RED TEAM: HOW TO SUCCEED BY THINKING LIKE THE ENEMY
By Micah Zenko
Basic Books, $26.99, 336 pages
As author Micah Zenko points out, the concept of red teaming started out with an effort by the Roman Catholic Church in the 13th century to thoroughly investigate candidates for sainthood and debunk false claims; the clergymen who held this title were informally called “Devil’s Advocates.” The name stuck and the function still exists in the church today. We Americans call it “red team,” and it can be used both as a noun and a verb. To red team something means to test a concept, product, plan or tactic from the perspective of a potential enemy or competitor with an eye toward finding any fatal flaws or correcting weaknesses before the product is let loose in the cruel world. Red teaming is a vital part of war gaming which, in turn, is an integral part of the military planning process, but as Mr. Zenko points out, it is being increasingly used in business and civilian policymaking.
Mr. Zenko, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, gives an overview of the history of red teaming and war gaming. The Prussians invented modern formal war gaming in the 19th century as a bloodless way of planning and preparing for real war, and when they attributed it as a key to their spectacular success in the Wars of German Unification, war gaming was adopted by other armies, including that of the United States. In the run up to World War II, the adversary in American war games was orange (Japan); red came along during the Cold War when the Russians represented themselves with red icons in their games. Blue has been the traditional color for the American side, and green generally represents allies or neutrals.
Mr. Zenko goes on to explain three basic kinds of red teaming. The most well-known is to play the bad guy in conflict simulations (war games) where the red team tries to take advantage of weakness in blue’s plan or approach. Vulnerability analysis occurs when the red team tries to find holes in an organization’s physical or cybersecurity. A third is alternative analysis when the red team examines a plan or concept and develops an alternative view, usually from the standpoint of a potential adversary. In any case, a good red teaming effort will result in a better plan or concept because the flaws and any poor assumptions have been identified or fixed before product gets into live fire in the real world. That is why red teams that come from within the organization are always suspect; there is a tendency to grade your own work and be intimidated by the senior guys who came up with the idea.
Perhaps the weakest part of Mr. Zenko’s book is the chapter where the author lists six best red team practices. I am of the mind that every situation is different and calls for a unique approach. However, Mr. Zenko hits the most important point in red teaming; the boss (or customer) has to buy in. In reality, most people don’t want to be red teamed; they want to be affirmed. Mr. Zenko cites a number of case studies where red teaming has been used well or misused; the cause of most failures was lack of client buy-in. Mr. Zenko’s best example of a misused red teaming effort was a military war game titled “Millennium Challenge 02” where the client ignored the results of what the red team found and falsely declared the concepts being tested to be a success. When the whistle got blown, the organization never recovered; it no longer exists.
I have a suggestion for strengthening version 2.0 of the book. It should emphasize that red teaming doesn’t generally predict anything, but war games do identify issues. If something actually gets predicted, it is a plus.
In the post-Cold War chaos, we have increasingly found that allies and partners (green) should be considered as should any known competing factions in red. As we found out in Iraq and Afghanistan, your partners and allies can impact your plans as much as red. If your partner has his own agenda he may undermine a good plan; those factors should be war gamed. One of our big successes in Iraq was to turn one red faction green.
I teach red teaming and I would recommend this book to my students. The purpose of the class is not to teach students to be red teamers, but to teach them how to use war games and red teams when they become senior leaders.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel He was senior member of the Defense Adaptive Red Team and teaches a graduate class on Red Teaming at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.