South Pacific, May 7, 1942: the United States and Japan begin a two-day battle involving simultaneous airstrikes against each other’s aircraft carriers.
Both U.S. and Japanese ships sink. Historians agree that the battle paved the way for a strategic victory for the allies, although heavy losses were incurred on both sides.
What fascinates associate professor Michael Armstrong, who teaches courses on operations management, is not so much what happened as what didn’t happen. “What if something had been different?” he asks. “What if the Americans had a third aircraft carrier? What if one side had found the other first?”
To answer these questions - and similar ones arising from other historical battles - Armstrong devises mathematical models that calculate different outcomes depending on a wide array of variables, such as equipment and personnel. Armstrong’s Battle of the Coral Seas study was published in 2005 in the Military Operations Research journal.
Come January 2014, Armstrong will be sharing his expertise as a Fulbright Scholar, one of 14 across Canada. He will be the Fulbright Visiting Chair in War and Peace Studies at Norwich University, the first private American military college.
The Fulbright Scholar program is a U.S. government program designed to promote “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries of the world.”
This is the first time a serving Brock professor has been named a Fulbright Scholar. Award holders can play many roles during and after their terms, including as students, scholars, teachers, lecturers, researchers, mentors, artists, philanthropists, cultural ambassadors and social entrepreneurs.
“I’m going to collaborate with some of their professors and students on research projects related to war and peace studies, particularly related to modelling combat,” Armstrong says of his Fulbright scholar award, titled Integrating the Digital Humanities and Operations Research to Explore Alternative Outcomes of Military Battles.
Armstrong’s goals during his five-month term at the Vermont university include co-authoring a research paper and co-supervising several student projects in military history, mathematics or international relations.
He says he will also have an “ambassadorial” role, raising awareness of research and describing his mathematical models in more detail.
“The plan is to get me out as a guest speaker quite a bit at other universities,” Armstrong explains. “I’ll be talking about these models in different classes, particularly in mathematics and history classes. One of the objectives of this particular project is to take my math skills and modeling ability, and combine that with the liberal arts side to tackle the questions they’d like to answer.”
Armstrong constructs mathematical models for a wide range of purposes. Most recently, he created a computer program that forecasts the marks students will get on their remaining tests and assignments based on what they’ve scored so far. He says he created this to motivate his students to set and achieve their academic goals and get a more realistic view of how they’re doing.
His military models, which resemble spreadsheets rather than video games, trace the anatomy of a battle: how it began, how it unfolded, why one side won, and what would have happened if something had changed in the tactics or equipment (warships, aircraft, aircraft carriers) with which each side came to battle.
The models can even be applied to future battles. For instance, Armstrong notes there have been very few naval battles involving missiles. “Every navy these days is equipped with anti-ship missiles but there’s very little real experience with using them in battle, so models like these can give naval officers a bit of intuition as to what might happen, roughly how things would unfold.”
Much of Armstrong’s research is required reading for courses in military institutes, such as the U.S. Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey. Armstrong is based in Brock’s Goodman School of Business.