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  • Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter through Three World Wars
  • Kathleen Broome Williams
Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter through Three World Wars. By Norman Friedman. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59114-286-7. Illustrations. List of acronyms. Notes. Index. Pp. xv, 360. $32.95.

Focusing on the U.S. Navy and the British Royal Navy–leaders in innovation and experimentation and standard setters in network-centric warfare–Norman Friedman suggests that navies have learned to fight smarter using network-centric [End Page 1386] systems, but only when using them effectively. British and American efforts to do so, particularly post-1945, make up the bulk of this book. The efforts of other navies, especially European and Japanese, are also discussed, as are Soviet efforts during the Cold War.

At the outset Friedman sets himself the task of demystifying the arcane subject of network-centric warfare, going about it with common sense language and illuminating historical examples. Network-centric warfare, he maintains, is more easily grasped if viewed as picture-centric. It is a new form of warfare relying on coordination of information from diverse sources to provide a more-or-less real-time picture on which tactical and wide area command and control decisions can be based. Success relies on creating a “usable picture of reality” (p. ix) and acting on it. This picture of reality has changed significantly over the years in range, scope, and complexity. An essential element in picture-making, and a theme that runs throughout the book, is the development of increasingly advanced plots to display information as it arrives. Plots can show what is happening in otherwise invisible areas–over the horizon, or at night, or in poor weather.

Friedman divides his book into three sections corresponding to the new technologies–radio, radar, and computers–and to the three world wars that brought significant advances in picture making and therefore in network-centric warfare. He dates the origins of network-centric systems to the insights of British Admiral Jacky Fisher. At the dawn of the twentieth century radio enabled faster and more up-to-date intelligence gathering that revolutionized ocean surveillance. Fisher understood the significance of ocean surveillance based on intelligence and instituted systems feeding that intelligence into the structure of command. The Battle of Jutland demonstrated both the promise of network-centric warfare and the difficulty commanders had trusting externally supplied, possibly contradictory, and personally unverifiable information. This issue of trust can still affect network-centric warfare today.

World War II added radar to the sources of intelligence that commanders had to consider. What was significant was not the technical excellence of the radar but the way it was used. For example, British superiority to German radar was not in its technical effectiveness but in its link to a network that ensured its successful use to defeat German air attacks.

By 1945 plots were reaching saturation point. The mass of data–including for aircraft–could no longer be transmitted, received, or sorted fast enough to be useable. Computers solved these problems and with their speed doubling every eighteen months or so they have made modern network-centric warfare possible. Automated intelligence handling systems like the Naval Tactical Data System became picture keepers for masses of data forming the core of new command systems. Other developments addressed in this all-encompassing study include automatic weapons control systems such as Aegis, underwater ocean surveillance systems like SOSUS, and large-scale command systems that networked fleets and shore commands in automated versions of Jacky Fisher’s concept. [End Page 1387]

Summing up, Friedman notes that the side using a networked approach usually has the advantage although he also recognizes problems. Today, we again approach saturation with plots so data-laden as to be almost unreadable. Allied operations like those of NATO require a shared picture but there can be a reluctance to share sources of intelligence. And finally, a picture of enemy dispositions is not a picture of enemy intentions or policy. Interpretation is as important as ever.

While Friedman’s analysis of network-centric warfare in all its manifestations is straightforward as promised, and...