War Games

Finding Flaws in Navy's Defense

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  3/1/1999

ABOARD USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT -- Steaming 24 stories above the choppy seas, ringed by an armada of destroyers, frigates and cruisers, and haloed by a swarm of the world's most fearsome jets, this brawny, 97,000-pound Nimitz-class aircraft carrier strikes an invincible pose.

But its aura of indestructibility quickly vanishes. A stealthy, sea-hugging cruise missile sees to that.

Early last Tuesday morning, while patrolling the Gulf of Sabani about 100 miles off the coast of Korona, an enemy frigate launched three cruise missiles against the Roosevelt. Two were shot down, but one evaded the ship's defenses. The missile slammed into the carrier's hull, killing five sailors and injuring 20. The carrier remained operational. Yet fire and flooding damaged gun mounts and at least two planes.

The attack, of course, wasn't real. It was part of the military's Joint Force Exercises, multimillion-dollar maneuvers based on fictional scenarios.

The exercises usually occur three times a year. This exercise, from the Virginia coast down to Puerto Rico, involved more than 24,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from all the services and eight allied nations.

Still, was the missile's impact a sign of weakness in the carrier group's defenses? No, officials say, they planned it.

"What we wanted to do was cause a situation that would allow us to evaluate a process," said Capt. Mark Wahlstrom, the war-games director. "We use the attacks to test the reaction and see what we need to train further on."

The attack on the Roosevelt, which was preceded by similar barrages against other allied ships, was part of an elaborate mock conflict that began Feb. 12, when officials mobilized the Roosevelt's carrier battle group, the USS Kearsarge amphibious ready group, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and elements of the Air Force and Army.

The U.S. forces, joined by a flotilla of allied ships, responded to a fictional crisis purposely similar to conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East. In the game's scenario, the U.S.-led coalition moved into the "Gulf of Sabani" to enforce a United Nations' economic embargo against "Korona," a hostile nation launching repeated attacks against "Kartuna."

The conflict between the make-believe countries arose from a dispute over Kartuna's northern province called "Khemis." The scenario is further compiicated by a tangle of murky alliances and peripheral conflicts that force the allies to divert resources.

For example, Florida, which borders Korona on the south, claims neutrality but funnels weapons to Korona and fuels a revolution about 1,000 miles to the southeast on "Gordon Island." "Sabani," two imaginary islands about 200 miles off the coast of Korona and Florida, which also claims neutrality, ups the rhetoric against the coalition and blames U.S. warships for the sinking of a Sabani freighter.

"In any exercise there's a degree of artificiality," said Lt. Kary Brownlee, an intelligence officer aboard the Roosevelt between briefings. "There's a script, which makes it different. But it's the best way to test our capabilities. "

Controlling the battle

For most of this three-week exercise, the battle is prosecuted from the dimly lit command-and-control room in the belly of the command ship, USS Mount Whitney. There, representatives of the services and countries taking part in the battle coordinate strikes and the other operations.

"This is the most sophisticated command platform there is," said Cmdr. Haakon Tronstad, a Norwegian officer overseeing the battle. "We are in a position to know exactly where all our forces are and to direct them where they have to go."

The trying task of orchestrating thousands of people and machines to strike precise targets in a hostile environment has become easier in the past two years, Tronstad and other officials aboard the Whitney said. Web-based information technology has dramatically increased battle awareness by making it easier and faster for those on sea, land and in the air to view the same information.

It will soon get easier, if more expensive. The military introduced its latest command system, the Area Air Defense Commander module, for the first time during this exercise. In April, it will be installed on the Aegis cruiser, USS Shiloh.

The air-defense module, which was used from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., replaces current view screens with three-dimensional pictures of the battlefield. Instead of circles and squares, for example, a battle-watch commander will now be able to view graphics of enemy planes, boats and missiles.

Another novel dimension this exercise added to warfare is the "seamless" transfer of the Joint Forces Air Component Command, or air-war commander" from a sea-base platform to a land-based operations center. The purpose of shifting authority from the Whitney to a base on land is to bring the leadership closer to the battle, officials said.

"We are exercising to prepare if there's a threat somewhere else," said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. W.L. "Spider" Nyland, who took over joint command of operations against "Korona" after enough room was cleared for operations to move onto enemy territory. "It's one of those niche capabilities."

Assessing performance
The exercise ends tomorrow, but officials already have begun assessing performance and devising plans for future exercises.

Yet knowing who killed whom, or who would have been killed in a particular confrontation, is more difficult than it would be in a real operation. Wahlstrom, the exercise's director, said at times he has to settle disputes between commanders about who shot first or whether a certain evasive measure would have indeed moved a ship or plane from harm's way.

The issue of success or failure was less abstract. Officials praised the military's performance.

"It's like the Super Bowl, and you’re up by 30 points at halftime," Nyland said.

Vice Adm. William Fallon, 2nd Fleet commander and the exercise's ultimate supervisor, said the war games demonstrated improvements in certain areas from previous training missions and areas where improvement is needed.

"The main hurdle is communication," Fallon said, "The reality is we have interoperability issues."

Previous exercises and missions have helped by allowing officers of the different services and nations to develop working relationships, he said. But participants must better integrate their software and systems, take full advantage of the military's new paperless communications system and better learn to understand different approaches, he added.

"This is the seed we're using to grow," Fallon said. "We're using the knowledge to provide a foundation. We're playing high tempo. This is not an elementary game. This is varsity level work."

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