Norfolk command studies ways to paralyze foes

Military experiment in Virginia could change the pace of warfare

March 18, 2002|By Dale Eisman | Dale Eisman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - On Star Trek, Mr. Spock sometimes subdued adversaries with a quick grip at the base of the neck. Even the fiercest warrior would crumple at the "Vulcan nerve pinch," and the technique saved Federation forces from many a firefight.

Now a Norfolk, Va.-based military command, encouraged at the Pentagon's highest levels, is testing a way to help 21st century U.S. forces quickly locate and use other kinds of pressure points to paralyze foes and stop battles before they start.

If it works, the experiment could lead to the placement of elite teams of military planners and analysts across the globe. They would be trained to sniff out threats and then plan and execute strategies to keep the threats under control.

`A new mind-set'

"What we're really talking about is a new mind-set, a new way of viewing the enemy," said Army Col. Christopher L. Shepherd, a key player in the effort.

The experiment employs computers and sophisticated communications links but relies mostly on brainpower and the ingenuity.

The creation of a "standing joint force headquarters" at the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk involves a 55-person unit, with members drawn from all the military branches.

The organization will get its first test in a major war game this summer. Senior Pentagon officials already have encouraged the experiment.

The unit has been developing expertise on the history, culture, economy and politics of a fictional country in which the game will be set, said Air Force Col. Chuck Bradbury, its commander.

The team also is establishing contacts with businesses, academics, intelligence agencies and the Treasury, Justice and Commerce departments to explore ways in which their experts and resources could be used against the enemy, Bradbury said.

The war game, "Millennium Challenge 2002," is the last in a series of exercises in which Joint Forces Command is exploring how to mount "rapid, decisive operations" to defeat in days or weeks enemies that now might fight for months or years.

The game will be run largely out of the command's training center in Suffolk, Va.

Pressure-point strategy

"What I'm looking for are the pressure points where I can actually destroy the coherence" of the military, economic, social and political systems an enemy needs to wage war, Bradbury said.

Coordinated use of what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld calls "all the elements of national power" is a key part of the Bush administration's strategy in the international war on terrorism. For example, while U.S. forces bombed Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan, the administration worked to freeze or seize their economic assets around the world.

But gearing up for those efforts, as well as the military counterattack, took weeks of planning. None of it began until after the conflict reached a crisis stage with the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

While it will take years to absorb all this war's lessons, there's already evidence that the lag let al-Qaida hide a substantial portion of its resources - and perhaps helped leaders of the terrorist network avoid death or capture.

The war itself got off to a slow start, as U.S. special forces established contact with anti-Taliban Afghans and worked to understand how U.S. airpower could be used to bolster their cause.

With a standing joint headquarters in place, Shepherd and Bradbury believe weeks or months could be cut from prewar planning. The unit would be geared first to help the regional U.S. commander to fully understand the adversary and perhaps head off conflict.

`The next crisis'

"The real day job is preparing for the next crisis," Shepherd said.

Once fighting begins, the unit would provide a base of knowledge about the enemy and the ability to quickly bring up to speed the larger "Joint Task Force Headquarters" that actually would manage the war effort.

Such joint forces in today's military typically require more than 800 people for a major operation or conflict. Because they are routinely organized from scratch and manned by personnel who've often not worked together, Bradbury said, advance work done by the unit could cut that number in half.

In past conflicts, Bradbury said, task forces that he's participated in needed up to two months to get staffed and fully operational. Still more time was needed for their personnel to get comfortable with the battle space, he said.

Rumsfeld, criticizing the military's oversized bureaucracy, has noted disapprovingly that the task force for operations in Bosnia in the mid-1990s was never fully staffed.

Shepherd said at least part of the standing headquarters would remain attached to the overall commander. But other elements could be remotely located, and they would be able to use computers and teleconferences to direct information to the commander or forces in the field.

Those same technologies would allow the unit to "reach back" and tap the expertise of other elements of the U.S. government or civilian agencies and businesses with which they had established relationships, he said.

If the experimental headquarters unit performs as expected in the Millennium Challenge game, Shepherd said, a prototype unit could be assigned to a regional commander by 2005.

"We're hoping for a cultural change," Shepherd said, with the standing headquarters combining elements of each military branch into a cohesive unit before war starts, rather than waiting for them to be thrown together in a crisis.

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