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Fighting the Last War: Disruptive Change, Iran and Millennium Challenge 2002

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

My father often told me, “Generals always fight the last war.” And he’d give examples, from General Montgomery steadfastly avoiding frontal charges in World War II because of his experience with trench warfare in World War I to generals in the Civil War marching their troops in lines.

This aphorism doesn’t apply to every war. When it does, though, it applies in a big way.

Before I start my “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” with Iran’s naval options, I need to make a larger comment on disruptive technological change. So permit me a little license as I dive surface-deep into the history of American naval warfare as it relates to the saying that opened this post.

We start at the civil war, when the entire world learned that iron ships and heavy artillery would now rule the waters. Before that war, proponents of wooden ships controlled the world’s navies.
Through the next few wars, the Spanish-American and World War I, iron battleships dominated the seas, adapting technology as needed. This included rifled barrels on their guns, adding coal and then gasoline-fired engines. The Germans perfected the U-boat, or submarine, but it didn’t prove decisive in World War I.

The next change would. Prior to World War II, combatants on all sides generally considered battleships the key to victory at sea--as they had since the Civil War. As a result, with some simplification for readability, the Japanese attacked U.S. battleships during Pearl Harbor hoping to knock them out of the war in the Pacific, while leaving American aircraft carriers generally unharmed.

Aircraft carriers would go on to win the war. They constituted a paradigm shift in warfare; a disruptive technological change the U.S. ultimately used to overwhelm and crush Axis forces.

This brings us to the most stable period of U.S. naval operations of our history. Despite fielding the largest or second largest navy in the world since the Korean War, the U.S. has only fought a handful of major naval engagements. Each of these engagements pales in comparison to any battle during WWII. (To give you an idea, the Gulf of Tonkin crisis and an accidental attack by Israel’s navy qualify as major military engagements.)

Why did I just spend 300 words on naval history? To show that, despite some changes, America has a navy--an untested navy--based on naval principles from World War II. The idea of an aircraft carrier battle-group, with its gigantic aircraft carrier at center, came out of World War II.

Has the day of the aircraft carrier come and gone? And if it had, how would we know? Only the crucible of war can prove military technology is outdated, and the U.S. Navy hasn’t faced that test. At most, the American navy has swatted away all of the technologically-bereft up and comers who tried to fight us conventionally.

If one single invention, manned flight, transformed warfare at sea, what has the digital age done? Since World War II, the world went through its most creative and innovative technological period ever, inventing computers, missiles, guided missiles, the transistor, nuclear power, satellites and countless smaller innoventions, and drastically perfecting everything (radios and wireless communication especially) from before. (Yes, rockets existed in World War II, but the post-war arms race transformed them into something entirely different, like the difference between monkeys and humans.)

Can/Have those inventions transformed war at sea and the U.S. Navy doesn’t even know about it?

I can’t prove it has, but two wargames (H/T to On V fav Malcolm Gladwell.) should give all sailors and navy watchers at least a pinch of doubt about America’s purchasing decisions during the last fifty years.

In the first example, from the appropriately titled article, “How David Beats Goliath”, a computer scientist, Doug Lenat, competed in a simulated naval war game. Instead of designing his own fleet, though, he fed the rules of the competition to a computer program to see what type of fleet it recommended. Instead of big, traditional, slow, well defended ships, his navy had scores and scores of small, lightly defended ships with gigantic weapons. He won the simulated battles in a landslide. He did it again the next year too.
Yet that example has the rightful air of surreality about it compared to my next example: General Paul Van Riper’s legendary victory in Millennium Challenge 2002. I first read about it in Gladwell’s book, Blink, but multiple articles covered it. While Gladwell used Riper to discuss making split second decisions, I find it hard to look past how Riper’s small boats, cruise missiles and torpedoes swarmed and sank dozens of U.S. ships.
Reading these two simulations, I worry: have we missed any other disruptive technological changes?
Has the guided missile--whether sea launched, land launched, or torpedo--replaced aircraft carriers, battleships and missile frigates? Is smaller and more maneuverable better? Will swarms beat giants?

Most importantly, does Iran know any of this?

That brings me back to my naval history: the largest naval operation since World War II occurred in the Persian/Arabian Gulf in 1988, during the last year of the Iran and Iraq war. Called Operation Praying Mantis, I hadn’t even heard of it until I started researching war with Iran, and most Americans have forgotten it too. In this naval battle, U.S. military warships completely obliterated Iran’s conventional navy. If Iran paid attention, it would have learned a lesson: fight conventionally and you will lose, while inflicting hardly any casualties on the Americans.

I believe Iran learned the lesson of that battle, and this makes them very dangerous.

Tomorrow I will explain why.

three comments

What I found most interesting about the Millenium Challenge story was that, rather than take stock of the situation presented by van Riper’s success, the controllers of the game hit the reset button. “Okay, let’s start again shall we? Without the funny stuff General?” (I imagine, of course). I believe van Riper resigned in disgust.

A small lightly defended vessel is a torpedo boat. Those have been around for over 100 years and they haven’t been decisive. Japanese destroyers were not much troubled by ours. Small vessels like that are also easy prey for airplanes, helos nowadays. A problem with the small boats is they bounce around a lot when there are waves. I understand what bounces you out of the boat in something little won’t be nearly the problem in a 3,000 ton destroyer. Also if you are bouncing around it is hard to aim a weapon and if it gets too bad the little boat has to slow down. That big destroyer doesn’t.

A small missile boat probably has all the same disadvantages and if it carries a worthwhile anti-ship guided missile, then it may not be so small.

The small combatant may be limited to smooth seas and the airplanes will be up, unless it is foggy, but I don’t know how foggy it gets in those waters.

So small boats with big weapons haven’t proved too terrible in the past though they may this time.

Mines and large numbers of anti-ship missiles fired from the shore may be something else again and I await your comments on those. And I await you comment on Iranian subs, especially if you have any idea about the quality of the crews, the critical factor.

Mine warfare was a very important part of Civil War naval operations, much more so than people realize.

@Carl – I know I have read at least one paper that dismissed small boats. However, I just feel like guided missiles—whether shore launched or small boat launched—represent a huge change in warfare. And Iran, which I will address tomorrow, has both, along with mines.

I can tell you I don’t have any great insight into Iranian submarines or their crews. If there is any weapon I worry about, it is the missiles, not their subs.

Final point on small boats, Van Riper achieved success by in essence preplacing his small boats next to U.S. capital ships. A (or several) suicide vessels could launch this strategy with devastating consequences. Again, I’ll get to that over the next two days.

@Steve- He did resign. It shows the limits of war game and why, as I said in the post, warfare is the true crucible to test out what works and what doesn’t.