On April 2, the United States is invading the nation of Isla del Sol. Marines and special forces will lead a coalition of 27 nations against organized Islamic terrorists who control the Pacific nation and its Shell Oil wells. And according to internal documents obtained by Gawker, the war will be over by next weekend.
This isn't an April Fool's gag. Sure, it is a fake war, against SIS – the "Sons of Isla Del Sol" – a fake enemy terrorizing the 320,000 fake occupants (and weirdly real oil interests) of a fake Pacific island. But to the hundreds of military service members and contractors who will gather to wage that campaign, on paper, at the Chateau Royal Beach Resort and Spa on a French-controlled island near the Solomons, it is very real. And it is a fascinating insight into the bizarre, bureaucratic way the U.S wages war and sets its priorities.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into constructing the back story of this fictitious country and its ordeals with an ISIS-type adversary, but it's just one small part of a much larger task: teaching American allies how to wage its wars administratively.
The invasion is officially called Tempest Express 26, and it's defined as a weeklong "readiness" operation – sort of a Model UN for generals with thousands of (mostly U.S.) ships, aircraft, special operations forces, and regular troops at their command. As the name suggests, there have been 25 Tempest Expresses before this one, and they're not a closely held secret. Far from it: Since their inception in 2000, the scenarios have run pretty much the same way: A natural disaster devastates a troubled island nation, instability and refugeeism ensue, and a multinational military force must enter the power vacuum to restore stability and prosperity. (In the first-ever scenario, the Philippines was hit with a double whammy: "Within a week, a second super typhoon strikes the southern Philippines, and the possibility of a major volcanic eruption threatens the island of Negros.")
The operations have always maintained some semblance of newsiness or topicality—2002's dealt with disorder in South Korea, for example, and 2013's addressed a massive earthquake in the New Zealand capital of Wellington, just months after the city was whacked with a 6.5 magnitude quake – and Tempest Express has some hot plans for 2015: There's an Ebola pandemic to quell, much like the recent outbreak in West Africa. There's a cyclone leveling the small independent island of Vanuatu – a terrible scenario that actually played out last Friday, months after planners had put it on the Tempest Express schedule. (Ironically, that means this large, costly war game may actually distract planners from addressing the very real-life problem they're assembled to solve on paper.)
But mostly, there are the Islamic terrorists known as the Sons of Isla Del Sol.
Seventy "TEMPEST EXPRESS 26" documents obtained by Gawker show that the usual disaster relief missions are being swamped this year by plans on how to invade, occupy, and stabilize Isla Del Sol, a tiny fictional "newly independent nation (former island colony of Iberia) located in the South Pacific between Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands," against pirates and Islamists. Those plans include a few hundred troops and police from coalition partners like Australia, Tonga, Samoa, and Tuvalu, but are anchored by a ludicrous array of U.S. military assets, including a Marine expeditionary unit, a naval task force, two brigade combat teams, dozens of SEALs and Marine special operators, and hundreds of fighter jets, helicopters, and surveillance aircraft.
The documents, complete with imaginary UN resolutions authorizing force to stabilize Isla Del Sol, tell the story of a minor humanitarian operation evolving – or deteriorating – into a major international conflict, even before the planning meetings have commenced.
Those meetings – in effect, the entire war – start and end this month in a luxe resort in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia ("an atypical destination with many faces," according to its tourism site), between plenty of breaks for lunch and tea, plus a group photo, a gift exchange, and even an "icebreaker social." The breaks are punctuated by meetings in which one team will explain its "pandemic overview":
One group of attendees must come up with a plan to evacuate roughly 2,000 civilians on the island:
Another group will script a "maritime security" plan to dominate the waters around Isla Del Sol:
And yet another team will plan full-on "stability operations" by troops coming in hot:
Troops coming in hot to the fictional terrorist-ridden island, that is, and not the planners' own roost at the Chateau Royal, whose rooms range from $220 to $450 a night and are all booked up from late March to mid-April, according to its website.
To be sure, a great deal of paper-pushing and hand-holding is always involved in a "coalition of the willing." But what's remarkable is how much of that work can be done poolside, in a fancy resort hotel.
"THE MPAT PROGRAM WILL PROVIDE PERIODIC OPPORTUNITIES FOR A SMALL GROUP OF PLANNERS TO DEVELOP LASTING RELATIONSHIPS [AND] BECOME FAMILIAR WITH EACH OTHERS DOCTRINE," organizers say. The Chateau Royal's oceanside bistro, above, looks like a perfect locale for getting to know a partner's, uh, doctrines.
Here's a video tour of your 21st century battleground:
Who is the gatekeeper for this awesome-looking VIP party? That's part of what makes this spring's Tempest Express so interesting. Nouméa in New Caledonia, the site for the shindig, is French-held, and the event is co-hosted by the French armed forces. That's significant because for more than 20 years, France has had a major agreement – known as the FRANZ accord – with Australia and New Zealand that encourages the nations to regularly share their disaster-response know-how with each other, and to plan for major disasters jointly. That agreement is clearly a major rationale for holding Tempest Express in the first place; the FRANZ accord features prominently among the operation's briefing documents, which list France as the nominal leader of stability operations on Isla Del Sol.
The entire operation, run by the U.S.-led "Multinational Planning Augmentation Team" or MPAT, is an abject lesson in how modern war is waged – bureaucratically, by commanders in meetings with other commanders, led by a team of junior Powerpoint warriors, briefing the chiefs with interminable slides, divorced from any dynamic developments facing ground soldiers.
But make no mistake: The real mover and shaker behind this operation is the U.S. military. The MPAT is run out of U.S. Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii—which, incidentally, is France's cohost, and which is where you can register to attend Tempest Express 26... if you've already proven your country's contingent has the skills and enthusiasm U.S. planners need to see. Like a fraternity organizing its fall ball, PACOM headquarters warns: "All MPAT events are BY INVITATION ONLY."
THE MPAT INITIATIVE IS BEST SUMMARIZED AS AN EFFORT TO INCREASE MULTINATIONAL FORCE (MNF) AND COALITION TASK FORCE (CTF) OPERATIONAL LEVEL HEADQUARTERS STAFF CAPABILITY, ESPECIALLY IN PLANNING EXPERTISE, TO SUPPORT MULTINATIONAL MILITARY OPERATIONS WITHIN THE REGION…
MPAT PROVIDES THESE PLANNERS PERIODIC OPPORTUNITIES TO DEVELOP COMMON STAFF PLANNING PROCEDURES AND TO HONE THEIR REQUISITE SKILLS AS MULTINATIONAL PLANNING EXPERTS…
Translation: Today's war games are less about gaining and holding territory than managing the bureaucracy that manages the soldiers gaining and holding that territory. The American way of war is increasingly about office space, not battle space.
The existence of Isla del Sol remained unknown to the nations of Asia and Europe until the 16th century. It was not until the Iberian explorer, Juan de Fuca, landed on the southeast coast of Isla del Sol, near the modern port city of Santa Rosalia, in 1503 and claimed Isla del Sol for the Iberian crown, that knowledge of the island reached Europe...
They document the nation's independence in 2011; the takeover of its northern half by the Sons of Isla Del Sol (SIS) in 2014; the U.S.'s declaration of the SIS as a terrorist group; reports from three UN-run camps for internally displaced persons on the island; and the UN's authorization of military force to stop the humanitarian disaster in Isla Del Sol – because those resolutions always pass so smoothly in real life.
The war plans include a glimpse at island infrastructure held by the insurgents and associated criminal gangs:
As well as the usefulness of those assets to U.S.-led coalition forces – a limited usefulness, indeed, as in the case of several airfields considered too small for any purpose other than "parking":
Why should Americans be willing to dedicate their armed forces to invading the island? Well, frankly, there's a (fictional) geostrategic interest, according to the briefing documents:
Recent discoveries of oil and gas deposits under the sea bed along the eastern shore of Isla del Sol has led to the Petroliam Nasional Berhad (PERTRONAS) corporation of Malaysia, partnering with Shell Oil Company (USA) to develop a fledgling off-shore oil and gas production industry... these commercial activities have spawned relatively well-paying jobs for tens of thousands of Isla del Sol workers in these and related fields.
Those oil operations run all over the fictional nation:
SOME ANALYSTS ESTIMATE THAT OVER THE PAST 12 MONTHS, SIS ACTIONS HAVE DESTROYED AT LEAST 35% OF MALAYSIAN PALM OIL CAPACITY. SIS ACTIONS HAVE NOW REDUCED THE OVERALL MALAYSIAN PETROLEUM PRODUCTION BY 19%. ANALYSTS EXPECT THE NUMBER AND SCALE OF THESE ATTACKS TO INCREASE.
Despite all this preparation for real military action, the veneer of Tempest Express 26 – the French command, the FRANZ agreement, the pandemic and cyclone response – is humanitarian aid, administered by military assets. It is a type of operation that, despite its proliferation in recent decades, from Haiti to Kosovo to Somalia and beyond, doesn't come easily to U.S. officers trained to outmaneuver and outgun an armed adversary. Which is probably why, in its briefings, MPAT has to break down military-run humanitarian ops in peculiarly simple terms:
Would we prefer that the military and its potential partners never prepare for contingencies like those reflected in Tempest Express 26? Of course not. But if you prepare your pampered allies for a PowerPoint-based, jargonized resource war against a ragtag Islamist junta, you may be surprised when the real-world utility of that preparation is limited.
In any case, there's always room for more practice. Tempest Express 27 is already planned for next July in Manila.