Murphy's Law: The Red Team Revolution


May 2, 2015: Over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan produced a flood of new technology for American troops. This presented problems in testing the new designs sufficiently before handing them over to soldiers and marines headed for a combat zone. Weapons, it turns out, were not the big problem. Weapons can be realistically tested in training areas and later by combat experienced troops in realistic exercises. Same with most military equipment (clothing, sleeping bags, rations, uniforms). But one item of equipment proved very difficult to test in anything short of a combat situation; items, usually electronic, used to provide security for bases, especially the many small bases set up in the Afghan countryside. To solve this problem the U.S. Army went back to an old solution long used for testing strategic plans and computer networks; the Red Team. These teams were composed of combat experienced troops who knew how the enemy operated and were told to come up with ways to get around the new security devices (sensors and associated equipment). The Red Teams did just that.

A more conventional use of Red Teams appeared in 2008 when the army formed Red Teams that were small groups of officers assigned to look at combat plans devised by units headed for Afghanistan and determine their probability of success. This was something new for Red Teams as the job here was basically questioning how commanders plan to fight. This use of Red Teams also worked out pretty well.

Red Teams came out of wargaming. There, the "Red" team represented the enemy, while the "Blue" team played the good guys. Beginning in the late 1970s the U.S. Army adopted a form of wargaming based on historical models but where commanders are presented with very realistic situations for future battles. This was applying to wargames the old phrase, "train as you fight, and fight as you train." But in addition to providing more realistic games for training, this style of wargames also made it possible to analyze war plans as never before. In the past, your war plans didn't really get a workout until you were in combat against a real, live Red Team (the enemy). The new wrinkle was that it was now easier to have your own people provide an effective, if not perfect, Red Team experience because of all those officers with wargame experience.

So now the senior commanders of the U.S. Army have been sending Red Teams around to the major commands, to play devil's advocate to whatever war plans senior commanders and their staffs have come up with. It's not new, really. The concept of "devil's advocate" has been around for a long time. But now the army has institutionalized it and used more powerful techniques (wargaming) to implement it.

This all began back in the 1980s, when realistic wargaming was catching on, especially among the students at the Command and General Staff School (C&GSS) and the Army War College AWC). The younger officers at the C&GSS were particularly enthusiastic, and they came to be known as the "Jedi Knights," mainly because the analytic skills obtained from playing lots of wargames, gave them a seemingly magical ability to find flaws in war plans. That's what the Red Teams are all about, Jedi Knights on steroids. Since then the Staff School at Leavenworth has established courses for training Red Team members, some of the courses are 18 weeks long.

As a result of that senior leadership began sending two man Red Teams down to brigades, to test the war plans at that level. Often the Red Teams find that the war plans are pretty solid, mainly because the commanders and staffs have used wargaming to develop their own plans, and to work out the flaws that an adroit enemy would exploit once it was too late to do anything about it.

The Red Teams all report to the head of the army, which insures that none of the commanders they are working with try to pull rank. The Red Teams give the Chief of Staff of the army regular reports on how effective the many war plans developed in the army combat units are holding up to scrutiny, which is a unique capability in the military world.




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