Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Van Riper Story

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is an interesting book about our ability to make snap judgments. One of the stories that I like in this book is about Paul Van Riper and the war game he was involved in, called the Millenium Challenge, one of the largest and most expensive war games held by the US.

According to the Millenium Challenge scenario, a rogue military commander had broken away from his government somewhere in the Persian Gulf and was threatening to engulf the entire region in war. He had a considerable power base from strong religious and ethnic loyalties, and he was harboring and sponsoring four different terrorist organisations. He was virulently anti-American. In Millenium Challenge - in what would turn out to be an inspired (or, depending on your perspective, disastrous) piece of casting - Paul Van Riper was asked to play the rogue commander.

Millenium Challenge was not just a battle between two armies. It was a battle between two perfectly opposed military philosophies. Blue Team (the US) had their databases and matrixes and methodologies for systematically understanding the intentions and capabilities of the enemy. Red Team (Paul Van Riper) was commanded by a man who looked at a long-haired, unkempt, seat-of-the-pants commodities trader yelling and pushing and making a thousand instant decisions an hour and saw in him a soul mate.

On the opening day of the war game, Blue Team poured tens of thousands of troops into the Persian Gulf. They parked an aircraft carrier battle group just offshore of Red Team's home country. There, with the full weight of its military power in evidence, Blue Team issued an eight-point ultimatum to Van Riper, the eighth point being the demand to surrender. They acted with utter confidence, because their Operational Net Assessment matrixes told them where Red Team's vulnerabilities were, what Red Team's next move was likely to be, and what Red Team's range of options was. But Paul Van Riper did not behave as the computers predicted.

Blue Team knocked out his microwave towers and cut his fiber-optics lines on the assumption that Red Team would now have to use satellite communications and cell phones and they could monitor his communications.

"They said that Red Team would be surprised by that," Van Riper remembers. "Surprised? Any moderately informed person would know enough not to count on those technologies. That's a Blue Team mind-set. Who would use cell phones and satellites after what happened to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan? We communicated with couriers on motorcycles, and messages hidden inside prayers. They said, 'How did you get your airplanes off the airfield without the normal chatter between pilots and the tower?' I said, 'Does anyone remember World War Two? We'll use lighting systems.'"

Suddenly the enemy that Blue Team thought could be read like an open book was a bit more mysterious. What was Red Team doing? Van Riper was supposed to be cowed and overwhelmed in the face of a larger foe. But he was too much of a gunslinger for that. On the second day of the war, he put a fleet of small boats in the Persian Gulf to track the ships of the invading Blue Team navy. Then, without warning, he bombarded them in an hour-long assault with a fusillade of cruise missiles. When Red Team's surprise attack was over, sixteen American ships lay at the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Had Millennium Challenge been a real war instead of just an exercise, twenty thousand American servicemen and women would have been killed before their own army had even fired a shot.

"As the Red force commander, I'm sitting there and I realize that Blue Team had said that they were going to adopt a strategy of preemption," Van Riper says. "So I struck first. We'd done all the calculations on how many cruise missiles their ships could handle, so we simply launched more than that, from many different directions, from offshore and onshore, from air, from sea. We probably got half of their ships. We picked the ones we wanted. The aircraft carrier. The biggest cruisers. There were six amphibious ships. We knocked out five of them."

In the weeks and months that followed, there were numerous explanations from the analysts at JFCOM about exactly what happened that day in July. Some would say that it was an artifact of the particular way war games are run. Others would say that in real life, the ships would never have been as vulnerable as they were in the game. But none of the explanations change the fact that Blue Team suffered a catastrophic failure. The rogue commander did what rogue commanders do. He fought back, yet somehow this fact caught Blue Team by surprise. In that moment in the Gulf, Red Team's powers of rapid cognition were intact - and Blue Team's were not. How did that happen?

On Paul Van Riper's first tour in Southeast Asia, when he was out in the bush, serving as an advisor to the South Vietnamese, he would often hear gunfire in the distance. He was then a young lieutenant new to combat, and his first thought was always to get on the radio and ask the troops in the field what was happening. After several weeks of this, however, he realized that the people he was calling on the radio had no more idea than he did about what the gunfire meant. It was just gunfire. It was the beginning of something - but what that something was was not yet clear. So Van Riper stopped asking. On his second tour of Vietnam, whenever he heard gunfire, he would wait.

"I would look at my watch," Van Riper says, "and the reason I looked was that I wasn't going to do a thing for five minutes. If they needed help, they were going to holler. And after five minutes, if things had settled down, I still wouldn't do anything. You've got to let people work out the situation and wok out what's happening. The danger in calling is that they'll tell you anything to get you off their backs, and if you act on that and take it at face value, you could make a mistake. Plus you are diverting them. Now they are looking upward instead of downward. You're preventing them from resolving the situation."

Van Riper carried this lesson with him when he took over the helm of Red Team. "The first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control," Van Riper says, echoing the words of the management guru Kevin Kelly. "By that, I mean that the overall guidance and the intent were provided by me and the senior leadership, but the forces in the field wouldn't depend on intricate orders coming from the top. They were to use their own initiative and be innovative as they went forward. Almost every day, the commander of the Red air forces came up with different ideas of how he was going to pull this together, using these general techniques of trying to overwhelm Blue Team from different directions. But he never got specific guidance from me of how to do it. Just the intent."

Once the fighting started, Van Riper didn't want introspection. He didn't want long meetings. He didn't want explanations. "I told our staff that we would use none of the terminology that Blue Team was using. I never wanted to hear the word 'effects,' except in a normal conversation. I didn't want to hear about Operational Net Assessment. We would not get caught up in any of the mechanistic processes. We would use the wisdom, the experience, and the good judgment of the people we had."

This kind of management system clearly has its risks. It meant Van Riper didn't always have a clear idea of what his troops were up to. It meant he had to place a lot of trust in his subordinates. It was, by his own admission, a "messy" way to make decisions. But it had one overwhelming advantage: allowing people to operate without having to explain themselves constantly turns out to be like the rule of agreement in improv. It enables rapid cognition.

In Millennium Challenge, this is exactly the mistake that Blue Team made. They had a system in place that forced their commanders to stop and talk things over and figure out what was going on. That would have been fine if the problem in front of them demanded logic. But instead, Van Riper presented them with something different. Blue Team thought they could listen to Van Riper's communications. But he started sending messages by couriers on motorcycles. They thought he couldn't launch his planes. But he borrowed a forgotten technique from World War II and used lighting systems. They thought he couldn't track their ships. But he flooded the Gulf with little PT boats. And then, on the spur of the moment, Van Riper's field commanders attacked, and all of a sudden what Blue Team thought was a routine "kitchen fire" was something they could not factor into their equations at all. They needed to solve an insight problem, but their powers of insight had been extinguished.

"What I heard is that Blue Team had all these long discussions," Van Riper says. "They were trying to decide what the political situation was like. They had charts with up arrows and down arrows. I remember thinking, Wait a minute. You were doing that while you were fighting? They had all these acronyms. The elements of national power were diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. That gives you DIME. They would always talk about the Blue DIME. Then there were the political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information instruments, PMESI. So they'd have these terrible conversations where it would be our DIME versus their PMESI. I wanted to gag. What are you talking about? You know, you get caught up in forms, in matrixes, in computer programs, and it just draws you in. They were so focused on the mechanics and the process that they never looked at the problem holistically. In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning."

"The Operational Net Assessment was a tool that was supposed to allow us to see all, know all," Major General Dean Cash, one of the senior JFCOM Officials involved in the war game, admitted afterward. "Well, obviously it failed."