BOOK REVIEW – Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa

Timothy S. Wolters, Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from Mobile Bay to Okinawa. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Index, photos, maps, essay on sources, 317 pp.

Reviewed by John T. Kuehn. Major General William Stofft Professor, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS

When offered the chance to review this thoroughly researched book by Timothy Wolters, I jumped at the chance given my experience as a former combat direction center officer (CDCO) on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.   The first thing I checked was Wolters’ sources to see if his book referenced Norman Friedman’s Network Centric Warfare (2009).   In doing so I discovered that, indeed, his comprehensive essay on sources mentions Friedman on its first page (299), and (full disclosure) this reviewer’s work two pages later (Agents of Innovation). Setting aside this sort of scholarly obsessing for the moment, the reader interested in a broad history of command and control design and innovation aboard US warships from the Civil War to World War II will be well rewarded.

Wolters has mastered the sources surrounding this topic and writes in an easy style that highlights the role of individuals and U.S. Navy culture in the path toward the sophisticated command and control system in place by the end of World War II. He explicitly debunks the notion propagated by some historians about the inherent, almost reactionary, conservatism of the Navy’s officer corps during this period, introducing us to a fascinating, and often little-heard of, cast of innovative individuals. Although he provides abundant evidence for his revisionist thesis about the innovative culture of the Navy during this period throughout the book, Wolters states his case best in his discussion of the Navy’s exploration of the merits of wireless telegraphy on page 43:

In other words, the [U.S. Navy] simultaneously recognized the potential of radio communications and its existing operational limitations. [historian Susan] Douglas overlooks this vital point when she argues that the American sea service ‘was not the sort of organization in which technical sponsorship, especially of an invention that threatened autonomy and decentralization, was either desired or possible.’ As… shown, the U.S. Navy was just that sort of organization.

Another of Wolters’ major arguments can be found in the book’s introduction—in order to understand the development of combat command and control at sea, one must study the details. All too often these details lead the reader to learn about individuals who have often been opaque in the existing histories, at least as regards their relationship to this topic. I call these people the “behind the scenes folk,” and this book is full of them.   They are not names one finds in the standard navy hero pantheon: Foxhall Parker, Stanford Hooper, Charles Badger, John M. Hudgins, and Thomas Craven to name only a few. They might also be characterized as unsung heroes as Wolters writes, “Without their pioneering efforts … America’s victory in World War II would have cost even more in blood and treasure than it ultimately did” (1).

After a short introduction the book is organized chronologically into five chapters aligning with the periods of command and control as Wolters categorizes them followed by a short conclusions chapter. He covers the pre-radio era that used flags and flares prior to invention of radio in chapter 1 and covers the adoption and adaptation of radio in chapter 2. One of the sub-conclusions Wolters makes from this chapter on the impact of radio is a rather startling paradox that could apply to the cybernetic warfare of today: “…the battle space expanded while the time available to make decision shrank” (79). From there he examines the impact of World War I, especially its anti-submarine warfare component, and the period of peace after it in chapter 3 as radio became critically important to the Navy. We meet (again) Stanford Hooper, who we learn was sent to Europe to observe the use of wireless in naval operations and in effect, because of his expertise with radio receivers, conducted his own electronic eavesdropping from his hotel rooms and billets to gather the necessary “observations” (86-87)! The author shows how the introduction of radio command and control further increased the technological bent of Navy culture and in the bargain provides a neat little sidebar on the critical role of the Naval Research Lab in doing so (124-125).

Instead of jumping right into the final chapter on World War II, chapter 4, entitled “A Most Complex Problem,” addresses the impact of air power on the development of combat information systems in the Navy. He highlights the informational challenge presented to the Navy in trying to adapt systems maximized for surface warfare and threats to this new dimension of warfare. In this way, Wolters prepares the reader for the evolutionary developments of Combat Information Center (CIC) doctrine and implementation during World War II in chapter 5 appropriately entitled “Creating the Brain of a Warship.”   In chapter 5 he examines how the Navy’s leaders and their new, but untested, systems met the ultimate command and control challenges of over-the-horizon battles against surface, sub-surface, and air platforms, especially the “wicked” problem of the kamikaze, a weapon-tactic that prepared the U.S. Navy for the un-manned anti-ship cruise missile of the future (and our present).   Wolters does yeoman service in this final chapter, showing how today’s combat direction centers aboard naval ships owe much of their current form to how the Navy met the ultimate challenge in integrating information, sensors (like radar) and decision-making in high intensity war, especially during the hellish campaign at Okinawa (215-221). Admiral Chester Nimitz later famously observed that the only thing that Navy leaders had not really conceptualized during the interwar period had been the challenge of kamikaze. Wolters’ book modifies this claim somewhat—the difficulties posed by air warfare and radar needed much hard conceptual work during the war—but underlines its essential truth that naval officers were intellectually prepared for this challenge because the Navy was fundamentally an innovative culture. In this sense he builds on the work of Thomas C. Hone and Trent Hone. 1

One minor weakness of the book has to do with its paucity of information on the role of the aforementioned General Board in these matters. However, this is more due, probably, to the vast amounts of material in the General Board archival materials that must be gone through and represents opportunity for future scholars to continue to add to our understanding of the contributions (or lack of them) by this body to the policies effecting the development of command and control systems for the fleet. Since many of the individuals referenced in this book served on the General Board, Charles Badger and Arthur Hepburn come to mind, it would be odd that the Board played no role at all in policy development for information systems. For example, the “1922 Naval Policy” written collectively by the General Board had an entire section devoted to “Information” in that milestone document. 2

Additional value in the book comes from fascinating photographs, schematics, and maps from the relevant periods that add to the overall narrative. This is an essential book for historians of technology, naval historians, and for naval officers in general and will have great appeal for anyone interested in innovation and the challenging dynamics of modern naval warfare. This book is most highly recommended.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

—————————————————————-

  1. Thomas C. Hone and Trent Hone, Battle Line: The United States Navy, 1919-1939 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press,2006); see also Trent Hone, “U.S. Navy Surface Battle Doctrine and Victory in the Pacific,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2009, Vol. 62, No. : 67-104; and Thomas C. Hone, “Replacing Battleships with Aircraft Carriers in the Pacific in World War II,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2013, Vol. 66, No. 1: 56-76.
  2. John T. Kuehn, Agents of Innovation: The General Board and the Design of the Fleet That Defeated the Japanese Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 204note.

This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *