Military Reengineering Between the World Wars

Military Reengineering Between the World Wars

by Brett Steele

Analyzes the contrasting military responses of various militaries to the internal combustion engine between World War I and World War II to illuminate successful strategies and approaches to reengineering.


Analyzes the contrasting military responses of various militaries to the internal combustion engine between World War I and World War II to illuminate successful strategies and approaches to reengineering.

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Military Reengineering Between the World Wars

By Brett Steele

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2005 RAND Corporation
All right reserved.

Chapter One



This paper was stimulated by the belief that a significant portion of the transformation currently sought for U.S. forces should be viewed as an exercise in reengineering in response to technological change. It is therefore useful to review historical transformations that exemplify reengineering (although the word did not yet exist) to determine whether there are identifiable factors that make the difference between success and failure. The paper's purpose, then, is to survey a range of military developments during the period between World Wars I and II. Its focus is on efforts to exploit the internal combustion engine. Many of the cases discussed will be familiar to readers, but the reengineering perspective taken here appears to be original.


As Andrew Marshall has argued, there are many parallels between the interwar and post-Cold War eras. Just as today's U.S. forces are transforming themselves to take advantage of civilian advances in computing technology, the interwar armies sought to optimize their capabilities through adopting the internal combustion engine. The forces in these two eras also suffered comparably from uncertainty as to (1) how best to use the new technology, (2) whether the necessary investments were justified by the likely enemies, and (3) what changes in military concepts and militaryorganization would be needed to maximize the value of the technology. The two eras also included wildly fluctuating economic constraints, popular sentiments that full-scale warfare was irrational and obsolete, and assumptions that the military status quo was more than sufficient to handle all conceivable military contingencies. The parallels, then, are considerable.

A key element of military transformation is the design and incorporation of new processes to use the new technology effectively. By process, I am referring to flows of information, resources, and constraints-how people interact, coordinate, and solve problems within an organization. The design of new processes in a reasonably "managed" effort will be designated here as reengineering, especially when the proposed change is either unobvious or profound. The technical details of designing new internal combustion engines and their accompanying military vehicles in the 1920s and 1930s have little to offer today's military reformers. Nonetheless, the institutional challenges of reengineering are relatively universal. The resistance confronting the Ottoman sultans, who sought to incorporate firearms into their horse-archer armies during the mid-15th century, had remarkable parallels to the resistance facing generals who struggled to employ tanks in their foot-infantry armies during the early 20th century. Both technologies proved to be highly threatening to the cultural identity of established military organizations.

In this paper, I treat developing and adopting new technology, and developing and adopting new military processes (along with related changes of organization), as independent variables. As Andrew Marshall and others have discussed for some time, the most effective military organizations are those able and willing to do both. In what follows, we shall look at interwar military organizations that were willing to incorporate new applications of the internal combustion engine but were unable to reengineer their basic military processes. These include the American, British, and Italian armies. Then we will examine those forces that were willing to incorporate both new applications of the internal combustion engine and new processes while failing to develop a robust concept of the future. These include the French army and the U.S. Army Air Corps, as well as the navies of Japan, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States. Then we will turn our attention to those organizations that incorporated the new internal-combustion technology, engaged in profound reengineering efforts, and correctly oriented their transformation to include preparations for the actual war that would be fought. These include the Soviet Red Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, and, to a lesser degree, the German Wehrmacht.

In some cases, successes were astonishing, although they were usually accompanied by errors. No one did everything right.

Such a historical analysis is applied in the last, analytical part of the paper, which identifies factors necessary for success. These include exploiting technological opportunities, anticipating strategic demands, securing sufficient political resources, managing military-cultural balances, and improving performance through evaluation and feedback.

The paper's goal is not to construct teleological or "presentist" lists of history's geniuses and idiots. Instead, it seeks to illustrate the challenges of military reengineering, efficiently and dramatically, in terms of both success and failure.

Basic Definitions

To avoid unnecessary confusion, some clarifications are necessary. Transformation is used here to convey a fundamental shift in the relationship among the financial investment, operational cost, and technical performance that an organization can deliver. It entails incorporating and developing new technological hardware, as well as reconstructing processes (and organization) to ensure competitive use of the new technology. Reengineering involves changes in dynamic processes and organizational structure; hence, it represents a subset of transformation. It may involve the destruction or severe downsizing of existing organizations in addition to the coordination of existing organizations through information technology. In the interwar era this most prominently concerned radio, radar, and electro-mechanical tabulation machines. Military reengineering more commonly requires the augmentation of traditional organizations with flexible units specifically designed to shoulder their worst disruptions. Motorization refers to the use of internal combustion engines to enhance the mobility of an army, specifically its trucks, motorcycles, and cars. Armored warfare involves the use of internal-combustion-powered vehicles designed for combat, including tanks, self-propelled artillery, infantry carriers, and tank destroyers. Mechanization denotes the military incorporation of the internal combustion engine in general; it comprises both motorization and armored warfare.

Reengineering is a term coined by Michael Hammer in the late 1980s; it refers to a change in internal business processes to achieve significant increases in performance. By process, one may assume problem-solving methodologies in general and their management in particular. To be more specific, it implies the flow of information, constraints, and resources within the organization. As Hammer originally described it, if change is radical, the resulting performance increases can be profound. To borrow his words: "Reengineering is the fundamental rethinking and radical redesign of business processes to achieve dramatic improvements in critical, contemporary measures of performance, such as cost, quality, service, and speed." Hammer originally advocated throwing out all past perceptions of how the business should operate and redesigning it using only current and future considerations-that is, starting over with a "blank sheet." Hammer justified such a revolutionary attitude towards business reengineering by pointing to the need to depart from the traditional business processes based on the division of labor. Great savings and performance enhancements are obtainable if the enterprise will ruthlessly redesign its organization along value-added process lines. Some of the results of reengineering in the 1990s included decentralization, a flattening of corporate hierarchies, the empowering of individual employees with greater managerial responsibilities, and the demand for more critical-thinking skills to integrate traditionally fragmented business processes. In addition, however, there were many bad-and sometimes fatal-side effects as a result of extreme disruption. There is an alternative approach, what is referred to elsewhere as pragmatic reengineering, that neither requires nor encourages severe disruptions unless absolutely necessary, and then on a selective basis only. Pragmatic reengineering depends heavily on using information technology to integrate traditionally fractured business processes. There are many parallels with military transformation and its emphasis on, for instance, network-centric operations and common operational pictures.

Chapter Two

Historical Analysis

Incorporating the Internal Combustion Engine Without Reengineering Basic Military Processes

The Italian Military

The Italian experience illustrates how an army with strong economic and military support, as well as a considerable degree of technical expertise in its supporting industries, can nonetheless fail badly by rejecting any serious attempts at reengineering.

The Italian army, or Regio Esercito, of World War II was the least effective force of World War II that conducted major offensive actions. Its inability to defend its interwar conquest of Ethiopia, its disastrous invasion of Greece, its failure to support the flanks of the German Third Army leading to the encirclement at Stalingrad, and the dramatic collapse of its initial invasion of Egypt were the most notable events. The only successful unaided conquest it accomplished was of British Somaliland. Nevertheless, the senior military leadership enjoyed full support from the Fascist regime. In addition to the considerable prestige that these commanders enjoyed as bulwarks of Fascist Italy, they also received opportunities to test combat doctrines and innovations in the colonial campaigns of Libya and Ethiopia, as well as in the Spanish Civil War.

The problem with the Italian army was that it was the quintessential self-serving bureaucracy, dedicated to promoting its internal power and prestige at the expense of operational performance. Such egoism is hardly uncommon among military organizations, however. What made things especially disastrous was the army's inculcation of Fascist Italy's emphasis of style over substance, as well as its self-serving support for Mussolini's absurd concentration of supreme military control. Any innovation, both technical and organizational, that threatened its shortsighted interests was quickly suppressed, and with little opposition from the Duce. Mussolini, after all, largely retained his mind-set as a public-relations-savvy journalist. He preferred to make ludicrous declarations of Fascist military superiority and fund symbolic displays of military prowess instead of making difficult military modernization choices. He was scarcely a design-obsessed Hitler, who thoroughly enjoyed submerging himself in the details of military developments. The senior Italian army leaders sought to ensure the maximum number of positions for their officer corps to enhance their power, and thus adopted a conservative reading of World War I based on their own immediate experience in the Alpine front against Austria-Hungary. According to this, the primary way to prepare for modern warfare was to focus on the primacy of the infantry armed with riffies and bayonets. Expensive heavy equipment and rigorous doctrinal innovation was not a priority. While the senior commanders did not entirely reject the opportunities suggested by the internal combustion engine in the Great War, they did view such technology with skepticism. The senior commanders pressed far harder for the modernization of their artillery, albeit with little success, than for the development of main battle tanks. Given Italy's industrial and material constraints, not to mention the distraction of Mussolini's imperial campaigns, it was too convenient to conclude that the pursuit of such innovative capital equipment was not cost-effective.

Italy primarily conceded to mechanization during the 1930s by deploying such tankettes as the FIAT-Ansaldo L3/35 and the Carro Veloce 33-suitable only for gunning down lightly armed Africans-and the medium-weight Carro Armato M11/39. The Italian army's focus on quantity rather than quality created a bloated bureaucracy that was dedicated to supplying and training hundreds of thousands of infantrymen, while blocking any ambitious officer or official that pressed for more technically progressive doctrines. That bureaucracy proved notoriously deficient even with the routine supply and training of enlisted infantrymen. Not only did it incorporate new motorized technology and tactics only marginally, it also neglected traditional disciplinary processes that had held the army together following the Caporetto disaster of 1917. A similar tale could be told about the Italian air force, which stubbornly held on to the biplane through the 1930s due to an obsolete notion of tradeofis between maneuverability and speed. The fascist self-delusion of the Regia Aeronautica even surpassed that of the army.

The output of Italy's armament industry was another matter. Despite material and engineering-manpower shortages, it still managed to learn enough from combat experience to try to overcome the initial inferiority of its designs. The Carro Armato M13/40 performed quite competitively against the British cruiser tanks encountered initially in North Africa. While the Semovente M40 self-propelled gun proved a failure against Russian T-34s and KV-1s, it was effective enough in North Africa when engaging light British tanks. Ironically, the Italians finally started producing a reasonable medium-weight tank, the M15/42, only shortly before their capitulation in 1943. As Mussolini typically complained, after the fact, "We arrive at perfection [only] when it is useless." The Germans quickly incorporated the new Italian tank into their forces and continued employing it through 1944. Italian failure at armored and motorized warfare, therefore, cannot be blamed on their limited industrial and engineering resources.

Other dimensions of the Italians' extreme military conservatism included the army's failure to develop an effective general staff. As Mac-Gregor Knox bluntly stated, "Innovation was and remained suspect, because it meant scrapping a force structure that derived from the army's deeply felt conception of war and directly served the interests of the officer corps." So committed was the Italian officer corps to maintaining its traditional military processes that the disastrous defeat of Italian troops at Guadalajara during the Spanish Civil War and their decisive reliance on material superiority in Ethiopia inspired only cosmetic organizational changes in Rome. Nevertheless, individual Italian combat units were capable of adapting, especially when cooperating with German units. If the Italian Army received any admiration during its combat engagements of World War II, beyond its traditional Piedmontese prowess in mountain warfare, it was in learning informally how to fight with combined-arms tactics the rigidly traditional "separate arms" regiments of Great Britain. In doing so it achieved some basic cooperation between tanks, infantry, and artillery units in combat. Effective military reengineering, in short, may or may not be reflected in official doctrine.

In spite of the Italian army's poor performance, Mussolini lavished relatively generous budgets on his military forces. During the latter 1930s, his defense spending approximated France's and Great Britain's, even though national income was less than a quarter of the latter's. On the other hand, Italy spent more than two-thirds of those funds on military actions in Spain and Ethiopia. Those expensive classrooms of modern warfare impressed Italian field commanders, but their sophisticated lessons fell on deaf ears among the high command. Like many other military organizations, the senior Italian generals chose to ignore the evidence that contradicted their self-serving doctrine.


Excerpted from Military Reengineering Between the World Wars by Brett Steele Copyright © 2005 by RAND Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
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