This Week at War: Rules of the Game
What message were U.S. officials trying to send by releasing the results of a CentCom Iran war game?
On March 19, the New York Times described a classified U.S. Central Command war game conducted this month that simulated the outcome of an Israeli attack on Iran. According to U.S. officials who discussed the results with the newspaper, the game "forecasts that the [Israeli] strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead." Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of Central Command, found the outcome "particularly troubling" because an Israeli first strike would have "dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there."
The article, with its discussion of "dire consequences," is one more indication of the gap between the Israeli government’s calculations concerning Iran and those of the U.S. government. Why that analytical gap exists should be of interest to policymakers. The military’s conclusion that U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region could suffer hundreds of deaths following an Israeli strike could be an indication that U.S. commanders and policymakers have not adequately prepared for such a scenario. But perhaps most important, we should examine what goals U.S. officials had in mind when they leaked the results of the supposedly secret war game to the New York Times.
According to the article, the two-week Central Command war game, called Internal Look, was specifically designed to test internal military communications and coordination among battle staffs in the Pentagon, Central Command headquarters in Tampa, and field units in the Persian Gulf. According to the scenario, Iran would conclude that the United States was an Israeli partner and therefore U.S. military forces in the Gulf were complicit in the Israeli first strike. The simulation had Iranian anti-ship missiles strike a U.S. warship killing hundreds of sailors. The United States then retaliated with its own strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
This simulation appears to differ sharply from Israeli expectations. According to Jeffrey Goldberg’s reporting at Bloomberg, Israeli officials believe Iran will not target U.S. ships or facilities in the region because it would hardly be in Iran’s interest to bring Central Command’s military power into the conflict (a point I made in a recent column). Indeed, according to Goldberg, Israeli policymakers believe that if Israel’s strikes are limited to a handful of nuclear targets away from urban areas, Iran might actually downplay the severity or cover up the damage, as Syria did after the 2007 Israeli strike on its nuclear reactor.
Since Internal Look was designed to give U.S. military global command and control systems a workout, it would not help commanders achieve that objective if the scenario didn’t escalate up to high-intensity combat action. Requiring the scenario to do that is completely different than having the war game objectively conclude that such escalation is the most likely outcome — a conclusion Israeli planners presumably don’t share. If Internal Look really did make an unbiased and informed prediction of Iranian behavior, it is easy to understand why Mattis is troubled. But if the exercise had to manufacture that Iranian response in order to achieve other exercise goals, it is less easy to understand his anxiety. In any case, he and his staff should consider why their assumptions — which seem to require irrational Iranian behavior — differ from Israeli assumptions.
Mattis’s long experience as a combat commander may have taught him to err on the side of pessimism when formulating military plans. In this case, that pessimism would imply having U.S. forces in the Gulf assume Iranian missiles will soon be on their way following an Israeli first strike. If that is the case, have U.S. commanders done all they can to prepare their forces for Iranian action? And have U.S. policymakers done all they could to deter Iran’s decision-makers from striking in the first place?
On March 16, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, briefed defense reporters on what the Navy is doing to increase its readiness in the Persian Gulf. Greenert is sending additional minesweeping and patrol craft to the Gulf and will add more short-range defensive weapons to Navy vessels operating there, in response to Iranian small boat "swarming" tactics. Greenert expects most of these capabilities to be in place "within a year." This seems a bit tardy, given Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s forecast of an Israeli strike in "April, May or June," and a major Pentagon war game from 2002 that showed the effectiveness of the Iranian small boat swarming threat.
U.S. leaders could likewise do more to deter Iran’s decision-makers in an effort to avert the dire Internal Look scenario. In a recent discussion of possible Iranian behavior, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that a U.S. conflict with Iran could occur not because of Iranian irrationality but more from "gross misjudgment." Dempsey pointed to the disastrous assessments made by an otherwise rational Saddam Hussein, who serially misjudged U.S. will and intentions. U.S. officials could help Iran’s decision-makers avoid similar mistakes by rapidly reinforcing U.S. air and naval forces in the region, conducting useful and visible training exercises once the reinforcements have arrived, and by clearly stating to Iran’s leaders the consequences of Iranian action against U.S. forces and interests. In January, Panetta expressed confidence in the level of U.S. military forces already present in the region. But if, as Dempsey believes, Iran’s leaders are rational, yet Mattis’s planners still believe Iran will attack U.S. forces, either Panetta is wrong, U.S. leaders haven’t been clear with Iran, or both. And that says nothing good about U.S. preparations regarding Iran.
Finally, why did U.S. officials leak the results of Internal Look to the New York Times? If it’s a memo aimed at Israeli policymakers to complain about their saber-rattling, the message is unlikely to get through. U.S. and Israeli officials at all levels have thoroughly discussed the Iran issue and have clearly formulated different assumptions. Repeating the message will hardly help at this point. U.S. military officials may have leaked the story in order to make the case for a military build-up in the region. But they would only need to make such a case in the New York Times if the White House had for some reason refused such a request.
Finally, Mattis and others may have revealed the war game’s pessimistic conclusions in order to prepare the U.S. public for the increasing likelihood of another war and for the casualties that could result. If that is the case, political leaders should have an honest and open discussion with the public, instead of sending a murky message through anonymous leaks to the New York Times.