In the military, we typically run training exercises along a set script. This is usually done to provide some level of safety and control over the exercise, as well as to ensure that we achieve the training objectives we set out to achieve.
For this reason, in our exercises, the simulated enemy reacts to our actions the way we tell them to react. For example, if a training exercise dictates that a battalion of paratroopers seize an airfield, the enemy (referred to as the "opposition force" or "OPFOR") typically won't run amok on the airfield, blowing up C-17s before they take off. That wouldn't allow the paratroopers to practice jumping out of the airplane and seizing the airfield. Nevertheless, any real enemy might realize that this would, in fact, be a great asymmetric counter to a battalion of paratroopers.
In professional military education courses, students often take part in training exercises where they make an estimate as to the enemy's most likely course of action. After submitting the plan to the exercise controllers, what do you know, the enemy actually does what we plan on him doing. There's no real surprise in store for us. And who's to say we know best how our enemy will fight?
While there are many instances in which training exercises must be scripted, they shouldn't all be. One such occasion was in 2002, when the US military conducted an exercise known as "Millennium Challenge 2002". The exercise featured the US military, using its high-tech post-transformation weaponry invading an unnamed foe in the Middle East (clearly modeled after Iraq). The enemy, or "Red Force", was led by retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a particularly brilliant officer who understood how insurgent and hybrid organizations can use asymmetry to negate the US military's technological advantage.
As the American task force prepared to invade the "enemy" country, General Van Riper passed communications to his units via messengers on motorcycles—the lack of electronic communications negated the US military's eavesdropping systems, and the motorcycles were too small to be detected by the aerial JSTARS radar, which was designed to pick up the movements of enemy tanks. He also used a network of small boats to spy on the American fleet—too small to be detected by the sonar and radar systems which were designed to detect Soviet-style naval fleets. After determining the position of the US fleet, the enemy launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles, decimating the US fleet. The US fleet was further harassed by suicide bombers in speedboats—too small and quick to be targeted by conventional anti-ship missiles. General Van Riper caused some 20,000 "casualties" on the American fleet.
The exercise was halted, and the damage done by Van Riper was undone—the fleet was "unkilled". The exercise controllers were aghast—General Van Riper had fought dirty. How dare he!
Unfortunately, Van Riper was on to something. Our enemies play by a different set of rules, and won't always react the way we want to react. While there are many good reasons for providing a script for training exercises, there are also significant drawbacks. When was the last time you took part in a training exercise where there was even the remote possibility of failing the mission? When was the last time the enemy was discovered in a completely different location than where you were told he would be during the mission briefing?
While scripting our training exercises ensures that we train on certain tasks, and provides a level of control in potentially dangerous situations, it doesn't train our leaders to be as mentally agile as they should be. It also doesn't allow them to react to an enemy who thinks creatively and adapts.
There are a lot of constraints on training our forces to conduct counterinsurgency—not the least of which is that counterinsurgency takes a lot of time, and an accurate model of the local culture, which certainly isn't practical. Nevertheless, there have to be ways we can adapt training exercises to accurately reflect an enemy that simply doesn't play by the established rules.
Focus: How would you design a freeplay exercise?