James Holmes

Adapting to Change

Massive shocks that shatter outdated ways of transacting business are few and far between.

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.

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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?