Col. John Boyd put speed at the center of our thinking on the tactical and operational levels of war. It is an important factor at the strategic level as well, but things get a great deal more complicated there.
“The difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds…”
Commodore Arleigh Burke, the second commander of the storied Little Beavers of Destroyer Squadron 23, first uttered those words shortly after taking command of the squadron in October 1943. He came to this conclusion after studying the Battle of Tassafaronga and validated it through his own observations of combat at sea. The same thinking that led to future Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Burke’s conclusion, echoes today in the words of current CNO Admiral John Richardson, who states in the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, “The margins of victory are razor thin – but decisive!”
In 1940, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act which funded a massive increase in the size of the US Fleet. While testifying on behalf of the bill, CNO Adm. Harold Stark warned that “dollars can't buy yesterday.” He wanted the lawmakers to understand that it would take years for the new dollars to translate into new ships and crews; simply passing a law would not undo a decades of austerity budgets.
Stark was absolutely correct. War came to America before she had her two ocean navy. The US Navy would fight the critical naval battles of 1942 without the new ships Congress authorized in 1940.
The French army in 1940 faced the opposite problem. They had the material they needed: The Allies surpassed the Germans in tanks, planes and artillery. What they lacked was an effective doctrine for modern war and the requisite training to fight it.
The Fall of France shows that top to bottom organizational learning can be a decisive factor in war – fully as important as material factors. Yet this is immensely more difficult difficult to accomplish than simply buying equipment.Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.UCLA coach John Wooden
In 1917 Britain and France believed that they had learned the lessons of trench warfare. By the end of the Battles of the Somme and Verdun they had successfully combined overwhelming, accurate artillery fire with careful infantry attacks to seize ground from the Germans and then hold it in the face of the inevitable counter-attack. In 1917 they believed that they could put those lessons to work on a large scale and win the war.
Unfortunately, the German army was also a learning organization. By the the spring of 1917 they had developed new defensive tactics which largely negated those of the Allies. As a result, the Nivelle Offensives did nearly end the war – not with an Allied victory but with a near-collapse of the French armies.
Learning from from your enemy is a devilishly difficult task as the British experience shows.
(This calls to mind GM's experience with NUMMI. The venture proved that American workers and managers could apply Japanese automotive methods successfully on US soil. The venture failed, however, to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the whole of GM. The executives could not, or would not, take advantage of the insights from NUMMI.)
A committee of British generals attempted to adapt the German defensive tactics for British use, but the resulting instructions denied junior commanders any choice about where to defend or when to counterattack. Although the British defenses were laid out in a manner similar to those of the Germans, they failed due to the absence of local initiative and counter attack, coupled with the British determination to defend hard-won ground even when the ground placed them on forward, rather than reverse slopes.
Jonathan M. House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century
In the Spring 1918 Offensives British soldiers paid a heavy price for their leaders failure (refusal?) to learn. To make matters worse, their German opponents had not stopped learning.
Jeffrey Liker, author of “The Toyota Way,” (McGraw-Hill, 2003), says that GM couldn’t figure out how to absorb company-wide the positive cultural lessons it was learning in Freemont.
“I remember one of the GM managers was ordered from a very senior level, a vice-president, to make a GM plant look like NUMMI,” says Liker in the radio story. “He said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras, and take a picture of every square inch, and whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’ Immediately this guy knew that was crazy. We can’t copy and play motivation, we can’t copy good relationships between the union and management. That’s not something you can copy. You can’t take a photograph of it.”
The result was another disaster which once again brought the Allies to the brink of defeat.
What is interesting in the preparations for the spring 1918 offensive was the ability of the German army, having only in fall 1917 established the new offensive doctrine, to implement training on a consistent and coherent basis throughout those attack divisions that would launch the coming attacks. This was done with a massive, intensive, and thorough program that schooled divisional officers and then worked up the attack divisions for the great western offensive.
Williamson Murray, German Military Effectiveness (1992)
If the German Army excelled in organizational learning (at least at the level of tactics and operations), the same cannot be said of their brethren in the Luftwaffe. In the Battle of Britain they were completely outclassed by Britain in doctrine, intelligence, and the “wizard war.”
Why Organizational Change is Hard I
Why Organizational Change is Hard II
What is interesting here is that the Germans still excelled in the technical and tactical spheres of the air war. In France, as part of a combined arms campaign, that had been enough to seal a rapid and decisive victory. When the strategic context changed – the Luftwaffe was now tasked with winning air supremecy over distant island-- they needed something more.
Victory in the Battle of Britain, -- and Dowding;s claim to be one of the few great captains of the twentieth century -- resulted from the fact that he built an effective air defense system that altered the entire context of within which air forces operated. What is crucial in this example, as Beyerchin suggests, is that while Germans may have possessed better equipment and even tactics, the British operated in a broader framework of contextual change. By doing so they created a new logic within which the Luftwaffe was incapable of winning.
Williamson Murray, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period
In Hermann Goering's thoroughly Nazified Luftwaffe, few senior officers possessed minds with a philosophical bent. Britain, fortunately, found just enough such men and found them when it really mattered (1934-1939).
Thinking through (or rather among) the implications of fundamental change requires an interaction of practical and philosophic bents of mind.
A. Beyerchin, “From Radio to Radar”
Sometimes fate is fickle and speed is not rewarded. I've discussed how Britain's army modernization left them critically vulnerable in Malaya and Burma in 1942. Something similar happened with carrier aviation in the Royal navy. In 1936, as part of her military build-up, Britain authorized the building of a new class of aircraft carriers. These ships were woefully outdated by the time they were launched during World War Two. This was not the fault of the designers or of the politicians who approved their creation. What neither group could know was that Japan and the United States would radically advance the state of the art in carrier operations and naval aviation in the years the ships were under construction.
The forgotten man who saved the world