How to win the war? Follow the script

In mid-2002, the US armed forces ran one of the largest and most expensive war game experiments in history, known as the “Millennium Challenge 2002”. It was designed to be a test of new technologies to enable network-centric warfare to give better command and control over both current and future weaponry and tactics.

The scenario was that a crazed but cunning (and strongly anti-American) military commander had broken away from his government somewhere in the Persian Gulf. Religious and ethnic loyalty gave him power and strong links to terrorist organizations made him even more dangerous. War was imminent.

The US side, known as the “Blue” team (as they always are in such military exercises apparently), were pitted against the “Red” team – with the rogue commander being played by retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General, Paul Van Riper.

It’s worth a quick note on the character of  Van Riper at this point. His forty year military career included Vietnam and reading about him (especially from the words of those he led) it is clear that he was a straight-talking leader who inspired his teams to work for him even in the most dangerous and difficult of circumstances. By the time of this war game, he was retired and in his mid-60s – with no real need to be circumspect.

What actually happened during the running of the war game is described well in [1]:

In the first few days of the exercise, using surprise and unorthodox tactics, the wily 64-year-old Vietnam veteran sank most of the US expeditionary fleet in the Persian Gulf, bringing the US assault to a halt.

What happened next will be familiar to anyone who ever played soldiers in the playground. Faced with an abrupt and embarrassing end to the most expensive and sophisticated military exercise in US history, the Pentagon top brass simply pretended the whole thing had not happened. They ordered their dead troops back to life and “refloated” the sunken fleet. Then they instructed the enemy forces to look the other way as their marines performed amphibious landings. Eventually, Van Riper got so fed up with all this cheating that he refused to play any more. Instead, he sat on the sidelines making abrasive remarks until the three-week war game – grandiosely entitled Millennium Challenge – staggered to a star-spangled conclusion on August 15, with a US “victory”.

Van Riper very publicly aired his opinions on how ridiculously the game had been played and strongly criticized the idea that the ultimate “Blue” victory validated anything about the technology and approach the game was designed to test. In [2], he says:

There were accusations that Millennium Challenge was rigged. I can tell you it was not. It started out as a free-play exercise, in which both Red and Blue had the opportunity to win the game. However, about the third or fourth day, when the concepts that the command was testing failed to live up to their expectations, the command then began to script the exercise in order to prove these concepts.

This was my critical complaint. You might say, “Well, why didn’t these concepts live up to the expectations?” I think they were fundamentally flawed in that they leaned heavily on technology. They leaned heavily on systems analysis of decision-making.

It would seem that the skills and experience of Paul Van Riper and his ability to react quickly to what he observed gave him a significant advantage over the scripted, process-driven approach of his enemy. Yet, rather than making any effort to incorporate his alternative strategies, it was deemed better to constrain his actions to allow the script to play out the way it was “meant to”.

The analogy with scripted vs exploratory tests is very strong I think, so perhaps next time you’re locked in battle with a factory schooled commander of scripted testing, take up the battle and demonstrate your superior powers of testing. Even if your testing war game ends up the same way as the Millenium Challenge, at least you might have won the battle – and won some supporters for your exploratory testing cause along the way.

For reference…

[1] “Wake-up Call” (The Guardian, UK):

[2] “The Immutable Danger of War” (Scott Willis interview with Van Riper)

(You can read more about the Millenium Challenge (2002) on wikipedia.)

Inspiration for this post came from reading about this war game in the fascinating book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (and the same book provided inspiration for my previous post, Maier’s Two Cord Puzzle and Testing Heuristics).

1 thought on “How to win the war? Follow the script

  1. Pingback: Testing Bits – 10/5/14 – 10/11/14 | Testing Curator Blog

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