GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- The situation looked grim for the U.S. Army.
More than 100,000 troops had been dispatched to a European quagmire of ethnic hatred and territorial warfare, and there were refugees to feed, saboteurs to thwart and Scud missiles to shoot down. As if this weren't enough, there were United Nations resolutions to worry about and four allies to work with, each answering to a nervous home government.
The good news was that it was all a game, and it ended last week with the close of Operation Atlantic Resolve, a weeklong simulation played out mostly on computer screens and inside combat simulators.
But it's no accident that its thorny problems and touchy politics seemed all too authentic, sort of like Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Kuwait rolled into one. In the uncertainty of the post-Cold War era, where political miscalculation has become as dangerous as stepping on a mine, even war-games are complicated.
"It is the first major exercise where we have had very active and continuous political-military play," Gen. David M. Maddox, commander in chief of U.S. Army Europe, said of the operation.
Civil war looms
The focus of the exercise was the fictional European island of Atlantis, shared uneasily by the nations of North and South Titania.
Each has a dominant ethnic group, and for years the North Titanians have coveted the ore-rich South Titanian province of Maleva, where the population is a volatile ethnic mix.
In the course of the exercise, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization force of U.S., French, German, British and Dutch troops lands by air and sea to help the South Titanians ward off northern aggression while quelling an ethnic guerrilla movement in Maleva. But then the army of North Titania attacks, triggering full-scale war, while South Titania teeters on the edge of political chaos.
Army Col. Bruce McQuain, who helped direct North Titanian forces in the exercise, marveled at the challenges facing his opponents as he scanned a detailed battle map.
"There are refugees, there are rebel forces -- things they're going to have to deal with that are going to clog up their forces," he said.
The lessons of this difficult mess came fast and furious.
Capt. Daniel Eagan, an Air Force reservist and engineering specialist from a Maryland National Guard unit at Martin State Airport, found himself designing a quickie-assembly fuel dump one day and helping arrange host-country permission for laying down a minefield on another.
Capt. Kim Jones, an Army intelligence officer, had his hands full by the fifth day of the operation. Early reports said the North Titanians had 72 Scud missiles, but by the time they launched 66 it was clear those estimates had been dangerously low.
Even General Maddox found himself wondering what to do. Allied forces fell into gridlock. When the general ordered Dutch forces to move, the Dutch commander refused, saying he'd been ordered by his home government to stay put, explaining, "We allocated our forces based on the current government." The problem was resolved when a coup collapsed after four hours.
Heavy metal affairs
Not so long ago, U.S. war games in Europe went by the name of Reforger. They were blunt, heavy-metal affairs that rolled across German farmland with hundreds of tanks and up to 97,000 soldiers, leaving ruts and damage payments to the locals in their wake.
They were expensive -- the biggest one, in 1988, cost $54 million -- although their object was straightforward: defeat a simulated Soviet-led attack, usually at some key point like Germany's Fulda Gap.
"When the [Berlin] Wall came down, the people who had been preaching putting political elements into the games began to get their way," said James F. Dunnigan, a military analyst and commercial war-game designer in New York who has advised the Pentagon on war-gaming. "Now you're up to your armpits in politics when you go into these peacekeeping situations."
It took a while to change course. Reforgers were held through 1992, and another was scheduled for 1993 before deployments to places like Somalia and other considerations finally forced a cancellation.
On came Atlantic Resolve '94, largely at the urging of General Maddox.
'Rewriting the book'
"It's sort of like rewriting the book on how NATO does things," said Dave Lange, the political-military affairs officer for General Maddox. "In the Cold War you had 45 years to prepare, and the whole system was built up over time. Now in this exercise we're breaking new ground."
It also doesn't hurt that the new way is cheaper.
The operation's relatively low price of $15 million resulted mostly from better technology.
Thanks to computer simulators and on-line hookups linking participants around the world, only 12,000 U.S. soldiers were needed at the site, joined by 2,000 from British, German, French and Dutch units. Also participating were U.S. soldiers in bases from Florida to Rhode Island.
Thus could commanders in Germany watch on a computer screen while a U.S. pilot took his plane up from a base in Cherry Point, N.C., to "bomb" a computer-generated North Titanian target.
Naval gunners on Aegis-class cruisers, meanwhile, watched out for incoming Silkworm missiles from inside combat simulators aboard their ships, which were docked in Mayport, Fla., while tank and helicopter crews participated from simulators in two locations in Arkansas.
The game also stretched credulity at times, such as when a German panzer division ended up at the center of the early fighting. In real life that would send the German population into a pacifist frenzy, and would potentially topple whatever government was sitting in Bonn.
Army Col. Keith King, involved with helping hold the joint task force together, was well aware that in real life the Germans might not be so eager to be in the thick of things. "It's one thing for a German colonel to say, yeah, you can use some of my assets for this engagement. It would be quite another thing if it were a real battle and his troops were being decimated."
But, as Mr. Lange said: "This is role-playing, not policy-making."
When time ran out on the operation, the multinational task force had defeated the North Titanians, driving them back out of the disrupted province, and negotiations had begun on a temporary cease-fire.