The New York Times scoop on the recently concluded “Internal Look” military exercise involving war with Iran seems another alarm bell signaling imminent war, while also at the same time constituting an intentional leak to communicate caution both to Israel and the administration. According to The Times, the exercise, which included an Israeli first strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, escalated to a regional war between Iran and the United States.
No one needs a sophisticated exercise to come to this conclusion, so the real questions are: Why the leak? What was Internal Look really trying to practice? And most important, what did The New York Times miss in its reporting?
Some background: Internal Look is a biennial (held every other year), unilateral Central Command (USCENTCOM) battle staff exercise. Unilateral meaning it is a U.S. exercise; battle staff exercise meaning it is a computer assisted command post exercise to train headquarters and components staffs in doctrine and procedures pertaining to a major Middle East war.
Over the years, Internal Look has been CENTCOM’s number one training priority and its primary mission rehearsal for theater level conflicts.
From Internal Look 90 (1990) through 02, the exercise focused almost exclusively on Iraq. Internal Look 90 was the first exercise to supplant a Cold War scenario involving a Soviet invasion of Iran scenario. In December 1989, the JCS authorized CENTCOM to shift the geographic focus of the upcoming game from defense of Iran to defense of Saudi Arabia.
Then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz was working on the Defense Department’s 1992-1997 Defense Planning Guidance, a document that made the “central objective” for U.S. regional planning the prevention of a hostile power from gaining control over oil supplies or shipment routes. The final document, dated 24 January 1990, stated:
“The Secretary has increased the relative priority of Southwest Asia by making explicit that the region ranks above South America and Africa in terms of global wartime priorities and by outlining an initial theater strategy.”
Internal Look 90 thus began as an exercise to test the military’s ability to respond to an incursion by Orange Forces from the north down through Iraq to seize control of Saudi oil fields. Given that Saudi Arabia, unlike Europe had no pre-positioned war stocks, no road network, and no water, logistics planning ended up being the major preoccupation. The exercise commenced on July 9th, and before it was over on August 4th, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Though many officers at CENTCOM’s Florida headquarters and at Ft. Bragg, North Caroline could not even pronounce the names of the towns in Saudi Arabia and were still scratching their heads over the problems identified in moving the forces to the area, they never even had the opportunity to remove the maps of Iraq and Saudi Arabia from their map boards when the invasion occurred.
Urban legend has it that Internal Look 90 thus presaged an Iraqi invasion – it did not – but there is no question that it ushered in the Iraq era, or more centrally, the oil era, which is to say, that protection of Middle East oil assets and flows became the priority U.S. military focus in the 1990’s as each subsequent exercise honed the defense of Saudi Arabia and the oil routes scenario.
By the time Internal Look 03 was held in December 2002, the focus was unambiguously a practice implementation of OPLAN 1003V, the war plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Internal Look provided the venue for the Air Force, Marine, Navy, and special operations commands to each examine their plans. The major outcome of the exercise was the success of the Army commander to convince General Tommy Franks to provide him a minimum of forces to execute what was called the “running start option” for an Iraq war. The attack would focus on Baghdad command and control as the center of gravity; a simultaneous and synchronized ground attack from multiple directions aimed at isolating the regime within Baghdad and ultimately at striking sites in the city. The official history talks of a “rolling transition to stability operations and support operations” as ground forces advanced on Baghdad. The U.S. would be welcome as liberators and the rest would be history.
After 9/11, most high-level CENTCOM exercises, including Internal Look, morphed to operational tasks associated with ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and the global war on terrorism (GWOT). Mission rehearsal exercises for each new deployment, and each revision of strategy, were called the United Endeavor series. Desert Sailor became the mission rehearsal for the Proliferation Security Initiative Maritime Intercept Operations (PSI-MIO).
All along, CENTCOM commanders pushed for refocusing the exercises for potential future operations, but the reality was that the requirements of real war and even the operational tempo of the staff inhibited such a shift in planning or development. A new exercise, Internal Advance, was added to focus on lesser contingencies (so-called “tier II” scenarios).
Joint Chiefs of Staff Powerpoint slide from 2011 showing major mission rehearsal exercises and large scale exercises worldwide of the various combatant commands.
The last Internal Look exercise of this series (Internal Look 09) replicated a humanitarian assistance and disaster response scenario; in other words, for all of the grinding of teeth about the Bush administration’s sneaky plans for war with Iran and October surprises, Iran didn’t become the focus until the Obama administration.
So that’s it? The staff’s time is now freed up to focus on a new “tier I” major war and Iran’s it? This is the way thing work on the inside; it isn’t that anyone is particularly rooting for a war; it isn’t as if the order has come down (as it did with Bush in 2002) to prepare for an offensive war. But it is the case that Iran is now the focus of planning and that precipitates changes and revisions and scenarios and deployments all of which build up a greater likelihood of war. It seems to me that The Times got the story of the war game but missed the story of the war, how the dynamics of an idle planning staff steers the United States ever so slightly in a certain direction.