U Sank My Carrier!
By Gary Brecher ( email@example.com )
When kids play war, they end up spending
less time shooting than arguing: "You're
dead!" "Am not! You missed!" It just gets
worse the bigger the kids. I remember a D &
D'er crying when his character got killed --
wouldn't talk to the rest of us for years,
still grieving for his dead elf.
The US military has been having exactly this
kind of argument, played out in the world
press, since last August. They're even
whinier and more of a pain about it than
D&Ders, if you can believe that, with leaks
and counter-leaks, planted stories, and
plenty of good ol' character assassination.
It all comes out of the "Millenium Challenge
'02" war games we staged in the Persian Gulf
this summer. The big scandal was that the
Opposing Force Commander, Gen. Paul van
Ripen, quit mid-game because the games were
rigged for the US forces to win. The
scenario was a US invasion of an unnamed
Persian Gulf country (either Iraq or Iran).
The US was testing a new hi-tech joint force
doctrine, so naturally van Riper used every
lo-tech trick he could think of to mess
things up. When the Americans jammed his CCC
network , he sent messages by motorbike.
But that was just playing around. They
wouldn't have minded that. Might've even
congratulated van Ripen, bought him a drink
for his smarts, at the post-games party.
The truth is that van Ripen did something so
important that I still can't believe the
mainstream press hasn't made anything of it.
With nothing more than a few "small boats
and aircraft," van Ripen managed to sink
most of the US fleet in the Persian Gulf.
What this means is as simple and plain as a
skull: every US Navy battle group, every one
of those big fancy aircraft carriers we
love, won't last one single day in combat
against a serious enemy.
The Navy brass tried to bluff it out, but
they were pretty lame about it. They just
declared the sunken ships "refloated" so the
game could go on as planned. This is the
kind of word-game that makes the military
look so damn dumb. Too bad Bonaparte never
thought of that after Trafalgar: "My vleete,
she is now reflotte!" Too bad Phillip didn't
demand a refloat after the Armada went down:
"Oye, vatos, dees English sink todos mi
ships, chinga sus madres, so escuche: el
fleet es ahora refloated, OK?"
Everybody in this story has an agenda-
starting with the retired USMC General named
Paul van Riper, the hero of the story for
most readers. Even the Army Times, when it
broke the story, admitted that van Riper has
a reputation as an "asshole" who has a
grudge against hi-tech scenarios like the
one the military was testing. He also has a
reputation as a guy who lives for the chance
to make the brass look bad in war games.
But that's what a good opposing commander is
supposed to do. This van Riper may be an
asshole, but then most good generals are.
Patton wasn't somebody you'd want to be
stuck in an elevator with. Rommel was worse;
there's a story about how one morning in the
desert Rommel announced to his staff
officers, "Today is Christmas. We will now
celebrate. Hans, how is your wife? Hermann,
how is your wife?" and without waiting for
his officers, to answer, Rommel said, "That
was Christmas. Now-get out the maps."
And whatever agenda van Ripen had, do you
really think the brass who "refloated" the
ships he sunk are any more objective? Their
careers are all riding on the success of
this operation and they've got just as much
reason to lie or fudge the results.
The story just got dirtier as it bounced
around the web. The gullible types who
believe everything the Pentagon tells them,
decided to trust the brass -- van Riper was
just a troublemaker. The paranoid types, the
ones who think the CIA controls the weather,
took it for granted that the whole war games
were fixed from the start.
A lot of the arguments came down to the
question of what war games like Millennium
Challenge are about. Trusting war-nerds were
saying on the web, "Well, the whole POINT of
war games is to show up weaknesses! So
naturally when van Ripen sank the ships,
they made a note and restarted the games!"
It's a nice idea, but kinda naive. Most war
games aren't neutral at all. They're
supposed to showcase a new weapon or
doctrine. Millennium Challenge was supposed
to showcase high-tech joint-force doctrine.
So when van Ripen sank the fleet, you can
bet that the guys running it didn't just
say, "Well played, old boy! We must make a
note of your tactics in order to avert such
mishaps in the future!"
What most casual readers won't get is that
some of van Ripen's moves are chickenshit,
and don't amount to anything-but others are
so damn scary that the US Navy will be
trying to live them down for years.
That trick of sending messages by motorbike
is a good example of a move that gets lots
of publicity and sounds smart but doesn't
mean much. OK, you send your messages by
bike. For starters, that means they move at
30 mph, unlike radio messages, which are
almost instant. That's a huge disadvantage.
And what happens if your biker gets strafed?
No message-or a captured message. I'd be
happy to fight an army that had nothing
better than motorbikes to communicate with.
But what van Ripen did to the US
fleet...that's something very different. He
was given nothing but small planes and ships-
fishing boats, patrol boats, that kind of
thing. He kept them circling around the
edges of the Persian Gulf aimlessly, driving
the Navy crazy trying to keep track of them.
When the Admirals finally lost patience and
ordered all planes and ships to leave, van
Ripen had them all attack at once. And they
sank two-thirds of the US fleet.
That should scare the hell out of everybody
who cares about how well the US is prepared
to fight its next war. It means that a bunch
of Cessnas, fishing boats and assorted
private craft, crewed by good soldiers and
armed with anti-ship missiles, can destroy a
US aircraft carrier. That means that the
hundreds of trillions (yeah, trillions) of
dollars we've invested in shipbuilding is
A few years ago, a US submarine commander
said, "There are two kinds of ship in the US
Navy: subs and targets." The fact that big
surface ships are dinosaurs is something
that's gotten clearer every decade since
That was the year Billy Mitchell finally got
the chance to prove what he'd been saying
for years: large surface ships without air
cover had no chance against aircraft.
Mitchell had made himself the most hated man
in the Armed Forces for saying this, but he
wouldn't shut up. Finally, thanks to the
huge surplus of military vessels left over
from WW I, he got his chance. A German
battleship, the Ostfriesland, and three
surplus US battleships were anchored off
Virginia to see what Mitchell's rickety
little biplanes could do to them. You have
to remember how big and tough these
"dreadnoughts" seemed to people back then.
They had the thickest armor, the biggest
guns, the deadliest reps of any weapon on
land or sea. The idea that aircraft could
sink them was a joke for most people. Of
course, the Navy brass knew, and tried
everything to stop the tests. They knew all
too well what was going to happen--and it
wasn't good for their careers.
The little biplanes buzzed out...and sank
every ship. First a destroyer, then the huge
German battleship, then all three US
battleships. The Navy tried to ignore the
results, but with Mitchell yapping at their
heels, they finally started moving from
battleship-based to aircraft-carrier-based
The British didn't pay any attention to
Mitchell's demonstration. Their battleships
were better made, better armed, and better
manned. With an impregnable British
stronghold in Singapore and the RN
patrolling offshore, what could those little
Jap monkeys do?
Three days after Pearl Harbor, the British
found out. A powerful battle group led by
the battleship Prince of Wales and the
Cruiser Repulse steamed out to oppose
Japanese landings in Malaysia, and ran into
several squadrons of Japanese planes. In a
few minutes both ships were sinking, The
Prince of Wales sank so fast virtually the
entire crew went down with her. With its
Naval screen gone, Singapore the Impregnable
fell so fast the British still can't talk
What the battleship was in 1941, the
aircraft carrier is now: a big, proud,
expensive...sitting duck.Aircraft carriers
came out of WW II looking powerful, but that
was before microchips. Now, when an enemy
tanker can fire 60 self-guiding cruise
missiles from hundreds of miles away, no
carrier will survive its first real battle.
Carriers are not only the biggest and most
expensive ships ever built--they're the most
vulnerable. Because even one serious cruise-
missile hit means the carrier can't launch
its planes, its best weapons. They will sink
to the bottom with their crews, not having
fired a shot.
That was the real lesson of Millennium
Challenge II. And that's what has the Navy
so furious at van Riper: he blew their
cover. He showed all the hicks back home
that the carrier battle fleet can be sunk by
"small planes and boats." As weapons become
smaller and deadlier, big targets just won't
The signs have been there all along. In the
Falklands War, the Argentine Air Force,
which ain't exactly the A Team, managed to
shred the British fleet, coming in low and
fast to launch the Exocets. And they did all
this hundreds of miles off their coast, with
no land-based systems to help.
If the Argentines could do that with 1980
technology, think what the Chinese, Iranians
or North Koreans could do in 2003 against a
city-size floating target like a US carrier.
If your local library has copies of Jane's
Weapons Systems, check out the anti-ship
missile section. The top of the line in
standard weaponry might still be the old US
Harpoon, but you don't need anything that
fancy. Anti-ship missiles are easy to make
and use, because surface ships are very
slow, have huge radar signatures, and can't
We may be lucky a little while longer, as
long as we take on losers like Iraq. But
what about Iran? The Iranians aren't
cowardly slaves like the Iraqis. They're
smart, they're dedicated, and they hate us
like poison. Imagine how many "small
aircraft and boats" there are along the
Iranian coastline. Imagine every one of
those craft stuffed full of explosives and
turned into kamikazes. Now add all the anti-
ship missiles the Iranians have been able to
buy on the open market. If you really want
to get scared, add a nuke or two.
Suppose the Iranians use van Riper's method:
send everything at once, from every ship,
plane and boat they've got, directly at the
carrier. Give the Navy the benefit of the
doubt and say they get 90% of the incoming
missiles. You still end up with a dead
Now try shifting the scenario to a US-China
fight off Taiwan. The Chinese have it all:
subs, planes, anti-ship missiles-Hell, they
SELL that stuff to other countries! I'll say
it plain: no American carrier would last
five minutes in a full-scale naval battle
Let's go back to that objection some of you
are probably raising: "The Navy must've
thought of all that!" Oh yeah? Why didn't
the British think of it in 1940? There was
plenty of evidence that battleships were
nothing but giant coffins. They just decided
not to think about it.
That's what the US Navy does now. There are
careers here, big money, tradition. There's
always been a surface navy; so there's
always got to BE one. That's about as far as
their reasoning gets.
One day we'll wake up to a second Pearl
Harbor. Maybe not this year--fighting a joke
like Saddam, the US Navy can probably
getting away with sending its carriers into
the Persian Gulf. But if Iran gets involved,
those carriers won't last one day. If they
ever approach the Chinese coast in wartime,
they'll just vanish. If a carrier-based
group steams anywhere near the North Korean
coast...well, there won't even be enough
left to make a good dive-site.
And the sickest part is that the admirals
and the captains and the contractors all
know it. Goddamn. Maybe we deserve what's
gonna happen to us. Only thing is, it won't
be the brass who die. It'll be the poor
trusting kids on those carriers who'll die,
the poor suckers who thought they'd get free
training and a world tour, or even get the
chance to "defend America." They'll die not
even believing what's happening to them as
the whole giant hulk starts cracking up and
sliding into the water.