Here, we take a step toward specifying what is involved, and use three U.S. Navy case studies to underscore the importance of adaptability in a naval context.
War is an audit of how military institutions and states prepare for war and how their intelligence and force-planning processes succeed in capturing emerging technologies and innovative new methods. It also audits how responsive commanders are to recognize shortfalls or resolve gaps from interaction against a thinking opponent.
The U.S. Army has stressed adaptation for some time. Army theorists have noted: “In the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment we face for the foreseeable future, if we were to choose merely one advantage over our adversaries it would certainly be this: to be superior in the art of learning and adaptation.”2 The Army’s current capstone concept is based on operational adaptability, calling for “a mindset based on flexibility of thought calling for leaders comfortable with collaborative planning and decentralized execution, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to make rapid adjustments according to the situation.”3 This definition suggests how adaptability might be exploited, but not created.
The U.S. Navy often gets a bad rap for its unwillingness to change or inability to implement large-scale transformation.4 President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quip, that trying to change anything in the Navy was like punching into a featherbed, may be apocryphal but not without some validity. Yet operational adaptation is certainly part of U.S. naval history.5
What is Adaptation?
The military literature is currently undergoing a “surge” in studies on adaptation, with some variation in definitions and implications. Years ago, a book on military innovation, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War, established a framework that covers it in three tenses: future or anticipatory, present tense or adaptive, and post-conflict or learning.6 “Where learning failures have their roots in the past,” Professors Eliot Cohen and John Gooch stress, “adaptive failures suggest an inability to handle the changing present.”7 Also, “The requirement to adapt to unexpected circumstances test both organization and system,” they observe, “revealing weaknesses that are partly structural and partly functional.”8 This begs a question about the role institutions have in creating structures and functions (as well cultures) to support effective learning across all three tenses.
The source of adaptation may vary. Whereas peacetime innovation is usually a deliberate evaluation of options directed by the higher levels of a military, adaptation is arguably generated at the tactical level by results in the battle space, where the relevant information and results are most evident. Recent research, based on field evidence, credibly shows that the direction of innovation during combat is generally from the bottom up; higher headquarters should therefore be flexible to permit organic exploration of new tactics and approaches.9
There is a valid question about the scale and character of change required to qualify as innovation or adaptation. Dr. Steve Rosen, in Winning the Next War, recognized that innovation could take place either before or during war. He defined innovation either as “a change in one of the primary combat arms of a service in the way it fights” or as creation of a new combat arm.10 Some define the term as requiring organizational or structural changes and the incorporation of new technologies. Adaptation to others is adjustments to current capabilities and practices, not innovation. A leading scholar, Professor Theo Farrell, defines adaptation as “change to strategy, force generation, and or military plans and operation that is undertaken in response to operational challenges and campaign pressures.”11 This formula emphasizes the source of change, and its institutionalization. The incorporation of adjustments back into Fleet and force generation and training distinguish Dr. Farrell’s insights from Dr. John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, where ongoing adjustments against insurgents in Malay were not absorbed into the British Army’s doctrine or training.
But, as argued by Cohen and Gooch (and Rosen), innovation can occur before, during, or after a conflict. The scale of innovation can be disruptive or revolutionary, as in an entirely new way of fighting supported by a breakthrough technology, or simply an organizational innovation creating a new capability or set of skills for an institution.
This author accepts Cohen and Gooch’s framework. Thus, adaptation emphasizes learning and institutionalizing new skills and competencies. Such competencies may or may not require new organizations or technology, and thus adaptation is a form of military innovation that occurs during wartime in response to interaction with the adversary or unexpected theater conditions. Military adaptation incorporates direct field experience into doctrinal, organizational, and technological solutions to change existing capabilities or create competencies that a military organization did not have in its repertoire prior to wartime.
What Contributes to Adaptation?
Adapting to operational pressures from an opponent requires recognizing a gap and responding in combat. This is the essential question taken on by Colonel Meir Finkel of the Israeli Defense Forces in On Flexibility. He notes that military force planners face an increasingly difficult challenge of anticipating or predicting the future battlefield.12 Rather than focus on predicting the future with precision or overemphasizing intelligence, Finkel studies what contributes to “the ability to recuperate swiftly from the initial surprise.” Using historical case studies from World War II to 1973’s Yom Kippur War, he examined the rapid implementation of entirely new solutions and technologies forged by the crucible of combat.
His theory builds on what he terms four “strata.” The first is conceptual and doctrinal flexibility, the establishment of a climate prepared for all forms of war, accepting the need to challenge official doctrine. The second is organizational and technological diversity, often promoted by emphasizing combined arms and organizational diversity instead of infatuations with wonder weapons and technological fixes. The latter is an area where America’s engineering mentality and emphasis on technologically advanced weapons can create problems.
Finkel’s third characteristic is flexibility in command and cognitive skills that he attributes to commanders willing to innovate, allowing juniors to challenge precepts or to take the initiative when they find altered conditions. His final stratum incorporates mechanisms for the rapid dissemination of lessons learned in combat so that the entire enterprise benefits. This final element shows how critical communication can be to learning organizations, by broadening the learning accorded adjacent or follow-on units—what might be termed “horizontal dissemination.”
Finkel’s land-warfare-oriented research is reinforced by Williamson Murray, now at the U.S. Naval War College. In his Military Adaptation: A Fear of Change, he concludes: “Over the course of the past century and a half, adaptation in one form or another has been a characteristic of successful military institutions and human societies under the pressures of war.” Yet, Murray notes: “Most military organizations and leaders attempt to impose prewar conceptions on the war they are fighting, rather than adapt their assumptions to reality.”13
Murray’s insights suggest the interplay of a realistic appreciation for history and the nature of war, decentralized but competent leadership, rigorous intellectual preparation, and an organizational culture that leans toward critical inquiry and learning new ideas. Regrettably, none of his examples was naval in character. A cross comparison of Finkel’s and Murray’s attributes is provided ar right.
Further research is required to determine the correlation between these attributes and successful intra-war adaptation. A few well-recognized Navy historical examples may help, showing how war’s audit induced prompt adaptation at sea.
Naval Case Studies
In August 1942 the U.S. Navy found itself operating in restricted waters protecting the Marine landing on Guadalcanal. The Navy became “immersed in a curriculum of cruel and timeless lessons,” in the words of James Hornfischer in Neptune’s Inferno.14 A Japanese task force led by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa raced down the Solomon Islands “slot” and evaded detection by destroyer pickets. The Japanese had mastered surface fighting with disciplined training, even tailoring their force and tactics to wear down the anticipated U.S. numerical advantage by emphasizing night operations and the innovative Type 93 Long Lance torpedo.15
The action proved short and brutal. In the Battle of Savo Island, 8 August 1942, the Navy lost three heavy cruisers—the USS Astoria (CA-34), Quincy (CA-71), and Vincennes (CA-44)—and two destroyers, as well as the Australian cruiser HMAS Canberra. The Japanese escaped relatively unscathed, losing 127 sailors to our 1,077 killed in action. Allied losses were to surface gunfire and Japanese long-range torpedo attack. Comparatively untrained in night fighting and unsure how to best employ their surface-search radar, the U.S. naval task groups suffered devastating losses in the mélée. Admiral Ernest J. King called the results of that single engagement “the blackest day of the whole war,” which certainly says something.16 It probably would have been even worse if Mikawa’s force had pressed its attack and gotten to Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner’s transports off Guadalcanal. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison was kinder, observing that, “In torpedo tactics and night actions, this series of engaements showed that tactically the Japanese were still a couple of semesters ahead of the United States Navy. . . .”17
Well, the U.S. surface force entered night school immediately. Under the direction of Rear Admiral Norman Scott, the cruiser force stepped back, nursed its wounds, and reexamined itself. The forces spent all their free time for the next several weeks in “Night fighting course 101” using the words of one Marine gunner.18 In short order, the U.S. Navy learned how to successfully conduct surface night actions, improving visual surveillance, integrating both search- and fire-control-radar inputs into the commander’s understanding, and improving coordinated maneuver under conditions of both low visibility and chaos. In short, it adapted as a result of its interaction with an enemy who had a coherent night-fighting doctrine and the rigorous training to implement it. The results 90 days later were two much more even battles off Guadalcanal.
‘Not a Battle at All’
Two other examples of U.S. Navy adaptation examine the offensive and defensive dimensions of undersea warfare in World War II. The U.S. Navy was unprepared for battling the U-boat, despite our own and British experiences in World War I. In the 1940s, however, it proved an Allied success. Victory came at a huge cost: between 1939 and 1945, 3,500 Allied merchant ships (14.5 million gross tons) and 175 Allied warships were sunk. More than 117,200 Allied sailors and merchant seamen (mostly British) lost their lives. But the Germans lost 783 U-boats and approximately 30,000 sailors, three-fourths of the country’s submarine force.
The Battle of the Atlantic was ultimately the longest campaign in the war, not a battle at all. In tandem with its allies, the U.S. Navy, with support of the Coast Guard and Army Air Forces (post-February 1941), adapted its organization, intelligence, ships, and antisubmarine warfare (ASW) techniques to overcome a determined adversary who also shifted targets, tactics, and technologies. The campaign was eventually won by besting the German Navy in a deadly competition of learning. The relearning of the effectiveness of a comprehensive convoy system proved instrumental, as was fielding adequately equipped destroyer escorts in sufficient numbers. Signals intelligence was invaluable, but so was the continuous evolution of sonar and detection gear, and airborne cover/escorts. The development of improved ASW weapons (depth charges, forward-firing hedgehogs, etc.) also was a major contributor to U-boat attrition.19
Adaptation took time, as the U.S. Navy did not want to refight the last war and had forgotten its lessons. The Navy’s interwar “genetic encoding” of War Plan Orange, emphasizing carriers and battleships in the Pacific, retarded examination of the ASW challenge.20 Admiral King’s strongly held views on the U.S. Navy’s role in the war and the relative priority of Pacific over European requirements may have slowed the development of ASW as a core competency.21 This lassitude was exacerbated by the need to coordinate externally with the Army Air Forces and to develop ties with the science community. Materiel shortages for escorts and time lags in industrial production also played a role. While Admiral King was personally involved early on, the lack of a dedicated sponsor and organization to prosecute the campaign was not resolved until 10th Fleet stood up, which ironically did not occur until May 1943.22
But the Navy did ultimately adapt itself to the challenge, making itself into an effective ASW force. All of Colonel Finkel’s factors were evident, especially decentralized approaches and organizational flexibility. Convoy commanders were continually apprised of best practices as they were rapidly gathered and shared, through conferences, reports, and publications.
The other obvious naval-adaptation case study is founded on our superb submarine operations in the Pacific in World War II. Again prewar innovation, built around two decades of wargaming War Plan Orange, generated an emphasis on carrier air power and amphibious warfare. U.S. planners had a natural moral and cultural resistance to unrestricted warfare and the use of submarines against commercial targets. We also initially lacked an understanding of our adversary’s energy dependence and resource vulnerability.
But on 8 December 1941, Admiral Harold Stark ordered the Navy to execute unrestricted warfare against Japan. While not a surprise to the Pacific Fleet’s planners, we had neither the commanders nor weapons needed for the task.23 The submarine community needed to adapt from reconnaissance and screening roles into a true attack force. Fortunately, we had the great advantage of the superior Gato-class design. In contrast, we regrettably did not have working torpedoes, proper doctrine, or the personnel and training systems in place to drive the force. The tactics, techniques, and procedures were again developed from the bottom up, backed by leaders who garnered insights from patrol reports, intelligence, the labs of the science community, and operations researchers. Commanders gained tactical insights and trends from their patrol reports, which were distributed both horizontally to others, and vertically up the chain of command.
The force adapted sharply with great effect over time. Japanese shipping losses rose from 134 ships (580,000 tons) in 1942 to 284 ships (1,342,000 tons) in 1943. Once the torpedo problem was fixed by 1944, results doubled again as a total of 492 ships (2,387,000 tons) were sunk or destroyed by submarines. It was a remarkable demonstration of adaptation. Submarines, comprising some 2 percent of the U.S. naval force, were responsible for over half of Japan’s maritime losses.24 Here again, it does not take much imagination to consider how the war in the Pacific might have been altered had the United States begun the war with an offensively oriented submarine force with effective doctrine and operative weapons.
What Does All This Mean?
These are admittedly short synopses of large and complicated cases. But a few insights can be drawn from them. The Battle of Savo Island is not a major example of innovation, for the U.S. battle fleet already had the required capabilities to counter the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Americans had not ignored night surface attacks.25 But the Navy certainly had not perfected them to the degree of a competency, and thus some adaptation was required. Better command-and-control practices, improved confidence in using radar, disciplined combat-information-center procedures, and sharper fire-control techniques were all brought to bear. Strong leadership, focused training, some experimentation, and the dissemination of lessons were all contributors.26
The other two cases, however, constitute clear-cut adaptations. The U.S. Navy did not develop a new revolutionary way of war, but it learned two naval core competencies the hard way. Success in both theaters was at risk until the Navy mastered ASW in the Atlantic and unrestricted warfare in the Pacific. There are lessons, therefore, in leadership, creating organizations, personnel and leader development, and the close integration of scientific research and/or operations research into combat operations that can be teased out of these case studies. They underscore Colonel Finkel’s attributes for flexible command-and-control and lessons-learned dissemination, as well as Professor Murray’s emphasis on rigorous education of war and critical inquiry.
Hornfischer’s assessment about Guadalcanal is apt about all three cases: “No fighting Navy had ever been so speedily and explosively educated.”27 But we should add that no Navy had ever so rapidly and effectively adapted in two simultaneous and different campaigns in the largest wartime theaters ever seen.
If, as Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Victor Davis Hanson claims, military effectiveness requires an ability to radically change force design or find entirely new competencies, then adaptation could be central to success. Given our inability to predict opponents or the character of future wars, the ability to challenge norms, assumptions, and methods is a fundamental part of success in combat. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey has properly identified adaptation as a critical lesson over the last decade.28 In the future, the ability to change rapidly may therefore be a necessity not just a source of relative advantage.
A better understanding of the process by which naval organizations have adapted in the past in the competition of combat should be illuminating. It will shed light on the institutional attributes and culture facilitating critical adaptation. The Navy has mastered this competition in the past, and if history offers any lessons, institutional “adaptivity” will be an enduring contributor to success in future war.29 This makes it worthy of greater study and understanding.
1. Jim Lacey and Kevin Woods, “Adapt or Die,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 133, no. 8 (August 2007), 16–21. These authors noted that and that it was a great oversight.
2. David A. Fastabend and Robert H. Simpson, “Adapt or Die: The Imperative for a Culture of Innovation in the United States Army, Army, February 2004, 14–25.
3. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, The Army Capstone Concept—Operational Adaptability: Operating Under Conditions of Uncertainty and Complexity in an Era of Persistent Conflict, 2016–2028 (TRADOC Pam 525-3-0).
4. Peter J. Dombrowski and Andrew L. Ross, “Transforming the Navy: Punching a Featherbed?” Naval War College Review, vol. 56, no. 3 (Summer 2003), 107–31.
5. Thomas Mahnken, “Asymmetric Warfare at Sea, The Naval Battles of Guadalcanal, 1942–1943,” Naval War College Review, vol. 64, no. 1 (Winter 2011), 95–121.
6. Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes; The Anatomy of Failure in War (New York: Free Press, 1996).
7. Ibid., 222.
8. Ibid., 162.
9. James A. Russell, Innovation, Transformation, and War, Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005–2007 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2011).
10. Steven Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 7.
11. See Theo Farrell’s introduction, “Military Adaptation in War” in Theo Farrell, Frans Osinga, and James A. Russell, eds., Military Adaptation in the Afghanistan War, (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
12. Meir Finkel, On Flexibility, Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Security Studies, 2011).
13. Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation: The Fear of Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3.
14. James D. Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Random House, 2012), vii.
15. Mahnken, 100–02.
16. Hornfischer, 89.
17. Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943,” The History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 5 (Edison, NJ: Castle, 2001), 285.
18. Hornfischer, 137–39. The quote is at 137.
19. See Clay Blair, Hitler’s U-Boat War: The Hunted, 1942–1945 (New York: Random House/Modern Library, 2000), which is indispensable to understanding the “tonnage” war of attrition played by both sides.
20. See Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919–1941 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1980).
21. See Montgomery C. Meigs, Slide Rules and Submarines (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1990), xxii, 218.
22. Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Battle of the Atlantic: September 1939–May 1943,” vol. 1, The History of the U.S. Naval Operations in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010).
23. Joel Ira Holwitt, “Execute Against Japan,” The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2009). See James F. DeRose, Unrestricted Warfare; How a New Breed of Officers Led the Submarine Force to Victory in World War II (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2006).
24. Clay Blair, Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against, Japan, vol. 2 (New York: Lippincott, 1975), 853.
25. Trent Hone, “‘Give Them Hell!’ The U.S. Navy’s Night Combat Doctrine and the Campaign for Guadalcanal,” War in History vol. 13, no. 2 (April 2006), 171–99.
26. On Scott’s fleetwide bulletins, see Hornfischer, 139.
27. Ibid., vii.
28. LGEN George Flynn, USMC, “A Decade at War” (Suffolk, VA: Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 2012).
29. See Anne-Marie Grisogono and Vanja Radenovic, “The Adaptive Stance” (Fairbairn, Canberra, Australia: Defence Science and Technology Organisation, 2006).