Iran and the Virtual Reality of US War Games

by William M. Arkin
published in MER197

The year is 2002. Saddam Hussein has been assassinated, and Shi‘i forces in Basra have declared their independence from Baghdad. Iran, the dominant regional power, invades Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to gain regional hegemony, control the price of oil, finance its military buildup “and ameliorate its social problem.” Tehran threatens to use nuclear weapons if the United States intervenes to defend its Gulf allies.

This was the preeminent scenario when nearly 1,000 senior-level military officers and civilian planners gathered in late 1992 at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island to play Global 92, the thirteenth in a series of annual war games. Game designers upped the ante by having Iran launch cruise missile and air attacks on Saudi Arabia and the small monarchies, close the Straits of Hormuz and deploy chemically armed ballistic missiles.

Perhaps there is nothing sinister in examining potential adversaries to identify alternative strategies, policies or practices. In this case, though, the game is less about the Islamic Republic and more about Washington’s need for a politically correct adversary and a high-intensity scenario challenging enough to justify Cold War-era weapons programs and spending levels.

A year before Global 92, in December 1991, the RAND Corporation began a “Future of Warfare” war game series for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The stated purpose was to evaluate “how potential US opponents might choose to posture their military forces and how they might employ them to defeat US allies and perhaps even US forces in major regional contingencies.” The initial game posited a turn-of-the-century conflict in which an unlikely coalition of Iran and Iraq, bent on obtaining greater oil revenue, invades Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The scenario assumed that the aggressors secured a large fraction of the Arabian Peninsula within ten days, having prevented US intervention by neutralizing Saudi airfields, closed the Straits of Hormuz and mined the Suez Canal and Bab al-Mandab at either end of the Red Sea.

There was little that the RAND writers could throw at the “Blue” coalition forces, however, to prevent them from militarily defeating Iran and Iraq. According to a restricted 1993 report summarizing the games, the players decided that except for increased lift and mine-clearing capabilities and a better tactical ballistic missile defense system, their worst-case scenarios did not require changes in the way the US is developing its forces.

The Naval War College’s Global 91 had reached a similar conclusion. The only real complication occurred when umpires introduced a simultaneous conflict on the Korean peninsula. Both games, though, questioned US “will” and “patience” in the face of “normal” US casualties.

By the time Global 92 opened, a full-fledged Iranian threat to the Persian Gulf had assumed a central place in “real-world” military planning, following Congressional testimony by then-CIA director Robert Gates to the effect that Iran was embarking on a five-year, $10 billion-dollar military buildup. Iran joined North Korea in the Clinton administration’s two-war baseline, its Islamic character suggesting “revolutionary” fervor and irrational behavior. Add the chorus of Israeli and American charges that Iran, notwithstanding the fact that it is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is developing a nuclear weapons capability, and military planners had an ideal enemy and a mission for their latest weapons. The same war games scenario -- an Iranian invasion of Kuwait “in its quest to become a dominant regional power in Southwest Asia” -- subsequently appeared in Secretary of Defense William Perry’s classified Defense Planning Guidance as the first of seven priorities to govern formally the preparation of US contingency war-fighting plans.

Nearsighted in the Near Future

A secret game held in September 1995 in Washington -- the Technology Initiatives Game (TIG-95) -- projects an Iranian attack on its Gulf neighbors in the year 2015. Iran is armed with 20-30 nuclear warheads and intermediate-range ballistic as well as cruise missiles. The pre-game “Player Handbook” speaks of Iran’s quest for regional power, its desire for a dominant voice in the setting of oil prices and a demand for the total removal of all Western military forces from the region. A 25-day crisis precedes the opening salvos of war, during which Iran imposes an entry fee to the Gulf, seizes merchant ships and sinks a French Navy frigate. If that is not enough to set the stage to refight the last war, “Iranian fast attack missile boats, escorting landing craft carrying Naval infantry troops, were engaged as they attempted to cross the Strait,” the Handbook reads. “Iran launched a major and coordinated cruise missile attack at military targets around Dubai, UAE and Mina Sulman, Bahrain. The petroleum refinery near Dubai was heavily damaged.... Near simultaneous terrorist attacks also occurred in Doha, Qatar; Abu Dhabi, UAE; and al-Fujayrah, UAE.”

The central assumption of the Blue response is that once Iran launches unprovoked cruise missile attacks on U+25 (the twenty-fifth day after its ultimatum to close the Gulf), the US immediately unleashes air and cruise missile strikes against Iranian military targets, including nuclear and chemical launchers and facilities, electric power plants, and command and control nodes. “Commencement of this campaign, coupled with Iranian cruise missile attacks against GCC targets,” the Blue strike warfare manual states, “caused the GCC states to allow immediate and full US/Coalition access to ports and airfields.”

In a replay of one of the recognized weaknesses of US military operations in Desert Storm, TIG-95 projects Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to be highly mobile, and its communications and weapons storage facilities hardened and buried. After 20 days of air strikes, a Marine amphibious force invades the Iranian port of Jask on the Gulf of Oman. TIG-95 attempted to incorporate novel surveillance, information, weapons and electronic warfare techniques into this now familiar scenario.

The TIG-95 scenario, like Global 92, predicts a large-scale military buildup by Tehran, followed by the Soviet-like invasion of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with “minimal” warning. According to Global 92’s “read ahead” package prepared for players, Iranian aggression follows unsuccessful pressure by Tehran on the GCC to raise oil prices. The scenario posits that Iran seeks a controlling influence among the Gulf members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting States (OPEC), and perhaps within OPEC itself, in order to finance its military buildup and social needs simultaneously. Iran learned from Iraqi mistakes, so the scenarios go: Seize sufficient territory and attack Arab air bases to prevent unchallenged retaliation by the United States.

During the Cold War, the focus of war games -- a Soviet invasion of Central Europe -- was never really in dispute. In retrospect, though, Soviet military capabilities were vastly overrated in virtually every way. Now Iran arrives to don the Soviet mantle, and war gamers repeat all of the worst-case mistakes of the past. But endemic overstatement of Iranian capabilities does more than merely challenge US planners to imagine the worst case. Should the military be spending its time imagining such an unlikely scenario? Overestimation of Iraq’s capabilities has manipulated US debate regarding the gravity of the threat and the lack of alternatives to the Gulf war. What is more, propaganda about Iraqi capabilities may have influenced Baghdad into believing that its inflated forces could in fact achieve a war-winning bloodbath on the ground.

War games, no matter how shallow or dubious, can have political consequences. All of the Iran war games conclude that pre-positioning of military hardware in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will improve solidarity in the face of otherwise loose or ill-defined defense commitments. Deriving from the habitual overstatement of Iranian intentions and capabilities, the policy calls for early movement of forces and even preemptive strikes as necessary for military victory.

The Ultimate Game

Under a faddish Pentagon program called the “Defense Counterproliferation Initiative,” nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are receiving unprecedented military attention. The scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran invading its Arab neighbors, however far-fetched, is one the Clinton administration has found politically expedient to nurture. In their planning and programs, Secretary Perry directed the Joint Chiefs’ staff and the services to take account of “the increased threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Iran is cited as the nation most likely to obtain nuclear weapons in the near term. According to Global 92, Tehran acquires equipment from China to produce weapons-grade uranium and becomes a nuclear power by 2002.

A nuclear-armed Iran, assumed by the Pentagon to be inevitable, goes against actual trends away from the spread of nuclear weapons. It presumes the complete failure of non-proliferation and arms control efforts, embargoes and diplomacy -- the complete failure of American foreign policy, in other words. But the games are not without ulterior motive. Nuclear loyalists in uniform and their allies in the Pentagon bureaucracy see nuclear proliferation as the card that might justify renovating US strategy and weapons. In this light, the image of the “rogue state” as an “irrational nuclear opponent” is the most precious future war scenario.

Among the uniformed US military, the conventional weapons threat still has a far greater constituency. During Global 92, the tension between the two camps was evident. In the back rooms, “umpires” from CENTCOM cooked up twists and turns in the game that forced players to consider options for the use of nuclear weapons. During the second week they posited, for instance, an Iranian-inspired terrorist attack with a nuclear device at the Saudi port of Ra’s Tanoura, to forestall American deployments. Iran was also “given” the capability and intention to covertly introduce nuclear devices into the United States in a scenario resembling the World Trade Center attack.

Most war gamers were disappointed with the attention-grabbing nuclear entrance. They felt that a nuclear blast could not be fruitfully explored with the large-scale computer models used to simulate military battles, and a show-stopping nuclear scenario does not do much to justify new precision-guided weapons or other hardware favored in an era of leaner military budgets.

Except in war games, nuclear and conventional warfighting is now probably more fully segregated than ever before within the US military, thanks to nuclear reductions and control mechanisms instituted at the end of the Cold War. Still, nuclear weapons remain the trump card, and hence CENTCOM’s insistence on their appearance. In the words of the Pentagon’s counterproliferation chief Mitchel Wallerstein, “In the past, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons effects were analyzed by a small group of experts, but were often...marginalized in scenarios developed for our conventional war gaming.” Now, he stated at a 1994 conference at the National Defense University, the civilian leadership demands “a greater effort in many war games to combine conventional and unconventional weapons effects.”

US intelligence says that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, but war gaming is virtual reality. Part of that reality is about picking targets. In 1992, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in their biennial Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP, called “jay-scap”), the top-secret master document laying out current military objectives directed planners to retarget American nuclear weapons beyond Russia and China to other countries developing weapons of mass destruction. In April 1993, the Joint Chiefs issued a new Joint Doctrine for Nuclear Operations, which declared that “the fundamental purpose of US nuclear forces is to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction.” This is a broader nuclear assignment than even during the Cold War.

The US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) was assigned to assist the regional commands (such as Central Command in the case of Iran) in thinking through what nuclear war would look like in the Third World. STRATCOM, a unified command created in 1991 out of the Strategic Air Command and the Navy’s independent ballistic missile submarines, was intended to eliminate redundancies and potential lapses in control over nuclear weapons. In theory, it brings together all US nuclear planning and expertise, segregated from the conventional military. In reality, it sets up an institution dependent on the perpetuation of nuclear weapons.

STRATCOM was at the heart of the proposed reorientation of US doctrine around “mini-nukes,” very small nuclear weapons designed for fighting in the Third World. When the notion surfaced publicly after the Gulf war, Congress intervened to forestall the new capability on the grounds that it would provoke proliferation rather than respond to it. “Very low-yield nuclear warheads threaten to blur the distinction between conventional and nuclear conflict,” the House Armed Services Committee reported in its review of the FY 1994 budget, “and could thus increase the chances of nuclear weapons use by another nation.” Congress passed a total prohibition against research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons.

STRATCOM followed up its mini-nukes proposal with the idea of creating a set of “Silver Books” for counterproliferation nuclear targeting. (The name was taken from the so-called “Gold Book,” otherwise known as the “Black Book” -- the Presidential Decision Handbook contained in the “football” carried by presidential aides at all times which lists the options for nuclear retaliation in the event of a Russian attack.)

As Iran rose to the top of the White House’s enemies list, STRATCOM tapped into obscure and highly classified nuclear “employment” documents of the Reagan and Bush administrations for the authority to start selecting targets, citing the JSCP tasking of the command to “use its unique capabilities to hold these [proliferation] targets at risk.” In STRATCOM’s view, its mission -- “to deter a major military attack on the United States and its allies, and, should deterrence fail, employ forces” -- now applied to Iran as well.

The process would have proceeded without controversy had bureaucratic interests not intervened. CENTCOM was STRATCOM’s ally, but US military commanders in Europe and the Pacific resented STRATCOM’s muscling in on their responsibilities (and territory). In early 1995, the Joint Chiefs, in a highly classified directive, ordered STRATCOM to cease and desist in its “Silver Book” development. The words “Silver Book,” an officer at STRATCOM headquarters said last month, have been expunged from the military vocabulary.

Though the “Silver Book” enterprise is dead, nuclear targeting of Iran remains very much alive. “Theater” nuclear planning has reverted back to CENTCOM, where nuclear use is now being incorporated into contingency plans and war games.

The Clinton administration says it is reducing the role of nuclear weapons, formally pledging at the end of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in May 1995, for instance, that it would not threaten to use nuclear weapons against any nation that does not possess nuclear weapons. In this context, the Iranian nuclear emphasis is both cynical and dangerous. Through contingency planning and war gaming, the US communicates to Tehran and elsewhere that, regardless of Iranian public adherence to the non-proliferation treaty, Washington will continue preparing for nuclear war against them. There seems no surer way to get hardliners in nations like Iran to perceive that they indeed do “need” nuclear weapons for their own defense.

Filed under: