When logistics beat strategy

February 1, 2013, 10:16 PM UTC

FORTUNE — It’s a military truism that amateurs talk strategy while professionals study logistics. Two engaging new World War II histories remind us why logistics matter more. Paul Kennedy’s Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War explains how Allied scientists, technologists and industrialists improvised and innovated their way to give their armed forces a fighting chance. And Stephen Budiansky’s Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare tells the little-known story of an obscure British physicist who applied extraordinary skills in technology and organizational management to transform the Allied war effort.

Disciples and devotees of “strategic thinking” might find both books humbling. They should. In wartime, logistics eats strategy for lunch. Kennedy and Budiansky cast their lead characters as chief innovation officers who struggle to manage bureaucratic battles even as they oversee life-and-death conflicts between Axis and Allied supply chains. In this competition, disrupting enemy supply chains often proves more important than protecting one’s own.

For Kennedy, an academic grand strategist who authored the best-selling Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, this is an opportunity to turn pro. Chapters are themed to the military’s most daunting challenges: How to Get Convoys Safely Across The Atlantic; How to Win Command of the Air; How to Advance on an Enemy-held Shore, etc. These painful tales of iteration and adaptation mock Clausewitz’s famous aphorism: “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” In World War II, nothing was ever simple.

What mix — or system — of technical, tactical, doctrinal, organizational, and analytical ingredients made the Allied victories possible? What leadership qualities conferred competitive advantage for more than a battle? While comprehensively informed, Kennedy’s answers are inflected by his lofty strategic perspective. But the closer one examines the logistical innovations, the more they overshadow grand strategy.

By contrast, the more closely one looks at Patrick Blackett, the more impressive he appears. From anti-aircraft gunnery to anti-submarine warfare, strategic bombing and the atomic bomb, Blackett was at or near the center of Allied military design, doctrine, and decision-making throughout the war. This British naval officer turned physicist (he went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1948) transformed every military service he counseled through the clever, interdisciplinary application of simple mathematics, experimentation, and data-driven advice.

A polished product of the Navy and Rutherford’s Cavendish Lab, Blackett knew how to get things done. He richly deserves to be better known; his biographer delivers. “Blackett would become legendary among his fellow scientists for his ability to combine physical insight, mathematical insight and extraordinary practical skills,” writes Budiansky. “[H]e displayed what one colleague would call ‘his remarkable facility’ of thinking most deeply when he was working with his hands.’”

Far more than a scientific or military biography, Blackett’s War is also a finely wrought and well-sourced social history of elite science’s wartime mobilization. Hitler’s rise, German academe’s expulsion of its Jewish scientists, and the growing realization that Britain was institutionally and organizationally unprepared to effectively utilize its scientific talent turned elite scientists like Henry Tizard and Blackett into technocratic entrepreneurs.

“The traditional military view was that the scientists’ role was to develop ‘weapons and gadgets,’ hand them over, and that was that,” Budiansky notes. “But now scientists were intimately involved in what previously had been the exclusive purview of military commanders, in running operations.”

Tall, handsome, and blessed with command presence, Blackett led by example. His influence derived not just from an intimidating intellect and style but a genius in making his analyses, experiments, and proposals palatable to his military colleagues and collaborators. He made others think better. He inspired insight.

The time needed to develop a new radar system or add “drop tanks” to planes determined the fates of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians. Training technicians and crews to exploit seemingly incremental technical enhancements became a human capital imperative that was often underappreciated. The ability to make sophisticated statistical analyses persuasively accessible to innumerate commanders emerged as a new scientific art form. “Operational research” — Blackett’s baby — broke through as a new empirical science of logistics. In effect, he turned military theaters of operations into research laboratories for future tactics and weaponry.

In Budiansky’s telling, the Battle of the Atlantic was the main front of Blackett’s war, and he was indispensable to winning it. The author of a well-received history of code-breaking, Budiansky provides a wonderful revisionist history of how intelligence derived from Bletchley Park’s breakthroughs combined with Blackett’s operational research to bypass and destroy the Nazi Wolfpacks.

This brutal war between submarines, convoys, and aircraft is the heart of Budiansky’s narrative. The convoys that fed, fueled, and armed Britain were essential to her survival. The U-boats were killing them. They had to be stopped. As Winston Churchill observed in his memoir: “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war.”

The Battle of the Atlantic also enjoys a thorough and incisive retelling in Kennedy’s Engineers. It’s the first of his thematic chapters, and he crisply identifies the strategic factors that went into winning it. In Kennedy’s story, Blackett and Bletchley Park play less of a role than new weapons systems, convoy tactics, and aircraft to “mind the gap” at sea where convoys were must vulnerable.

“Time and time again in this particular story we see how the ‘proper application’ of resources led to endeavors that gave the frontline forces the instruments for winning,” Kennedy observes, “Time and time again, too, we can identify where the newer application became turning points: where a certain idea was turned into reality, which people and/or organizations were responsible and how their breakthroughs directly affected the field of battle.”

This leitmotif appears frequently in Kennedy’s comprehensive analyses of logistical innovation in amphibious landings, the air war, confronting Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, and the war in the Pacific. Each chapter can stand alone, but their cumulative impact lends coherence to his central argument that the Second World War “was won by the ‘intelligent application’ of superior force.”

But Kennedy’s insights and conclusions frankly seem at odds with his more broad and sweeping generalizations celebrating strategy. To wit, these strategies inherently required the “newer applications” and “certain ideas” and “breakthroughs” to occur. Strategy without capability is nothing but a hope and an aspiration.

The power of a Patrick Blackett and of the unsung heroes whom Kennedy celebrates is that they grasp the distinction between describing an edge and creating one. Like the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic The Time Machine, they stay below doing real work while the Eloi gambol about thinking grand thoughts. Both intellectually and viscerally, they understand that creating new tools and technologies can spawn new capabilities that in turn enable successful strategies. And that, in the end, is why successful leaders tend to prioritize logistics over strategy.

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