Mars Adapting; Military Changes Under Fire

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Mars Adapting; Military Changes Under Fire. By Frank G Hoffman. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2021.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

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‘As a rule, military leaders usually begin wars confident in their existing weapons and technology. But if they are to finish them successfully, it is often only by radically changing designs or finding entirely new ones’.

This quote from American historian David Hanson in ‘The Father of Us All; War and History’ begins Frank G Hoffman’s Mars Adapting.

Hoffman’s book examines four US military campaigns: Chapter Three – ‘Adapting Under the Sea’ discusses the US submarine service in World War Two; Chapter Four – ‘Airpower Adaptation in Korea’ reviews the US Air Force in Korea; Chapter Five – ‘The US Army in Vietnam’ reviews this tragic defeat and Chapter Six – ‘From the Halls of Fallujah to the Shores of the Euphrates’ looks at the US Marine Corps in Iraq. The case studies focus on how the service components adapted to the emergent realities of the campaigns.

From December 1941 to mid-1943 the US submarine service was largely ineffective due to defective torpedoes caused by faulty depth settings and exploders. A feud erupted between senior officers, torpedo factory executives and submarine commanding officers who reported consistent failures of the weapons. Experimentation undertaken by the submariners off Hawaii and after-action conferences at the operational level eventually turned the tide of opposition which not only rectified the deficiencies but saw the introduction into service of the superb Balao-class fleet submarines.

In 1941 the US Navy considered the battle fleet the primary arm of War Plan Orange whereby the US battle line would engage the Japanese Navy; naval aviation and submarines would serve as scouting and harassing forces. The USN had paid little attention to commerce warfare pre-war; however, innovation and adaptability at the operational level overcame hidebound bureaucracy to transition the submarine force to make a major contribution to victory in the Pacific.

The US Air Force in 1950 was a newly independent US service, whose foundation of strategic bombing had its antecedent in air power theory stemming from World War One and, as the US Army Air Force in World War Two (in association with the RAF), brought ruination to the Axis powers. However, with the outbreak of the Korean War the US Far East Air Force (FEAF) was faced with a limited war requiring close air support to land forces; a discipline it had excelled in in the recent world war but left to atrophy as USAF leaders fought the political fight to establish the Strategic Air Command. The limited range and small weapons load of the FEAF F-80 fighter bombers saw them temporarily replaced by obsolescent F-51 Mustangs. When F-86 Sabres arrived in-theatre their machine guns were no match for MiG-17 cannons – the latter aircraft flown by largely Soviet pilots – and the Sabre’s ineffective gunsights. However, as with the submarine service, the FEAF responded using operational analysis comprising post-mission debriefs, intelligence assessments gun-camera film and photo-reconnaissance. As a technologically-based service FEAF officers had an adaptive mindset which, when harnessed and developed at the operational level relearnt and built upon the lessons of the recent past.

The Army in Vietnam is a highly detailed study of this disastrous war. The Conclusion to the study notes: ‘The US Army, predisposed to fight a conventional enemy that fought using conventional tactics, overpowered innovative ideas from both within and outside the Army. As a result the Army was not as effective at learning as it should have been and its failures in Vietnam had grave implications for both the Army and the nation’. Revolutionary warfighting capabilities such as helicopter-borne air assault and riverine warfare were examp0les of adaptation, but they only demonstrated a firepower-centric tactical approach at the expense of strategy and vision. US Army leadership failures were due to close-mindedness and, subjugated to intense political oversight from Washington DC and, exacerbated by a corrupt and demoralised South Vietnamese government and military, the country fell to an intensely motivated opponent in a war the US lost.

The final case study of the US Marine Corps in Fallujah looks at the smallest and arguably most flexible and innovative US service. Marines had to switch from high-intensity combat against defined opponents to become a culturally sensitive, protective and restorative force. Marine culture had adapted by 2007 through Corps leadership encouraging bottom-up adaptation. Unlike the Army in Vietnam, Marine commanders did not enforce compliance but they failed to identify and promote lessons learnt from creative units to the rest of the Marine Corps.

Mars Adapting is heavy with discussion of organisational theory which precedes the case studies. Chapter Two: On Change examines Organisational Learning Theory which the author uses to assess the case studies and to analyse the processes the organisations employed to change in response to environmental alterations or performance gaps. The final Chapter Seven discusses Conclusions and Implications, summarised as the need for adaptation to unforeseen circumstances and unanticipated military and technological contexts which are more important than ever. The range of military missions has evolved beyond combat preparedness to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and security threats from climate change to name just two.

Mars Adapting examines historical lessons from the four US armed services which characteristically are many times larger than those of middle-ranking powers. The challenge to readers from smaller defence organisations is to identify relevant aspects of the case studies and transpose these to their current defence organisations and strategic and operational planning staffs. Force structures – both materiel and personnel – need to be flexible, adaptive and equipped equally for contingencies faced today – environmental challenges, operations short of war, cultural awareness and combat preparedness. Not least is the role of whole-of-government resources, most prominently nations’ foreign services.

Mars Adapting is a heavy read in parts and some may find organisational adaptive theory a tough slog; however, the case studies are the book’s strength. The book should not be read solely as a work of history and it is not a panacea for planning solutions, but it is a useful addition to professional military education for 21st century decision-makers at all levels as they prepare their forces to Shape, Deter and Act.

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