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

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