OR Forum: A Glimpse at An Operation Analyst’s World War II Work: ‘Report on the Combat Performance of the Remote Control Turrets of B-29 Aircraft'

In the March-April 2015 issue of Operations Research we have chosen to highlight the paper “A glimpse at an Operation Analyst’s World War II work: “Report on the Combat Performance of the Remote Control Turrets of B-29 Aircraft” by Alex Green, Deborah Green, and Richard Francis.  This paper describes some of the work done by Dr. Alex Green during World War II as an analyst for the U.S. Air Force, in effect illustrating the creation of the discipline of Operations Research.  The original report

, this paper is based upon, only became declassified recently creating the opportunity to bring this work to light to a broader audience.  Dr. Green was assigned to the U.S. forces operating in the China-Burma-India Theater under the command of General Le May using long-range B-29 bombers to attack the Japanese bases in China.  Dr. Green was charged with analyzing the performance of the B-29 in aerial confrontations with Japanese fighter craft to determine ways to reduce losses of bombers and crews. 

At the time he was sent to the front Dr. Green was 25 years-old, a young physicist who had been drafted into the war effort like many other physicists and mathematicians to solve problems that were very different than what they had done before.  Without realizing it they were laying the foundations for the field of Operations Research.  Some of the key distinguishing features of his work were that 1) he analyzed a complex system of men and machines not just inanimate particles. 2) He tried to improve the system while taking into account the potential actions of an optimizing opponent.  3) He used operational data (rather than experimental data) that was not collected in an ideal way for his needs and systematically drew conclusions from it that could be translated into operational choices.  4) He developed efficient computational techniques that would assist decision makers (airmen) in the field.  All of these features are to this day still essential characteristics of Operations Research.

Dr. Green operated outside the command structure, just as an OR consultant might today, which gave his work objectivity.  At the same time though, he was in the field, directly interacting with the airmen, and learning about the realities of the air combat they faced.  He had an active hand in collecting data and could get feedback on his interpretations of the data.  His conclusions that frontal attacks were most dangerous, based on real data, contradicted sterile simulations conducted at testing grounds in the U.S.   In an Appendix the report also discusses optimal gunnery dispersal.  This analysis is interesting because it calls attention to another study “Scatter Bombing of a Circular Target”  AMP Report 10.2R from May 1944 written by Cecil Hastings Jr. and H. H. Germond who were at the time in Bombing Research and Applied Mathematics Groups at Columbia University. 

Hastings and Germond studied how the number of bombs dropped and their dispersion determined the probability of destroying a small target modelled as a circle when aiming error was present and their work is another example of Operations Analysis done during the war. Dr. Green passed away before the current paper was completed at the age of 95.