The air strategist as business guru

Frederick Lanchester was a clever British engineer. He was one of the pioneers of the British automotive industry, but his main interest was in aviation, particularly aerodynamic theory. In my opinion, he has a good claim to be the first person to elucidate the knock-out blow concept, in his book Aircraft in Warfare: The Dawn of the Fourth Arm (London: Constable & Co., 1916) -- which also happens to be a very early example of what was later termed operations or operational research. And as I've found out recently, he's also a business guru in Japan!

Of course, it's not uncommon for writers on military strategy to have their ideas redeployed to serve commercial ends -- any large bookshop is likely to stock Sun Tzu, Karl von Clausewitz or even Miyamoto Musashi, more for the benefit of would-be captains of industry than military history buffs. And the decisions of the great commanders of history have been combed for insights into sound management practice. But this is the first time I've seen an airpower strategist used in this way.

Aircraft in Warfare introduced what are known as Lanchester's Laws. In it, he argued that in "ancient" battles (that is, before gunpowder), the number of soldiers fighting at any one time was the same on both sides -- because one soldier could physically only fight against one enemy soldier at a time. (Think of masses of infantry armed with swords, pressing up behind the thin line of men at the front actually doing the fighting.) Therefore, all else being equal, the number of casualties inflicted by each army was proportional to its size. It made no difference, then, if an army of 500 men separately fought two enemy armies of 250 men each, or one combined army of 500 men; the outcome would be the same (and very much in doubt, as the sides are equally strong in both cases).

By contrast, in "modern" warfare, combat occurs at range. This means that every soldier in an army can be in combat simultaneously; they don't have to wait until they are standing next to the enemy in order to fight them. This means that the rate (not the absolute number) of casualties inflicted by an army is proportional to its size. I'll spare you the differential equations, but what this boils down to is that the effective strength of a pre-modern army varies as the number of men, N, and that of a modern army varies as N2. (Hence Lanchester's own name for his law, the n-square law.) Taking the example of a 500-strong army again, while it would still be evenly matched against another 500-strong force, it would comfortably defeat two 250-men armies, which are each only a quarter (not half) as strong as they would be combined. (Because 2502 + 2502 = 125000 < 250000 = 5002.) In fact, the army of 500 could consecutively fight two armies of 400 and 300 on equal terms. (Because 4002 + 3002 = 160000 + 90000 = 250000 = 5002.) In other words, in modern warfare numbers count, and count much more heavily than in ancient warfare.

I'll let sporting goods mogul Katsuro Ogino explain further:

Two countries are at war, one has an air force of 100 planes and the other has only 10. Let's assume the skies are clear and that the planes and pilots are equally good. If the two forces were to meet in a dogfight, how many planes would be left after the battle?

  • Ninety on one side and none on the other.
  • Wrong. Statistical analysis suggests the result would be approximately ten losses to two. It would seem that the obvious implication for business as well as battle is that the bigger, stronger side always wins.

    So, this would seem to suggest that victory always goes to the big battalions, right? Not so fast:

    But what if the outnumbered side managed to knock out three or four planes? This would constitute a victory of sorts. In other words, use of tactical ploys can provide the underdog with a momentary local advantage over his superior opponent.

  • What do you mean by a local advantage?
  • Scoring in a specific area even if the overall battle is lost. For example, the commander of the smaller force tells one of his pilots to fly ahead as bait, in an effort to pull out four or five of the enemy in pursuit. If the tactic works, the remaining nine planes would outnumber the pursuers, and shoot some or all of them down, with only three or four losses of their own. Of course, the enemy might not fall for the ruse, but the point is that careful planning can improve your chances.

    Lanchester himself used the example of Nelson at Trafalgar, where his fleet of 27 ships was outnumbered by the French and Spanish fleet, 33-strong. The n-square law would predict, then, a British defeat. But Nelson's ships smashed through the enemy line, splitting it into smaller groups which could be defeated in detail, thereby making the n-square law work for the Royal Navy.

    OK, maybe there's something to this, and maybe there's not (operations research analysts are still interested in his ideas, at least), but how does all this help one build a commercial empire? Ogino again:

  • What does that have to do with the ski business?
  • I'll tell you. My brother (Teibu Ogino, now chairman of Victoria's board) and I inherited some property in Kanda from our father. We had always liked sking and decided to go into the business, opening our first shop in 1972, just when the sport was gaining in popularity. There were other sporting-goods stores in the area, but we managed to do pretty well and soon opened two branches in the same neighborhood.
    Several years later, we were considering expanding into other big markets like Osaka and Sopporo. But one of my friends, a proponent of the Lanchester theory [consultant and author Shinichi Yano - ed] who now runs a management-consulting firm in Tokyo, said it would be suicidal to branch out too early.
    "Secure your home base first," he said. "Don't spread your forces too thin; instead, concentrate on your home ground." So we kept our fourth, fifth, sixth and even our seventh shops in Kanda, where we now control abot 60% of the floor space. We also have about 60% of the sales, surpassing competitors such as Alpen and Mizuno, neither of which has more than 20% of the business in kanda.

  • What is your overall market share?
  • Victoria accounts for some 30% of ski and skiwear sales in greater Tokyo region, but probably only about 10% nationwide. Other companies such as the giant discount chain, the Daiei, sell skis and skiwear. But they also sell bread and butter and thousands of other products, too. We expect sales of about $557 million this year, but Daiei will probably pull in about 25 times as much. They would crush us if we tried to compete with them as general-purpose stores, but in the area of skis, they can't touch us.
    Take our highly specialized stores in Kanda:
    There is one primarily for women, one for kids, and so on. Some of our floors are devoted entirely to gloves or goggles. Customers come to Victoria because they know they'll find exactly what they want. The whole point of the Lanchester theory is to become the dominant player in your own field.

    Well, that's all well and good. Dominate your home market before even thinking about taking on the big guys, focus on your core business rather than trying to compete in all areas. Sounds sensible. But what I haven't seen is what Lanchester has to do with all this. What is the justification for applying Lanchester's n-square in the business world, for which it was not developed? The struggle for market share may well be likened to a battle metaphorically, but that doesn't mean that the strength of a business can be equated to the square of the number of its stores, or its capitalisation, or its market share, or something like that. Perhaps a justification can be found in one of Lanchester Press's publications. There are some hints on their website:

    There are many popular books available to the business community that purport to show how strategy based on a mixture of Sun-Tzu, Mishima, Attilla the Hun et al. seasoned with a dash of Von Clausewitz can be used as a basis of marketing strategy. However, all of these books were written before machanized warfare developed and deal only with the one-on-one combats that takes place under Lanchester's Linear Law. In reality, the art and practice of military technology has progressed somewhat since the days of the samurai warrior. A few well-aimed bursts from a machine gun will dispatch a fair-sized army of samurai warriors.

    Today, sales and marketing takes place under Lanchester's N-Squared Law. Since there are always multiple participants in any given market sector. Of course there are a few special cases of one-on-one competition, such as Boeing and Airbus (the only two manufacturers of jumbo jets) and in wide screen cinema projectors (Imax and Iworks the only two manufacturers of wide screen systems). Consequently, Western marketers are going into battle with, at best, half a theory and ignorant of the power of Lanchester's principle of concentration and the N-Squared Law.

    I remain unconvinced. It all seems a bit flaky to me. But I wonder if Lanchester Press would be interested in my book proposal, Strike Hard, Strike Sure: The RAF's Most Motivational Mottos and How They Can Grow Your Business ...

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    14 thoughts on “The air strategist as business guru

    1. Chris Williams

      Air power as management analogy sighting:

      I've just come out of a Faculty meeting where one possible method of restructuring student support was likened to Douglas Bader's Big Wing concept. Tragically, although the art historian raising the analogy was using it as an example of a particular kind of Bad Thing, I think that most of the room - bar a few historians, of course - didn't get the barb, and instead were seduced by BoB mythology into thinking that he was in favour of the proposal.

      And they certainly failed to appreciate its apposite nature: the Big Wing is actually a very fine analogy for any number of business screw-ups. It looks good on paper, and better in action, but by the time it's formed up and arrived, the damage has been done, the baddies have escaped, and you've run out of petrol and have to go home.

    2. Post author

      That's very good actually, sounds like a good analogy for certain reforms proposed at my workplace! But I don't think anyone there would get it -- either the intended point or the misinterpretation. I think I'll just stick to snorting in derision.

    3. Christine Keeler

      Big Wing - neat. Bader was, of course, as mad as a cut snake. And the less said about the Evil Trafford Leigh-Mallory the better.

      Just the sort of dashing, arse about, analogy that simply must be appropriated by modern business.

      I'm not sure that I completely followed Lanchester's argument. But surely there would have been some fairly obvious exceptions to his first proposition, that in ancient times "the number of soldiers fighting at any one time was the same on both sides — because one soldier could physically only fight against one enemy soldier at a time."

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but Battle of Cannae anyone?

    4. Per ardua ad astrakhan
      (wish I could remember where I read that as an aspirational motto)

      I think the Lanchester site has it all back to front - the whole point of Clausewitz is that he teaches you to think, rather than that you should follow immutable laws, and his analysis is essentially timeless. Flakey - too right.

    5. Post author


      Yes, Lanchester himself noted that there were many exceptions -- tactics, cavalry, archers, ballistae and so on could all have their effect. But he still asserted that his laws were fundamentally correct. It reminds me of the joke about the physicist hired by a farmer to find out why his cows aren't producing as much milk as they should. The physicist goes away, does his sums, and comes back with a report which begins, "Assume a spherical cow ..." Speaking as a former physics postgrad, this is not necessarily as silly as it sounds; making simplifying approximations is generally necessary -- the trick is to make the right ones ...


      Google suggests "Per ardua ad Astrakhan" was coined by Michael Arlen (see here, some cached pages suggest it was his telegraph address). And although he wasn't particularly interested in military/aviation issues, he's one of my guys, for his 1933 novel Man's Mortality, what with its world federation controlled by airmen and all. OMG! That's freaky.

    6. Sorry, comes another apparently flippant and tangential anecdote involving bad puns, but this one does at least have a serious, subversive point....

      On 'Bader was as mad as a cut snake' - one of my other pet subjects is the 'Baader-Meinhof Group' (or 'Gang', depending on pov) who 'terrorised' West Germany in the late 60s-early 70s. I'm fascinated by them as both a historically specific expression of oppositional behaviour and in the light of contemporary concepts of 'terrorism' post-2001. I'd very much like to write about them in the future, but also have sketches for a serious but unusually-slanted piece of theatre about them.

      However - who on earth would fund this given the current political climate? Hence the very clever suggestion from my more Situationist and laterally-minded artistic other half. Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Enslin and the rest never, of course, referred to themselves as 'the Baader-Meinhof Group'. They considered themselves to be the 'Red Army Faction', or RAF. (Can you see where this is heading....?)

      The idea was/is that we write in grave tones to the RAF and ask them to lend their support to a serious piece of theatre re-assesing the life and work of Baader as a key public figure in their history - and either hope that they don't notice the extra 'a', or 'accidentally' forget to put it in.....

      Easy mistake to make, of course. After all, c.1976, I could never understand why Kenneth More was, apparently, on trial in a custom-built courthouse at Stuttgart-Stammheim jail for activities which endangered the existence of the West German state, and then committed suicide (allegedly). :)

    7. Christine Keeler

      Well at least with the Bader-Morehof Group we wouldn't have to worry about all that tedious theorising about the nature of the state. Just jolly well get stuck in and blow-up Germans.

    8. I am not a partisan about such things (so keep the tentativeness of my comment in mind), but I got the impression that the Big Wing wasn't a bad concept so much as a misapplied one. It worked reasonably well for 12 Group, which was sufficiently distant from the battlefront to have time to form up, but didn't work at all for Park's 11 Group, which had to respond much faster to immediate threats. Is that not right?

    9. Christine Keeler

      I'll have a go.

      The Big Wing was a huge formation of up to five sqaudrons designed to hit enemy fighters and bombers while providing mutual protection. It was argued that RAF fighters should be sent out to meet German planes before they reached Britain.

      The concept (and resultant partisanship) was probably as much about the overweening ambition of Trafford Leigh-Mallory, leader of 12 Group to the north, who used it to foster a bitter and damaging debate within Fighter Command with the leader of 11 Group, New Zealander Sir Keith Park.

      Leigh-Mallory wanted control of 11 Group and wasn't happy when Park got the job. In the fine tradition of Douglas Haig, he spent much of BoB white-anting Park.

      Park, who, because he was defending the South West immediately around London, bore the brunt of the attacks directed mainly at his airfields, argued that the concept was basically flawed. In essence that the Big Wing spent too much time tooling around forming up.

      Remember that early Spits and Hurricanes were basically designed as intercept fighters with very short fuel range. Get up. Have a squirt. Land and refuel.

      So basically it didn't have the tactical flexibility of the smaller formations preferred by Park.

      And it was 12 Group's job to protect the airfields around London. Remarkably, Leigh-Mallory dismissed Park's concerns. He argued, for instance, that it didn't matter if the airfields were hit while the BW was forming up. He'd get the Luftwaffe after they had dropped their bombs (i.e. on Park's airfields).

      And Park had a point. For instance, he had asked for assistance from 12 Group on August 26th 1940. Debden airfield was unprotected and Park was relying on 12 Group fighters to provide cover. Debden was bombed with devastating results because Leigh-Mallory's squadrons hadn't arrived. When Park wanted an explanation, Leigh-Mallory claimed he was asked too late.

      Any takers for efficacy of the BW after 6 September 1940? Brett?

    10. South East, I think.

      Chris Williams: I have a vague drink-sodden recollection of an argument in an "Irish" bar in Vienna in early 2002 during an international rugby league match (the bar was the only place in the city with enough Australians to show it) with someone claiming to be a historian and wearing a Blyth Power T-shirt. Was it you? If so, I'd like to apologise for any offence or damage caused by my behaviour.

    11. Chris Williams

      No, I've not been to Vienna. Although I've spent the odd night out in a Blyth Power t-shirt, arguing drunkenly, and claiming to be a historian. So it was worth a try.

    12. Post author

      Firstly, you Poms are all mad.

      Secondly, on the Big Wing: I agree, Alan, that it wasn't a bad tactic for 12 Group, whereas it was not appropriate for 11 Group -- though as CK points out it often didn't work too well in practice. (To answer CK's question, I've seen it suggested that in the daylight battles over London the appearance of clouds of British fighters were a depressing sight for the German airmen, when they'd been told that the RAF was on its last legs.)

      I think really the BW controversy has more to do with the human drama than the tactical questions -- the clash of personalities, the bureaucratic infighting and backstabbing, influence-peddling, all at a time when Britain was fighting for its life and, supposedly, everyone was on the same side. Was Leigh-Mallory just looking out for number one, or did he genuinely believe the BW was the best use of limited resources? Was Park overstepping his boundaries in criticising 12 Group operations, or was he right to believe that as 11 Group was the frontline, its needs came before all else? Then there's the way Park was turfed after the Battle and replaced by Leigh-Mallory, the fascination of the Bader story, and so on. Bader's squadron adjutant was a Tory MP who managed to bend Churchill's ear on the issue. Forget about the Luftwaffe, they didn't even get a look-in ...

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