Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

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TheMarcksPlan
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Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 20 Jun 2021 03:15

On Twitter, Phillips Payson O'Brien (author of How the War was Won) recently posted a tweet thread claiming that the French Army faced a stronger attack in 1940 than the SU faced in 1941. O'Brien's rationale is, basically, that the LW was stronger in '40 than '41 (true), that planes are more expensive than land weapons (true), and that the overall production price of German armaments committed against France exceeded those committed against Russia (debatable and probably not true).

I could do the numerical analysis regarding O'Brien's last point but it's not what I'm interested in.
In addition, I could highlight the ways that O'Brien consistently looks only at armaments prices while ignoring non-armaments military costs that easily exceeded armaments costs - especially in land warfare. But I've already made those points elsewhere.

Rather, I'd like to highlight O'Brien's implicit assumption that, in warfare, price and value are identical or directly correlated. I.e. he implicitly assumes that if a country paid more in Case A than Case B, it therefore has greater military power in Case A. V2 rockets were expensive; V2 rockets were not similarly valuable. Battleships were expensive; battleships were not similarly valuable. Air power was expensive; it doesn't follow that air power was similarly valuable.

The debate over air power's value started before the war ended; scholarly consensus is far from equating its price with its value (Mark Harrison, perhaps the greatest living economic historian of WW2, recently wrote that bombing Germany contributed to victory "wastefully and inefficiently").

Works such as Martin van Creveld's Air Power and Maneuver Warfare document that the Luftwaffe rarely provided close tactical air support in the French Campaign. The Meuse crossing at Sedan is a famous exception enabled by the river's clear demarcation of friend and foe, but here it's now uncontroversial that little physical damage was done. See p.49-50. Even this massive effort caused little physical damage. Van Creveld highlights important interdictions by the LW of French forces attempting to seal the German breakthrough. A full analysis of air power's value (versus price), however, would have to confront the counterfactual: What if instead of so many bombers the Germans had possessed twice as many panzer divisions? In that counterfactual - arguably in reality as well - any French forces successfully moved against the German breakthrough would have been overwhelmed and destroyed. Hitler probably would have felt sufficiently strong to expend armor on an all-out thrust against the Dunkirk pocket, potentially destroying the BEF before its evacuation and possibly turning history on a nightmarish course.

------------------------------------

I deeply appreciate O'Brien's analytical approach to how the war was won. Reading it was like having a great conversation with a smart person with whom I disagree. It adds a rigorously quantitative mode of military/economic analysis that is missing from most WW2 and military history. But it's not yet sufficiently quantitative or analytical. Quantitatively, he leaves out the non-armaments factors I've discussed elsewhere. Analytically, he fails to move from the level of price and production to real value on the battlefield.

O'Brien may have in mind an answer to the objection regarding battlefield value. As How the War was Won's opening states: "There were no decisive battles in World War II." The strictly logical reading of this statement is "no single battle was decisive in changing the war's outcome" - a hardly controversial proposition among sophisticated readers. But there's elasticity in the definition of "battle": a sufficiently expansive definition could give us something like "The Battle over Germany" - encompassing the whole Combined Bomber Offensive and German reactions. O'Brien calls the CBO the "war-winning failure." I suspect that some conceptual slippage between "no single decisive (narrowly-defined) battle" and "no single decisive (broadly-defined) battle" has helped O'Brien avoid moving from the production/price level of analysis to the battles/value level of analysis.

Another level of conceptual slippage may inhere in the "how" of his opus's title. "How" the war was won could mean a strictly positive, descriptive account. Obviously the Allies won; this is how it happened. That account would not imply any evaluative statements about the efficiency with which the Allies won, let alone consider whether they could have won more quickly and/or cheaply with other methods.

A different meaning of "how" the war was won implies evaluation - that Allied strategy was broadly correct and efficient - and O'Brien usually sounds in this mode of analysis. The book frequently cites the supposed predominance of air/sea production for all but the Soviet Union (again incorrectly or exaggeratedly, given what O'Brien's narrow armaments focus leaves out). It cites this predominance prescriptively and approvingly:
One of the main purposes of this book is to discuss how the British and
Americans came to engage and destroy the greater part of German and
Japanese production through the application of air and sea power, and
thereby win World War II. It is also to show how air and sea power
combined to keep the results of production away from the battlefield as
well as determining the course of battles (through its action or
absence). By de-emphasizing the importance of land battles, it will pull
the focus of the war away from the Eastern Front (as well as the
fighting in North Africa and Italy). HWwW p.6


The questions I pose regarding LW vs. army value in France apply equally here: were the portions of German production engaged by the Allies as valuable to Germany as what Germany paid for them? Most German aircraft spending was on bombers until late in the war; it's at least very arguable that this was a waste - especially those used against the Western Allies. What is the value of the millions of Germans killed, captured, crippled, and tied down by the Soviet Union? Lacking a WW2 price for military lives, lives don't even get an assumed military value as with weapons (to be clear - I mean military value, O'Brien seems an eminently humane person and I'm not accusing him of callousness).
https://medium.com/counterfactualww2
"The whole question of whether we win or lose the war depends on the Russians." - FDR, June 1942

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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 21 Jun 2021 16:56

TMP,

Thanks for highlighting O’Brien’s tweets, for your commentary on his argument and the links to the economic historians’ works - much of interest to absorb there. A couple of points though:

I followed the link you provided for the Harrison quote and it took me to a series of essays on WW1 - I subsequently found a similar set of essays about WW2. Was it the latter from which the Harrison quote came from?
TheMarcksPlan wrote:
20 Jun 2021 03:15
The debate over air power's value started before the war ended; scholarly consensus is far from equating its price with its value (Mark Harrison, perhaps the greatest living economic historian of WW2, recently wrote that bombing Germany contributed to victory "wastefully and inefficiently").
Wasn’t Harrison talking about the Allied strategic bombing offensive rather than the more tactical use of airpower as practiced by the Germans in the 1940 campaign and during Barbarossa? With the benefit of hindsight it does appear that the Allies over-emphasised the strategic use of airpower and, once a successful lodgement had been made on mainland Europe, and particularly that in NW Europe, were left with an excess of strategic bombers less than ideally suited to the needs of the subsequent campaign.

The impact of such a change in German production priorities during the late thirties on Anglo-French defence policy would be an interesting debate as well I suppose.

Regards

Tom

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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by Cult Icon » 21 Jun 2021 18:09

I recommend reading "Stopped at Stalingrad" as a primer on air support on the Eastern Front. One of the themes of that book is how German close air support did not mature to the highest level of tactical impact until the 1942 campaigns, particularly in the spring of 1942 to the battle of Stalingrad.

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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by Art » 22 Jun 2021 07:05

TheMarcksPlan wrote:
20 Jun 2021 03:15
O'Brien's rationale is, basically, that the LW was stronger in '40 than '41
I wouldn't agree with that:
https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/AA ... l#tableIII
The number of aircraft deployed on the Eastern Front in June 1941 was about 2800 vs about 3500 deployed in the West Campaign.

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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 22 Jun 2021 09:45

Tom from Cornwall wrote:Was it the latter from which the Harrison quote came from?
Whoops, Harrison's remark comes from a working paper not yet published. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics ... 8.2020.pdf page 22

I was thinking it came from the WW2 - 75 Years On book but still managed to further muck it up by linking his WW1 book.
Tom from Cornwall wrote:The impact of such a change in German production priorities during the late thirties on Anglo-French defence policy would be an interesting debate as well I suppose.
It'd be an interesting debate but besides the point I'm making in response to O'Brien: If the proper Allied response to more German tanks is more Allied tanks - rather than more planes - then O'Brien's argument that air power resolves the question of combat power falls apart in either the OTL or ATL (more German tanks) case.
Last edited by TheMarcksPlan on 22 Jun 2021 09:49, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 22 Jun 2021 09:46

Cult Icon wrote:
21 Jun 2021 18:09
I recommend reading "Stopped at Stalingrad" as a primer on air support on the Eastern Front. One of the themes of that book is how German close air support did not mature to the highest level of tactical impact until the 1942 campaigns, particularly in the spring of 1942 to the battle of Stalingrad.
Thanks. Just grabbed it.
https://medium.com/counterfactualww2
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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 22 Jun 2021 09:47

Art wrote:
22 Jun 2021 07:05
TheMarcksPlan wrote:
20 Jun 2021 03:15
O'Brien's rationale is, basically, that the LW was stronger in '40 than '41
I wouldn't agree with that:
https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/AAF/AA ... l#tableIII
The number of aircraft deployed on the Eastern Front in June 1941 was about 2800 vs about 3500 deployed in the West Campaign.
Even by those numbers, LW is still stronger in Fall Gelb than Barbarossa. (I suspect you're right though that O'Brien is overstating the numerical difference).
https://medium.com/counterfactualww2
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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 22 Jun 2021 11:42

O'Brien responded to me on twitter: https://twitter.com/PhillipsPOBrien/sta ... 4461710336

I'm sure he's correct that I haven't given the maximally generous reading of his book but can anyone point me to where HTWWW says "equipment allocations determine personnel losses" - at least in ground warfare? I can see it re air war - the pages addressing "pre-production" losses especially. Even there, however, he's not addressing an argument that very expensive weapons (e.g. B-17's) inflicted enemy losses on materially/personnel-ly unfavorable terms (as B-17's did, I and Harrison would argue).

I don't see any explicit argument in HTWWW that material factors determine personnel losses in ground warfare. Rather, HTWWW tends to ignore/sideline ground personnel losses. And IMO it would be impossible to make such an argument: SU for instance threw far more equipment at Ostheer than vice versa. Historical casualties on the Eastern Front are orders of magnitude off from a model that predicts them based on material factors.
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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by Takao » 22 Jun 2021 19:48

Curious if he included the 3 billion francs the French spent on the Maginot Line in his calculations.

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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 22 Jun 2021 20:25

TheMarcksPlan wrote:
22 Jun 2021 09:45
Whoops, Harrison's remark comes from a working paper not yet published. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics ... 8.2020.pdf page 22
Thanks, that also looks interesting - more to add to the virtual reading pile. :D
TheMarcksPlan wrote:
22 Jun 2021 09:45
If the proper Allied response to more German tanks is more Allied tanks - rather than more planes
I guess the fact that the Allies had more tanks in the OTL than the Germans suggests that wouldn’t have been enough. Maybe more tanks concentrated in the right area?

But I was rather thinking about the over-done “fear of the bomber” in the ‘30s and the “bomber will always get through”, etc. Without the threat of a German bomber offensive against the UK, its hard to see the UK giving so much priority to the RAF during the latter half of the ‘30’s but also hard to see the British politicians insisting that the UK needed an integrated air defence network - modern fighters, radar, Observation Corps, Civil Defence, modern AA, etc. Does that free up more resources and money for land forces or naval forces, etc and what happens then in 1939-40, etc.

It was good of O’Brien to respond though!

Regards

Tom

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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 23 Jun 2021 01:58

Takao wrote:
22 Jun 2021 19:48
Curious if he included the 3 billion francs the French spent on the Maginot Line in his calculations.
The twitter topic only compares German expenditures for France v. Barbarossa, so I'm guessing not.

But you're pointing up a broader and valid critique of O'Brien's methods - again, by focusing only on armaments they leave out much of the picture (and most of the land war picture). Wagenfuhr's armaments figures/index - which O'Brien uses for Germany - do not include expenditures on fortifications (they probably do include weapons installed in those fortifications). For Germany, that's an immense portion of military expenditure. IIRC 9% of total German spending in 1940 (anyone have data?). France was mostly done spending on fortifications by 1939 - part of the reason they had more tanks etc. than Germany.
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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 23 Jun 2021 02:01

Tom from Cornwall wrote:Without the threat of a German bomber offensive against the UK,
There's a very good argument that the best/efficient use of bombers was as a "fleet in being" - a credible threat that forces expenditure on defenses and dispersal.

I doubt that a smaller German bomber force would have had much impact on UK defenses. No side had sufficient insight into others' production on these matters. Maybe if Germany publicly and credibly announced "We have no bombers now and will never build them."
Tom from Cornwall wrote:It was good of O’Brien to respond though!
He's a good dude.
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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 23 Jun 2021 03:02

More O'Brien responses on Twitter.
Ive been rather busy but just had a chance to read what you wrote about the book. While I really appreciate how much you clearly have thought about the premise of the book, Im not sure the way you present it is right (and that might be my fault as much as anything).

the 'implicit assumption' you say I am making is not really there. I start with the basis that it is important that the effort put into air-sea munitions be understood to be much greater than land munitions--but that is just a start point and the argument proceeds..

...to show (I hope) that this effort was rational and more importantly, it actually determines what happens in the land war (German focus on air-sea leads to the large land casualties). The Germans are desperate and rational to try and compete in the air in particular...

but just cant do it. The impact means that the German land effort is weakened from 1941 onwards and crippled from 43 onwards (when German casualties skyrocket). So there is no separation between cost and casualties--cost determines casualties. Again, I appreciate your thoughts
O'Brien justifiably objects to my characterization of his book: I took a thing he said on Twitter - not a forum for subtle discussion - and read its rationale unsubtly back into How the War was Won, which is obviously more multi-dimensional than is a tweet.

As I say on twitter in response, my real issue with HWwW is not that its central points are wrong - I mostly agree and they changed my mind significantly about the value of Western Allied contributions prior to D-Day.

Rather, I'm wondering what exactly he's saying about air power in WW2: Is he merely trying to give the air war its due? Or is he arguing that air/sea power was, in fact, the most efficient way for the Allies to win? Is it the evaluative or descriptive "how"?

As few professional historians directly confront counterfactuals, I suspect it's not a topic to which he's devoted extensive thought. Then again, HWwW has a very good analysis of whether the Allies could done Overlord in 1943 (he thinks they could have, but only by weakening the Central Pacific).
https://medium.com/counterfactualww2
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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by Sid Guttridge » 23 Jun 2021 06:13

Hi TMP,

You post, "What if instead of so many bombers the Germans had possessed twice as many panzer divisions?"

Did they use the same materials that such an alternative was possible in practice?

I can see that less warships might mean more tanks, but, apart arguably from engines, was it possible with aircraft?

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: Phillips P. O'Brien on France v. Barbarossa and some thoughts on price vs. value

Post by Sid Guttridge » 23 Jun 2021 06:21

Hi Tom,

You ask, "Does that free up more resources and money for land forces or naval forces, etc and what happens then in 1939-40, etc."

If I remember correctly, the ground anti-aircraft defences absorbed a high proportion of British manpower and materiel and towards the end of the war, when less obviously needed, much of their manpower was shifted to other arms. Also, the large number of high calibre barrels involved might have been produced for ground warfare instead. (Some, like the 3.7 inch, eventually were).

So my guess is that, had the Luftwaffe threat been less, it might well have freed up more resources earlier for land and naval forces, at least in terms of barrels and manpower.

Cheers,

Sid.

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