The “war” concluded with a whimper, not a bang. Earlier in the day, it didn’t seem like it might be so. The Camenian forces, severely damaged by continuous air strikes and long range artillery barrages, recognized that their objectives of seizing Highway 395 to secure their northern redoubt was no longer possible. In a last gasp move of desperation, they cobbled together their remaining armoured forces and launched an attack in the direction of the Brigade’s supply dump. If they were successful, the Brigade would have difficulty in launching an offensive to drive the Camenians back to their side of the border.
The Brigade staff, fixated as it had been on defending against a flanking movement down the highway and denying the E-15 route through its front area, had failed to anticipate this course of action and now was racing to develop a plan to counter it. Resources would have to be quickly redeployed to prevent a disaster from unfolding in the supply dump. As a logistics officer had remarked the night before, the level of ammunition supplies in the dump was enormous as the staff had over-estimated the number of artillery missions that would be executed. The Camenians had largely been dealt with using the long range assets supplied by the CFACC and the US 17th Artillery Brigade.
Two hours later, however, “EXCON”, exercise control, called an end to the exercise before the attack materialized or the plans were finalized. It was a bit of a damp squib to the week’s events, and certainly not in keeping with the narrative that had been unfolding in terms of the war. Exercises, while simulating reality, are often greatly disconnected from it.
Famously, in 2002, retired USMC Lt.Gen. Paul Van Riper nearly derailed a multi-million dollar joint exercise with US forces called “Millenium Challenge”. On the first day, he succeeded in sinking an aircraft carrier, ten cruisers, and five amphibious landing ships. Controversially, EXCON re-floated those forces so the exercise could continue, causing Van Riper to resign his position and publically criticize the event. Javelin Thrust, too, had its share of artificialities. The Camenian enemy was a Hollywood cut-out: socialist command economy, populist dictator in the mold of Hugo Chavez. The Arcadians were of course a market economy with a multi-party democracy. There were no human rights concerns to trouble the legal advisor in terms of detainee policy, and the local population was supportive and grateful for the coalition presence. The Brigade’s Commander, Col. Howard Coombs called attention to the oddness of the enemy’s behavior from time to time. Units would approach the Brigade and then halt for several hours, doing nothing. Attacks were rarely coordinated between the various axes of approach. Attacks would pulse: several hours of action would be followed by several hours of inactivity. The Camenians did not fight like a real army. There were also what the Brigade’s Deputy Commander, LCol. James McKay called “exorcisms” or artificialities introduced by the software supporting the exercise. Ground forces could not engage air forces unless they were specifically air defence units. Thus, the LAV III was unable to fire on helicopters landing in its field of fire, despite the fact that its 25mm gun provides a very capable tool for doing just that. Units deployed on hill tops typically won every engagement. And, of course, no one was really killed in the week of events.
Some exercises, like Millenium Challenge, are all about “reality” in a certain sense. In the 1930s, the USN famously conducted a series of war games at the Naval War College where they explored the various ways that Japan might fight a war in the Pacific Ocean. At the close of the Pacific war, Admiral Chester Nimitz remarked that aside from the use of Kamikaze air attacks, nothing that Japan had done had surprised the USN. Millenium Challenge was all about how modern information technology might be employed in a future conflict. These types of exercises attempt to anticipate the future.
Javelin Thrust was a different sort of exercise, however. The goals of this event were to train reservists (all the Marines participating in Javelin Thrust were reservists as well) how to employ the procedures controlling brigade level resources to achieve planned military missions. As readers of this on-going coverage will have come to realize, this is no easy feat. Playing the enemy as realistically as possible might quickly result in the defeat of the participants.
What was striking about the course of events during Javelin Thrust was how reliant the Brigade was on long range forces not directly under its own control. As the logistics officer had noted, its own artillery resources had barely been engaged, and the much of the damage inflicted on the Camenians had been accomplished with resources controlled by other forces in the area. The ability to use information technology to command and control long range forces enabled the Brigade to conduct operations in an area half the size of New Brunswick, as well as survive the assault of more than a division’s worth of forces. In many ways, IT enabled dispersed operations similar to those organized by the US Army and Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Brigade’s G3 officer remarked on this, pointing out that reservists rarely get a chance to work at this level and thus had learned much in terms of how these types of procedures are employed.
Accordingly, rather than being odd, the behavior of the enemy in Javelin Thrust was entirely appropriate for the training environment in which it took place. The pulses of activity permitted the staff to employ the “battle drills” developed for specific situations, and then assess how well their actions had dealt with them. The uncoordinated thrusts served a similar purpose, demanding rapid reassessments of the established orders, re-planning of the assumptions made, and the articulation of a new set of orders to lower level formations and requests for support from higher level ones.
A headquarters is like an orchestra. Orchestras are composed of expert musicians of very different capabilities: violinists generally do not play wind instruments or percussion. The musicians must be able to cooperatively bring their individual expertise together in order to produce the collective effort of a symphony. The actions of the Brigade’s staff were no different in any way. It had its own conductor in the form of the Commander, who established the priorities, tempo, and direction for how the unit would employ the forces under its control. Each of the staff functions (the “G” staff of intelligence, operations, logistics, plans, signals and influence activities) and the enablers (electronic warfare, surveillance, artillery, and engineers to name just a few) are like sections of the orchestra. Although many had met in other exercises, none had worked together as a team, and few had much experience working in the situations they were confronted with during the exercise.
A team of observers from the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre (CMTC) at CFB Wainwright had watched and assessed the actions of the Brigade’s staff. They assessed how well the Brigade had employed the procedures it had drawn up before the exercise began. Even though they had been written – the so-called Battle Drills and “Control Measures” specifying what was to take place when troops came into contact, or when breakthroughs were made in specific areas – often they had been ignored or forgotten in the heat of the battle. In terms of “reality”, it was a situation not dissimilar to the complex events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. There, officials were not familiar with one another and were unacquainted with the procedures for requesting support from other organisations, where developed plans had never been practiced and social networks were absent. As a member of the CMTC team remarked, “in real life, you will be asking people to risk their lives on the decisions made in the planning environment.” The better these plans were developed, the more effective the team worked together to exploit the synergies of mutual collaboration, the less dangerous that assumed risk would be.
In this, one of the most important outcomes of an exercise like Javelin Thrust are the lessons learned not just in familiarizing oneself with the complexities of modern warfare, but also the human connections made between staff members. As the Brigade’s Chief of Staff, LCol. Steve Molaski had pointed out at the beginning of the exercise, the most likely employment of this headquarters would be in a domestic emergency involving a natural disaster, not a war. This type of employment would also place a high premium on their ability to work collaboratively to solve complex problems in a high stress environment. Still, virtually all participating had made at least one tour to Afghanistan. The skills learned on this exercise would also assist them in working with their comrades in arms should the reservists be required to augment over-stretched regular force units. They could show up with their game face already on.
The overall impression left at the conclusion of Javelin Thrust is a human one, not a technological one. True, information technologies in terms of how the Brigade’s forces were marshaled and employed were evident throughout. True, these technologies were critical in requesting and managing the long range forces that turned the lop-sided battle the Brigade fought. However, it was the ability of the different groups of people within the headquarters to use the resources under their direction to produce a collaborative result in a highly dynamic situation. In many ways, it is this human capability rather than the excellence of its technology which explains the effectiveness of Western armies.
Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College and an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. This is part 5 of 5 in the series.