by Frank G. Hoffman
Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 350.
Maps, tables, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1682475891
Adapting to New Combat Realities
In some wars, one opponent may adjust more quickly to sharp new combat realities. This nimble capacity to adapt under fire can often result in that side’s eventual victory.
In the midst of wartime stress, a creative reaction to an enemy advantage is a difficult feat to accomplish. (Clearly, military organizations are not assembled with such flexibility in mind.)
A classic (no pun intended) example of successful adaption was Rome’s response to Carthage’s initial naval superiority during the first Punic War. The brilliant Roman solution perfectly conformed to the land-based power’s strengths: it was the corvus, a short boarding bridge located on a ship’s prow. After contact with an enemy vessel, this device funneled expert Latin infantry aboard to overwhelm its crew.
Active combatants have to unravel their pre-war assumptions and react fast when their enemy demonstrates an unanticipated ability or a deadly new tactic. (As Mike Tyson famously said: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”)
It is unlikely, however, that many realize that “adaption during conflict” has itself been a specialized area of consideration. In his revealing new work, Frank Hoffman explains that the “subject of military innovation has been the topic of serious research and debate in the security studies community for close to two decades.”
The author first critiques some of the most prominent schools of thought that have come out of that research. After deeply mining the extant literature, he emphasizes one: Organizational Learning Theory (first shaped in business strategy).
This then underpins his framework for analysis. Hoffman’s terms that synthesis “Organizational Learning Capacity” (OLC). He uses it to identify characteristics that propel the shaping of a military institution’s combat experience into problem recognition, improved applications, and, ideally, battle solutions.
His major adaption characteristics are: a) a decentralized leadership philosophy; b) cultural flexibility over cultural compliance; c) efficient learning mechanisms, such as standardizing record collection; d) the organizational ability to explore alternative ideas and modes of praxis; and e) the speedy formal/informal dissemination of new changes across the whole force.
After a long, rather dense, review of institutional learning theory, he applies his own OLC refinement to specific case studies, analyzing how effective four US armed forces were at implementing creative adjustments during their particular campaigns. (It must be said that these case-study chapters are a more easily digestible read than the earlier ones.)
By Hoffman’s measure, some branches performed better than others, but all provided valuable lessons for calibrating degrees of wartime flexibility.
Chapter 3 is titled “Adaption Under the Sea: The US Submarine Offensive in World War II.” Prior to hostilities in the Pacific, the US Navy high command had not yet not identified how faulty its torpedoes were. Moreover, it had paid scant attention to the value of commerce warfare, which would become a crucial component of victory against an island enemy.
Initially, these drawbacks greatly hobbled our submariners’ performance. Nevertheless, the rigid naval bureaucracy was eventually shaken into action by feedback from below-ranks sources, such as information gleaned from new experimental efforts and after-action conferences. By the war’s end, the US underwater force had so self-corrected that it strangled Japan’s shipping.
Chapter 4 reviews the new US Air Force’s setbacks and comebacks in the Korean War. Chapter 5 thoroughly covers our Army’s difficulties in handling the irregular warfare it encountered in Vietnam, as well as why some of its responses – like airmobile units — weren’t as effective as they might have been in stemming enemy gains.
In Chapter 6 -- “From the Halls of Fallujah to the Shores of the Euphrates: The Marines Adapting in Al Anbar” -- the author evaluates how that service, with its unique culture, adjusted to the emerging realities of the Iraqi resistance.
The writer points out that each branch’s adaptations – successful or not – took between 18 to 24 months to reach the battlefield. Even under the intense pressures of war, he notes, institutional gears are rarely shifted quickly.
Hoffman concludes with the warning that technological advances (e.g., artificial intelligence) are upping the pacing of combat pressures, thereby requiring the military to master a dynamic adaption process with greater speed.
This book addresses a narrow, but crucial, aspect of military organization, which is likely of more interest to service professionals than a casual reader. For the former, however, Hoffman’s defense of his theory on adaption during war should be a required study.
For the less-specialized, the extensive case studies provide a novel insight to US leadership’s decision-making for these four significant campaigns.
A former Marine officer, Dr. Hoffman is a Distinguished Fellow at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC. Mars Adapting book is the latest in a “Transforming War” series by several different scholars.
Note: Mars Adapting is also available in several e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium