Virtual Lecture – The Numbers Game: How the RAF Revolutionized Military Planning and (Maybe) Saved the World

Jack Thorlin explores the extraordinary rise of the scientific method in military planning and how the RAF revolutionised the practice. The lecture is available via Crowdcast.

The painting is called ‘Operations room conference: Bomber Command October 1943’ and shows Bomber Command boss Arthur Harris sitting at a desk, surrounded by American, RAF and Royal Naval officers.

Talk Outline

Critics have alleged for decades that the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II and nuclear deterrence strategy in the Cold War were immoral and ineffective. While there were some questionable decisions in those campaigns, the critical focus has obscured an important legacy: the extraordinary rise of the scientific method in military planning. That rise, which originated with the RAF, made a tremendous impact on World War II and helped keep nuclear strategy grounded in reality during the most hysterical period of the Cold War.

Before World War II, military planning largely revolved around the experiences and cleverness of a small number of military leaders. Changes in tactics often came from eccentric individuals who happened to have the right connections to get their ideas before someone with power. The RAF tried something new in the run-up to World War II: standing teams of civilian scientists working directly with the military to apply the scientific method to military questions. By rigorously testing hypotheses and carefully gathering data, these groups—called “operational research” teams—transformed British air operations. They discovered dramatic, war-changing improvements to air defense, bombing, and anti-submarine tactics. The U.S. military copied the operational research concept, and Its teams came up with additional brilliant insights, including the lesser-known aerial mining campaign that shut Japanese ports and nearly starved Japan.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. Army-Air Force funded the creation of the RAND Corporation to keep operations research moving forward in peacetime. RAND pioneered cost-benefit analysis to inform its strategy recommendations and became influential in shaping U.S. nuclear strategy. Its rational approach provided a vital counterbalance to extreme elements in the military. The usefulness of cost-benefit analysis was so great that RAND ultimately began applying it outside of military contexts, and cost-benefit analysis is now a crucial part of U.S. regulatory law.

About Jack Thorlin

Jack Thorlin is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC and an attorney for the U.S. federal government. He began his career as a counsel for Senator John 

McCain and since then has worked on national security and legal issues for a variety of committees in the Senate and House of Representatives. He has led congressional investigations and oversight of matters ranging from defense procurement to international tax avoidance. 

His academic work has focused on the intersection of legal and scientific issues, especially in the context of cost-benefit analysis. Among other things, he has written extensively on how courts have reviewed the U.S. government's use of cost-benefit analysis. 

He received his undergraduate degree in engineering sciences from Harvard University and his J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of and contributor to the Harvard National Security Journal.

He lives outside Washington, D.C. with his wife, children, and two cats.

About the RAF Museum Research Programme

The RAF Museum’s 2022 programme includes Lunchtime Lectures at the RAF Museum, Cosford; Air Power Lectures, co-organised with the Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster University; Air Power Seminars, co-organised with the University of Wolverhampton; and the Trenchard Lecture series, hosted at the Royal Aeronautical Society. You can attend these lectures in person or join us online as we live-stream from the venue.