In the end, it was a near-run thing. The US-led coalition broke through to the refugee camps and began delivering aid. But their supply lines were stretched thin across land and sea, with an entire Army brigade embarked on rented cruise ships at one point. Ashore, the troops took heavy losses from local Islamic militants whom they never entirely defeated. In the end, indeed, it didn’t really end: US troops were left in the middle of a conflict that threatened to escalate to a wider regional war. It’s just that the wargamers ran out of time.

This year’s wargame at the Army War College was one of the toughest in years, participants told Breaking Defense, and that’s a good thing. Since they began in 1997, the annual games had gradually gotten less rigorous over time, say critics, which meant that Army leaders were pleasantly unsurprised by the results. With wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there were enough ugly surprises in real life to force hard thinking. Now, as the Army looks beyond withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, it could postulate more comfortable scenarios. But the Army can hardly afford to go easy on itself in the face of shrinking budgets, increasing inter-service rivalry, and an administration strategy that rejects the kinds of counterinsurgency missions it spent the last decade doing. Fortunately, the wargame is getting usefully nasty again.

“I was initially skeptical,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who started the annual wargame when he was commandant of the Army War College and had been displeased by its direction. “I’ve been very much a stern critic of this game over the years,” he told Breaking Defense, but this time, the players portraying the enemy — the “Red Team” — were once again given freedom to wreak havoc on the good guys in innovative ways, forcing the US and its allies — “Blue” — to innovate in turn. Said Scales, “that led to a lot of legitimacy and credibility in the game, which I found frankly very refreshing.”

Though the wargame addressed issues ranging from cyberwar to terrorism, from interagency coordination to public relations, central to the scenario was the challenge of deploying US forces to countries where they have not operated before. That’s a problem the real-world Army struggled with in Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001 but has largely avoided since, only to realize belatedly that the other services have gotten ahead on the issue with a concept called “AirSea Battle.” So the Army deliberately set this year’s game in fictional countries where there was no prior US presence. The adversary knew that only a handful of major ports and airfields could accommodate US transports, and it targeted them mercilessly. (Click here for more detail on this phase of the game).

To bypass these chokepoints, the wargamers experimented with a concept called “seabasing,” putting an entire Army Stryker brigade afloat on ships and then landing them at minor harbors — fishing villages, for example — or even bare beaches without ever going through the ports. In some ways it was a 21st century version of the D-Day landings 68 years ago, albeit with much smaller forces going much longer distances. Army leaders were excited about the idea, but the actual players struggled with how to implement it. Unlike some past simulations, this year’s wargame didn’t handwave the logistical difficulties of such an operation or postulate future technologies that would somehow make the problem go away.

“This time they forced us to only play capabilities that are in the current [budget] program, which added a good dose of reality,” said one participant, who asked to remain anonymous. Today, for example, the US military flies personnel overseas and only sends their equipment and supplies by sea, which means it has few ships designed to accommodate large numbers of troops. So the wargamers improvised by chartering two civilian cruise liners. They also had to hire civilian vessels to carry some supplies; that proved a problem when the simulated enemy mined the sea lanes, scaring some commercial transports into turning around without making key deliveries – something military crews would not have done.

The wargame also showed a bottleneck in the ability to get troops from the transport ships to shore without going through the easily targeted major ports. To unload from the big seagoing ships onto small landing craft while both are out at sea, the military relies on something called a Mobile Landing Platform, a kind of floating, self-propelled pier that can serve as a port facility in mid-ocean. The problem, the same participant said, is that “there’s only three mobile landing platforms that are currently resourced” in long-term budget plans, and some of them were needed in a second simulated conflict underway at the same time in the Pacific. “We had to fight for those to enable the seabase,” he said.

So while seabasing is a neat idea, it turns out the Army needs more ships of specific types, such as those Mobile Landing Platforms, in order to implement it. But those additional ships aren’t only not in the current budget plan: They would never be in the Army’s part of the budget at all. Like long-range cargo planes, seabasing is something the Army has to beg its sister services to buy so they can get it to the fight. That’s not a happy fact for the Army to encounter, but it’s a lot better to encounter it in simulation than in a real shooting war where it’s too late to fix anything.

“One of the great challenges is being honest with yourself: You have to actually identify what you can do and where you have real difficulty — and that is happening,” said a civilian participant. “The thing is, we have to be very clear now. The stakes are much higher from both a bureaucratic and strategic sense… Right now DoD [the Department of Defense] is making hard choices about what capabilities they have to invest in and what capabilities they feel can take some risk in, [and] it’s very important that the Army test their real demands pretty hard before DoD makes any of their choices permanent.”