US Marines aboard a Navy landing craft, air cushion (LCAC) as it prepares to enter the well-deck of the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS John P. Murtha.(photo by Israel Chincio, USMC)
Dear Port Of Los Angeles, It’s Time To Call The Marines
Gene Seroka, Executive Director Of The Port Of Los Angeles, is fighting a war of attrition that history shows he will lose. Fortunately, there is a better way. The Marine Corps Way.Authors Note: To be clear, the author is not suggesting we call in troops, he is suggesting we use the lessons of war to solve this crisis.
How do we fix this massive and deepening port congestion crisis? Acclaimed author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has three books that untangle the problem. Black Swan explains that events like this happen more often than we think. Skin In The Game explains how the incentives for port and shipping company executives don’t align with the public good. Anti-Fragile explains how putting all your eggs in a few baskets – as we have done with megaports like Los Angeles and megaships like the Ever Given – creates fragility in the entire supply chain.
Anti-Fragile suggests solutions. It teaches us how we can create systems (e.g. Short Sea Distribution) that improve with chaos and disorder but, while Taleb’s book is excellent, it’s not a study of global supply-chain logistics. For that, we need to look at another organization that has embraced historical study, higher education, chaos theory, and the development of anti-fragile global logistics networks. That organization is a shipowner that Seroka hasn’t called. It’s the United States Marine Corps (USMC).
But how can the USMC solve a commercial logistics problem that’s infinitely complex and chaotic?
The short answer is that the battle Gene Seroka and the Port Of Los Angeles is fighting today is called a War Of Attrition, and history has shown us repeatedly that wars of attrition are impossible to win. The way to win is not by throwing more longshoremen, more man-hours, more cranes, more ships, and more trucks at the problem. The way to win is by adopting Maneuver Warfare, Mission Command, and Boydian Philosphily… aka the Marine Corps Way.
By the end of the 1980’s the US Marine Corps had a problem. The problem was, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the military was likely to get defunded and the United States no longer had a powerful enemy it could not defeat. The general perception at the time was that marines are brave but lack intelligence. Many Pentagon officials considered them “knuckle-draggers”. they might be needed to secure the beachheads of battle but that’s about all they are good for. With a tiny budget compared to other services, the Marines could not afford the sophisticated weapons of modern warfare, nor could they – some thought – be trusted to use them.
Throughout history, Generals, more often than not, “fight the last war”. By this, we mean that interwar generals typically prepare to fight the next war by studying their success in the previous one. The United States did not have much success in Vietnam and Korea so, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the focus was on recreating the success of World War II. This is all backward. To prepare for war it’s important to study your failures and not just during the last war but throughout history.
Gene Seroka too is fighting the last war. He is using lessons he learned during his long career to fix the problem not realizing the game, and the world itself has unconditionally changed around him.This is due, in part, to the fact he employs no historians or complexity and adaptability specialists.
By 1990 the equipment being built was so superior to anything else that tactics were not required (or so the military leaders thought at the time). Why bother learning strategy and tactics if you could use powerful laser-guided missiles to eliminate all enemy positions down a major highway straight into the city center? M1A1 Abrams tanks with advanced radar, night vision, and air support could drive right down the highway and into the center of town. No problem.
“Hey diddle diddle, throw everything right up the middle” became America’s new slogan of war.
While the weapons of 1990 were in fact new and beyond anything previously imaginable – anyone who turned on CNN during that war remembers the sheer power and accuracy of laser guide missiles – the type of war overwhelming strength fosters is not new. It’s called a war of attrition. A war of attrition is a conflict in which each side tries to wear the other down by using as much ammunition and equipment as possible to kill as many men as possible. World War One was a war of attrition.
Seroka is not trying to kill men, he is trying to kill the backlog of shipping containers by throwing as much manpower, equipment, trucks, and technology at it as possible. He is failing.
A War Of Attrition Is What the Port Of Los Angeles Is Losing Today
“First people, then ideas, then technology.” – John Boyd
What’s needed in a war of attrition is power and volume. At this time it was believed that power was achieved by technology and science which gave us more accurate (and vastly more expensive) weapons like bunker-bombers. Volume is achieved by just having more of everything in theater, starting with a lot more men, tanks, planes, guns, ammo, and technology.
Nobody has ever questioned the bravery or effectiveness of the US Marine Corps but the marines have always been a fraction of the size of the other services and they have always operated on a relative shoestring of a budget because it’s part of the Navy and the Navy has, since World War II, diverted most of it’s funding to carriers.
So without a major opponent with hundreds of thousands of miles of coastlines that may need to be invaded, Russia and the Eastern Block, what practical use was the US Marine Corps? “You don’t need a mameluke sword if you have a laser-guided bazooka,” said one unidentified General at the time.
A War Of Attrition
Then the Gulf War broke out and everything changed. Going into that war the Pentagon had two major problems. The first was that fighting a war of attrition requires an enormous amount of equipment which all has to be transported on ships. Nobody remembered the importance of shipping in the Second World War so the US Merchant Marine fleet was, by that time, a shell of its former self and we did not have the tonnage required to meet General Norman Schwarzkopf’s plan which staff joking referee to as “hey diddle diddle, put everything up the middle”.
When the Secretary Of Defense, Dick Cheney, saw this plan he was furious. There were no tactics, no “art of war”, and nobody had considered the number of ships needed to get all the gear in place. The army assumed the Air Force could transfer everything and the Air Force said they couldn’t possibly support even one division, call the navy, and the Navy said we don’t move cargo so call the merchant marine… and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) laughed and said we don’t have enough ships (they still don’t).
Cheney knew we didn’t have enough supplies for “hey diddle diddle, put everything up the middle” and that the solution to his problem was old fashion war tactics but the army refused to come up with a plan other than Storming Norman’s war of attrition. So he called a retired Air Force Colonel named John Boyd.
John Boyd And The Art Of War
John Boyd was a fighter pilot who invented the tactics used at Top Gun then began designing fighter jets. He moved to flight design because the Air Force was trying to put every sensor and advanced weapon system on their new planes as possible. Fill the plane with lots of electronic shit and explosives then “hey diddle diddle, send it up the middle”, was their slogan.
Boyd knew that was a dumb idea and fought an epic battle against the generals and defense contractors to build a lightweight and simple plane with very simple systems. The lack of super-advanced technology on a lightweight and maneuverable airframe would force pilots to use their advanced tactical training to defeat the enemy. That plane was the F-16 (and Navy FA-18) which worked so well that it still flies today.
While developing the F-16 the US Air Force wanted to get out of the close air support business. Just as merchant ships were too numerous (costly) and boring for the navy, planes that fly slow and low to support combat troops were too numerous and boring for the Air Force which wanted expensive stealth bombers that could fly higher, faster, and farther.
Boyd knew nothing about close air support airplanes but he knew a lot about fighter jets and took it upon himself to learn Army ground tactics so he could help his friend Pierre Sprey design an aircraft to help ground troops win tactical battles. That plane was the A-10 Warthog, which was so good that it still flies combat missions today.
Now Boyd succeeded in designing these planes but he also angered a lot of Generals uncomfortable with change so it cost him his career. He was forced to retire and in 1990 he was doing what he loved to do most, reading lots of books when Secretary Of Defense Dick Cheney , a fan of Boyd’s maneuver warfare lectures since his time in Congress, called him.
Boyd flew up to Washington, met with Cheney, and quickly drew out the entire battle plan for the first gulf war. Cheney loved the plan but knew that Schwarzkopf would hate it. How could he get the Army to follow this plan without the support of the top general? F*ck them, said Boyd, use the Marines.
The rest is history. General Schwarzkopf was allowed to play out his plan and get most of the glory and TV airtime, but he was just a diversion. While Iraqi troops focused on this huge threat coming straight down the middle, the USMC used tactics to slip in behind enemy lines and win the battle with very few casualties.
The Marines and John Boyd won the battle to free Kuwait but they still had a problem, the rest of the military brass hated them more than ever and they could never get the funding they needed to be ready for the next war.
We Must Study History To Find Modern Solutions
Boyd had a solution for that problem too. The US Naval War college had mostly forgotten its original mission which was to study the failures of war and provide a forum for young officers to work together to learn and develop new tactics.
Boyd suggested they forget buying any fancy equipment and instead invest in people, then ideas, then technology. They poured money into the Marine Corps University and backed young officers studying historic losses to develop new tactics. What they discovered was that nearly every loss in history could be attributed to a lack of adaptability, trust, and maneuverability.
Today, because of this focus on history and education, US Marine Corps Generals fill a disproportionately large number of high-ranking positions in the US Military.
I am oversimplifying history here but basically why attack a fortified position when you can go around it? Why do the obvious when you can create chaos and confusion in the enemy’s mind? Why stick to the general’s old plan when the young officer on the ground have the fresh information needed to develop a new plan.
The result was the Marine Corps University and a manual titled MCDP 1 Warfighting. But more than just new manuals and degrees was an ethos to embrace complexity and chaos to improve adaptability.
The Marine Corps Way Spreads To Business
The Marine Corps is not the only entity to latch onto Boyd’s theories, the Toyota production system is heavily fashioned after his work, and so is the operations of Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook today.
What does this have to do with port congestion and logistics?
Well besides the fact that we are obviously playing the game of attrition – building bigger ships and sending them hey diddle diddle, right up the middle from China to Los Angeles – which always leads to trench warfare and ultimate defeat… there is more to this story.
The academic study of logistics is fairly new. In fact, one of the first master’s degree program in logistics was started by Dr. Shmuel Yahalom at SUNY Maritime College. Guess who else ended up teaching at this small and relatively unknown school. General Alfred Grey, USMC (Ret) who was commandant of the corps during the Gulf War, with Captain Anthony Piscitelli who wrote the book “The Marine Corps Way Of War” which details the adoption of Boyd’s theories.
Piscitelli is, in fact, the only person with a Ph.D. in Boydian Studies… which is just a fancy way of saying he really knows how to fix big, hairy, complicated logistical problems.
Boyd and General Gray deserve a lot of credit but they were not the first to use maneuver warfare. All the greatest generals of history used these same theories whether they realized it or not. All the great companies have too. Boyd was just one person who read enough history to figure these principles out.
One month ago I learned that Port Of Los Angeles CEO Gene Seroka won the prestigious Connie Award. The award “recognizes industry leaders who have made significant contributions to containerization.” I was angry when I learned this. I was angry because he has made no attempt to reach out to the many short sea distribution companies I’ve worked with which could maneuver around these problems. He has not reached out to data scientists I know at MIT. He has not invented any new tactics. He has done only one thing: kept the port defenses from imploding.
On December 22, 1944, his troops were surrounded by a far stronger German force and he was ordered to surrender. According to those present when McAuliffe received the German message, he read it, crumpled it into a ball, threw it in a wastepaper basket, and muttered, “Aw, nuts”.
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