Why do nations win wars? The most obvious answer is superior political and military leadership, the Masters and Commanders who dominate traditional historical accounts. In the case of World War II, for instance, one would give a decisive edge to the triumvirate of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin over that of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. In recent years the trend has been to offer a bottom-up explanation, to celebrate the “bands of brothers”—the G.I. Joes, the British Tommys, the Soviet Ivans, who, out of a sense of decency, patriotism, manhood, or sheer necessity, stolidly achieved great things over their enemies. Another popular candidate is Rosie the Riveter—the collective weight of overwhelming material advantage possessed by the Allies over the Axis powers (in 1943, the former possessed a productive power equal to $62.5 billion, the latter only $18.3 billion).
Each of these elements of victory should be given their due, but historian Paul Kennedy would add another—the middle men, those who bridged the gap between the halls of power, the battlefield, and the factory. Kennedy’s new book, Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, tells the story of how small groups of individuals and institutions, both civilian and military, succeeded in enabling victory in the critical middle years of World War II. Kennedy proposes this as template for understanding how grand strategy is worked out at the practical level of implementation; specifically, how one achieves one’s strategic aims when in possession of considerable resources but not, or at least not yet, in possession of the necessary instruments and organizations. This process cannot be understood without recognition of how those successes were engineered, and by whom. “Engineers” does not refer strictly to those who possess a formal degree in engineering but falls under Webster’s wider definition: “a person who carries through an enterprise through skillful or artful contrivance.” Organizations likewise serve that function by translating particular innovations or insights into practice.
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First, a word about Kennedy, who teaches in the Grand Strategy Program at Yale University (a British scholar, he studied at Oxford under A.J.P. Taylor). He came to public prominence in the late 1980s with the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (1987), which put forward the thesis that “imperial overstretch” was the historic bane of hegemonic powers or aspirants, such as the Habsburgs, the British Empire, and Germany. Each of these great powers used its comparative economic advantage to expand its territory or sphere of influence before reaching a point where the resources needed to defend the empire, especially the military resources, exceeded those which the regime could sustain. The great power went into relative decline, as its domestic economy and the imperial system ossified. The strain of empire and expansion sapped the political and technological innovation necessary to adapt to a changing world and to the rise of new powers.
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers appeared at a time when the vibrant economies of Germany and Japan, largely unburdened by the sort of defense expenditures and commitments maintained by the United States and the Soviet Union, were hailed as the wave of the future. Kennedy’s analysis was therefore read by pundits as a prediction of terminal American decline if the United States did not follow suit by adopting innovative industrial policies similar to its economic competitors and by reigning in the out-of-control defense spending practiced by the Reagan Administration. Doing so might allow the United States to slow its relative decline and become one of several economic superpowers in a multipolar world. Some experts also pointed to new leadership in Moscow, which had finally come to understand the dangers of imperial overstretch; through perestroika and through strategic retrenchment, the USSR might be on the verge of a renaissance.
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Things did not exactly turn out that way, of course. Kennedy tried to separate himself from this line of argument, especially when it became clear that the Soviet Union, not the United States, was imploding, and that European and Japanese dirigisme likewise appeared consigned to the dustbin of history. After the forceful American response to the attacks of 9/11 Kennedy even referred to the historically unique power position of the United States. But as the Bush Administration became bogged down in Iraq, and as the American-led global financial system almost melted down at the end of the decade, the specter of U.S. imperial overstretch was revived. “Soft power” and “smart power” are very much in vogue, setting aside the antiquated notion of “hard power.” China is now the economically vibrant state seen to be climbing rapidly up the strategic ladder. The Obama Administration, following the logic of the imperial overstretch theory, has made no bones about its intention to bring about strategic retrenchment and to focus on nation-building at home.
Kennedy’s argument is thus very popular again among those who favor liquidating much of America’s troubled position in the world. It is not much in favor with those who think that predictions of American decline are once more wrong-headed (unless they become self-fulfilling). That should not stop the student of strategy from examining Kennedy’s current book on the merits. Kennedy has done some very fine things in his career, most especially The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976), which documented how the British took advantage of geography and technology to dominate the seas and create an empire based on secure maritime lines of communication, and then how changes in technology and political geography gradually ended those comparative advantages. (Kennedy is obviously interested in the ups and downs of international relations; see The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860-1914, originally published in 1980).
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In Engineers of Victory, Kennedy seeks out the reasons why the Allies were able to successfully solve certain critical military-operational-technical problems that allowed them to enforce an impossible burden of imperial overstretch on the Germans and the Japanese. Those solutions were by no means guaranteed as of January 1943, the starting point for Kennedy’s analysis, despite the advantages the Allies possessed in leadership and material resources. Historians generally assume that the war had turned inexorably in the Allies’ favor in 1942, with their victories at Midway, Stalingrad, and El Alamein, and that it was only a matter time before the Axis was defeated. Kennedy points out however that the Allies were still losing critical elements of the war that would be essential to achieving the overall strategic objective set out by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca conference—the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. That goal would require not only that the Axis’s military gains be rolled back but also that those nations be occupied and disarmed, to ensure they would never again become a threat to peace. The early German and Japanese run of victories, however, gave them an imposing defense perimeter—the Atlantic Wall, fortified islands in the Pacific, and strategic depth in Eastern Europe—that could be protected via the advantage of interior lines of communication. The Allies did not yet have the means to broach that defense perimeter and bring their material resources fully to bear. As things stood at the start of 1943, it would have taken them many years of terrible attrition to succeed—and before then, more likely than not, the coalition would have fallen apart as one or more of the partners became exhausted and sought a compromise peace.
The particular challenges to meeting the Allied goals were these: (1) to win control of the Atlantic sea lanes, so that the convoys to Britain (and Russia) could get through safely and permit the island to act as a secure launching pad for the invasion of the continent; (2) to attain command of the air over all west-central Europe in order to bring about the systematic aerial destruction of the Third Reich; (3) to land a substantial force on the continent capable of forcing its way across Axis-held beaches and carrying the fight to the European heartland; and (4) to do similar things in the Pacific, while overcoming the tyranny of much greater distances between strategically vital locations. The tasks were linked—invading France, for example, was impossible until the U-boats had been defeated and air superiority had been established. If the air campaign had been forced to shut down, and if convoys to Russia had not gotten through, Hitler could have devoted more resources to the eastern front and Stalin would have been weakened correspondingly. The Red Army, in turn, was needed to tie down and decimate German forces so they could not be transferred to meet the landings in the west.
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As of early 1943, however, the battle of the Atlantic was being lost: Germany was inflicting losses on Allied shipping at a much greater rate than replacements were being built. The British Isles were close to starving and certainly were in no position to host the massive allotment of troops and equipment required for a future D-Day. The bombing campaign against Germany and occupied territories likewise seemed to be a losing proposition: Allied aircraft had suffered unsustainable losses against German air defenses and their effective bomb-on-target ratio was appallingly low. The North African landings in November 1942 had succeeded but the circumstances had been highly favorable compared to those of trying to force through German-manned fortifications on the continent. In the Pacific, the United States was still thousands of miles from Tokyo and the Japanese had demonstrated the horrific costs they could impose, given time to prepare and their willingness to offer fanatical resistance.
Over the next six to eighteen months, Kennedy notes, all of these challenges were addressed to the point where victory was indeed assured—not through lofty pronouncements, individual bravery, or overwhelming resources, but through problem-solving. He divides the story into five chapters, dealing with the Battle of the Atlantic; the air war over Germany; operations against the German blitzkrieg (with the focus on the Soviets and the eastern front); amphibious operations in the European-Mediterranean theater; and the challenge of dealing with the vast distances in the Pacific theater. Kennedy synthesizes the vast amount of secondary literature that has grown up over these issues, and follows the conclusions of specific scholars and analysts, many of which remain contentious, such as over the relative effectiveness of the strategic air campaign. On the whole, one finds Kennedy’s big-picture conclusions quite reasonable; experts can debate whether he got the details exactly right.
To begin at the beginning of Kennedy’s story: the key to the American and British military campaign against Nazi Germany—and to Stalin’s ultimate success in the East—was the ability to maintain reasonably secure sea lines of communication across the Atlantic to the British Isles (and to the Mediterranean and North Africa). The British and the Americans (the latter belatedly) had adopted the convoy system, which was successful in World War I. But as noted above, in the winter and spring of 1943 they were losing the Battle of the Atlantic. The German Admiralty had the advantage of operating from forward bases in occupied territory along the Atlantic coast, and had developed highly-successful radio-coordinated wolf-pack tactics. More submarines were on the way to join the fight. Yet within a six month period Allied problem-solvers managed to turn the tide dramatically and the Germans never recovered.
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The most important solution for the Allies had to do with using very long-range bombers, particularly the American B-24, carrying the right sort of weapons and other combat instruments. These bombers were able to stay with the convoys all the way across the Atlantic, closing the “Atlantic gap,” a fatal break in air coverage over the mid-Atlantic. (German submarines were highly vulnerable to air attack if they were detected—they had to surface in order to charge their batteries and to track and close on Allied vessels; their preferred method of attack was also made on the surface). This required a decision at senior levels, controversial at the time, to allocate such aircraft away from the bombing mission against Germany. Just as importantly, it involved a series of technical developments, some seemingly mundane. A team of engineers, principally from Canada, replaced one bomb bay in the B-24 with extra fuel tanks, which considerably extended its range. Other teams designed a much more effective fuse for depth charges dropped from aircraft; an air-launched acoustic homing torpedo (“Fido”); effective High-Frequency Direction-Finding (Huff-Duff) devices able to detect and locate submarine radio transmissions; centimetric radars, which could pick up a submarine’s conning tower or even periscope at considerable distance; and the Leigh Light, a high-powered search beam that illuminated a submarine on the surface at night.
Some of these technologies were also employed aboard ships. In addition, a small Admiralty unit called the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DWMD), known informally as the “Wheezers and Dodgers,” devised the “Hedgehog,” a multiple anti-submarine grenade launcher that fired explosive charges off the warship. This offered many advantages over the standard depth-charge. The convoy system itself underwent marked improvement, due in part to the introduction of escort carriers and newer types of corvettes and frigates optimized for anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Escort groups also became more aggressive in seeking out U-Boats, rather than shepherding convoys and letting the submarines come to them.
In short, there was no “eureka” moment, no single solution to the Battle of the Atlantic, but rather a series of innovations of technology, tactics, and organization, successfully orchestrated together with remarkable and rapid effects.
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Then there were the challenges of amphibious operations—landing and maintaining a significant body of troops against a well-defended enemy island or coastline, and from there being able to achieve decisive results inland. Kennedy believes that success depended on the creation of an inter-service, combined-operations organization that figured out how to orchestrate the many moving parts required for the operation to succeed. Amphibious warfare was a special kind of fighting that required many special ingredients, including novel and often very weird-looking weapons systems (such as specialized tanks), incredibly complex logistics, an extremely high level of battle training, very sophisticated low-altitude aerial support, and smart ways of directing masses of troops and vehicles on and off narrow beachheads.
American and British planners understood the special needs of amphibious operations from the beginning. The ideas were formulated by U.S. Marine Corps planners in the 1920s and by the British Inter-Service Training and Development Centre in the 1930s. They steadily metamorphosed via Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Command and the USMC Marine Expeditionary Forces, with lessons learned through the difficult experiences of Madagascar, Guadalcanal, Dieppe, and the Gilberts. These were incorporated into the decisive Normandy-Marianas assaults of June 1944.
For instance, Allied planners learned the value of having a command-and-control headquarters offshore, separate both from the naval warships and from the landing forces. This greatly reduced miscommunications and other errors. They assigned a single officer to keep order on the beach. They employed much improved wireless links back to the HQ ship, to allow forward directing units to call in fire support. They developed specialized underwater demolition teams and beach clearance groups, and utilized highly practiced advance units and special forces such as the commandos and the Rangers, as well as airborne units. They came to understand that aircraft suitable for close-air support over the beaches were also well equipped to destroy the enemy’s land forces during the breakout operations that followed.
The American industrial base played its part with the mass production of specialized landing craft for carrying infantry, tanks, and trucks, and for firing rockets, as well as of the equally important mother ships that brought them across the oceans to their offshore launch positions. Churchill added a special touch: he pushed for the use of Mulberrys, prefabricated artificial harbors that were taken in sections across the English Channel and assembled off the Normandy coast to support the OVERLORD operations.
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Kennedy explains how successful amphibious operations in the Pacific were combined with other military assets to overcome the tyranny of distance in that vast theater. The strategic problem-solving began well before Pearl Harbor, when the Navy and particularly the Marine Corps anticipated the need, in the event of war in the Pacific, to seize bases in Micronesia—that is, the Marshall, Caroline, and Mariana island groups, which Japan had taken over from imperial Germany during World War I. Mid-level officers worked on weapons systems and tactics that could turn amphibious-warfare doctrine into a viable operation, despite being starved of resources to be able to convert theory into immediate practice.
Also in the inter-war period, the U.S. Navy was swift to understand the strategic and operational implications of the early British experiments of launching aircraft from a reconstructed “flattop” warship. Despite the opposition of the pro-battleship lobby, the Navy pushed ahead with the building of a few large-size carriers, and worked through the necessary plans and exercises to determine how best to use naval aviation. When war came, the Navy had dependable carriers with decent planes that could be used to lead the counterattack westward—with many more on the way, thanks to the prodigious American industrial base. Carrier task forces in turn required not only destroyer escorts but also a fleet train of supply ships, including specially-designed, fast-moving oil tankers.
The Americans also developed the long-range B-29 Superfortress, capable of carrying an immense bomb load thousands of miles at an altitude (30,000 feet) inaccessible to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. The B-29, based on the critically important Mariana island chain (seized from the Japanese by amphibious operations in mid-1944), could reach the Japanese home islands and thus offered an enormous shortcut to a war that many planners originally thought might go on until 1946 or 1947. The bomber prepared the way for an invasion of mainland Japan if necessary. Together with a sea blockade enforced by the overwhelmingly successful U.S. submarine force, this might have caused the Japanese to surrender, without the Allies having to execute Pacific D-Days on an even more massive scale. As it turned out, the dropping of atomic bombs—flown by B-29s out of the Marianas—cut short the discussion. The B-29, a marvelously complex weapons system for its time, is itself a case study in technical and industrial problem-solving.
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An often-neglected factor in understanding how the United States overcame the tyranny of distance in the Pacific involves the units who built the bases, installations, assembly points, and the roads that carried the fight forward—especially the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalions, the “Seabees.” Here Franklin Roosevelt played a critical role in 1937 by appointing Ben Moreell, a civil engineer who had served in the Navy in World War I, as chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and also the chief civil engineer of the Navy. Moreell recommended to FDR the establishment of these construction battalions and created a gigantic organization that brought American military-industrial power, from cement to rubber to electrical wiring to bulldozers, to bear on the problem of bridging the distance of the Pacific. In that theater alone the Seabees built 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, tanks to store 100 millions of gallons of gasoline, and housing for 1.5 million men. In the case of the airstrips, they frequently did so in a hurry, often within days or weeks after an amphibious operation seized a Japanese-held island. This helped to maintain the momentum of the U.S. island-hopping offensive.
In his five case studies, Kennedy brings home the point that wartime operations, like the societies that conduct them, are highly complex—no single factor can explain why one side displayed superior problem-solving skills and won the war. Problem solving itself is a complicated thing—it is an orchestrated confluence of technological improvement, organizational adaption, leadership skills and personnel management, the development of appropriate military doctrine and tactics, and so on.
With respect to Kennedy’s particular interest—how nations develop and sustain innovation to achieve their political-military objectives while warding off “imperial overstretch”—he argues that
perhaps the most important variable of all, [is] the creation of war-making systems that contained impressive feedback loops, flexibility, a capacity to learn from mistakes, and a ‘culture of encouragement’…that permitted the middlemen in this grinding conflict the freedom to experiment, to offer ideas and opinions, and to cross traditional institutional boundaries…. [T]he successful systems were so because they possessed smarter feedback loops between top, middle, and bottom; because they stimulated initiative, innovation, and ingenuity; and because they encouraged problem solvers to tackle large, apparently intractable problems.
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What conclusions might the student of strategy independently draw from Kennedy’s analysis?
We might be tempted to attribute military innovation to the innate superiority of liberal democracies and free-market economies, and to the meritocratic culture that goes along with them. Indeed, in principle, such regimes should have clear advantages in this respect, everything else being equal, especially due to their melding of the rule of law, a system of political and military accountability, and the military’s access to the fruits of the marketplace. But everything else is seldom equal. There are clear limits to what political compulsion (in the case of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union) or technocratic command (in the case of the post-war Japanese economy) can achieve in the way of sustained, high-level innovation. But those systems did have considerable short and intermediate-term successes, especially when their democratic/free-market rivals became complacent about their inherent strengths, or were demoralized temporarily by the seeming wave-of-the-future quality of their rivals. Bureaucratic resistance and organizational inertia existed among the Western Allies as well as in the Axis (and the Soviet Union), amply documented by Kennedy. For instance, the Bureau of Ordnance in the U.S. Navy stubbornly refused to acknowledge serious defects in its torpedoes (1941-1943).
It might be objected that Kennedy’s case studies involve an anachronistic situation, that of a global, industrial-age conflict among great powers, which we are presumably unlikely to see again. The lessons seem enduring, however, despite periodic fantasies about the end of history or unchallengeable U.S. strategic supremacy. In contemporary times we have seen Islamist fundamentalist cells and insurgent movements employ high-end Western technology, as well as run of the mill explosives and old tried-and-true guerilla tactics, in highly imaginative fashions, while the United States struggled at times to keep up (e.g., in dealing with Improvised Explosive Devices and in developing or reviving counterinsurgency doctrine and tactics). China undoubtedly will have more than a few surprises up its sleeve if push ever comes to shove in the South China Sea, or if it decides to disrupt American information systems in a crisis.
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There are however certain factors, some within our control, others not, that might enhance the natural advantages of liberal democracies. First, statesmanship does facilitate problem-solving in several important ways, especially in the context of a wartime coalition. If leaders establish a clear strategic direction and set of priorities, those down the chain of command will be better able to identify and focus on the specific problems that need to be solved, as well as to understand the relationship among those problems. By making unconditional surrender the ultimate object of Allied policy, for instance, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill made it clear that a major amphibious operations against the European continent would be necessary, along with a large-scale ground campaign against the Wehrmacht, to Berlin and, possibly, beyond. The same was true in the Pacific against Japan (with a somewhat different set of problems that needed to be addressed, due to the nature of the theater). They also insisted on finding ways to aid their coalition partner, the Soviet Union, through strategic bombing operations against Germany and assuring maritime lines of supply. Hitler, by contrast, never established a clear overall campaign plan that allowed the development of balanced and integrated armed forces. Much less did he coordinate strategic matters with his nominal ally, Japan.
High-level leadership can aid the problem- solvers more directly, by appointing the right people to the right places; creating organizations that are appropriate to the task at hand and that have the authority and resources to get the job done; and identifying and clearing roadblocks to success. Churchill receives particularly high marks from Kennedy in this regard. The prime minister sometimes drove his military staff to distraction with unconventional strategic plans—none of which he forced upon them if they objected seriously—but he was something of a genius at pushing unorthodox solutions to practical problems advanced by unorthodox thinkers (“crackpots” in the eyes of the often-conservative military-industrial establishment). He insisted that Major General Percy Hobart’s weird notions about tanks be given a full hearing, pulled Admiral Bertram Ramsay out of retirement to lead amphibious planning, sent Orde Wingate to Burma to create the special-ops Chindits, and arranged for the return of Sir Wilfrid Freeman to administer aircraft design and production at the Air Ministry. After witnessing in person the Dodgers and Wheezers’ successful experiments with the Hedgehogs, Churchill immediately instructed the First Sea Lord to see that resources be made available for the new weapon.
Second, geography matters—it creates both challenges and opportunities for problem-solvers, if they recognize the hard facts of geographical size, distance, and topography. Geography, in many ways, is the problem to be solved. Blitzkriegs and armored warfare work well in certain places (deserts, plains) but can be countered in others (mountains, jungles). Russia’s vastness, harsh terrain, and climate defeated Hitler because he could not decide upon an optimum axis of advance with the best chance of knocking Stalin out of the war (Kennedy, like many others, concludes that the German thrust should have been made against Moscow). Erwin Rommel was defeated at El Alamein when, at the very end of his line of supplies, he ran up against a heavily entrenched British imperial garrison that took advantage of favorable terrain. In contrast, the vastness of the Pacific did not defeat the Americans because they understood the importance of a campaign in the Central Pacific aimed at seizing vital islands, especially the Marianas. From there they could exercise essential air and naval superiority over the approaches to Japan and to conduct devastating raids against the Japanese homeland. The Americans and the British did not neglect other axes of advance, including that of Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific (which had to be done in part for political reasons). These tied down Japanese forces at acceptable costs. But planners understood that the most direct and strategically effective line of advance was through the Central Pacific, and operated accordingly.
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As Kennedy notes, the axis powers failed to see the Second World War as a gigantic geopolitical chessboard whose outcome would be determined in large part by which side controlled a small number of critical positions (bases) that gave the owner disproportionate operational advantages. The Army-dominated Japanese Imperial General Headquarters remained obsessed with the war in China but, having taken on the United States, it failed to realize that the schwerpunktof the war had now shifted to the Pacific. Hawaii, for instance, should have remained the critical target for the Japanese Navy, even after the defeat at Midway, when the American aircraft carrier strength was temporarily at a low point. Acquisitions such as New Guinea, Burma, and southern China mattered little; they would have fallen into Japan’s lap as a consequence of Tokyo’s having first taken the most vital strategic place in the entire Pacific. Hitler’s failure to get his hands on Gibraltar—or, at the very least, to persuade Franco to neutralize it—was another major political-strategic failure, as was the inability to knock out the British air and naval bases on Malta (which the British defended fanatically).
Sensitivity to geography also allows problem-solvers to understand the linkages among various theaters. A case in point is the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, which seemed to many, including those in the Allied armies and navies, to be an enormous waste of resources. Even after the British and Americans gradually won control of German airspace (thanks in large part to the marvelous P-51 Mustang long-range fighter) German industrial production in the latter stages of the war continued to improve (the exact figures and timing remain a matter of historical dispute). It would have been far better, so the argument goes, to have focused on tactical air operations that would have directly supported Allied ground forces and interdicted enemy supply lines.
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Kennedy, to the contrary, cites a number of sophisticated post-war studies that support the grand strategic effectiveness of the bombing campaign (although he decries operations aimed solely at terrorizing the enemy’s civilian population). To be sure, airpower alone cannot win a modern war, contrary to the theory of some of its extreme advocates. And one can certainly dispute the exact targeting priorities of the campaign: many experts believe that German oil and fuel production and transportation nodes were the key, and should have been focused on much earlier. Nevertheless, the strategic operations served a major political purpose, that of reassuring Stalin of Allied seriousness at a time when Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that it was impossible to open a second ground front in Europe. The air campaign was the second front, they told Stalin. According to recent studies, this was not merely puff ‘n’ stuff.
According to these studies, the strategic air campaign did indeed inflict considerable direct damage on the Third Reich (and Italy and Japan). Individual German factories might have produced impressively in the aggregate but components could not be transported for assembly, or be flown or driven if assembled because of the lack of fuel. The major impact was probably indirect, however. Strategic bombing forced Germany to devote major resources to air defense, which could not be applied to meet other critical threats. The Germans shifted fighters to homeland defense and thereby effectively ceded aerial control over the Eastern Front. They diverted vast numbers of guns and crews into antiaircraft duties, tied up millions of workers in the task of rebuilding wrecked communications and relocating damaged factories, and had to slow down U-boat development and training. German fighters—and fighter pilots—shot down in large numbers while trying to meet the waves of bombers, were not available on D-Day to contest control of the beaches and to prevent Allied aircraft from paralyzing German counterattacks. In sum, solving the problem of the Eastern and Western ground fronts turned on solving the problem of air control over Germany.
Third, although slow and steady does not necessarily win the race to innovate, wonder weapons or single-point technological breakthroughs are seldom if ever decisive. Hitler, of course, kept insisting that such weapons could win the war (e.g., the V-1, the V-2, the Me262 jet fighter, advanced submarines) and devoted what turned out to be disproportionate resources to their development. In fact, had these weapons been realized fully earlier in the war, they might have made a major difference. But that would have required Germany to solve other critical problems, such as air defense, first.
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The search for wonder weapons can also distract from the task at hand. Problem-solving more typically comes about through mundane, incremental improvements—tweaks and fiddles—brought about through the imaginative integration of organizations, tactics, and technologies. Step by step, as Churchill used to say. The pace of change can be quite rapid once the components of the new orchestration have been assembled together, but some of those components may have existed for years or decades (Marine Corps amphibious doctrine, for example), and they may even have been designed with some entirely different purpose in mind. Throw nothing away. Use or steal other people’s good ideas; avoid the “not invented here” syndrome. Take early, clumsy inventions, and modify and improve them.
Fourth, the effective use of military intelligence can be important to battlefield success, but it seldom if ever solves problems independent of other factors. In the 1970s, it was revealed that the Allies had broken certain key military and diplomatic codes of the Axis powers. Some scholars jumped to the conclusion that the war in North Africa and the Mediterranean, and particularly the Battle of the Atlantic, had been won primarily because we had been reading the German mail. F. H. Hinsley, the distinguished British historian who worked as a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park, concluded that these intelligence successes had shortened the war by as many as three years. The evidence assembled by Kennedy suggests otherwise. In the first place, it turns out that the Germans were reading some Allied mail, too (and the Soviets were reading some of our mail, too, but that’s another matter). Upon reflection, what is striking is the pattern of intelligence failures, even in cases where code-breaking should have tipped off the surprised party. Pearl Harbor, the German invasion of the Soviet Union (which caught Stalin, if not others, by surprise), and the Battle of the Bulge, are only the tip of the iceberg. The Battle of Midway, in which U.S. code-breakers identified the point of attack and the location of the enemy’s carriers, allowing Admiral Nimitz to arrange his forces accordingly, is the exception that proves the rule.
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This reminds us of the point made forcefully by the late Roberta Wohlstetter, that signals are often missed because of the distorting “noise” generated by various sources of information. This cacophony has to work its way through various psychological and organizational filters that can further distort what seems to be obvious in retrospect. More mundanely, intelligence about enemy activities, even if judged accurate and important, is often available only intermittently. The usefulness of intelligence varied in World War II from theater to theater, from service to service, and from year to year. One can never be certain when the spigot might be turned off, if the enemy catches on to the leak or merely shifts practices out of routine. Nor can one be completely certain that one is not the victim of a clever disinformation operation.
This is not to say that technical or operational intelligence has no value in problem solving, but that it must become a tool in the larger orchestration of technical, organizational, and human instruments that bring about innovation. The Allies, for instance, took advantage of the ability, at times, to decipher Admiral Doenitz’s signals traffic to his U-Boats. But they did not view this as a cheap and easy way to avoid having to invest in and integrate long-range aircraft, specialized detection equipment, new anti-submarine warfare weapons, and aggressive convoy tactics.
A final point; really, more of a question. Are military innovations, especially in inter-war periods, spurred better by a climate of famine or of plenty? Democracies naturally ratchet down defense spending after wars (the 1920s and 1930s, the 1990s, and, it seems, the 2010s). Democratic leaders may want to use these periods of enforced retrenchment to get rid of legacy systems, as they are known, and thereby force generals and admirals to do something else besides prepare to fight the last war: to make a virtue of necessity, as it were. One could argue that the decades between the World Wars demonstrate that resource-starved armed services have an incentive to compete with each other to develop superior ideas and prototypes for future warfare, rather than to continue to maintain old funding lines and comfortable concepts. The same spirit of innovation and problem-solving, in this model, will then be carried over into wartime by Wheezers and Dodgers, or their modern IT equivalents.
This assumes, of course, that the defense establishment corporately will make the right choices in a resource-constrained environment and that there will be time to bring those ideas and prototypes to fruition when needed. It also assumes that the energy and flexibility of the military will not be drained by the ordinary demands of doing business during a period of defense retrenchment. Presidents, even those not predisposed to interventionism or to maintaining a global American presence, nevertheless somehow manage to find ways to keep the armed forces pretty busy in the so-called peacetime. There is something to be said for times of plenty, when a hundred flowers, or at least more than one flower, can be allowed to bloom, so that future gardeners of innovation are not forced to rely on a single genetic strain that may not be optimal for rapidly changing strategic climes.