Operations Research: A Critical Military Decision Making Enabler

BY LT . CMDR. DUNCAN R. ELLIS, SC, USN OPERATIONS RESEARCH ANALYST, N61 NAVSUP WEAPON SYSTEMS SUPPORT

An allied convoy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, 1942. –Photo courtesy of United States Library of Congress

An allied convoy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, 1942. –Photo courtesy of United States Library of Congress

What makes a great leader? It is a question often asked in military communities. One key aspect of leadership is the ability to be an effective decision maker. Successful leaders are able to survey information presented to them, learn from their subordinates, weigh the consequences of possible actions within their decision space, and decide on an executable course of action.

Modern military challenges, including those in logistics and supply operations are usually extremely complicated, and the solutions are almost never simple or easy to understand. The temptation can be to select widely accepted or easy solutions to complex issues. These solutions tend to over simplify the problem and lack any sound analytical foundation. In an era of constrained budgets, high operational tempo, and a charged political environment, avoiding this trap is especially important. It is critical to our success as the Supply Corps and the Navy to have officers capable of tackling tough problems and enabling senior leadership to make informed decisions with the right information – information that is clear, objective, and properly identifies risk. The Supply Corps Operations Research community plays a critical role in supporting this decision making process.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences defines operations research as “a discipline that deals with the application of advanced analytical methods to help make better decisions.” It originated within the military in the 1940s as mathematicians worked to develop techniques for military planning problems during World War II. Famous early examples of operations research were responsible for major operational successes during the war, to include:

  • Determination of optimal convoy sizes in the face of a significant German U-boat threat to ensure the maximum volume of materiel crossed the Atlantic in support of the war effort;
  • Increasing the effectiveness of anti-submarine depth charges by studying the best depth to trigger the charge.

As technology has evolved, so has operations research. Since World War II, computing power and communication networks have undergone miraculous transformations. Recently, the era of big data has enabled the collection and storage of incredible quantities of data, and although these modern collection techniques have significantly increased access to data, information contained within these electronic warehouses is rarely useable in its raw form. A community of skilled analysts is required to query, analyze, and interpret this data, transforming it into suitable products for decision support. The future requires bold leadership and innovative solutions to our challenges, but initiatives must be supported by quantifiable methodologies. The analytical insight added by operations research professionals adds rigor and reduces guesswork in the decision making process.

In today’s Supply Corps, the operations research community falls within the envelope of operational logistics and the 3212 subspecialty. Supply Corps officers can attend the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California and earn their master’s degree in Joint Operational Logistics. The course of study teaches skills in computational capability, identifying relevant information, generating decision criteria, and selecting alternatives. Following completion of the 27-month Master of Science degree, officers earn a 3212P subspecialty and can be detailed to a wide variety of operations research coded billets, to include the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), United States Transportation Command, the Defense Logistics Agency, and Naval Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP).

Students on campus at the NPS in Monterey, California. U.S. Navy photo courtesy NPS Public Affairs

Students on campus at the NPS in Monterey, California. U.S. Navy photo courtesy NPS Public Affairs

NAVSUP-related opportunities include headquarters staff, NAVSUP Global Logistics Support, and NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support (WSS). These jobs provide a variety of different opportunities to develop critical skills in logistics and supply chain management, whether it is at OPNAV assisting in the determination of the required combat logistics force structure or at NAVSUP WSS developing better methods for inventory allowancing. Often these jobs allow a unique opportunity to ‘stand above the fray’ of the day-to-day business and dedicate yourself to the study and application of advanced techniques in solving the really hard problems facing today’s Navy.

For leaders, operations research analysts constitute a valuable resource, providing the rigorous quantitative analysis that is critical for modern decision making. Consequently, Supply officers looking for a challenging career field that emphasizes creative thinking and problem solving will find the Joint Operational Logistics Operations Research subspecialty offers fulfilling opportunities to shape our military and affect change in today’s data-driven environment.

November/December 2016