” and that the exercise had been a waste of $250 million from which “nothing was learned”. According to Von Riper the wargame was originally “described as free play. In other words, two sides were trying to win.”

The Pentagon has yet to take any lessons to heart from MC02 and continues to attempt to wage wars with the same tired frontal assault and counterinsurgency tactics. Iran has surprised US naval assets in real life since the exercises with similar tactics to Von Riper’s boat fleet.

This is also the same US Navy that can’t seem to stop themselves from colliding with other ships, led by commanders from Iraq and Afghanistan who still have no new strategies in those countries. So if the US truly wants a war with Iran, perhaps they should think long and hard on the idea and make sure MC02 factors into their decision-making process.


Also published on Medium.