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Computer war game readies U.S. commanders

WASHINGTON—America's top battle commanders and their staffs are fighting an intense, high-tech simulated war against Iraq at Grafenwoehr, Germany, another key signal that actual war is rapidly approaching.

The highly classified exercise, dubbed "Victory Scrimmage," began on Tuesday and will run for a week. More than 3,000 personnel are participating in the computer-driven command post exercise deep within the United States' largest military reservation in Europe.

The war game's designers, both in Germany and at their computers in Kansas, create highly realistic models of both the terrain and the enemy in Iraq and permit the American commanders and their staff to engage the enemy in real time.

The sophisticated program is filled with all the variables and surprises that the designers can concoct to make it as hard and as tricky as real combat. They can turn the weather bad in a heartbeat, and shut down a commander's air support. They can and do cause the communications links to go dead at critical moments. They track every order a commander gives, and also count and report the casualties that result from those decisions.

The exercise is halted at key points for a self-criticism by the key commander, who stands before everyone and admits and assesses his mistakes. The commander of the simulated opposition force then follows to add his own assessment and accounting of the commander's errors, and he often finds more than a few mistakes the general overlooked.

Such exercises were run for every division that fought in the last Persian Gulf War, as well as higher headquarters. Those who have participated in or witnessed these exercises believe that the Army's Battle Command Training Program, headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is a critical factor in giving American commanders a big edge when it comes time to go to war.

The chief war-fighting command being tested in Victory Scrimmage is the U.S. Army's V Corps under Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace. Military officials have told Knight Ridder that if the United States goes to war against Iraq, Wallace's V Corps will have overall command of the heavy tank divisions that carry the fight to Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard tank divisions inside Iraq.

A Defense Department spokesman, Maj. Tim Blair, said that the exercise is intended to "challenge the V Corps war fighting team. It will improve key leader and staff actions and prepare them for future combat operations."

The commanders and battle staff members of every Army division already deployed to the Persian Gulf or on alert to go are being tested in Victory Scrimmage. Also participating are commanders from U.S. Central Command, which will have overall command of all forces in the Gulf, as well as the Marines' huge 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Air Force.

A spokesman for V Corps headquarters confirmed that the "geographical footprint" for the exercise is Southwest Asia, the region including Iraq. He said Gen. Wallace was the exercise director and he is trying to replicate the environment in which operations would take place. He added that Victory Scrimmage was "on time and on target."

The spokesman at Grafenwoehr said Wallace and the corps staff were operating from a mobile command post, and the various division commanders and staff were operating from their own tactical operations centers scattered around the post.

A team of retired American generals, some of them two- and three-war veterans, monitor the exercises and serve as mentors. Some of the observers include Gen. Ed Burba, Gen. William Crouch, Gen. Fred Franks, Gen. John Hendrix, Gen. Tom Schwartz and Gen. Jim Lindsay.

Although the Department of Defense spokesman said details of the exercise were classified, it is known that Victory Scrimmage will give not only the American generals but the war plan itself a final test.

Battle Command Training began developing the first computer-based battle simulation system in 1983, and the system was fielded in 1987. Regular Army corps and division commanders and staff are tested regularly in BCTP exercises, as are National Guard divisions.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.