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Question to Readers: What Is the Worst Red Team Mistake from History?

Earlier this month, The National Security Archive at The George Washington University declassified the briefings conducted between Saddam Hussein and the FBI. During these briefings, Saddam stalwartly defended himself against accusations (1) that he had aligned himself with Al-Qaeda and (2) that Iraq had WMD capabilities–the two main reasons given by the Bush administration for the Iraq invasion. Saddam states that any talk of WMDs was, in fact, a bluff directed at Iran so that Iraq would not appear weak. If what Saddam told his interrogators was not deception used by a captured man seeking to cover up the truth, his statements point to a red team debacle by U.S. intelligence agencies.
      In an earlier blog post I wrote about the Defense Science Board’s report on red teaming. At the end of the report, the board discusses two examples of unsuccessful red teaming:

  • Pearl Harbor–One planning error was the Japanese failure to destroy the military infrastructure during the surprise attack. Additionally, the Japanese committed a strategic blunder by not realizing that their attack would mean the U.S. would respond by engaging Japan in a total war, which would mean an all-or-nothing war. The U.S. response (total war) resulted in Japan not being able to retain any of the territories in South Asia it seized early in the war.
  • The Battle of Midway–The Japanese believed their forces were greatly superior to those of the United States, and the Japanese planers failed to prepare contingency plans. Groupthink pervaded within the Japanese planning staffs, and there was a lack of nerve among those who questioned the fundamental tenets of the lead planners (in other words, they failed to voice any opposition to assumptions they knew to be wrong).

      History is replete with incidents where nations and militaries conducted operations based on faulty intelligence due to inaccurate red teaming. Here is a short list I compiled which could also supplement the two examples above:

  1. The Germans and the Schlieffen plan during World War I. (The Germans assumed the British would not support the French and did not expect the Russians to mobilize for war as quickly as they did.)
  2. The German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic. (The Germans assumed the Americans would not participate in World War I due to these naval attacks.)
  3. Napoleon during the Battle of Waterloo. (He assumed the Prussian forces would not arrive in time to support Wellington.)
  4. Napoleon and his invasion of Spain. (He assumed the Spaniards would welcome the French forces with open arms.)
  5. General MacArthur and his belief that the Chinese forces would not aid the North Koreans during the Korean war.
  6. Stalin’s Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Nazis. (Stalin refused to believe intelligence that the Nazis were planning to invade Russia.)

      While it would be an overstatement to claim that many of military history’s greatest blunders were a direct result of faulty intelligence due to misinterpreting an opponent’s actions (i.e. red teaming), it would nonetheless be an omission to not acknowledge red teaming as a factor in many blunders committed by militaries.
      I encourage readers to expand the list above and provide what they think was the worst red team mistake ever committed. Or perhaps post a note on examples from military history, diplomatic history, business, or even sports where red teaming mistakes contributed to a blunder.

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