FP Explainer

What Do Militaries Actually Practice During War Games?

Communications and figuring who's good at what.

PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images

After a meeting in Seoul Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-Young announced that the United States and South Korea would conduct massive joint naval drills this weekend. The exercises will include the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington as well as 20 other ships and submarines and 100 aircraft. According to the joint statement, the drills are "designed to send a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stop, and that we are committed together to enhancing our defensive capabilities." The political message sent by exercises like these is certainly clear enough, but are they actually practicing anything?

Yes. Preparedness drills are a constant part of modern naval operations. Almost any time two U.S. naval vessels are in the same area, they will stage some type of combat simulation.. On an international level, joint drills might be intended to send a political message to enemies or enhance relations with an ally, but they’re also a useful opportunity to prepare for potential military action and detect weaknesses.

The biggest of these weaknesses is typically "interoperability." Differences in equipment can make it difficult for allied militaries to communicate in the heat of battle — a problem between the U.S. Army and Navy as well — and differing command structures can make lines of communication unclear. War games give militaries a chance to set procedures for how information is shared and orders are implemented.

Another important purpose of war games is to assign roles for a potential combat scenario. Most U.S. allies don’t have the same ability to project force as the U.S. military, so they generally take the role of holding territory while the American war machine counterattacks. In the closing days of the Cold War, for instance, German troops would practice holding off a Soviet thrust into Central Europe until the arrival of NATO reinforcements.

Similarly, South Korean combat scenarios focus on the "battle of the buildup." South Korea’s outnumbered troops, as well as the small U.S. combat force based in the country would have to hold off invading North Korean forces until the U.S. backup team swept in to save the day. Recent drills have involved procedures for bringing new troops and equipment in the event of a contingency.

The details of the upcoming war games are classified, but the focus will probably be on antisubmarine warfare. The March sinking of a South Korean warship — most likely by a North Korean submarine — exposed a weakness in South Korean antisubmarine tactics and more practice is clearly needed. North Korean subs, because of their small size and relatively simple design, are difficult to detect on radar.

In an antisubmarine drill, a friendly sub posing as an enemy breaks off from the group and  attempts to approach without being detected. Other scenarios include surface ship-to-surface ship combat and amphibious landings.

With approximately 10 such drills planned by the United States and South Korea for the next few months, they should have plenty of opportunities to practice.

Thanks to John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and retired U.S. Navy commander Bryan McGrath.

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