Operations Analysis in the Eighth Air Force

July 22, 2019
X
Story Stream
recent articles

Operations Analysis in the United States Army Eighth Air Force in World War II. Charles W. McArthur. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990.


If, instead of sending the observations of seaman to able mathematicians at land, the land would send mathematicians to sea, it would signify much more to the improvement of navigation and safety of men's lives and estates upon that element.
—Isaac Newton[1]

After the horrors of trench warfare in World War One, American airmen developed theories of strategic bombing as a use of airpower to decisively win future wars.[2] When their theories of strategic bombing met the reality of World War Two, however, the airmen encountered serious difficulties requiring a blend of warfighters and scientists to resolve. In Operations Analysis in the United States Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, Charles W. McArthur tells the story of analysts using scientific methods and working side-by-side with military members to improve strategic bombing. McArthur is intimately familiar with strategic bombing, having served as a bombardier in the 493rd Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. After the war, he pursued a career as a mathematician and found some of his colleagues and teachers served in World War Two in a different capacity, as operations analysts. As McArthur says in his introduction, he sought “to document the important role played by civilian analysts in operations research in the United States Eighth Air Force in World War II, especially the mathematicians.”[3]

American airmen faced many challenges when their ideas of strategic bombing on paper met the reality of war…

The use of science for military purposes may be as old as war itself. In 1936, the Royal Air Force researched how to use radar to intercept enemy aircraft and termed this merging of military operations and science “operations research.”[4] Around this time, the U.S. military also sought to formalize the use of science to improve military operations, using the alternate term operations analysis. The Army Air Force’s need to turn the interwar theory of strategic bombing into reality during World War Two gave operations analysis the opportunity to prove itself.[5] As McArthur describes, “Adding groups of civilian analysts to the staffs of commanding generals, to serve as field advisors in the U.S. [Army Air Forces], was just a small, though very significant, part of the greatest mobilization of science for war up to that time.”[6] While operations analysts existed throughout the Army Air Force and other services, McArthur details the work of the analysts in the Eighth Air Force, providing readers both a historical look at the early years of military operations research and a deeper understanding of the Eighth Air Force strategic bombing campaign.[7]

American airmen faced many challenges when their ideas of strategic bombing on paper met the reality of war, and McArthur’s book allows its readers to view the Eighth Air Force’s challenges through the lens of the evaluations made by the operations analysts. The operations analysts of the Eighth Air Force worked on numerous problems: reducing the loss and damage of bombers due to German fighters and flak, combating V-weapons, implementing non-visual bombing techniques, and D-day preparations are just a few. However, according to McArthur, "Interest in the effectiveness of missions was intense throughout the war because the cost was high in terms of men and planes. Helping to improve visual bombing accuracy became one of the great achievements for the [operations research section]."[8]

It wasn’t a straight path to scientific insight and improved operations, though. In his war memoir as a B-17 pilot, Truman Smith describes strategic bombing as “the Great Experiment,” because strategic bombing “was a new type of warfare, and we had to do THE WRONG STUFF in order to find out how to do it the right way."[9] The mathematicians, lawyers, physicists, engineers, architects, newsman, economists, and business analysts McArthur writes about were the members of the Eighth Air Force operations analysis section adding scientific rigor to address the operational problems of this strategic bombing experiment.

For example, when the analysts first arrived in England in late October of 1942, there were no existing means for collecting visual bombing data and assessing its accuracy. Therefore, one of the analysts’ first undertakings was to develop data collection procedures and a method to calculate accuracy from bombing runs. This work allowed the analysts to assess the visual bombing runs the Eighth executed, compare accuracy between groups, and determine the most accurate bombing methods.[10] The ability to assess and compare bombing results was essential for improving Eighth Air Force operational effectiveness.

Colonel Curtis LeMay officially congratulates a bomber crew of the 306th Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress at Chelveston Airfield, England, 2 June 1943. (USAAF Photo/Wikimedia)

One example demonstrating how their new assessment methods led to improvements in accuracy may be familiar to World War Two history aficionados, that of implementing (then) Colonel Curtis E. LeMay’s bombing-on-leader technique.[11] In late 1942, concerned about the intensity of fighter attacks, LeMay developed a new, tighter formation he expected to better protect bombers from fighters. However, this formation made it impossible for each aircraft to sight for range while following a lead aircraft for direction on a bomb run, standard practice at the time.[12] To get around this problem, LeMay proposed each aircraft in a combat box drop its bombs simultaneously when the leader of the formation dropped his.[13]

Around the same time, the members of the operations analysis section hypothesized bombing accuracy might improve when the leader of the combat box controlled both direction and range sighting. Despite this, LeMay’s method was contrary to existing practice and only hard evidence would suffice to convince doubters of the tactic’s value. Because the analysts had developed a method to measure bombing accuracy, they were able to collect accuracy data from missions flown using LeMay’s formation. The operations analysts compiled substantial evidence demonstrating the improved bombing accuracy with this technique, and it became the standard formation for the Eighth Air Force as a result.[14]

While the bold and creative leadership displayed by LeMay was crucial, it was not sufficient for his solution to succeed.

This improvement in tactics is rightfully credited to LeMay, with one author saying, “At one stroke, LeMay improved the accuracy of the entire formation.”[15] Characterizing this adaption as “one stroke” leaves out important details, though. The detail McArthur adds is essential to an accurate appraisal and understanding of how this tactical adaptation took place. At the time, strategic bombing was in its infancy with multiple options for its implementation, and LeMay’s solution was only one of many possible bomber formation configurations. While the bold and creative leadership displayed by LeMay was crucial, it was not sufficient for his solution to succeed. Rigorously proving the improvements in accuracy were legitimate was an additional piece of the puzzle provided by the operations analysts to enhance Eighth Air Force strategic bombing.

McArthur gives many other examples of the Eighth Air Force operations analysis and impacts. For example, the analysts understood their mathematical work was irrelevant if they could not clearly and quickly communicate their findings to bomber crews. Dr. Edwin Hewitt devised one creative solution to this problem when he recruited the newsman Porter Henry to the operations analysis section.[16] Collaborating with the analysts, Henry published a monthly magazine, Short Bursts. In it, Henry used a humorous approach, including comics, pictures, and catchy phrases like, “We compute ‘em—you shoot ‘em.” These might keep the crews’ attention and communicate the latest findings in gunnery techniques, German fighter tactics, and other useful information to improve gunners’ accuracy and aircrew survival.[17] The example of a newsman joining the operations analysis section serves as a reminder to current operations research practitioners of the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of their work.[18]

The 576th Sqdn during the 22 Mar 1945 mission to the jet airfield east of Schwabisch Hall. (B24.Net)

There are a few characteristics of the book leaving something to be desired. In particular, McArthur organizes the book chronologically across twelve chapters. While a chronological structure might be a useful way of organizing the history, McArthur also splits the chapters up into smaller parts dedicated to specific analytic subsections, such as the Bombing Accuracy Subsection composed of the analysts responsible for the analysis of bombing accuracy or the Loss and Battle Damage Subsection dedicated to the analysis of bomber loss and damage. This organization leads to repetition in the narrative and splits the subsections’ work and results into separate locations within the book. For example, McArthur fragments the work related to bombing accuracy across at least six chapters, breaking the narrative, and making it difficult to digest. The subjects of the book are the operations analysis sections and their members, and therefore chapters related to each subsection—as opposed to chronology—would better tie analysts to analytic work and impact. Additionally, while McArthur’s extensive use of sources is a strength of the work—frequently referencing original reports from the analysts—he often relies on long quotations from his sources, sometimes ending a section with a quotation without any further analysis or additional explanation. The result is often a narrative long on facts and short on synthesis.Yet, while a vast literature exists on strategic bombing and the use of science in World War Two, none examine the analysts of the Eighth Air Force with as much detail and focus as McArthur’s.[19]

Most of the men who joined the section were completely new to the military. Upon their arrival in England, they had to build the operations analysis section from the ground up while getting a crash course in military operations. Their work with accuracy and matching bombs and fuzes to targets set the foundation for Air Force doctrine and operating procedures for years following the war.[20] As General J. H. Doolittle praised, “Many of the improvements in air operations have resulted from the work of the Section, and the importance of its accomplishments cannot be overemphasized.”[21] As a reflection of their accomplishments, the analysts received numerous awards including the highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. The operations analysis section of the Eighth Air Force is an important component of World War Two history, and McArthur successfully honors “these men whose story has not been told before.”[22]

…work with experts to understand the system, collect the right data even if you have to generate a new approach, apply analytic methods as objectively as possible, and communicate your results in an accessible way…

The story McArthur tells offers lessons for current operations research analysts and military leaders. First, operations research analysts sometimes lament the quality and availability of data or analytic resources. For these analysts, McArthur’s book provides an important reminder—solving easy problems with perfect data is not the purpose of operations research. Operations research exists for challenging problems where the data and analytic processes are absent or ill defined. Although the analysts serving in the Eighth Air Force during World War Two started from scratch, they tackled a complex set of problems using a framework illuminated across McArthur’s pages: work with experts to understand the system, collect the right data even if you have to generate a new approach, apply analytic methods as objectively as possible, and communicate your results in an accessible way. Second, and possibly most important, McArthur demonstrates not only the importance of operations research analysts, but the value of introducing them at the early stages of military operations. The Eighth Air Force had analysts embedded in operations almost from the start, before the commanders knew exactly what questions to ask. This allowed the analyst to establish data and analytic procedures and help the warfighters solve some operational problems before the strategic bombing campaign accelerated in 1944.

While the field of operations research has value across a wide range of military applications, from ongoing operations in Afghanistan to planning and budgeting in the Pentagon, an example of where the lessons from McArthur’s book may be especially relevant today is the cyber domain. Cyber operations like the Russian NotPetya attack on Ukraine in 2017 and the U.S. Cyber Command strike on a Russian troll factory in 2018 may reflect the early stages of military operations in the cyber domain, a domain existing in “a medium where national borders have no meaning, and where collateral damage travels via a cruel and unexpected logic.”[23] To help deal with the uncertainty and difficulty of operating in this new domain, commanders of cyber operations should advocate for adequate numbers of operations research analysts as early as possible. Once in place, these analysts will have to tackle what is sure to be a mass of incredibly complex, ill-defined, and challenging problems requiring new data and analytic procedures, much like the Eighth Air Force analysts.

McArthur’s Operations Analysis in the United States Army Eighth Air Force in World War II is not always the easiest read, but anyone interested in operations research, the history of World War Two, strategic bombing, the United States Air Force, or improving military operations would gain value from its pages. Most importantly, future war will almost invariably involve another Great Experiment as warfighters try to implement new ideas of warfare whose vision on paper do not live up to the cruel reality of war. McArthur’s book successfully documents the important role of scientific minds collaborating with warfighters when faced with these complex and strategically important challenges.


Katherine A. Batterton is a U.S. Air Force officer and member of The Strategy Bridge Assessment Team. The author would like to thank Eric Murphy, Kim Hale, and The Strategy Bridge Editorial Team for their reviews and thoughtful feedback. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Quoted in James Phinney Baxter III, Scientists against Time, (Boston, MA: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1946), 404.

[2] For examples of airmen interested in the concept of strategic bombing see the writings of Billy Mitchell, Giulio Douhet, or the interwar U.S. Air Corps Tactical School as a few examples.

[3] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), xxiii.

[4] Saul I. Gass and Arjang A. Assad, An Annotated Timeline of Operations Research: An Informal History (New York, NY: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2005), 45.

[5] Saul I. Gass and Arjang A. Assad, An Annotated Timeline of Operations Research: An Informal History (New York, NY: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2005), x.

[6] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 1.

[7] While McArthur’s book documents the Eighth Air Force’s operations research work, the Royal Air Force was dealing with similar challenges in their implementation of Strategic Bombing. For a detailed review of the British operations research analysts helping to deal with these challenges see Randall T. Wakelam, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press Inc., 2009)

[8] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 31.

[9] Truman Smith, The Wrong Stuff: The Adventures and Misadventures of an 8th Air Force Aviator, paperback ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 77.

[10] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 31.

[11] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 32.

[12] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 31.

[13] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 31-32.

[14] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 32-33.

[15] Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 107.

[16] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 126.

[17] Porter Henry, Short Bursts, October 1944, quoted in Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990),268.

[18] Modern examples of this kind of interdisciplinarity might include such efforts as the Army’s attempt to incorporate incorporate social sciences and social scientists into Army operations via the Human Terrain System. Montgomery McFate and Steve Fondacaro, “Reflections on the Human Terrain System During the First Four Years,” PRISM 2, no. 4 (September 2011): 63-82.

[19] For a few examples of books on 1) Allied bombing of Europe: Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2006).; Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth: The Air War in Europe as Told by the Men Who Fought It (Dutton Adult, 1997).; Truman Smith, The Wrong Stuff: The Adventures and Misadventures of an 8th Air Force Aviator, paperback ed. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).; Bert Stiles, Serenade to the Big Bird, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1952, 2016, 2) academic evaluations of the Allied bombing: Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). 3) the use of science in WWII: Randall T. Wakelam, The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press Inc., 2009); Stephen Budiansky, Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013).

[20] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 328.

[21] Quoted in Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), 324.

[22] Charles W. McArthur, Operations Analysis in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in World War II, History of Mathematics Vol. 4 (Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1990), xxiv.

[23] Andy Greenberg, “The Untold Story of NotPetya, the Most Devastating Cyberattack in History”, Wired, 22 August 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/notpetya-cyberattack-ukraine-russia-code-crashed-the-world/



Comment
Show comments Hide Comments