It is to be feared that it may have become too popular

Friday, October 6th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis presents a toy problem of allocating resources to planes and bombs in order to attack a couple potentially sheltered airfields with area defenses and local defenses. There are increasing returns to more planes attacking a particular airfield, as they can saturate defenses, but there are decreasing returns to hitting a particular airfield with more bombs:

It is probably clear to the reader that any reasonable person, including for example the ancient Greeks, could have followed our qualitative reasoning and understood, that when one is poor

  1. most of the money should be spent on decreasing attrition (buying planes)
  2. that one should concentrate on one target,

and conversely that when one is rich

  1. one should spend more money on bombs because the enemy’s defenses are automatically saturated by the number of planes in the attack
  2. that one can now afford to attack both targets.

The exciting thing that we have done is to make the above qualitative remarks numerical; that is, we have change what we called an “intuitive judgment” into what we called a “considered opinion.” How exciting this is can be seen from the fact that the ability to make this type of calculation and end up with Charts 17 and 18 is as much of an intellectual invention as the steam engine or the telegraph is a technical invention.

Techniques of Systems Analysis Charts 17 and 18

In fact, the concepts needed for this kind of analysis were invented in roughly the same time period as these two gadgets were. Moreover, they were not used for this kind of a question until late in the nineteenth century. In fact, it is only in the post World War II period, which saw a great expansion in the intellectual tools, computing ability, and suitable problems for this kind of analysis that it really became popular as an aid to the military planner. It is to be feared that it may have become too popular. Many people got so excited about the possibilities that they went overboard and claimed entirely too much for the technique.

One trouble was that people did not generally realize that even modern computing methods are not really powerful enough to evaluate complicated systems without the aid of a good deal of skillful “intuitive” supervision and guidance and, even more to the point, that the problems of uncertainty can swamp or negate a good deal of straightforward analysis. In many cases it was necessary to idealize the problem so much to make it tractable to analysis that the resulting considered opinion was less valuable than almost any reasonable intuitive judgment which was based on an examination of the unidealized problem.


  1. Alistair says:

    I’m a senior analyst in defence Operations Research and this is all Absolutely True.

  2. Amazing how little has changed since 1956, eh?

  3. Isegoria says:

    So, Alistair, any books (or other media) on OR you might recommend? (Scipio, any more you might recommend?)

  4. A few that apply the methods of the field to historical campaigns:

    Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions

    U Boats in the Bay of Biscay: An Essay in Operations Analysis

    While it’s not technically OR related, I am obligated to recommend “the Good Book of Pugh” as it’s called by my boss (who bought several copies to hand out):

    The Cost of Sea Power

Leave a Reply