Given the technological simplicity of warfare during the Age of Sail, responsibility for assimilating information into effective decisions was easily within the grasp of the ship’s captain or fleet commander. When information needed to be passed, commanders relied on flag hoists and signal books to maneuver warships limited by speed, mobility, and gun range. Missing in the literature, though, has been an explanation of how the increasing sophistication of warships, and commensurate complexity of war at sea, affected the ability of captains and admirals to command. For Tim Wolters, a former U.S. Navy submariner turned historian, the answer lies in the development of machines, systems, and processes that dramatically altered the means through which commanders received information and controlled their ships and fleets.
Focusing predominantly on the U.S. Navy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Information at Sea offers an important examination of the ability of a military organization to adapt to dramatic technological change. For navies in general and the U.S. Navy in particular, steam propulsion offered significant tactical advantages, but also increased the complexity of operations at sea. Speed and maneuverability extended the eyes of the fleet. But spatial extension came at a cost. Commanders had to devise new ways to signal ships operating beyond the sight of flag hoists. Signal flares and searchlights offered some promise, but proved no less susceptible to weather and misinterpretation as the traditional signal flags. The incorporation of radio to warships complicated command and control even further. By the early twentieth century, fleet commanders not only had to deal with units dispersed beyond their visual control and operating in three dimensions, but also had to deal with increasingly large amounts of information moving at speeds beyond the cognitive ability of even the most adept captain or admiral.
Wolters argues that the solution U.S. naval officers arrived at was the creation of a brain for warships. The integration of machines and humans emerged as the Combat Information Center (CIC), where sailors used technology to make sense of a dynamic and complex environment, and provided commanders with a clear and uncomplicated tactical picture.
How the navy proved so adaptive is another important aspect of the book. Wolters observes that the efforts to develop an effective command-and-control system required senior officers to compromise on traditional hierarchy and rely on the expertise of more junior officers and enlisted sailors. Information assimilation and distribution became a collaborative [End Page 1027] effort that pushed decision making in some cases away from the bridge. This became particularly acute when carrier aviation and radar reached operational maturity in the 1940s. Attacks from Japanese carrier-based aircraft compressed space and time, leaving carrier and task force commanders reliant on more junior Fighter Director Officers to independently assess incoming raids and order fighters to defend the task force. Finally, the skill sets needed to operate radios, radar, and sonar, and the officers tasked to assimilate, synthesize, and distribute a three-dimensional tactical picture, required people who did not fit the stereotypical portrait of a U.S. naval officer. Technology had a leveling effect on the officers who manned the CIC, where skills mattered more than commissioning source or appearance.
Extremely well researched and clearly written, Information at Sea has made a significant contribution to understanding the relationship between technology, organizational adaptability, and war. The book should resonate with historians across many fields. But Wolters’s arguments should also be examined by contemporary service and civilian defense officials. The inter-war U.S. Navy proved extremely capable of adapting to the information world at sea. Senior officers eschewed bureaucracy and rigid hierarchy to help ship and fleet commanders fight a modern war. How an organization reforms itself to become so adaptive is the story of the interwar period. But that history may also be pertinent today, as policy makers struggle to adapt the armed forces to shrinking budgets and emerging threats.