Millennium Challenge: The Real Story of a Corrupted Military Exercise and its Legacy


Since the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 (MC ’02) concept-development exercise, run by the now-defunct U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), was leaked in the press 13 years ago, strong opinions have been expressed about its failure and lessons. When it was conducted, this exercise was the most ambitious and costly military simulation in American history. It pitted the U.S. military (with capabilities projected five years into the future) against a nameless potential adversary, with outcome intended to inform future strategy and procurement decisions. Controversy immediately arose when the opposition force, or red team, learned that the results were scripted to assure that the U.S. forces would win. Writing in September 2002, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warned that it “should teach us one clear lesson relating to Iraq: Hubris kills.” (In that same column, Kristof admitted “I’m a wimp on Iraq: I’m in favor of invading, but only if we can win easily.”) MC ’02 was later popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where the leader of the red team opposition force (OPFOR), retired Marine Corps three-star Paul Van Riper was praised for having “created the conditions for successful spontaneity” with a decision-making style that “enables rapid cognition.” More recently, a Marine Corps Gazette essay proclaimed that “JFCOM controllers changed the scenario” of MC ’02 and that the command “failed to understand the utility of the exercise and the feedback it provided.”

These perspectives are misleading, and generally told from one person’s view: Van Riper’s. Moreover, they lack important historical context and alternative perspectives about why the shortcomings of MC ’02 were inevitable, given congressionally required demands, misunderstandings of objectives, and unclear (and shifting) lines of authority. Furthermore, a more comprehensive account provides insights for how the military should think about, design, and conduct red team simulations. This article, adapted from my book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, provides this more complete account as it is based upon interviews with most of the relevant senior officials, as well as the MC ’02 after-action report, which was only made public in 2010.

MC ’02 was intended to be the largest, most expensive, and most elaborate concept-development exercise in U.S. military history. The exercise was mandated by Congress to “explore critical war fighting challenges at the operational level of war that will confront United States joint military forces after 2010.” Developed over two years at a cost of $250 million, it would grow to include 13,500 service members participating from 17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites. It was promoted by Pentagon officials as a demonstration of “leap-ahead technologies,” and was intended to provide commanders with “dominant battle space knowledge” to conduct “rapid decisive operations” against future adversaries.

These untested war-fighting theories, however, including many aspects of the “revolution in military affairs,” existed only in the PowerPoint presentations and minds of defense intellectuals and senior Pentagon officials. MC ’02 would put them to the test over the course of three weeks in the summer of 2002. It was considered such an important event that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself visited JFCOM headquarters to endorse the exercise:

MC02, as I’m told it’s called — sounds like fizz water in the old days … will help us create a force that is not only interoperable, responsive, agile and lethal, but one that is capable of capitalizing on the information revolution and the advanced technologies that are available today.

JFCOM Commander Gen. Buck Kernan summarized what was expected: “MC ’02 is the key to military transformation.”

The featured activity of MC ’02 would be a red team war-game simulation. The hypothetical joint experiment would feature an anti-access, area-denial scenario that was situated in the world of 2007, pitting a U.S. blue team of 350 personnel led by Army Lt. Gen. B. B. Bell against an OPFOR of 90 personnel modeling an adversary, and initially led by Van Riper. Kernan personally selected Van Riper to lead the OPFOR, believing that, since he was a “devious sort of guy” and “a no-nonsense solid professional warfighter,” he was the best possible candidate. The OPFOR, widely understood to represent Iraq or Iran’s military, had a carefully prepared campaign plan, for which the ultimate objective was to preserve the red team’s ruling regime and reduce the presence of blue forces in the region. The blue team also had a campaign plan, which included securing shipping lanes, eliminating the OPFOR’s weapons of mass destruction facilities, and compelling the red ruling regime to abandon its goal of regional hegemony. To most participants, MC ’02 resembled much of the “Running Start” plan that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) planners were developing and refining in the summer of 2002 to disarm Saddam Hussein and remove him from power.

Van Riper had participated in previous war games for JFCOM, including the previous year’s Unified Vision 2001 exercise in which he played the role of a landlocked regional power. At one crucial engagement during Unified Vision 2001, Van Riper was informed by the white cell, or “control,” overseeing the game that the United States had destroyed all 21 of the red team’s deeply buried ballistic missiles, even though the blue team commander never actually knew where they were located. It was simply assumed that in the future the United States would have the real-time radar and sensor capabilities to eliminate them. After the Unified Vision 2001 exercise, JFCOM provided a report to Congress that claimed that the exercise had corroborated the effects-based operations concepts. When Van Riper complained that that was untrue, he was promised, regarding MC ’02, that “next year will be a free play and honest exercise.” On the eve of MC ’02, Kernan even declared: “We have a very, very determined OPFOR, both live and simulation. … this is free play. The OPFOR has the ability to win here.”

This did not mean that MC ’02 was designed without constraints. It is common for military simulations to test concepts that will inform future personnel, training, and procurement decisions. For example, there was only a 36-hour window during which the live-fire, forced-entry component of the experiment was to occur. The participating forces — including from the 82nd Airborne Division and 1st Marine Regiment — had been called off their normal training schedules, and would only be used in conjunction with the computer-simulated maneuvers during that window. Also, both sides were permitted to reposition their forces at night, during which time neither could initiate attack. But most notably, while the OPFOR was supposed to use only a limited set of military capabilities that it was projected to have in 2007, the blue forces were allowed to have command-and-control relationships, communication networks, and military capabilities that the Pentagon did not plan to field until well beyond 2007, including the airborne laser. The white cell was the architect and manager of the exercise, and also monitored events, assessed the impacts of various actions, and provided feedback to the blue and OPFOR teams. The white cell, led by retired Army Gen. Gary Luck, also had the authority to intervene in order to ensure fair play and to verify that all the concepts were tested under the exercise’s resource and time constraints.

At the start of MC ’02, to fulfill the forced-entry requirement, blue issued red an eight-point ultimatum, of which the final point was surrender. Red team leader Van Riper knew his country’s political leadership could not accept this, which he believed would lead the blue forces to directly intervene. Since the George W. Bush administration had recently announced the “preemption doctrine,” Van Riper decided that as soon as a U.S. Navy carrier battle group steamed into the Gulf, he would “preempt the preemptors” and strike first. Once U.S. forces were within range, Van Riper’s forces unleashed a barrage of missiles from ground-based launchers, commercial ships, and planes flying low and without radio communications to reduce their radar signature. Simultaneously, swarms of speedboats loaded with explosives launched kamikaze attacks. The carrier battle group’s Aegis radar system — which tracks and attempts to intercept incoming missiles — was quickly overwhelmed, and 19 U.S. ships were sunk, including the carrier, several cruisers, and five amphibious ships. “The whole thing was over in five, maybe ten minutes,” Van Riper said.

The red team had struck a devastating blow against the blue team. The impact of the OPFOR’s ability to render a U.S. carrier battle group — the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy — militarily worthless stunned most of the MC ’02 participants. Van Riper described the mood as “an eerie silence. Like people didn’t really know what to do next.” Blue team leader Bell admitted that the OPFOR had “sunk my damn navy,” and had inflicted “an extremely high rate of attrition, and a disaster, from which we all learned a great lesson.”

Meanwhile, Kernan received an urgent phone call from Luck: “Sir, Van Riper just slimed all of the ships.” Kernan recognized that this was bad news because it placed at risk JFCOM’s ability to fulfill the remaining live-fire, forced-entry component of the exercise — a central component of MC ’02. The actual forces were awaiting orders at Fort Bragg, off the coast of San Diego, and at the Fort Irwin National Training Center. Kernan recalled, “I didn’t have a lot of choice. I had to do the forcible entry piece.” He directed the white cell to simply refloat the virtual ships to the surface. Bell and his blue team — now including the live-fire forces operating under his direction — applied the lessons from the initial attack and fended off subsequent engagements from the red team.

Van Riper’s red team prepared itself for an amphibious assault by the Marines. He knew that the first wave would include the V-22 Osprey, a multi-mission, tilt-rotor aircraft that the Marines had in the pipeline but would not actually field for another five years. The V-22’s twin 38-foot propellers gave the transport aircraft a notoriously large identifiable radar signature that could easily be identified and tracked with crude radars and surface-to-air missiles. The red team was ready to begin shooting down the V-22s when Van Riper’s chief of staff received a message from the white cell. Hostile fire against the V-22s or blue’s C-130 troop transport planes was forbidden. The white cell also directed the chief of staff that the red team had to position its air defense assets out in the open so the blue forces could easily destroy them. Even after some were not destroyed, the red team was forbidden to fire upon blue forces as they conducted a live airborne drop. Van Riper asked the white cell if his forces could at least deploy the chemical weapons that he possessed, but he was again denied.

Van Riper was furious. Not only had the white cell’s instructions compromised the integrity of the entire process, but also his own chief of staff — a retired Army colonel — was receiving conflicting orders about how his force should be deployed. When Van Riper went to Kernan to complain, he was told: “You are playing out of character. The OPFOR would never have done what you did.” Van Riper subsequently gathered the red team and told them to follow the chief of staff’s orders. The independence that he believed a red team must be granted to do its job had been corrupted. Six days into the exercise, he stepped down as commander and served as an advisor for the remaining 17 days. During that time, the blue team achieved most of its campaign plan objectives by destroying the OPFOR air and naval forces, securing the shipping lanes, and capturing or neutralizing the red regime’s WMD assets. The OPFOR was capable of partially preserving the red regime, but it was substantially weakened and its regional influence was much diminished.

Van Riper was not willing to let the matter drop. He wrote up a report detailing the numerous shortcomings of the war game, how it was controlled, and how the exercise could lead the Pentagon to have misplaced confidence in still-untested military war-fighting concepts. He handed six hard copies of the report to senior JFCOM leaders, but never received any feedback. However, unlike the other concept-development exercises, Van Riper believed that MC ’02 was both scripted and carried out in a way that did not realistically reflect likely future U.S. military capabilities or the threats posed by a thinking, motivated adversary. As he recalled: “War-gaming is not normally corrupted, but this whole thing was prostituted; it was a sham intended to prove what they wanted to prove.”

Before MC ’02 even ended, Van Riper e-mailed several colleagues with his concerns about the exercise. He believed that what had happened was going to leak to the media because so many of his OPFOR colleagues were irate. “What I didn’t want to see happen was JFCOM putting out another press release with my name on it,” as it had done after the previous year’s Unified Vision 2001, “validating a concept that had failed.” Not unexpectedly, Van Riper’s e-mail was immediately leaked to the Army Times, which published a comprehensive account: “Fixed war games? General says Millennium Challenge 02 was ‘scripted.’”

The reaction to the leak was swift. Senior JFCOM and Pentagon officials were livid that the retired lieutenant general had blown the whistle on MC ’02. They emphasized in press conferences that every major concept had been validated (there were 11 in total), while discounting what the OPFOR had been able to pull off. Kernan, who called Van Riper “a pretty slick fellow,” claimed that the exercise was not about winning or losing, despite contrary statements he had made weeks earlier. Kernan also admitted: “You [have] got to be careful about the word ‘free play.’ And I used it, and I wished I hadn’t.” Vice Adm. Martin Mayer, Kernan’s deputy, claimed, “I want to disabuse anybody of any notion that somehow the books were cooked.” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace declared flatly, “I absolutely believe that it was not rigged.”

Yet, JFCOM itself later concluded the opposite. The final JFCOM report on MC ’02 ran 752 pages long and was not released to the public for 10 years. The report detailed how the OPFOR had initially caught the blue team off guard, in large part because the blue team stuck closely to well-known and practiced U.S. military tactics. Moreover, to the extent that the blue team was perceived to be the winner, it was predominantly due to its quantitatively and qualitatively superior military capabilities. Meanwhile, the report admitted significant limitations and artificialities that were built into the war game. It also details the unexpected shifts in the rules of engagement early on. According to the report, “These changes brought about some confusion and potentially provided the blue team operational advantages.”

Finally, the JFCOM report explicitly acknowledged:

As the exercise progressed, the OPFOR free-play was eventually constrained to the point where the end state was scripted. This scripting ensured a blue team operational victory and established conditions in the exercise for transition operations.

In essence, the white cell determined that once the experiment was scheduled to end, the blue team would be allowed to win.

As a red teaming exercise, MC ’02 was destined to experience shortcomings. Both the red team and the targeted institution had preconceived objections going into the exercise. Van Riper thought that the untested concepts and misplaced faith in then-nonexistent technologies were dangerous and unnecessarily risky for the military to pursue. Beyond being a prominent skeptic of the ongoing revolution in military affairs, he believed that some of these untested concepts would be utilized soon in the invasion of Iraq. Van Riper’s red team set out to win outright, and thereby demonstrate the shortcomings of these concepts. Moreover, he doubted whether the red teaming process itself would be faithful to the principles of fair play that he had been promised by JFCOM, which, only three years old at the time, had a reputation for conducting unrealistic and scripted concept-development exercises.

JFCOM and the Office of the Secretary of Defense were determined to validate the principles and concepts that would support the advanced technological military transformation that Rumsfeld and his senior aides had been insisting upon.

Most importantly, MC ’02 had a positive effect on many of the key participants. Bell described it as “a watershed ‘eureka’ moment in the application of red teaming.” He believed that Van Riper did exactly what he was supposed to do by attacking the blue forces “a-doctrinally” — meaning in a manner that JFCOM was totally unprepared for — and that everybody learned from the results. Soon after MC ’02, Bell was promoted to four-star general: “The military and civilian leadership must have figured out that, after the significant butt-kicking I had experienced, I must have learned something.” Bell became one of the most outspoken proponents of red teaming, and estimates that he directed the formation of at least 20 distinct red teams while in command positions in Europe and on the Korean Peninsula.

However, a different enduring impact was in the minds of the senior military officials who were deployed from the United States to Afghanistan and Iraq or provided support in the years that followed MC ’02. There, the inherently messy realities of combat negated the aspirational acronyms that conceptual development exercises were supposed to prove. Even during MC ’02, Kernan recalled that many of the participants were understandably more focused on getting ready to go to war than on the exercise, which probably harmed the process itself. “I told Rumsfeld afterwards, ‘If you want to do this again, you have to properly resource it, and if national priorities change, you have to be willing to scrub it.’” Yet Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials were unable or unwilling to hear the bad news that came out of the exercise.

MC ’02 has become a shorthand reference for denigrating the cutting-edge and unrealistic notions of military transformation that characterized the Rumsfeld era. A concept-development exercise that was intended to socialize the military around the inevitability of a leap-ahead, futuristic transformation ultimately left precisely the opposite impression. That it required a $250-million red team simulation, and a motivated and justifiably angered former general officer, to make this apparent, suggests that it was a highly useful experiment after all.


Micah Zenko is author of the new book, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


Photo credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Williams, U.S. Navy