Adapting to Change
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Adapting to Change


Yesterday the Naval Diplomat lectured to the Naval Staff College, a class composed entirely of foreign students. This is invariably a lively audience, fun to debate. My topic: America’s undersea offensive in the Pacific War. I review the causes and the effects of the submarine campaign, with a view toward determining why some big institutions adapt readily to new circumstances and others don’t.

The U.S. Navy improvised a new strategy and new operational methods almost instantly after Pearl Harbor. Unrestricted submarine warfare constituted a major part of that strategy. Pacific Fleet commanders turned the subsurface force loose with instructions to sink not just Imperial Japanese Navy warships but also merchantmen ferrying vital resources hither and yon within the Japanese Empire. Over 1,100 freighters, tankers, and transports descended to Davy Jones’ locker during the Pacific War — testament to the aggressiveness of American submariners. Economic havoc ensued. Yet the Japanese Navy never took serious countermeasures despite suffering repeated hammer blows. Why?

I venture several explanations, none of them mutually exclusive. Here are two. First, strategic dogma may have impeded adaptation. Fixed ideas have that effect, especially when embedded in bureaucratic routine. But both belligerents were Mahanian before the war. Japan was more Mahanian than Mahan in some respects, wedded to the decisive clash between battleship fleets. On the other hand, Henry Stimson likened the U.S. Navy Department to a “dim religious world” where “Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true church.” Neither navy held a natural edge in adaptability.

The answer lies elsewhere. The larger American society that supplied the manpower for world war had little use for history or hidebound traditions. History is bunk, as Henry Ford put it. Infusing large numbers of youthful officers and enlisted men with little use for Mahanian lore into the force was bound to ease innovation.

Second, consider the nature of the external shocks that spurred — or should have spurred — new thinking about warmaking techniques. Pearl Harbor was a sudden, traumatic, sequential blow that deprived the U.S. Pacific Fleet of the wherewithal to execute its prewar Mahanian strategy. You go to war with the fleet you have. And after December 7th, that fleet was essentially a submarine force and a few flattops. Necessity is the mother of invention, so that’s what the Pacific Fleet did. In a sense, then, the Japanese raid was a gift. Now look at the Japanese side. While the U.S. submarine campaign wrought disaster far exceeding that inflicted at Pearl Harbor, the disaster came in small increments — a sinking here, a sinking there, in tactical engagements unrelated to one another in time or place. Each “cumulative” action — Admiral J. C. Wylie’s term — applied a feeble catalyst for change. By the time Tokyo belatedly introduced convoys and other antisubmarine measures, it was effectively too late.

This adds up to a sobering lesson for those who oversee organizations, especially in peacetime. Pearl Harbors — massive shocks that shatter outdated ways of transacting business, showing leaders they must change or die — are few and far between. More common are gradual, weak, cumulative signals suggesting the institution is getting out of sync with changing realities. How do you innovate if you’re the Imperial Japanese Navy rather than the U.S. Pacific Fleet?

February 22, 2013 at 03:10

This was tactics, and strategy, not patents nor copyrights. In war, you can imitate yoru enemy's tactics if its effective. Case in point is the Luftwaffe's Finger Four formation, w/c was renamed as the Double Attack System when Allied pilots copied it. No problem with that.

It's the technologies that get people riled up. Before you say it, yes, we know that the Germans developed the jet engine and ballistic missiles, but they were war booty as far as the Allies were concerned. Don't tell me ancient China didn't claim war booty either. That would be unbelievable. But please don't try to do that when you're supposed to be on a friendly relationship with another country, claiming to be chums and then pilfering while the other party's not looking.

Rex McCoy
February 21, 2013 at 22:54

The third person is an old Journalistic convention, esp when writing as part of a publication. The author often refers to him/herself as the publication indicating that the reporting is "official" to the publication, and not a personal comment, such as in a blog. Go back a few years and you even see Walter Cronkite referring to himself as "this reporter" when noting his presence at an event that he is reporting on. Standard Journalism 101, not that everyone follows it.

February 21, 2013 at 22:02

John Chan obviously doesn’t understand the meaning of the word improvise.

One can improvise a soy sauce powered laser beam from discarded chopsticks and duct tape. This would be both improvising and inventing.

One can also improvise a prophylactic device from discarded chopsticks and duct tape, yet this would be improvising without inventing.

Poor John, he leads us to a key question, how to adapt to the mostly incompetent 50 cent army. Correct their errors, or simply leave them in their state of relentless vacuity.

John Chan
February 21, 2013 at 13:10

@Comment Crew,

Americans all blast China that everything China did is stolen from the USA as though there is only the American can invent and only the American can succeed, it is hard to believe that Americans would tell something it was not invented by them. Your frankness is an odd behaviour from the norm of a world of manufactured reality.


Comment Crew
February 21, 2013 at 09:25

Learn to read.  He's saying that it was a new method for the US Navy, not new to the world.

February 20, 2013 at 11:58

Don't you think people who talk about themselves in the Third Person are a bit weird? 

 "Yesterday the Naval Diplomat lectured to the Naval Staff College" What? You mean you did?

Like Chen Shui Bian used to always refer to himself in the Third Person…… very WEIRD!

Lenonard R.
February 20, 2013 at 11:25

"First, strategic dogma may have impeded adaptation. Fixed ideas have that effect, especially when embedded in bureaucratic routine. "


That is the greatest danger facing the US military today.

John Chan
February 20, 2013 at 09:48

The author should credit where credit is. The US Navy did not invent any new strategy and new operational methods after the Pearl Harbour disaster, all they did was to copy everything they stole from Karl Donitz and his underwater warriors then applied them to the Japanese.

German’s strategy of starving the Brits to surrender by sinking ships indiscriminately, this strategy was denounced as Nazi evil behaviour, since the American did exactly what the German did to the Brits to the Japanese, can we denounce what the American submariners did to the Japanese as Nazi evil behaviour too?

Before Pearl Harbour disaster, the brasses of US Navy had put up a most lethal armada in the world, there was little evidence suggesting that they were drastically wrong and required a complete overhaul of their navy. The same confidence is reflected by the current US Navy brasses, they have the most lethal armada in the world; I wondered is there anybody in the US Navy War College reminding them that they are walking the same path as their WWII forebears before the Japanese sneaky attack on the Pearl Harbour? Or US Navy War College is just part of the institution that is getting out of sync with changing realities gradually.

Indeed, how does US Navy War College suggest the US Pacific Fleet to innovate for the changing reality in Asia-Pacific while money is tight back home but US’ bellicose predatory hegemonic demand is ever expanding?


Chuck Hill
February 20, 2013 at 05:24

At least two impediments to change in the IJN, one economic, one cultural.

Unlike the US, the Japanese economy did not allow rapid augmentation of ASW forces. There was no way they could have created a response similar to the rapid growth of ASW forces seen in Western Navies. They did develop radar equipped Air ASW units, but then wasted them in attempting to attack an American fleet.

Also the IJN seemed to have little respect for academia. They never apparently never had anything like an operations research approach to their problems, so they never recognized, as the Western Navies did that large convoys suffered no more losses than small ones. So they kept sending out small poorly escorted convoys.

February 20, 2013 at 00:56

I do wonder if China's cyber war against the US has not incrementally done a similar thing as the US sub campaign in WWII. Apparently it was allowed to go on for years with little in their way. Also these territory grabs are incremental in nature and are not soliciting a strong enough response in my opinion. Together these might have had the effect of lending weight to those in China who believe the US is weak and on the decline. Exactly the opposite of what should be their perspective and of what is in the interest of the free world. Weakness is provocative.

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