Civil and military success depend on developing and adapting strategy

Developing strategy is too often thought of as a by-the-book, one-shot undertaking to provide managers with a comprehensive roadmap that is supposed to cover all eventualities. But in the real world, this is scarcely the case.

Instead, developing an effective strategy is a relatively messy process that involves evaluating everything we know about the external environment at any given time, designing a realistic way to achieve long-term goals, constantly monitoring for changes in the environment, and revising strategies as they are being executed to take such changes into account. Strategy must reflect reality, not what you think the world ought to be like.

As proposals to invest in transportation and other infrastructure currently making headlines, military history provides essential background for those attempting to develop effective strategies for such large undertakings. Without this background, they’re like techno-wannabes trying to do engineering without have studied physics.

As the United States approaches the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, we should remember lessons the military has taught us: How to properly develop a strategy, why it must be regarded as an ongoing process, and how it must respect changing realities.

Just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii, killing more than 2,000 and wounding another 1,000. Sixteen battleships, cruisers, and other warships were sunk or disabled in the attack, but all-important fuel storage and ship repair facilities were left untouched. This omission allowed Pearl Harbor to continue as a forward base for American naval power in the Pacific.

When President Roosevelt delivered his “Day of Infamy” speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan the next day, the federal government already had a detailed game plan for defeating Japan in the Pacific. It was known as War Plan Orange and had been under development by the U.S. Navy since 1905.

The Navy began this effort and carried it forward in response to growing awareness that the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War was likely to create conflicts with Japan in the western Pacific that could eventually lead to war.

By 1941 War Plan Orange had undergone many revisions and updates to reflect changing political and tactical realities such as the emergence of the aircraft carrier as a naval weapons system that had the potential to become as important as the battleship.

The game plan contained extensive detail about the numbers and types of fighting personnel that would be required to carry out the strategy, and how to recruit, organize and train them. Finally, it detailed the types and quantities of weapons and equipment that would be needed, how to produce them, what kinds and quantities of raw materials their production would require and how and where to allocate them in the theater of war for maximum effect.

It was all there in black and white. And as history has demonstrated, War Plan Orange reflected what actually happened. It was indeed the blueprint for the campaigns that eventually defeated Japan in 1945.

War Plan Orange guided the U.S. to victory over Japan less than four years after Pearl Harbor. This was less than half the time the U.S. spent in Vietnam, and far shorter than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It began as a sound strategy and was flexible enough to roll with the punches from events that strategists were unable to anticipate.

Clearly, the United States needs this kind of strategic focus at all levels of government if efforts to address major domestic and foreign policy issues are to succeed. Otherwise the country risks missing worthwhile opportunities, doing new projects and programs without proper coordination, and spending a lot of money just to make things worse.

As a new administration comes into power, it would be wise to recall that, as former President Eisenhower wisely remarked, “Plans may be irrelevant, but planning is essential.”

Originally Published: November 26, 2016

Infrastructure spending must look forward

Many economists and politicians are once again peddling the conceit that billions of dollars in infrastructure spending (aka investment) will create new jobs, raise incomes, boost productivity and promote economic growth. After all, a report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+ grade and claimed that an investment of $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020.

But before we accept this idea as gospel, we should remember that the future isn’t likely to look like the past.

Americans are reminded that a large part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to “Save Capitalism in America” was massive federal investments in economic growth projects like rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Boulder and Grand Coulee Dams, and other monumental hydroelectric generating facilities. Not to mention hundreds of commercial airports like La-Guardia and JFK in New York City, thousands of modern post offices, schools and courthouses.

The investments culminated in the 41,000-mile Interstate Highway and Defense System, begun in the 1950s under President Eisenhower (the Republican New Dealer”) because of what he had learned from his military experiences leading the allied armies in Europe during World War II.

It is further claimed that Americans have been living off these federal investments ever since. Their contribution to decades of job growth and increasing national prosperity has been so enormous that Americans have come to take them for granted as cost-free gifts from a beneficent God, like the unimaginably bountiful resources of crude oil discovered under that legendary East Texas hill called Spindletop, which came exploding out of the Lucas Number 1 well in 1901 with a roar that shook the world.

The $828 billion stimulus plan President Obama signed in 2009 focused on “shovel-ready” projects like repaving potholed highways and making overdue bridge repairs that could put people to work right away. Still as Gary Johnson noted in 2011, “My neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than the Obama stimulus plan”.

Let’s not kid ourselves, spending for these projects scarcely represented “investment in the future.” Had we been managing infrastructure assets sensibly, they would have been little more than ongoing maintenance activities that should have been funded out of current revenues, like replacing burned-out light bulbs in a factory.

One problem with initiating a massive new capital investment program is figuring out where the dollars to fund it will be found. Projections for escalating federal deficits and skyrocketing debt are bound to raise questions about the federal government’s ability to come up with the necessary cash.

For starters, it’s time to recognize that the future will be quite different from the past, particularly when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Large projects may be rendered obsolete and the burden of stranded fixed costs left to the next generation.

Disruptive technologies such as electric or hybrid, semi-autonomous or self-driving vehicles, and changing consumer preferences, especially among urban millennials who are more interested in the on-demand riding experience than driving, is a cause for optimism about the future of America’s infrastructure condition.

These new patterns of vehicle ownership and use and the emergence of privately funded technologies are changing the way people and goods move, and transforming the transportation industry in both the public and private sectors. They offer the potential for dramatic improvements in traffic congestion (due to improved safety and reduced spacing between vehicles) and reducing motor vehicle accidents and fatalities.

They can also generate environmental gains from smoother traffic flow, promote productivity growth as reduced congestion improves access to labor markets, and improved utilization of transportation assets such as existing highway capacity with higher through put without additional capital investments.

These changes create an opportunity for a new generation of political leaders to present the public with a modern vision for transportation, the economy, and the environment, not one that harks back to an earlier time.

Originally Published: Nov 12, 2016