Military policymakers and their war games

War Games, The Secret World of the Creators, Players, and Policy Makers Rehearsing World War III Today, by Thomas B. Allen. McGraw-Hill. 402 pp. $19.95. Many segments of America play war games, as this absorbing, crucially important book reveals. Army maneuvers are often scenarios of what might come to pass. The Navy, an inveterate games player, simulates combat situations across thousands of sea miles. The Air Force rehearses its responses to surprise attack and even - if only in theory - its first-strike, preemptive capabilities. Think tanks and universities stage endless strategic seminars.

And in the depths of the Pentagon high-ranking officers (and their middle-grade stand-ins) play friend-and-foe with zeal, sometimes with zealotry. A 1982 Department of Defense catalog listed ``363 war games, simulations, exercises and models, some so complex they had taken seven years to develop,'' author Thomas Allen informs us. Add arcade-style video games, ``often dazzling conjurers of reality,'' and war gaming spills over into the public domain.

But mostly, the process is highly classified. It is to the author's extreme credit that he lifts a corner of the curtain on activities that so deeply concern your survival and mine.

The history of war gaming began in the mists of history. It made its American debut at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., which did pioneer work starting in 1889.

With the nuclear age came new and awesome problems in decisionmaking, and the Bay of Pigs disaster added a sharp urgency to the need for better planning.

To catch the flavor of the book, two full-dress exercises might well stand for the many brought to light by the author's diligent research. One of these war games bore the jaunty code name of Nifty Nugget; the other was labeled Ivy League.

The scenario for Nifty Nugget (1978) involved the mobilization of 400,000 men and 350,000 tons of supplies across the Atlantic in response to a surprise invasion of Europe by Warsaw Pact forces. The drill lasted 30 days and turned into a ``horror story'' of unforeseen pitfalls - panic-stricken tourists, clogged roads, railway lines long out of use, and sabotaged port facilities. Out of it came sobering lessons, including the way some role players collapse under even simulated tension.

Ivy League took place in 1982, with former Secretary of State William P. Rogers playing the part of the president, and various former Cabinet members in supporting roles. The action started with an attack on South Korea by the North Koreans. It spread to the Atlantic when the destroyer Spruance was sunk with all hands by a nuclear detonation. There then ensued a poison gas onslaught by Soviet forces across the German plain. The climax of the fictional five-day drama was a Soviet missile strike on Washington, killing the president. The vice-president (former CIA Director Richard Helms) took over from his airborne command post. Helms ordered a massive nuclear barrage on major Russian military installations, and the game ended in the total devastation of the enemy.

Among the beneficial side effects of Ivy League was one of deterrence: It may have made indelibly clear to the Soviets that an attempt to paralyze the United States by nuclear attack could backfire in spectacular fashion.

From these and many other case histories Allen, who is anything but dazzled by his subject, and acutely aware of some of the built-in dangers, makes the case with an even hand for and against this preoccupation of the powerful:

Pro. It exposes faulty planning and inadequate weapons. It trains military and civilian officials to stand up under stress. It flags crises before they happen, and gives fair warning to possible enemies of the seriousness of our intent to defend ourselves.

Con. The atmosphere in which it takes place can be rarefied and unreal, lacking the blood and sweat of actual combat. The results can be slanted by contestants seeking a contract or promoting a special weapon. The frontiers of reality and unreality are crossed so often that the lines of demarcation become blurred. It is so time-consuming that many high-ranking participants send lower-grade staff members in their places.

To his credit the author is ever mindful that war is the art of the unexpected. In this regard he quotes Clausewitz to good effect: ``Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.... This tremendous friction brings effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.''

While content to let the arguments pro and con war gaming speak for themselves, Allen comes up with a stunning example of the latter which may well be the clinching argument of his provocative book. The quotation is from Col. Harry G. Summers. Allen serves it up deadpan as a ``bitter little anecdote'':

``When the Nixon Administration took over in 1969 all the data on North Vietnam and the United States was fed into a Pentagon computer - population, gross national product, manufacturing capability, number of tanks, ships, and aircraft, size of the armed forces, and the like.

``The computer was then asked, `When will we win?' It took only a moment to give the answer: `You won in 1964.'''

Burke Wilkinson has served as deputy assistant secretary of state and as a senior adviser to the supreme allied commander, Europe.

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