War game tests, builds teamwork in military

Preparation: Senior U.S. Army officers are in Germany to hone their skills and flexibility with an elaborate computer exercise of an Iraq war.

February 07, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - Symbols of war illuminate the sprawling, computer-generated wall map. A thatch of green lines shows the air routes of U.S. attack aircraft. Blue circles reflect the lethal reach of the Army's Patriot missile batteries. In the center, nearly lost amid the glow, sits the prize: Baghdad.

Inside this one-story building in the Bavarian countryside, Army staff officers camp before a bank of computers conducting a weeklong war game called "Victory Scrimmage," testing the skills of five units - including the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Armored Division - that might soon attack the forces of Saddam Hussein.

Other officers stand and carefully study the map, jotting notes.

Even though U.S. forces pulverized Iraqi troops 12 years ago in Desert Storm, senior Army officers here, who concluded the war game Wednesday, say they are not underestimating their weakened enemy.

And, while confident of victory, they know many things can go wrong on the battlefield. They are particularly concerned with so-called "asymmetrical" tactics, in which an opponent strikes at a stronger foe in an unconventional manner.

Will the Iraqi dictator unleash his dreaded chemical or biological weapons? Will he create a humanitarian disaster unrivaled since World War II that will tax the U.S. military's ability to simultaneously supply its soldiers and care for fleeing refugees?

Will he mount a disinformation campaign that could inflame the Arab world and threaten U.S. troops stationed in the region?

Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the highest-ranking officer taking part in the computerized games, would command U.S. Army divisions operating from Kuwait should President Bush give the order to attack. Wallace realizes the stakes for both Hussein and the U.S. military are higher than during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"This time we're talking regime change," said the soft-spoken Vietnam veteran, strapping on a shoulder harness with a .45-caliber pistol and dropping into a folding chair in his command tent.

"It would seem to me that he [Hussein] has the opportunity, should he elect to do so, to cause a lot more problems."

Test, not dry run

Wallace quickly points out that the training exercise was not designed as a dry run of any war plan. Instead it is to test, during two problem-solving tactical vignettes, how the commanders fight together, react to the unexpected and make use of their high-tech arms.

All details of the field problems are classified, said officers, who spoke only in general terms.

One of Wallace's concerns is whether the commanders from these diverse army units, who have never worked together, will be able to form a cohesive force.

There is also the problem of the Iraqi terrain. U.S. troops will not be making a quick dash to Kuwait, as they did in 1991, but will mount a campaign that ranges far and wide into Iraq, across rivers, deserts and valleys as well as through cities and towns.

"It's much more complex, as to geography, made even more complex by the urban areas scattered around," said the four-star officer, who spent the gulf war as a senior instructor for armored units at the Army's remote National Training Center in California's Mojave Desert.

Wallace takes pains to say that the possible fight would not be one of conquest, a battle between Christianity and Islam, but a war of liberation. He worries that Hussein will try to "manipulate the Arab mind" in both Iraq and other Muslim countries and "twist" the allied war aims.

That makes psychological operations to reach the civilian population - from broadcasts to leafleting - an important part of both the training and the looming conflict, he said.

During the week, division commanders and their staffs are peppered with problems, ranging from communications breakdowns and supply problems, to the discovery of chemical and biological weapons sites, to a wave of refugees swarming the battlefield.

The Army officers have even created a replica of a desert command post, setting up their tents and positioning vehicles in a patchwork covering this sprawling, snow-covered training site that was once used by German Gen. Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Working together

Wallace's concerns about teamwork might be eased by the experiences of Col. Jackson L. Flake III, chief of staff with the 1st Armored Division and a Desert Storm veteran.

Flake said he was surprised during the first tactical vignette at how swiftly his tank unit found it could mesh its operations with armored reconnaissance forces and air assault troops.

"It was amazing at how quickly we could adjust to how each other fights," said Flake, peeling off his helmet inside a box-like command trailer.

The colonel said none of the challenges presented by the war gamers was unanticipated, although the refugee crisis created during one vignette was greater than expected, requiring officers to make sure National Guard civil affairs units could quickly assist the refugees.

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