The View From Olympus: Fake Military Exercises

The mice of the Washington foreign policy establishment are trying to nibble around the edges of President Trump’s successful summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.  One of their squeaks is that the President gave up too much when he ordered the suspension of major U.S.-South Korean military exercises.  The June 16 New York Times reported that:

“You could probably cancel a single major exercise, like this one (Ulchi Freedom Guardian, planned for August) without doing major damage to the alliance and its readiness,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.

But that cannot become the standard… 

If several major war games were cancelled for more than a year, the impact could be significant, officials said.

Balderdash.  Giving up our joint war games with South Korea entails no military risk whatsoever.  Why?  Because the games are fake.

The reasons are two.  First, the enemy or Opposing Force (OPFOR) is trivial.  It is tiny, ill-armed and amounts to little more than a tethered goat.  It bears no relation to North Korea’s armed forces.  Second, the exercises are scripted.  The OPFOR has to lose; it’s in the script.  Real war is not scripted.  What makes war is the “independent, hostile will of the enemy.”  That is scripted out in these so called “war games”.  They may be games (with rigged outcomes), but they are not war.

A timely book speaks directly to the Korean war games.  American Cobra Pilot, written by Marine Captain Jeff Groom (and timed for release the day after he left the Corps) is the detailed account of one such exercise, Operation Ssang Young in 2014.  Its subtitle, appropriately, is “A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show.”  Right at the outset he records,

Before heading to my stateroom (on the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard), I attended a preliminary briefing for the exercise and as I scan my notes it dawns on me that I haven’t taken anything down on the enemy situation.I understand we were going to do some shooting at one of the southern ranges in the vicinity of Pohang.But there is no mention of the enemy.Nothing, the word “enemy” isn’t even written…

Luckily, as if almost from heaven above, my inbox populates and I read words of my salvation from our executive officer…

“Everyone needs to realize this is NOT a tactical exercise.  This is a political exercise to show that even in fiscally constrained times we (Uncle Sam) can still throw together a dozen ships and do a beach assault with all of our toys.  What actually makes it to the beach is mostly irrelevant…” 

I breathe a sigh of relief…There just isn’t an enemy situation.  None.  My life is so much easier now…

Later in the book, when Capt. Groom offers a detailed description of the exercise, he writes,

I found out after the exercise that there was actually a small contingent of South Korean soldiers playing the role of the enemy on the beach.  They dug some shallow holes about 50 meters from the water and waited to be run over.  I don’t know if they did their homework on that one, but even by the battle of Okinawa, the Japanese figured out it was more advantageous to move into the center of the island and wait.  But then again that would make it hard if not downright impossible to get a picture of both the opposing force and the amphibious landing at the same time.  Taking pictures is of course the main goal of the exercise.  The pictures are then edited and reported on by the propaganda division of the Marine Corps, the Public Affairs Office.

It is typical that Washington foreign policy types would accept this show as real.  They know nothing about war, and they peddle the same kind of baloney themselves, in a city where one hand washes the other.  But the fact of the matter is exactly as President Trump stated it: we lose nothing by cancelling the Korean war games, and we save many millions of taxpayer dollars.

Sadly, the factors that make the Korean exercises poor simulations of war affect almost all U.S. military training.  The OPFOR is trivial and even that small force is constrained to follow a script in which it just sits there and gets pounded.

Decades ago, on a visit to the Army’s supposedly premier school, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Ft. Leavenworth (God help us if it is), the students were playing a war game set in the Persian Gulf.  The OPFOR was two majors with a tiny force.  I met with them and suggested some things they could do, small as their force was, that would cause the Americans some problems.  They got excited but said, “we have to ask permission.”  (Obviously, this was not the Kriegsakademie.)  They came back to me and said, “We were told, just follow the script.”

There is an old military saying, you fight the way you train.  We will, whether we want to or not.

 

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like?  Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.