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The Information Age and Naval Command & Control

26 May 23


(Proceedings of the Institute of the Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 111:1, January 2023, pp. 113-131)

18 pages

Members can get a copy of the article directly from Peter Marland, at [email protected].

Innovation is a current obsession which sometimes results in more meetings and declarations of intent than actual progress. Fortunately, some useful analysis is now available on how to do it well, such as Maritime Strategy and Naval Innovation, edited by Alessio Patalano and James Russell. To these works we should gladly add this case study, written by three genuine experts in their field and based on effective research. It explains the development of operations room command systems and tactical data links for the UK, US and Canadian Navies between 1945 and 1970.

Much of the value comes from how well the three strands of UK, US and Canadian development are related and contrasted. This makes the article not just an individual tale of success or otherwise, but a balanced mix of both. To summarise, the Canadians went ahead on an insufficient technical base and couldn’t quite deliver; the UK had an early lead enabled by operator created doctrine and approaches slowly whittled away through some mis-steps until the successful ADAWS system came out (fitted in Type 42s); and the US started later and learnt from both to methodically create the Aegis system which, much updated, is still in service today. There were wider benefits: the Canadians created the tracker ball, which when upended became today’s mouse, and the British came up with unified track numbers and were early users of joysticks for inputs.

The results from improving combat systems were impressive. In Exercise RIPTIDE in 1959, the carrier HMS Victorious’ fighters coped with raid densities that led the USN to believe that either she had many more fighters than were actually onboard or that they were radar equipped. Instead, they were being well directed using a new combat display system. Later, the mature Aegis system started in this period was important in the US Navy’s 1980s Forward Maritime Strategy putting pressure on the Soviets, because it made possible the defeat of large-scale missile attacks and so the operation of task forces closer to Murmansk and other Russian bases.

So what might we conclude from this article? Education and expertise is vital, both to enable ideas and grown up, realistic conversations. There is the role of relatively junior officers in not just making things happen but in telling their seniors what is possible: in one example, Admirals didn’t raise an issue because they were unaware of a possible solution. There is also risk, and the dangers not just of aiming too high, but, as the Canadian system did, aiming too low and not delivering enough that the customer found it useful. The issue of a technical industrial base comes up, as does international cooperation and the importance of long-term engagement and good project management. There is also a need for input from the users to give a clear operational goal, in turn requiring a view on what the navy wishes to achieve, and what sea power can achieve. That brings us back to education, along with a constancy of purpose.

The article is generally pleasantly readable, even for the non-initiated like your reviewer, who stopped doing science at 16. It is also brief, at around 8,000 words, and well-illustrated. This is a well-researched and considered article with much relevance for today. I wish they’d expand it into a book. Recommended.