Why War Games Fail

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Mon, Nov 17 - 9:00 am EST | 4 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - War Games

Yeah, you asked for it; another Lieutenant Reilly story. One more time: “NTINS.”

But first a little background.

On 3 June, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy possessed six fleet carriers, those being the arm of decision in the greatest naval war in human history. A day later, she had two. The rest were smoking or burning, derelict or sunken, corpse-filled, in any case, wrecks.

Prior to launching the campaign that culminated in the disaster at Midway, the IJN tested the plan via tabletop war gaming, aboard the battleship Yamato. There’s an urban legend that the games were fixed to give the desired results. That doesn’t seem to be quite true, rather, it seems that the umpires decided that some results – major hits on maneuvering warships from high flying bombers, were simply too unlikely to permit to stand, and corrected them. At a bare minimum, though, we can say that the games showed the operation as risky, and the risks were pretty much ignored.1

I didn’t see that, of course, I also didn’t see, but heard from credible sources, that a retired colonel, at the War College in 2004, using unconventional methods (like, oh, say, the kind of stuff the Iraqi insurgents were soon to start pulling on us), inflicted vast humiliation on some flag officers and brought into serious question any number of military and naval sacred cows, until the war game was reset, with his unconventional approached disallowed.

On the other hand, twenty-one years before that, I saw young Reilly do much the same thing, though to precisely the same result.


It started innocently enough, in the course of playing the old 193rd Infantry Brigade’s (Canal Zone) Command Post War Game, in what had once been a jet engine testing and repair facility, concrete and deeply set into the ground. The CPW was credibly alleged to be the most complex non-computerized war game in the world at the time. Reilly was one half of the OPFOR (Opposing Force) team, for the Pacific side of the Canal Zone2 and Panama. The other half of the team was on the other half of the clock, so it was, for twelve hours or so a day, Reilly almost unsupervised.

I’m not sure anyone but myself understood just how dangerous a prospect that could turn out to be.

In perusing the map, Reilly noticed that a) as was their wont, insofar as limited intelligence was portrayed on the OPFOR map, the US forces were mostly taking the fight to the enemy, deep in the jungle; they had also dragged the Panamanian forces along with them, and b) there was a pin representing a US military unit, stuck in the open courtyard of a building on the map3 that he knew was the Palacio de las Garzas, the Palace of the Herons, Panama’s presidential palace. This was at a time when the United States and Panama were pretending to be best buddies, so it was a combined exercise, with Panamanian players on the US side.

Reilly pulled the pin out of the map and read it: “79th US Army Band.” He twirled the pin between his finger and thumb for a while, apparently musing on the implications. Then he replaced it and went to find the Observer Controller, in effect the Umpire, for the game on the Pacific side. I am pretty sure he was already thinking, 1964, the year of the deadly4 Panama Canal riots.

“When’s the concert, sir?” asked Reilly, of the brigade staff major.


“The 79th Army Band is at the presidential palace. When’s the concert?”

“Dunno. Concert, huh? I’ll get back with you.”

About four hours later, the major came back and gave Reilly the time for the concert.

“Any idea about the attendees, sir?”

“Sadly not, Lieutenant.”

“Oh, well, we all have these little crosses to bear. Thanks, sir. Now let me go find my battalion commander.”

Reilly then wandered off, looking for the chief of OPFOR for both sides of Panama, Atlantic and Pacific, who was also his battalion commander in real life.

“I want to attack the presidential palace, sir. Here’s why…” and he explained the significance of the pin in the palace.

“Okay,” agreed the chief of the OPFOR. “What are you going to use and how are you going to get there?”

“Two sections of 120s, two infantry platoons, and I’ll block a road or two and seize Chiva Chiva5 buses until I have enough to carry everyone and the ammo for the mortars… starting in, oh, maybe an hour.”

“Go for it.”


The subsequent attack, a serious mortar barrage followed by a ground assault to finish off the wounded, killed… mmm… I want to say about one hundred and twenty-five innocent women and children, all from well-connected families, the commander and XO of the Panama Defense Force, along with the G1, G2, G3, G4, and G5, the mayor of Panama City, both vice presidents, and seriously wounded the president. Most of the legislature was killed, too. Why did the president – Espriella – live?

“Look, Lieutenant Reilly, this is real world political. We simply cannot let you off the head of an allied state. We. Can’t. Do. It.”

“Bu’… bu’… buu’… Oh, all &^%ing right. I’ll make do.”

Thereupon, Reilly went to his battalion commander, passing on the way several Panamanian officers just tickled pink – we are talking rolling on the floor, laughing, here – at the destruction of a whole bunch of corrupt bastards they didn’t like anyway. To his battalion commander, Reilly said, “Rioting is, in Panama, a cultural mandate, a sacred calling, a duty… and a matter of rest and recreation.”

With raised eyebrow and no little exasperation, the chief of OPFOR said, “Out with it, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir. The government of the Republic of Panama and Panama Defense Force, both, are decapitated. US forces – operating outside the Canal Zone – are spread out over several thousand miles of mostly trackless jungle, as are the infantry companies of the PDF. It took days to deploy them. There are not enough helicopters in country to return the troops anything like quickly.”

“Yeah, and so?”

“So I want to start a riot.”

“It’s not in the rule book.”

“Yes, sir. So?”

“Good point. Tell me how it’s going to work.”

Reilly produced several hundred flagged pins, yellow in color, I seem to recall, that no one had ever used in the game. No one seemed even to know what they were supposed to be used for.

“These, sir. I’ll start with one in Arraijan” – that being a largish town a couple of miles west of Howard Air Force Base and Fort Kobbe, about five miles by road – “and one in Chorillo and Curundu” – those being poor areas; I mean really poor – “in Panama City, plus maybe a demonstration that can get out of hand at Panama Viejo” – which was the ruins left by the attack of Henry Morgan’s pirates in 1671 – “and increase them geometrically, say, oh, on the half hour. The Atlantic side players can do the same thing for Colon. Let’s say each pin is one hundred “peaceful demonstrators.” When they reach critical mass, defined as either I can’t find a place to stick any more pins, or the pins times one hundred is twenty-five percent of the male population of the place of origination between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, plus some women, at least, I’ll use my ‘troops’ as rabble rousers to lead them into the Canal Zone and trash the place. I mean, you know, I’ve still got the Chiva Chiva buses so why not? And once I get the fuel facilities and motor pools, there’ll be no helicopters, or trucks for that matter, moving any troops anywhere. The war will be over. Viva la Revolución!”

Viva! Do it.”

Next week: Why War Games Fail, Part II (AKA: How a first lieutenant can annoy at least one general, twenty-eight colonels, a like number of lieutenant colonels, one Air Force major, and foreigners beyond counting… without really trying.)


1 Someone once observed that history is a set of lies mutually agreed on. That would be fine, I suppose, except that, with so many people needing subjects for their Doctoral Theses, none of the lies can be agreed on anymore and every truth has come open for question or has been lied about. Me, I dunno. I know there was a war game, that the results were disastrous, that those were overridden, and that the real battle was a disaster. Beyond that… ???

2 Note, at the time it was already the “Canal Operating Area,” just as the 193d has changed from “Canal Zone” to “Panama.” But I’m going to pretend that Jiminy Peanut, the nation’s worst ex-president, never happened, for the nonce. Indulge me.

3 These were highly detailed maps. I want to say the scale was 1/6250. Might have been 1/3125.

4 They were bad and the Army was badly unprepared. There were four US troops killed, and something between twenty-one a couple of hundred Panamanians. No one really knows.

5 The term seems to originate outside of Panama. It means goat, and probably refers to the buses going up steep and wretched mountain roads to service rural areas.

Don’t miss last week’s column: Why Us? The Military and Humanitarian Assistance.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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  • Ori Pomerantz

    I am working on a book about individual biases and the fallacies they enable, “Don’t Make Yourself Stupid”. I think there should be another book about how organizations make themselves stupider than their constituent individuals.

    • Tom Kratman

      One of the things I like to say from time to time, Ori, is, “Patton was full of shit. An army is not a team; it’s a mob, a heavily armed mob with a sense of purpose and specially trained rabble rousers. Know how to determine the IQ of a mob?”

    • Harry_the_Horrible

      The IQ of a mob is equal to that the smartest person in it, minus one for each member of the mob.

    • Tom Kratman

      That would at least be within an order of magnitude – minitude? – of the method I use: take the average IQ of all the members in the mob, and divide by the number of people in the mob.

    • Kevin Crowley

      I thought it was the lowestIQ divided by the square of the number of limbs.

    • Tom Kratman

      That would also be in the right general range.

  • James/G

    I think I’m about to wet myself…

    You do realize that the title is completely wrong. It should be ‘How to win while making you superiors look like $#!t’.

    I have told this tale a few times…

    My outfit was given the job of holding a bridge, using certain materials and assets. My outfit was a section of TOW PLT 6th Marines. One of the assets was Artillery.

    Now, before I tell the rest of my tale, let me explain something about LTs and tactical excercizes. They are always meant to be no-win scenarios, so that officers look like geniuses compared to Enlisted men, in particular NCOs, at leaaast, that’s how it always seemed to me…

    Anyhow, the Marines of TOW Platoon set about figuring out how to stop a mechanized attack by a Soviet Regiment(Remember, this was in the Eighties), and pretty much stayed with conventional practice: The few mines available lace at fording points, some Demo on the bridge, fake minefields, and Artillery targeted on specific points…

    It came to be my turn. “I use the artillery to lay in fast and dirty Minefields here, here, and here, and channel the tanks and BMDs into kill zones for the TOWs.”

    After a moment of silence, the Platoon Commander, Lt Milquetoast(Not Real Name) declared it would not work, because ‘It takes several hours of careful calculation before even one round of the Artillery-Scattered Mines could be fired’. I was actually threatened with a court-martial when I tried to present my counter-arguments. in thirty+ years, only one person has ever come up with a satisfactory argument against my plan to protect a bridge…

    • Tom Kratman

      Nothing wrong with the plan, per se and in theory, but even short duration FASCAM is likely to be employed only on the authority of the corps commander, which he might or might not delegate to a division commander. He’s not going to delegate it to you or your lieutenant. It’s partly a function of limited amounts of FASCAM ammunition available, partly that it ties up a lot of artillery for quite a while, which is not only dangerous for the redlegs, but may deprive other units of much needed fire aupport, and partly because any given bridge the corps commander just might need to support his scheme of maneuver.

  • Harry_the_Horrible

    What a guy! He should been a General, no Chief of Staff. Or even SecDef!

    • Tom Kratman

      Maybe not.

  • Thomas Monaghan

    Tom the War College in 2004 game was made into an episode of JAG a few years ago.

    • Tom Kratman

      Was it? I hope the colonel who trashed them made a buck on it.

    • Thomas Monaghan

      Are you sure about the date?http://jag.djmed.net/168/ready-or-not-166/

      This was a 2002 play date. Harm (H), of the JAG office, defended Marine Maj Gen Lucas West (red team) who had been charged with disobeying the orders of Army Lt Genl Anthony Manzarek (joint ops leader) when he won a war game which he claimed was “rigged.” West had used small zodiac boats, his troops had shoulder fired missiles and corporate jets were loaded with fuel and TNT to run directly at the battle group and disable it; none of which set well with Manzarek.

    • Tom Kratman

      Pretty sure.

    • Thomas Monaghan

      I did a quick google. War games rigged? General says Millennium Challenge 02 ‘was almost entirely scripted’

    • Tom Kratman

      I believe that the thing being scripted was the failed intent.

    • Thomas Monaghan

      It’s amazing how that incident that happened in 2002 and got converted into a tv episode the same year.

    • Tom Kratman

      It may not have. It may be a case of serendipity, or modified serendipity, wherein they had a basic idea which they did a quick mod of, after hearing about the game.

    • Thomas Monaghan

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Challenge_2002 Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper,

    • Tom Kratman

      Carlisle’s is Unified Quest, not Millenium Challenge.

  • http://www.simplesurvival.us/ Cincinnatus

    Lt Reilly stories are the best. He sounds like an XO I once had in my Troop who ended up getting out of the Army still a 1LT because he just plain kept making his superiors look stupid with his ideas and we just can’t have that.

    • Tom Kratman

      You can be forgiven for being wrong. You will never be forgiven for being right. BTDT.

    • cjleete

      In my sailor days, I was surrounded by very talented men who were always right but never promoted.

    • James/G

      Maybe a Book is in Order, with LT Reilly being used for every true story we have all heard…

  • Matt P

    As you know, I have several similar stories to Reilly’s about war gaming against the brass. They DON’T like for the flaws in their plans to be laid bare.

    • Tom Kratman

      Yep, but in this particular case it was probably even worse, because Reilly was demonstrating a flaw in thinking at the very highest levels, which flaw had endured over the course of decades. It was, in other words, a systemic flaw, and those cannot be allowed exposure to sunlight.

      Not that _he_ was thinking that way, of course; he was just being his usual difficult self.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      Let me see if I understand the anti-syllogism correctly.

      * Our thinking is flawed
      * The enemy will expose the flaws in our thinking


      * Anybody who exposes flaws in our thinking is an enemy

    • Tom Kratman

      Not really.

      There are a couple of different ways to look at it. The primary enemy was clearly Panama, whatever illusions we tried to present. They could be overawed by bluff, which is sort of what we did. The bluff _was_ exposed, but in a way the Panamanians couldn’t really exploit, because the enemy was their enemy, too.

      The other problem, I think, is that generations of flag officers had briefed generations of politicos, to include presidents, that the canal could be secured and how, without ever really thinking about how…and how not. So the quasi-syllogism was more like:

      Our thinking has been flawed.
      We think as we do because of the system in which we were trained
      Therefore the system is flawed and…
      Oh, crap, don’t day that!

    • Ori Pomerantz

      After this exercise, did they order more of a guard on the motor pools and fuel depots?

    • Tom Kratman

      With what and at what cost in training? The troops just didn’t exist.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      When you were a senior officer, had you an unfixable flaw in your defense plan for your assigned territory, what would you have done? Admitted it to your troops, or tried to keep it a secret?

    • Tom Kratman

      Found a way around it. If I couldn’t, I’d have told them.

  • John B

    What are the chances we will get to read a complete biography of Lt Reilly? Based on his other appearances in your work (which I truly hope have some basis in reality, except of course the end of M-Day), it would probably be a hell of a good read.

    • Tom Kratman

      I’m not sure anyone knows the entire story.

  • TBR

    You are making your Reilly the “anti-McAuslan”…

    • Tom Kratman

      One cannot _make_ a Reilly.

  • Al Lock

    LMAO – as a young 2LT, I was left in charge of the OPFOR on the last day of an exercise as the senior officers prepared to debrief the next day. We went unconventional, and ended up with the Blue forces getting into blue on blue, a few stolen CEOIs, some maps, an M151 and a Gamma Goat. The unit went from a marginal pass to a fail. This was at FT Chaffee. It is amazing what an LT with a little initiative who hasn’t yet absorbed the “you can’t do that” rules can accomplish.

    • KenWats

      A friend of mine had a similar experience. He (named Carlos) was tagged as the leader of an OPFOR terrorist cell. So he rode around on his bicycle and probed blufor security until the day he could snatch a Humvee and begin his reign of terror. He forever became known as Carlos the Jackal. Sometimes nicknames write themselves.

    • Tom Kratman

      Or they’re completely unnecessary. Think: Swackhammer, RTB, running the hand to hand pit. (Helliuva nice guy, actually, Sgt Swackhammer, when he didn’t have to maintain the persona.)

  • BlueHornet

    I’m saddened to think of all the stories that we’ll be forever deprived of – stories of deeds that may never be performed – since the Lieutenant grew up – “matured” some might say – moved up the chain of command and then retired. Thanks, Tom. Great story. It’s nice enough to hear the stories that did happen, or at least might have happened.

    • Tom Kratman

      Oh, they happened.

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