By THOM SHANKER and ERIC SCHMITT
New York Times, May 24, 2002
WASHINGTON, May 23 A top-secret Pentagon war game has revealed that expanding the campaign against terrorism to a country like Iraq would place severe strains on personnel and cause deep shortages of certain critical weapons, senior officials say.
Even so, the computer-simulated exercise found that the armed forces could still wage and win a major regional conflict while maintaining other global commitments.
Military officials have already concluded that such an invasion could involve as many as 200,000 troops and probably could not be mounted until next winter.
The war game, code named "Prominent Hammer," made clear that the new missions given the military after Sept. 11 to defend the United States at home, wage war in Afghanistan and increase security at bases overseas are seriously taxing combat readiness.
Taking on an adversary like Iraq, the simulation found, could require mobilizing reservists at a level not seen since the Persian Gulf war, when 265,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves were called up, more than three times the number who were mobilized as of this week.
The highly classified war game uncovered worrisome shortages in military equipment, including that used for surveillance and electronic-jamming, as well as refueling tankers and transport aircraft that would be required to conduct a war on the scale of attacking Iraq or North Korea.
Even though the American-led fight to drive the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan was considered a small-scale operation and not a major regional conflict, it brought demand for such equipment to the levels of a full-scale war, officials said.
The simulation, played out over two weeks in March, was described by senior officials as the most thorough assessment of American military readiness since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The findings will undoubtedly play into the debate within the Bush administration and especially at the Pentagon over when, and even if, to attack Saddam Hussein.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, received a three-hour presentation in the Pentagon's secure briefing room, called "The Tank," outlining the results. The major conclusions of the war game have been reconstructed through interviews with more than a dozen senior Defense Department and military officials.
The war game measured how the strains of new commitments to domestic defense, the demands of long-term deployments in places like the Balkans and South Korea, southwest Asia and the Sinai, and the stress of ongoing operations in Afghanistan, would affect the military's ability to wage and win a new regional war.
In a wide-ranging interview in March on efforts by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its top planners to address the global fight against terrorism, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, described the broad objectives of this and other Pentagon war games without disclosing any specific details.
"If there is another major operation, perhaps even bigger than Afghanistan, you know, what is the impact on our posture around the world?" General Myers said. "If you do one thing in one part of the world, what does that mean 180 degrees out? Do you create vulnerabilities that might inspire others? Our role is to step back and look at the strategic consequences."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as branches of the armed services, regularly conduct computer-simulated war games, sometimes called tabletop exercises, to assess different threats and the American military's response. But the scope and duration of this new war game and the senior rank of its participants was highly unusual, officials said.
"We looked at things we have going on ongoing operations everywhere looked at the war plans on the shelf, looked at the prospect of what's next in the broader war on terrorism, to see what it does to the system," said one senior Air Force officer briefed on the war game.
"Everyone is much better informed of the overall health of the system and everyone has a better sense of the risks," this officer added, saying the game pinpointed "what areas need to be shored up. It reaffirmed areas where we need help."
The war game was also unusual in that it did not pit American forces in simulated combat to determine the outcome against any specific adversary. Instead, the exercise gauged the stress and strain on the entire military structure worldwide should the president order the armed forces to conduct a major regional war anywhere.
"The question we asked in `Prominent Hammer' was, `If you're forced into another conflict, what do you do?' " said another military officer, using the name of the war game. "It was not about Iraq or North Korea, per se. It played out multiple scenarios. But we found we could do Iraq. We could do North Korea. We could do elsewhere."
But officials said such a war would add new strains far greater than even those handled during the recent campaign in Afghanistan. That conflict so taxed some components of the military's system for command, control, communications, as well as surveillance and intelligence gathering, that they would have been unavailable if an adversary in another region had chosen that moment to challenge the United States.
Senior officials said the simulation found that since Sept. 11 the increased use of military personnel for domestic defense and bolstering guard details at bases worldwide "force protection," as the military calls it has placed combat readiness at risk.
"We never sized ourselves to have to do high force-protection levels at home and overseas at the same time," said Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff, who sent a two-star general to participate in the March war game. "We're stretched very thin in security forces."
Another senior Pentagon official said the simulation revealed that such force protection "strips combat power" and that the drain on personnel had created "a dangerous situation."
"There are tremendous numbers of additional people at the gates of our bases," this official added. "The base commander ends up taxing his operational forces to do that. And if forces deploy from that base into active units overseas, you have to provide force protection over there and find somebody else back at home for those jobs. It's a double whammy."
Mr. Rumsfeld and General Myers, while disclosing no details of the classified war game, testified before Congress this week, and their public comments highlighted the exact concerns raised by the simulation.
Mr. Rumsfeld noted that thousands of jobs associated with domestic security assigned to the military after Sept. 11 at airports and at the borders, for example should be done by civilians.
"We are constantly doing the things we can do to get people from serving in activities that don't require a uniform back into things that do require a uniform," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "We are systematically going through everything and finding ways to do that."
In testimony for the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, General Myers underscored the strain on the military's high-technology realm of communications, intelligence and surveillance. He also noted the shortfalls in the workhorse parts of the military, especially aircraft and aerial refueling tankers.
In March, two regional war-fighting commanders, Adm. Dennis C. Blair of the Pacific Command and Gen. Joseph W. Ralston of the European Command, told a House committee how their forces were stretched and their arsenals thinned.
"We do not have adequate forces to carry out our missions" if operations in Afghanistan "continue at their recent past and current pace," said Admiral Blair, who recently retired from his command.
Similarly, Gen. William F. Kernan, head of the Joint Forces Command, was pressed by members of the House Armed Services Committee in March to describe how efforts against terrorism were affecting the military's ability to prepare and train its forces.
"We are stretched," he said. "It is manageable right now, but we are stretched."
The sensitivity at senior levels of the Pentagon to concerns about readiness and how potential military vulnerabilities would be viewed by the American public as well as its adversaries was illustrated by the sharp response to the testimony of these senior officers.
"You can be absolutely certain that to the extent that the United States of America decides to undertake an activity, that we will be capable of doing it," Mr. Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news briefing.
At the same news conference, General Myers added, "There should be no doubt in anybody's mind that whatever the president would ask us to do, we're ready to do."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company