This month the great and good armies of the US military gathered at Newport, RI, and tested the idea of ​​a war on the high seas. Held at Naval War College, the classified “Global 14” war game explores the situation set in the Pacific Theater, in which China is cast as a fictional enemy. Its main objectives are: to see if the Pentagon is getting the right mix of naval, air, and ground forces to win the battle at sea and near-coast, and whether senior commanders have created the right methods for that force to operate operationally and strategically. To get

After that, the service chief stayed very close to Global 14 and gave some details about how things went. Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro made an encouraging remark and expressed confidence that the United States is ready to succeed in the increasingly competitive Pacific.

Hope he is right.

According to the report, after receiving actionable findings and recommendations for the Pentagon and Congress, the official will study how the game started in the coming weeks and months. Some pointers as they do: Most importantly, they should ask whether the game was organized under the correct assumptions about the operational environment, the US and friendly forces and potential enemies. They should be clear. Any system of reasoning goes beyond self-evident axioms. Such rules cannot be proved or denied in the system. The problem is, people are imperfect creatures, and it is very rare for ideas that can be proved or disproved in the system to reach high-level assumptions.

Improper assumptions show sad results. In July 1965, for example, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued a statement stating that a battalion of South Vietnamese troops was on par with the rebel Viet Cong battalion. In fact, she was inferior. McNamara also announced that the US Army or Marine Battalion is priced at two or three VC battalions. And he assumed the traditional war pending in Indochina. If communist forces go out in the open to fight conventional battles, instead of retreating, Washington and Saigon may be less likely to flee than to fight less friendly rebels with enemy forces. In short, McNamara fudged. Over the next decade, the Allies faced the ordeal of the prevailing assumptions of reality – and saw them shattered by extreme prejudice.

Garbage inside garbage outside.

Also, Vietnam was not one-sided. In 2002, the US Joint Forces Command organized a multi-service war game called the Millennium Challenge, which supported the Pentagon’s concept of a net amphibious warfare. Marine Lieutenant General Paul van Ripper conducted operations for the “Red Team” or simulated enemy force. The organizers of the game gave him the resources available to resist the US invasion of Iran or Iraq, the Persian Gulf countries, from the sea. He pitted the Red Team against the “Blue Team”, a joint force comprising the US Navy’s aircraft carrier task force. Van Ripper became a sly enemy. After the Blue team disabled its electronic communications, for example, it issued orders through old-school methods, such as motorcycle messengers and flashing-light signals from mosque towers. It is a creative use of scarce resources.

And instead of waiting for a sea attack, Van Ripper ordered a pre-emptive strike on U.S. forces. Cruise missiles were fired from coastal batteries, commercial ships and low-flying fighter jets. At the same time, speedboats loaded with explosives attacked Kamikaze and took control of the American convoy. The Red-Team Blitz sank 19 U.S. Navy ships with carriers. The Blue-Team Commander exclaimed: The Red Team “drowned my reprehensible navy.”

The results of the Millennium Challenge were quite confusing. Too bad when game supervisors fall victim to their worst instincts. They reset the game, which made sense. One of the great advantages of war-gaming is that the game can be quickly re-run to run new experiments. But the organizers of the Millennium Challenge changed the rules and hurt the Red team. They forbade Van Ripper to shoot down a U.S. transport plane, a key element of any amphibious attack and a clear target for rescuers. They forced the Red team to keep their anti-aircraft weapons open, where the blue team could find and destroy, rather than hide like any competent competitor. They denied the Red Team permission to use chemical weapons, then a significant portion of Iranian and Iraqi weapons.

In other words, they changed the assumptions in which the game was played, making the Red team a dopey, passive, obedient enemy. He endorsed his concept of war – but only by scripting exercises to reach a predetermined outcome. China is a far more powerful potential adversary than Iran. Game designers and administrators for Global 14 hope to avoid the bureaucratic and intellectual damage of the Millennium Challenge, and analysts studying the game’s behavior have made it a point to get honest results from it, rather than appeasing their military and political superiors. .

The Millennium Challenge 2002 should violate an established “image” or principle of how to use naval forces to subdue a rival on the coast. But as the science philosopher Thomas Cohen warned half a century ago, “changing the image” is difficult. People get involved in orthodox attitudes for career, prestige or financial reasons. They act as gatekeepers for the paradigm, explaining its failures until the “discrepancies” between the paradigm and the observed reality become clear enough to be ignored. Then the paradigm breaks down, giving way to something better.

It’s easy for scientific researchers. They conduct field research, test their hypotheses against reality, then revise them and run future rounds of experiments. Failure cannot be desirable; That is to be expected.

Proper experimentation is a luxury. Fighters do not have such luxury. After all, a fighter can only get one “field trial”. The battle, that is. That’s why Pentagon analysts should be very open when evaluating Global 14. When costs and risks are minimal, it is best to drop the false pattern in peacetime, if necessary. If service leaders deceive themselves in peacetime, defeat and disaster can ensue, only to expose their evil ideas in wartime.

The Pentagon will not have the time or resources to recover from a failed experiment. Let’s get things right now.

James Holmes is the Jesse Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at Naval War College and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center of Marine Corps University. The opinions expressed here are theirs.