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The Politics of U.S. Navy Expansion in World WarII

The subtitle of this enlightening book immediately reveals its flavor. Threaded throughout a detailed chronology of the various boards and committees that contributed to WWII naval planning and expansion is a clear emphasis on a few key individuals and their impacts. Although at times somewhat prosaic, the story unveiled by Davidson shows just how strongly personality and politics can play in shaping acquisition policy. There is a primary focus on aircraft carriers, surface combatants, and destroyer escorts, with the submarine element interlaced throughout.

The Unsinkable Fleet describes the progress over time of the following elements: high ambition for fleet expansion, argument of the case for Navy priority, shock to the country’s systems as expansion was implemented, the impact of not considering important planning elements, and the aftermath of imperfect execution. The shift in focus from pure volume of warfighting tonnage to seemingly ignored ripple effects and interlinkages among manufacturing resources, ship’s manning, and army troop transport requirements, to cite a few, makes the book an eye opener. This is not to mention the varied and often loose approach to basic requirements establishment which is discussed at length in a few instances. Important to note, however, is the ultimate victory by the Navy in building a tremendously effective fleet.

The foreshadowing in the first chapter discusses the method by which ultimate naval, ground unit, and strategic bombing requirements were first derived. The end results were largely uncoordinated plans with no detailed rationale, compared against each other literally in the final hour prior to submittal, and which resulted in the requirement for a two ocean fleet able to win a strong offensive in either ocean. This example proves to be a precursor to many similar instances ahead. The attack on Pearl Harbor is then portrayed as an initial pointer to the vulnerability of the requirements development and satisfaction processes, since it introduced a load to the system.

Further hints of the overall theme arise when Mr. Davidson outlines the founding of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in two contexts: On the surface, establishment of the JCS gave every appearance of an honest effort at increasing the jointness of the services’ resource planning. However, the implementation of joint planning under this system fell prey to over-delegation. According to the book, the actual planning work was accomplished by about eight full time planners who were primarily junior officers from the various services, clearly in no position to deviate even slightly from their individual party lines. Thus, the special interests known affectionately in the defense procurement jargon as ricebowls were strongly present, spoiling any chance of joint, objective resource balancing. Mr. Davidson reiterates this view repeatedly.

The approaches and philosophies of Admirals King and Nimitz, Congressman Vinson and General Marshall are all discussed in varying detail to support the story. This element is perhaps the most tantalizing and least developed aspect of the otherwise excellent story. It is also quite understandable that this is the most difficult aspect to reconstruct from scholarly research. More indepth biographical elements of these figures in a follow up work could certainly prove fascinating, especially in terms of the motivation for their behavior. The extension of personality from the service leadership to the resulting programs shows bow closely linked these elements are. The Navy leadership continually drove forward with claims for expansion needs, and in so doing deftly manipulated the bureaucracy. The Army, on the other band, repeatedly ended up in a reaction mode, and in several cases simply was forced to back down from their initial requests due to a less strongly argued case. Several instances of Navy decision makers going directly to President Roosevelt after unsuccessfully pleading the case for further fleet expansion give the reader some idea of the powers of persuasion exercised during these trying times.

The Unsinkable Fleet includes several items of specific interest to the submarine community. For example, there is a discussion of the gradual loss in confidence by planners in Naval Intelligence. As the damages inflicted by threat submarines turned out to be less closely linked to pessimistic projections provided by ASW experts in projected and actual losses is one area where Mr. Davidson presents summary tables which significantly aid the reader in grasping points. Also of interest to submariners, at the end of the war Forrestal saw the Soviets as the premier emergent threat, which set the stage for the Cold War. Part of the outfall of this philosophy was the genesis of a new submarine design, as well as the eventual recognition that Forrestal was a visionary in this respect. As the current submarine community looks ahead to three very new approaches: extensive jointness, network-centric warfare concepts, and a future threat that contains multiple unknowns, we would do well to pay close attention to Mr. Davidson,s slice of history. These new concepts will demand rigorous thought in establishing requirements, and well developed planning tools and processes.

Contrasting the fleet expansion portrayed here with the requirements process in place today, clearly the difference between wartime and peacetime, or wartime and cold wartime, plays the biggest role. The urgency of getting vessels to sea appeared to provide self sustaining momentum for further expansion. Another key to the puzzle, and perhaps equal in impact to the strong personalities and urgency of the time, is the lack of standard, effective tools for development of overall requirements. Time after time, this led to each service claiming highest priority for their particular missions. As a shipbuilder with only topical knowledge of the details of the force structure planning process in place today, this reviewer can only assume that the mechanisms, checks and balances, and technological tools used in wargaming and planning today deliver a more definitive requirements answer than what has been described in The Unsinkable Fleet. The mandatory interactions among Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Services, as well as the setting of Defense Planning Guidance, the attention given to the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the rigorous Programming, Planning, Budgeting and Scheduling system would all indicate that we are miles ahead today in rigor of thought. Additional focusing documents such as Joint Vision 2010 provide a framework for continually calibrating requirements.

From a shipbuilder,s standpoint, there are several fascinating aspects of the book. The effective establishment and immediate productivity of emergency shipbuilding facilities, and the strong advocacy of Liberty Ships by Admiral Emory S. Land are two examples. The exigency of war is shown to bring out resourcefulness in building ships faster. As one example, the newly established New York Shipbuilding Corporation by 1944 bad cut the manhours required to build a light cruiser from 7. 7 to S .S million after just a short learning curve. Similar reductions in other yards are also discussed. Mr. Davidson chooses a late 1942 milestone (the setting of force structure expansion goals by a “Joint planning committee … primarily on perceived availability of resources, not strategic requirements”) as a symbol for the severity of the lack of good estimation tools for force requirements at that time.

Two very related phenomena described well in the book are the decoupling of ship’s manning requirements with fleet expansion, and decoupling of available manufacturing and raw material resources with fleet expansion plans. These point up the generally disjointed perspectives among the players in the planning community at that time.

The book is wrapped up nicely with a review of the continued success of Admiral King and bis staff in the ongoing fleet expansion argument, the momentum of this expansion which generated a life of its own (helping to provide built-in justification for continuing the expansion) the longer term element introduced which enhanced the overall Navy program, and finally attribution of the above largely to Admiral King’s strong role.

In general, Mr. Davidson serves up a very readable book, which has a high level of credibility and a clear, easily followed story line. This is fascinating reading with plenty of detail. As an engineer and shipbuilder, I found myself near the middle of the book wanting for more graphical summarization of the enormous amount of data discussed within the text. This enhancement could bring more life to the book and ultimately better drive home the points being made.

To summarize, this should be an enlightening and enjoyable read for anyone involved in naval warfare planning, naval history, naval shipbuilding, defense acquisition, and the politics of each of the above. Mr. Davidson has clearly done the exhaustive research required to make his points in a credible manner. The reviewer is appreciative of the opportunity to read and comment on this fine book, and the author should be congratulated for a successful, effective first effort.

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