FRESNO, CA -- Today I'm going to talk about war games. Which reminds me: my computer's messed up so I'm writing this column from what has got to be the darkest, smelliest internet cafe in Fresno, not like there are a lot to choose from. I seem to be the only roundeye in the place, and I'm definitely the only one here who didn't come to play combat games.
All around me are these huge explosions and the screams of the wounded, all fuzzy from the cheap speakers beside every machine. I don't even know what games these guys are playing--I don't do fantasy games--but they sure are serious about it.
What's really weirding me out though is the way this Asian guy to my left always ends his game. Every time, there's a huge explosion and then a serious voice saying, "The terrorists win." Every time! Does Homeland Security know about this treasonous game, poisoning the minds of America's yout' with defeatism? And how come the terrorists keep winning?
Which brings me (nice segue, huh?) to the big-boys' war games I wanted to talk about, the ones the US Navy just conducted near the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf. And I'd like to thank all the readers like Aaron Champion who wrote in to link me to the story and remind me that I've been proven right again. Damn, I'm tired of always being right, because it's always about the bad news. In this case, Aaron wrote to give me the heads-up that six long years after I predicted Iranian irregular naval forces in small civilian craft would make an American fleet in the Persian Gulf look foolish, the glorious NY Times itself lowered itself to repeat today what I'd said way back in 2002. Here's Aaron's message:
Dear Mr. Nerd,
I'm a longtime reader of your column and it wouldn't surprise me if you've already seen this:
But if you hadn't, allow me to stroke your ego (and ego alone) by making pointing out that you're the only motherfucker in the world that seems to have picked up on this. It only took the press five years. Adding insult to ineptitude, it was the New York Times.
Hope this brightens an otherwise bleary in Fuckno for ya.
Well, Aaron, it did, kind of. Nothing makes me happier than when the people who get the respect and money I don't get, wind up looking stupid. I just wish the NY Times would pay me some kind of settlement instead of ripping me off six years late. If you're going to steal, fellas, at least do it right. I don't break into your Manhattan HQ to pilfer your back issues for toilet paper, so don't steal my 2002 columns just because your military correspondents are brain-dead from decades of believing DoD briefings.
(Editor's Note: This isn't the first time that the NY Times has lifted from the War Nerd. Last May, the popular Fishbowl/NY blog suggested that Times columnist/editor Nicholas Kristoff plagiarized from Brecher's idea that Cheney must be an Iranian mole because he's doing their business so well.)
If you're a new reader you might need to know that way back in December 2002 I did a column called "U Sank My Carrier!" about the results of "Millennium Challenge," a US Navy war game in the Persian Gulf. Here's the link to that column:
What happened in Millennium Challenge is that the Navy brass picked a prickly retired USMC vet named Paul van Ripen to play the Iranian commander facing a naval incursion--and van Riper, with nothing but small speedboats, civilian prop planes, and low-tech surface-to-surface missiles, managed to sink two-thirds of the US force by buzzing them with annoying but not openly hostile civilian craft, then attacking simultaneously with everything he had.
I made two important points in that column. The first is that war's entering a new phase where blurring the line between civilian and military isn't just an accident or cheating but crucial to any irregular force facing first-world attackers. It's how they win.
My second point, the one I got a lot of flak for, was that if we send our old-fashioned carrier battle groups into the Gulf in wartime, they won't come out. They'll make excellent dive sites after all the coral and urchins and other sea critters have colonized them--the Gulf is nice and shallow, so our ships will be resting in really prime diving depth--but they won't come out alive.
Well, durned if the Iranians showed they'd learned from van Riper even if the US Navy refused to. To celebrate the new year, the neocons decided to send another battle group into the Persian Gulf. And guess how the Iranians reacted. Yup: they sent a bunch of small "civilian" speedboats to harass the frigate screen, zipping and zooming in the US Navy's wakes. Waterskiing for all I know, just having a great old time trying to provoke the USN's close-in defense systems into a massacre that they could play for the home audience, tapping into that gigantic Shia lust for martyrdom.
Of course Cheney or whoever else ordered the fleet into a shallow deathtrap like the Gulf was playing the same sleazy game, just with a bigger budget. The only possible reason to send a US fleet close to the Iranian coastline right now is that Cheney and his friends are desperate to provoke a war with Iran fast, before they have to leave office.
And it's harder for them than ever now that we have a new-and-improved Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Rummy bought into all their neocon crap--hell, he was their main wizard!--but Gates doesn't. He pissed off the neocons bigtime at a news conference I just read about by calling Iran a "challenge" instead of a "threat." That may not sound like a big deal to you, but to the Admin crowd it's enough to get you burned at the stake, like calling Jesus "a nice man" instead of "my personal savior" to the churchy crowd.
So there's the US Navy trolling the Gulf trying to draw Iranian fire, and there's the Iranian speedboats trying to draw US fire, like a couple of street whores winking at each other. Naturally, no business resulted because they both want the same thing: an enemy provocation. If you're thinking this means the VP was willing to risk US casualties to get his Iran invasion, you're right, but I hope you're not surprised. In the first place, sacrificing a decoy force for strategic purposes is a classic part of war, and besides, the idea of draft dodgers like Cheney caring what happens to an ordinary squid blasted into fish food by a suicide evinrude attack is just ridiculous. They're coldblooded, which is good for a war chief.
Unfortunately they're also stupid. And the Persians aren't. That bears repeating: the Persians are NOT stupid. In fact, they've always been the craftiest people in the Middle East, because they can yell as loud and act as crazy in public as any Arab--but when it's necessary they can also instantly calm down and plan quietly, a smile on their faces and a dagger under the table.
If the Mullahs in Tehran had wanted a provocation, they could have made one phone call and all those annoying speedboats would have beelined for our frigates at ramming-suicide speed. But Persians are patient; they know that Cheney will be gone in a year, so why risk an invasion? Not that they're afraid of a US invasion; in fact, if they were just typical Middle-East crazies, they'd b
e scheming to get invaded ASAP. But they don't NEED us to invade right now, which means they feel pretty confident things are going their way without any added aggravation. After all, we just conquered Iraq for them; why not let us bleed out there, with no risk to Iran, then walk in when the US Treasury is empty?
So what the Iranians did was waterski around the fleet and drop "boxes in the water." That's a quote from the Navy's report. The Navy seemed especially pissed off about an enemy who'd do something as low and no-account as dropping "boxes in the water." See, every "box" is potentially a mine, and there's nothing that full-braid Naval officers hate more than mines, because of all the ways you can wreck your ship, steaming onto a floating bomb is maybe the most embarrassing.
Pick on someone your own size! This multibilliondollar US Navy warship is no match for a $250 Iranian suicide-speedboat
See, the Navy brass always plans for a neat, clean hi-tech war. Their real investment isn't the Phalanx or Aegis but the operations rooms deep in the hulls where flabby desk jockeys just like me sit at little screens. Those screens are supposed to show a few dots, nice fair-fighting Soviet surface ships and subs. That's how the Navy wants to play the game. Seeing their beautiful screens clogged up by a bunch of goddamn cheap speedboats full of Revolutionary Guards, not to mention hundreds of "boxes" that might turn out to be mines, ruins everything.
You might wonder, if you were real, real naive, why the Navy hasn't tried to learn from what van Ripen did to them six years ago in the same waters. Well, the truth is that no big, well-funded armed service learns or changes until it absolutely has to, which usually means when it starts to lose a war. And of all services, navies are by far the most stubborn, old-fashioned, snobby, retarded of all. I don't mean the submarine force, which is pretty much God. I mean the brass in their ridiculous floating targets, aka carriers, frigates, tankers and other dive-sites-in-the-making.
If they had any sense they'd realize that the way to deal with big overloaded targets is to saturate their defenses with a swarm of low-cost attackers. If you've got lives to spend, and the Iranians sure do, you spend lives to sink hardware. It's a good trade, when you consider what a carrier costs, and how little the average Iranian life is worth. They're Shia! These guys can't wait to give their lives away. The Kamikazes were squeamish moderates compared to the Revolutionary Guard. And thanks to Silicon Valley and its Chinese knockoffs, you can fire swarms of unmanned rockets instead of Shia martyrs, so you don't even need to spend one life per blip on the US fleet's little screens. You can even send empty rocket tubes as part of the swarm, because in the few seconds the surface vessel has to react, it can't determine which threats are nuke, which are conventional HE and which are decoys.
Of course the Navy will come back with buzz words like Aegis and Phalanx. The Phalanx is a good system, if everybody was still playing by those Warsaw Pact vs. NATO war games. Phalanx, for you rookies, is an automated close-in defense system mounted on the decks of USN surface vessels. It looks like that Star Wars robot R2D2, if R2D2 had a huge penis hanging down that was a multi-barrel 20mm cannon. The R2D2 part houses the radar and computer; the gatling gun spits out 20mm rounds at low-flying SS missiles, incoming speedboats, or diving kamikaze planes.
But the Phalanx was never meant to handle swarms of low-tech attackers. That's not the clean, temperate-zone war the computer dweebs in the Pentagon planned for. See, the original Phalanx only had 1000 rounds in its magazine. The newer models have 1.550, meaning even the USN realized that it was too easy to saturate the target with decoy attacks and deplete the magazine. But 1550 rounds isn't much at that rate of fire--and the Achilles heel of the system is reloading. It's not that easy to hoist 1550 20mm rounds into position, and I don't think either van Riper or the Iranians would be likely to agree to a 15-minute reloading break.
If it was me, and maybe I'm too "cynical" or something, I'd send all my empty missile tubes and expendable suicide squads in the first wave, all at once like van Riper did. I'd count to 90, because 90 seconds would be enough to empty every Phalanx magazine--and you can bet that those scared Navy computer nerds down in the Operations Room would be holding the red buttons down till the barrels were melting when they realized they were under a real attack. Then, while the grunts below deck were hauling the ammo into position, I'd send the second wave with the real stuff. And that, as they say, would be that. A trillion dollars of US Navy hardware becomes an artificial reef.
If I'm wrong, US Navy bosses, why don't you show the taxpayers how invulnerable your battle groups are? Bring van Riper out of retirement and give him the Iranian weapons mix, including speedboats, small planes and soviet-clone antiship missiles. Set up an automated frigate somewhere where we can watch, and let us see that Phalanx knock down every single bee in that sting-swarm.
Of course the Navy won't ever stage a test like that. It'd be like asking Benny Hinn to walk on water. You're not supposed to put your god to the test, and Navy brass really do think they're God. Something about all that "tradition" and bullshit etiquette on "the bridge" goes to their heads. You're supposed to trust them. And give them all your money so they can pretend it's still 1880 and the dreadnought rules the waves. Besides, Navy officers were always "gentlemen," and there's nothing as totally useless as a gentleman.
While the Navy was shaking its gentlemanly fists at a bunch of Iranians in Islamic jet-skis, Cheney's propaganda corps was filming the whole ridiculous encounter to try to convince us on the home front that this proved we gotta invade now, right now. This is where they showed that their real talent is for comedy, even though they don't realize it.
To show how dangerous Iran was, the Navy released a tape of a heavily-accented voice on the radio who supposedly threatened the fleet in the Gulf. If you heard this tape, you have to laugh: "I am comink to blow you up, America!" Oooooh, really scary stuff! That's supposed to scare the most expensive naval force in the history of the world?
Some hairy CB retro nut out there in the Gulf whiling away the time sweating in his radio shack hoping to get an answer 30 years after everybody else gave up CB: "Uh, Breaker, Breaker, this is Greaseball Slacker One-Niner givin' y'all the big Islamic word that y'all is about to get blowed up real good, Good buddies!"
To add to the shame, it turns out the voice wasn't even coming from those scary Iranian Bayliners. Turns out the Navy got punked by a dude (or group of dudes) known and hated by every vessel transiting the Gulf under the name "Filipino Monkey." And before you Flips up in San Jose get your butterfly knives out and drive town to Fresno in your 1971 Cudas, remember it wasn't me that coined that name, it was a bunch of merchant sailors and squids. So go wait at the gate of Mare Island and slice up a chief petty officer on shore leave, don' take it out on Brecher.
You know, in some way this whole episode in military history is like one of those samples rappers make. You'd start out with some video of the fleet zooming around the Gulf with the Iranians zipping in their wake in small outboards. You'd run that backwards and forwards a few times while that video-game voice repeated, "The terrorists win!" Then you'd sample the Filipino Monkey's voice that scared the admirals so much, going, "I am comeenk to keeell you America!" a few times, then the apologetic network correspondents saying over and over, "...now appears to be a radio prankster known as 'Filipino Monkey.'" Run that a few dozen times: "Filipino monkey! The terrorists win! I am comeenk to kill you!" Put it on random, switch the order around, zip the video of the fleet at keystone kops speed, and you've got the big picture: the Gulf of Tonkin incident replayed as comedy. That's the world from 1962 to 2008, kids: history repeating, first time tragic, second time comedy. Not good comedy--Cheney's no Henny Youngman--but definitely slapstick.