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Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and…

Information at Sea: Shipboard Command and Control in the U.S. Navy, from…

by Timothy S. Wolters

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This is a fairly short (225 pages plus notes) and fairly readable history of command and control in the U.S. Navy from the Civil War to the end of the Second World War. The problem is simple enough: How does an admiral on one ship get a clear mental picture of what the rest of his fleet is doing, what the enemy is up to, and what both side's aircraft are doing, make a good decision, and get his commands back out to his fleet in time to win the battle?

Sailing ships used signal flags in 1860, and of course these were still in use in the Second World War, but they are useless at night and their range even in daylight was limited -- perhaps 4 nautical miles when all you had was a 19th-century spyglass. The U.S. Navy was very pleased with its colored signal flares, which were highly reliable and reasonably inexpensive, and which were produced by an enterprising widow by the name of Martha Coston. These continued to be used even after Very invented his signal pistol; the Navy immediately saw advantages to a signal that was lofted into the air and did not illuminate the sending ship, but the flares were sufficiently unreliable at first, and budgets tight enough, that they were never really adopted.

Radio interested the Navy from the start. There is no question the Navy took command and control seriously and had some very bright people working for it; but the Navy had a tight budget and was strongly inclined to wait and see if a technology would mature a little more before jumping on. It did not help that radios were, in fact, terribly unreliable and insecure at first. The Navy eventually dispatched naval observers to learn whatever it could about European radio, while instituting what would become the Naval Research Laboratory to do its own research. By the time of the First World War, the U.S. Navy had radios that were more sensitive than British sets, but they were also less sharply tuned; the British had developed better electronic filters to narrow the bandwidth. As the junior naval partner (at the time) the U.S. Navy accepted the inevitable and adopted British sets.

Radio improved rapidly after the war, and the big concern became using the information effectively. It became clear that tactic exercise of command was not going to work well through enciphered long-range radio; the Navy's solution was very high frequency radio, which could not propagate over the horizon (thus not posing so great a risk of enemy detection) and was suitable for rapid voice communication. The set was named TBS, apparently not for Talk Between Ship; in this case, it was a reverse acronymn, with the phrase "Talk Between Ships" coined to fit the official set designation.

There is a notion that American admirals were stupid about the potential for naval aviation between the wars. This really needs to be put to rest. American admirals greatly valued their (few) carriers, but in Fleet Exercises, the carriers were all ruled destroyed or crippled early in the exercise Every. Single. Time. In one exercise, the carrier lost track of its own escorts at night and, when dawn broke, four "enemy" battleships were within 5000 yards; the umpires quite naturally ruled that the carrier was sunk before it could launch a single aircraft. In another engagement, the carriers were sunk by submarines that penetrated their screens. And so on. Carriers were obviously valuable, but much too vulnerable to be the arbiters of victory.

Well, of course, when war came, they were anyway. But it should not be forgotten that the Japanese and Americans together lost ten carriers and no battleships between Pearl Harbor and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. If the trend had continued, the battleships might well have been left to slug it out. What prevented this was radar and better command and control generally.

The Americans were keen on radar, and since the other naval powers were very secretive about it, there was no sending observers abroad to steal the best ideas. The first American radar was installed on naval ships in early 1939, and was received with enthusiasm. Subsequent developments were rapid, particularly after collaboration with the British swung into full gear. The problem now was using the flood of data effectively.

At the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, first round, the American admiral made poor use of his radar, choosing as flagship a ship whose radar had no PPI (Plan Position Indicator), the familiar radar display that shows a kind of map of the area around the ship; the flagship had only the older A scope that merely showed the range to any targets on the current antenna bearing. In fact, three ships had superior radar with PPI, and all were placed towards the rear of the battle line. The Americans won this round anyway, but at terrible cost. The next round involved two battleships with radar and with an admiral that understood it; but one battleship temporarily lost power due to an electrical malfunction, and by the time this was repaired, the ship was silhouetted by its own burning escorts at close range to the enemy, who promptly knocked out the radar room with a barrage of shells. The other battleship, which was the flagship, was able to get a bearing on the Japanese battleship and knock it out with a devastating barrage of radar-controlled gunnery, winning the battle and saving its sister ship.

After that, and after the unpleasant experience of losing so many carriers from inadequate fighter direction, the Navy rapidly evolved the concept of a Combat Information Center, or CIC. This was a room in the best-protected part of the ship whose whole function was to digest sightings and other data and present a clear picture of the tactical situation to the commander -- or, if it was an air battle, the fighter director officer. The CIC had radar screens on one wall, to process current data; plots on the opposite wall, to show past data and develop a picture of the situation; an air control team along the third wall to control the air battle, and a surface control team on the fourth wall to control the surface battle. The CIC on a destroyer had 15 men, with double that on a carrier or battleship.

Finding men with the aptitude to be fighter director officers was a serious problem. Selection was rigorous but did not prevent many from flunking out. Commanding officers were also required to take their own CIC course, which some resented, but the resentment rapidly died out in the face of reality.

The CIC concept was severely tested against the kamikazes off Okinawa. Wolters judges the pickets a success, but at a terrible cost; he opines that the Navy ought to have more seriously considered capturing outlying islands early on to be radar stations. In fact, this was eventually done, which finally took some of the pressure off the pickets.

An enjoyable read. Two thumbs up. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 8, 2016 |
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