The Competitive Learning Theory of War

The dominant mode of analysis of the great confrontations of the twentieth century is to reduce great power struggles to economics. In this account, Germany was defeated both times by the combined economic and industrial might of the Allies, and the Soviet Union abandoned the struggle in the late-1980s because it could no longer keep up economically with the Western powers. The most refined version of this case for World War II may be found in the work of Mark Harrison and collaborators. See in particular, The Economics of World War II, which may serve as canonical instance of what we may call the quantitative or social scientific theory of war. It acquired a kind of hegemonic status after the social scientific turn in the postwar era. But it was already the dominant mode of analysis for midcentury analysts in the approach to, and during the great midcentury struggle.


Harrison’s theory of war potential is congruent with the mental maps carried by civilian analysts at the Committee of Operations Analysts who selected targets for strategic air war against Germany and Japan. As I noted in a previous dispatch, it was thought that the war-making capabilities of a state could be reduced by destroying factories and workers. For if war potential was function of economic size and industrial development, destroying the population and/or the industrial base of the enemy could be expected to undermine his war-making capabilities. Even if ‘a decision through strategic air war’ was unlikely, the destruction could be expected to make the job of the other services easier (if not a cakewalk).

For Harrison, the war potential of a state can be calculated exactly. It is that portion of GDP that is not required for bare subsistence and is therefore available to be diverted towards war-making. Rich, industrial countries could devote much higher proportions of their economy to war than largely agrarian states. So his central puzzle is how the Soviet Union managed to perform like a rich, industrial country. That is, How did they manage to devote a similar percentage of their GDP to defense as Germany (and higher than the United States or Britain) despite a much lower per capita income and a much greater portion of the population engaged in agriculture? His answer is to appeal to the extra-economic capacity of the Soviet Union. In other words, they did it through terror.

I have argued at length that Harrison’s math is unpersuasive. What needs explanation is not why the combined might of the Allies prevailed but rather, How did the Soviet Union manage to defeat Germany? World War II is an ideational construct. In reality, the hegemonic struggle of midcentury was the Soviet-German war, everything else was a side-show. The decision of the Soviet-German war dictated the outcome of the world struggle as a whole. The Western Allies were largely bystanders in this struggle. Most of lend-lease went to Britain, not the power that was engaged in combat with the Wehrmacht. To think otherwise is to fall for Anglo-Saxon self-congratulation.

Once the explanandum is clarified, a consistent story emerges from the numbers. In purely quantitative terms, the Soviet Union prevailed by manufacturing more armament than the Germans. Whereas the ratio of mobilized GDP was still 1:1.4 in favor of the Germans in 1942 (it had been 1:2.2 in 1940 and 1:2.1 in 1941) the Soviets had already outpaced the Germans in armament production. See Table 1.

Table 1: War production, 1942-1944.

Rifles Machine guns Guns Tanks Combat aircraft
Soviet Union (‘000) 9,935 1,254 380 78 85
Nazi Germany (‘000) 6,501 889 262 35 65
Soviet/German (ratio) 1.5 1.4 1.5 2.2 1.3

Moreover, both nations had productivity miracles during the war. The Soviets outproduced the Germans because they had a bigger productivity miracle. For instance, if the same rate of productivity growth had obtained in the Soviet Union as in Germany, the Germans would’ve enjoyed an advantage of 1:1.4 in combat aircraft. See my “Western Perceptions of Soviet Strength During the Soviet-German War.” So not extra-economic after all. In sum, Harrison’s account does not withstand process tracing.

But it was not enough for the Soviets to produce more tanks, guns and warplanes than the Germans. Just as GDP is too coarse to see the material foundations of the war effort on both sides, the material foundations only permitted the great powers to develop instruments of war. It could not teach them how to use said instruments. And it could not hold the front for them. In other words, what needs explanation is how the Red Army learned to fight and defeat the Wehrmacht. And that brings us to the subject of this dispatch.

What makes the reductionist account especially unpersuasive is that it predicts that Soviet war-making capabilities should have reduced through the war on account of massive attrition. To begin with, they lost the equivalent of the eastern seaboard (everything east of the Mississippi) to the German invasion. Having borne the equivalent of a medium-scale nuclear attack, the Soviet Union went on to lose many millions in population and an absolutely massive amount of capital stock and raw materials during the war. Yet, instead of getting weaker by the year the Red Army became stronger and stronger. How was this even possible? Clearly, something is wrong with the quantitative theory of war.

The key to resolving this anomaly is to think of war as skilled work and militaries as situated communities of skilled practice. We can then think of world wars or extended great power struggles as processes wherein the adversaries are engaged in a game of competitive learning. The methods and technique of fighting modern air-land warfare were mastered only slowly and with a great deal of radical uncertainty through the hegemonic struggle. The process resembles the case studies of business schools. The Soviet and German armies learned how to fight mechanized air-land war by confronting, and trying to solve in real time, concrete problems as they emerged during the struggle.

Until the summer of 1940, the potentialities of the modern battlefield still lay dormant. Although they were perceived by some military thinkers in Germany and the Soviet Union (who had been close allies during the Versailles period and cooperated on military-technical development under Rapallo). The observer who saw things most clearly was Max Werner who I introduced in the previous dispatch and who the regular reader may have encountered in my earlier writing.

The modern battlefield can be said to have been discovered or articulated by Guderian in the Battle of Sedan in May 1940. I say Guderian specifically because he defied the German High Command in crossing the Meuse and making straight for the Channel. The return of maneuver to the battlefield came as a shock even to the Germans themselves. But then they drank the Kool-Aid. Like the cowering British, the Germans convinced themselves that operational maneuver was a peculiar characteristic of ‘the Teutonic way of war’ that their racial inferiors could not possibly master. So the irony of German perceptions is that they went into France full of pessimism and into the Soviet Union full of optimism. But as Werner noted, ‘a war of lightning decision is hypothetically possible only in the narrow territorial limits of the West. In the East the strategy of lightning decision must necessarily fail.’

German self-congratulation came to bite when the German armies were stopped in their tracks by Soviet counter-attacks outside Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. The inability to reach a favorable decision in the Battle of Moscow threw a spanner into German war plans. They had expected to crush the Red Army within weeks. But now they realized that their hopes for a lightening decision had been dashed by the surprising strength of the Red Army. And the winter campaigns showed that the Red Army was capable of operational offensives.

Over time both armies would become better and better at the operational art of mechanized air-land warfare; the Soviets more than the Germans. Just as it was the race to increase productivity at the home front, intrawar learning mattered more than the initial conditions. The Germans had an excellent frontline force, probably the best in the world at the time, but weak reserves and substandard replacements for men lost to casualties. This was a result of German force planning that was geared to the strategy of lightning decision. It was an inherently risky stratagem. The Soviets had the opposite philosophy. They maintained very strong reserves, sometimes stronger than frontline armies, and focused on the counter-attack. Although this meant higher loss rates on average, it was much more conservative strategy that in the final analysis proved to be superior, if only on a risk basis.

The contrast between the adversaries on the doctrinal level had repercussions for the dichronic pattern of relative strength. As the war wore on in 1941-1943, the German army became progressively weaker and the Red Army became progressively stronger. This diachronic pattern was the best indication of the ultimate outcome of the struggle, Werner noted in early 1943. By 1944, the balance of operational skill was decisively in the Soviet favor. As Glantz and House have documented extensively, the Red Army elevated operational maneuver to a high art in 1944-1945. The greatest operational maneuver of all time was Zhukov’s encirclement of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in 1945.


The quantitative or social scientific theory of war assumes that the relative economic-industrial war-making capacity of states is predictive of the outcome of great power struggles. Yet, in order to do so, it must work through proximate causal channels. In particular, economic and industrial might have to be first translated into military might that then decides the likelihood of war outcomes. But because militaries learn dynamically during wars, particularly extended high intensity wars, the fidelity of the transmission may be very low. Indeed, the pattern may not hold at all. To wit, states may punch very far above or below their weight given their economic and industrial potential. Instead of national accounting, we need to pay much closer attention to the military instrument of the state. And in examining the pattern of historic struggles we need to pay attention to the diachronic logic of competitive learning that has a much more direct bearing on the likelihood of war outcomes.


4 thoughts on “The Competitive Learning Theory of War

  1. “And the Western Allies were largely bystanders in this struggle. Most of lend-lease went to Britain not the power that was actually fighting the Wehrmacht. To think otherwise is to fall for Anglo-Saxon self-congratulation.” Ah, no.

    First, British (and Commonwealth) aid was a crucial element in the defence of Moscow. See here:
    Second, the Allies provided trucks, rolling stock, food aid in considerable quantities. See

    Also, apart from the suppression of German production, the Anglo-American bombing campaign diverted planes from the Eastern Front and, possibly even more crucially, lots and lots of 88mm guns, which were pointing up at Allied bombers rather than Soviet tanks.

    I take your point about operational capacity cannot simply be read off from GDP. But to claim that Soviet success did not depend to a significant degree on Western aid is to overstate the case.

    1. Nonsense. The Soviets defeated Nazism single-handedly. The Anglo-Saxons were scared to fight the German army. See my “western perceptions of soviet strength in the Soviet-German war”.

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