Strategy from “Inherently Erroneous” Conceptions

Fear of InvasionA brief review of David G. Morgan-Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017)

I am very grateful for this book. David G. Morgan-Owen’s narrative provides much-needed clarity on one of the fundamental questions of World War I: How did the Royal Navy, the most dominant naval force of the day, come to adopt a passive strategy that ceded the initiative to their German opponents?

Morgan-Owen’s detailed analysis of strategic planning in the decades prior to the war provides a compelling answer. He does this by expanding the scope of the narrative, looking beyond the Royal Navy’s planning to consider its relationship with the British Army and the Government. What emerges is a pattern of decisions—each with a logical explanation in context—that gradually limited the Royal Navy’s freedom of action and left Admiral John R. Jellicoe in the unenviable position of being, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.”

Those words made sense to me over three decades ago when I first started looking into the naval history of World War I. They seemed to offer a useful explanation for Admiral Jellicoe’s defensive attitude in the war’s largest fleet action, the Battle of Jutland. As more recent scholarship emerged, however, I began to wonder. Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game was an important step because it introduced the idea that perhaps the Royal Navy was insufficiently well-prepared to exercise command in a modern naval war.1

My study of U.S. Navy doctrine and tactics in the interwar period (1919-1939) provided another useful perspective. Although historians have repeatedly accused the U.S. Navy of “refighting” Jutland, U.S. Navy officers examined the battle as a learning tool, drawing out valuable lessons about the principles of naval warfare.2 One of the ideas repeatedly stressed in their analyses was the importance of offensive action, to seize the initiative and keep the enemy off-balance. Today, we would describe this as getting inside your opponent’s OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop. In Learning War, I make the point that the U.S. Navy’s conception of the importance of the initiative expanded during the interwar period, so that it embraced not just the tactical level of warfare, but also the strategic. With this in mind, one U.S. officer described Jellicoe’s approach as “an inherently erroneous conception of naval warfare.”3 A rather damning critique which I’ve referenced in the title of this post.

I had that perspective in mind when I read Shawn T. Grimes’s Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918. Grimes challenges many established assumptions about the Royal Navy’s approach to war, providing a thorough analysis of exercises, strategic thinking, and conceptualizations about a potential war in the North Sea. I highly recommend it. Before reading his monograph, I hypothesized that—as strange as it might seem—perhaps the Royal Navy had not performed the kind of large-scale exercises necessary to adequately assess how to handle a modern fleet in battle. Reading Grimes, I realized my hypothesis was incorrect. Exercises were performed, and they seemed to provide a reasonably accurate assessment of modern technologies and their capabilities. I began to wonder if something prevented the Royal Navy from learning effectively from their exercises.

I had several questions. Why did men like Jellicoe adopt a defensive strategic posture? How did they maintain it in light of their material superiority? What led them to remain passive in the home theater while pursuing aggressive actions elsewhere around the globe? How did they expect the Royal Navy to help win the war?

Morgan-Owen provides a compelling history that answers these questions. British war planning is described in its full complexity; the Empire’s strategy emerges from the interaction of three linked—but largely independent—organizations, the British Army, the Imperial Navy, and the Government. Morgan-Owen eschews simplistic explanations like personal failings or shortcomings within a single organization’s planning process. Instead we are told that the “lack of a meaningful vision of how to prosecute a war against Germany” prevented alignment.4 There was no coherent overall strategy.

Instead, there were a series of lower-level decisions made by each of the three major organizations involved. The Army focused on creating a large expeditionary force, first for India, and then later for the Continent. The Government (and the public) became aware of the potential threat of a German surprise attack on England’s East Coast. The swift Prussian victory in 1870 prompted fears that a rapid movement across the North Sea could land unopposed and force a decision while the main strength of the British Army was away. The Royal Navy could not allow this to occur, so it focused on countering the threat.

Taken together, these cascading decisions—the brief description in the paragraph above is a gross simplification—provide a clear explanation for Jellicoe’s defensive stance. The outcome is remarkable in hindsight, because it meant that the inherent flexibility offered by naval power—which the British had used repeatedly to their advantage in the past—was subordinated to the employment of a large army. One could argue that the British, by focusing on a continental commitment, played to German strengths, which is something strategic planning should avoid. This outcome was obviously not clear to decision-makers at the time, and Morgan-Owen does an excellent job of explaining their perspectives, assumptions, and context to illustrate how undesirable consequences can result from the actions of well-intentioned individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in strategy, war planning, or naval history.


1. Gordon suggests that the Royal Navy’s dominant position through the nineteenth century led to ossified command structures that were insufficient for the demands of modern naval combat. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

2. David Kohnen argues that the U.S. Navy was the ultimate winner of Jutland. David Kohnen, “The U.S. Navy Won the Battle of Jutland”, Naval War College Review (Autumn 2016, Vol. 69, No. 4), 122-145.

3. Commander Holloway H. Frost, The Battle of Jutland (Annapolis, Md: U.S. Naval Institute, 1936), 517.

4. David G. Morgan-Owen, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press, 2017), 215.

Learning War is Coming!

I haven’t written here in some time, but I have been doing plenty of writing. My book on organizational learning in the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century is being published by the U.S. Naval Institute this June and I’m very excited about it.

What’s it About?

Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898-1945 is an analysis of the development of the U.S. Navy’s approach to surface warfare—how it planned to fight a fleet action with battleships and supporting vessels—between the Spanish-American War and the end of World War II. In my analysis, I treat the U.S. Navy as a complex adaptive system and use concepts from that discipline, like enabling constraints and emergence, to illustrate why it was so effective at rapidly learning and consistently innovating. The first half of the twentieth century was a period of rapid technological change; it saw the introduction of new platforms—like destroyers, dreadnought battleships, and airplanes—and new technologies—like mechanical fire control computers, radio, radar, and turbine propulsion. The U.S. Navy was particularly effective at integrating all of these into its force structure and tactics.

How Does it Relate to Today?

Although today’s contexts and technologies are different, I believe the basic concepts that underpinned the U.S. Navy’s approach to learning and innovation are still relevant. I’ve used many of them effectively in my work with software teams; these include creating an environment of psychological safety, leveraging variability to rapidly explore new techniques and methods, and fostering decentralized decision-making to seize fleeting opportunities. In the book, I explain how these approaches developed and evolved in the U.S. Navy’s context. A core theme is the importance of continually revising approaches to ensure they remain relevant, something that the Agile community is wrestling with right now.

It will be great to see Learning War in print. I think my work is done. I’ve finalized the draft; I’ve been through page proofs and made corrections; I’ve edited the index; and I’ve gotten some very positive early feedback from historians I deeply respect. It’s been an amazing journey. If you’re interested, you can find the book on the U.S. Naval Institute’s Website, Amazon, or other booksellers.
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2017 McMullen Naval History Symposium

IMG_1786I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the “extraordinary breadth” of scholarship presented at the McMullen Naval History Symposium last week at the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. It was a wonderful conference, and Cdr. B.J. Armstrong deserves a lot of credit for its success. I’m very glad I finally got to meet him.

I attended several thought-provoking sessions on World War I, the interwar period (1919-1939), and the Battle of the Virginia Capes. I participated on a panel titled “1942 and Its Continued Historical Relevancy for the U.S. Navy” and I was also fortunate to win second prize in the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) Naval History Essay Contest. I discussed my essay with some of the other winners in a session last Friday morning. Here are some of my highlights from the conference.

David Kohnen discussed the report of the “[Dudley W.] Knox, [William S.] Pye, [Ernest J.] King Board” issued in 1919 and its impact on officer education in the U.S. Navy. The report is an important part of the story of how the U.S. Navy harnessed the lessons of World War I and improved its approach to officer education before World War II. It was not surprising to hear that King was the “principal man” behind the report. It was also not surprising to learn that King published a version of the report in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 1920, sparking heated debate. Kohnen pointed out the importance of officer relationships for understanding the U.S. Navy of this period. King was a protégé of Henry T. Mayo, who commanded the Atlantic Fleet during World War I, and also knew William S. Sims, who commanded American naval forces in Europe. These more senior officers gave King and his colleagues “top cover” for the report and its recommendations.

Alexander Howlett presented his research into lessons learned by the Royal Navy’s Air Service and the Royal Air Force (RAF) in their campaign against the German U-Boats in 1917 and 1918. I thought one of his most interesting findings was that the British Admiralty allowed a great deal of variability; the development of tactics and doctrine devolved to individual stations. Those that created effective partnerships with surface forces and devised new techniques were more successful. When the RAF was formed, much of this learning appears to have been lost. Increasing centralization and ignorance of the best techniques for fighting the U-Boats prevented the RAF from capitalizing on established lessons. I enjoyed discussing this important shift with Howlett later that evening.

Branden Little highlighted the fact that U.S. Navy ships were used to ferry gold to American citizens in Europe immediately after the outbreak of war in 1914. Currency destabilized and many vacationers found themselves stranded without a means to pay for food, transportation, or lodging. The gold was a deliberate loan to allow Americans to pay for their needs before coming back to the United States. Armored cruiser Tennessee alone provided $5,867,000 according to one contemporary newspaper.

Sidney M. Chester followed the path of Tennessee and her sister North Carolina. They were sent to the Mediterranean where they spent a good deal of time in Beirut, then the “center of American and protestant activity” in the Middle East. The ships helped maintain harmony between various religious and ethnic groups; Chester related how more frequent liberty for the crews furthered this goal. Evidently, the sailors were good at picking fights and the regular fisticuffs diffused ethnic violence, a fascinating dynamic that I had never considered.

In our 1942 panel, I discussed the importance of the fighting in the Solomon Islands and how it triggered the U.S. Navy’s system of organizational learning; K.J. Delamer explained that PT Boats, although they had few tactical successes, were part of a multi-dimensional system of unrelenting pressure on the Japanese; and Hal Friedman illustrated that the Naval War College’s exercises of 1946 harkened back to the challenges of early wartime battles like Coral Sea, Eastern Solomons, and Santa Cruz. I particularly liked Delamer’s description of the challenge of attempting to fight steel-hulled Japanese barges in wooden-hulled PT Boats.

I moved out of my main area of interest to attend the session on the Battle of the Virginia Capes, and I’m very glad I did. James Holmes presented his “strategist take on history” by describing the effective ways in which the British deprioritized the North American colonies in favor of more important strategic theaters, like the sugar islands in the Caribbean. Holmes used the concepts of war developed by Carl von Clausewitz to frame his discussion and it was quite effective. However, at the end he introduced the idea of antifragility as developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, suggesting that liberal democracies like 18th century Britain can “bounce back” from failures like that experienced by the loss of the colonies.

During the commentary and questions, I started to consider the implications of this. We can potentially do ourselves a disservice if we apply a clausewitzian frame to the process of military decision-making in all times and periods. The way Holmes described the British approach, it seemed much less like a clear process of finding the “decisive theater” and much more a series of experiments and hypotheses intended to determine the most effective potential outcome. More specifically, I started to wonder if the concept of antifragility might not be a better frame for understanding British strategy in the late 18th century. Could the move into the southern colonies, which ultimately resulted in disaster t Yorktown, be seen as a minor investment with significant potential upside rather than a strategic mistake? I think that is a valuable question worth further investigation.

There were many other important sessions and talented presenters. I regret that I could not attend them all, but it has me looking forward to the next one in 2019. The McMullen Symposium is a great opportunity to learn, connect, and share ideas with the most talented minds in the field of Naval History.

 

What is Doctrine Anyway?

BB_LineLater this year, I’ll be sharing the stage at SDI Miami with Stephen Bungay, whose book, “The Art of Action,” has been influential in the Agile community. He’ll be continuing to expand on his thesis—that the Prussian General Staff identified an effective approach to organizing for collective action in the face of uncertainty—and presenting on “Blitzkrieg: Lessons in Organizational Agility & Strategy.” I’m looking forward to seeing how he relates the success of the German Army in the early years of World War II to the management challenges of today.

I plan to do something similar, but with a less familiar example. I’ll be highlighting the importance of rapid organizational learning by discussing the Allied offensive at Guadalcanal in late 1942. The series of naval battles triggered by that offensive led to revisions in the U.S. Navy’s doctrine—its approach to combat. Whereas Bungay will discuss the merits of the German Army’s doctrine, I’ll be presenting the importance of developing doctrinal agility: the ability to rapidly refine, adapt, and evolve doctrine.

So what is Doctrine?

In my forthcoming book on organizational learning in the U.S. Navy, I define doctrine this way:

Doctrine is the set of implicit and explicit assumptions that govern the behavior of a military force. It is what officers and sailors fall back on to guide their decisions when precise instructions are not available. It has a parallel to “culture” or “ethos” but greater specificity than either one.

Bungay (and many others) contend that the German Army’s doctrine was particularly effective because it created a common sense of what to do and how to do it, allowing large collections of individual soldiers to act in concert with minimal need for explicit instructions. I contend that the U.S. Navy’s doctrine was effective because it retained the ability to evolve and change in the face of new information. These are related concepts, but the difference is important.

Why Should I Care about Doctrine?

Whether we are aware of the process or not, doctrine influences how we make decisions. We’ve all experienced the influence of doctrine in our work. Some organizations tend to centralize decisions, perhaps in the hands of a senior engineer or manager. Those who fail to defer to them are stigmatized or punished, quickly creating a doctrine of centralized decision-making. Other organizations attempt to empower teams with the ability to collaboratively make decisions. When leaders—managers, senior engineers, scrum masters, etc.—reinforce this concept, the doctrine of empowered teams spreads. Many more examples exist. In most cases, organizational doctrines are implicit, but they exert a powerful influence.

Military forces explicitly create a doctrine based on their preferred approach. Drill, exercise, and repetition creates patterns—what Daniel Kahneman calls “heuristics”—that become the preferred approach to solving specific problems. There are two challenges in this. First, the heuristics must align with the organization’s goals and objectives. Second, the heuristics must not be so deeply embedded that they cannot change. The U.S. Navy was particularly adept at both seventy-five years ago.

Come to SDI Miami and I’ll explain why this was so, and what the implications are for modern organizations.