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Naval Revolutions Are Built Revolutions
A review of 'Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars' (336 pages)
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Military history YouTuber Bernhard Kast likes to say that “naval strategy is built strategy.” We could say the same of any revolution in naval strategy. Examining the last three major naval conflicts in history — the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and both World Wars — Vincent O'Hara and Leonard R. Heinz show that “new technologies do not materialize fully functional as from Aladdin’s lamp.” They are instead constructed with deliberation and planning, neither from the center outwards nor from the outside-in, but through the complex interaction of scientists, engineers, sailors, their admirals, and the politicians who must charge their taxpayers.
Published in 2022 by the Naval Institute Press, the book Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars examines the histories of mines torpedoes (weapons), submarines and aircraft (platforms), as well as radio and radar (technologies), to reveal the underlying patterns of naval innovation. “History shows that a successful technology undergoes a process: invention, development, acceptance, deployment, and then a cycle of discovery, evolution, and exploitation. The capstone of this process is determining the technology’s best uses and then combining those with best practices for best results,” they write.
Thus “doctrine and training affect the use and usefulness of technology” more than the intentions of the inventor ever do. What matters is that the development process ends with sailors who know how to use their assigned technologies in combat. Building the system to fight in a battleship is equivalent to constructing the battleship. Navies have always been joined at the hip with governments and shipyards and contractors by this process. A revolutionary technology requires them all to change together. Failure in this complex endeavor creates conditions for strategic defeat.
The better innovator will better adapt to the changing conditions of the war. Although “the goal is combat advantage” in every scenario, any technological advantage will be “rare and often fleeting.” No domain of war demonstrates this better than the electromagnetic spectrum. Whether by cracking enemy codes or improving radar countermeasures, one can gain an advantage for a while, until the enemy changes their codes or adopts counter-countermeasures. The art of war in the 4th dimension is about creating and exploiting these temporary advantages. “Radio teaches the perils of rationalizing the use of a seductive technology by thinking that one’s own capabilities to protect and exploit the technology are always superior to those of the foe.”
A revolution in naval affairs takes time and resources to construct, so the strategic challenge is to have the means of the naval revolution to hand at the right time and find a path to scaling up solutions for problems as they are found. Italy and Japan failed to develop radar capabilities; German radar applications focused on detection over exploitation; the Axis powers were decisively defeated at sea, and in the air, by the superior technology and industrial base of the Allies, with radar playing an outsie role.
Not that the Allies got everything right. Quite the opposite, for they had to figure things out just like their enemies. The learning curve is steep in war, but “navies learn the best use of new technology only through the medium of peer-to-peer combat,” O’Hara and Heinz write. We live in the fourth wave of modern naval revolution, meaning steel ships. Starting in 1945, this epoch “has lasted the longest, not because the pace of invention has slowed — it has in fact accelerated — but because since 1945 there has been no major peer-to-peer naval war — that is, a total war between opponents with similar technological resources — to prove these technologies in all-out combat.”
Debacles in the early Pacific surface engagements of World War II led Adm. Chester Nimitz to hail the invention of the combat information center (CIC), a place where multiple streams of information can be quickly processed so that commanders have useful knowledge rather than a confusion of data. Rather than impose a top-down solution for all ships, captains were encouraged to set up their own CICs with the means already available. As a result, the US Navy had finished the transition before the Royal Navy held its first administrative meeting to convert the fleet.
Information overload was always a problem. Early radios had weak signals and no way to disriminate between frequencies. Congested early networks were slow. During this era of ‘wireless’ traffic, “the laborious process of encoding, enciphering, deciphering, and decoding even a simple message took time and allowed ample scope for human error.” German sumbarines had wonderful radio range, but “predictably, the ability to report soon became the requirement to report,” and so Room 40 began to track German u-boats from their frequent radio traffic. Communication could inhibit initiative, for “the ability to communicate over long distances tempts upper-level commanders to meddle with lower-level subordinates at the scene even though those subordinates may have better information.”
Voice telephony radio was instantly abused. “Navies would discover that whether excited or dispassionate, communications in combat would naturally expand to overload channels,” they write. The American Great White Fleet set out on its world cruise with DeForest voice radio sets, but upon returning to the United States they were stripped out. Frequently, “ships often simply shut down their radios at sea so as to avoid receiving undesirable orders” in peacetime. Systems which build commanders who know what to do, and then trust them to do it, will cope better as systems when things fail. Information is a weapon all by itself in such an environment. Japanese kamikaze missions were supposed to arrive from many directions at once, overwhelming American radar operators with too much information.
Navies make “hard choices of needs and wants” all the time. Many of the authors’ anecdotes “demonstrate how naval professionals, busy people with unmet needs, generally prioritized immediate threats and short-term results over innovation in both war and peace,” whereas engineers and scientists “tended to focus on potential.”
No single technology ever changes everything on its own. Rather, battle changes as humans figure out how to exploit a new technology. “Even an alpha technology must be open to innovative use if it is to remain relevant,” they say, and then naval systems of administration and training must incorporate the changes, or else “a technology without a doctrine will be misused or neglected.”
Technologies also reinforce each other. Radio and radar both made aircraft many times as useful as they had been as discrete technologies. Electromagnetism “expanded perceptions beyond the horizon and beneath the waves, revolutionized the collection and use of information, and saw the introduction of practical guided weapons.”
‘Revolution’ implies speed. War propels revolution. The guns of the battleships at Jutland in 1916 were twice the barrel width of the guns at Tsushima in 1905, throwing shells twice as heavy, with double the range. Aircraft engines were three times as powerful in 1918 than in 1914, and then three times as powerful in 1939 as compared to 1918.
Some technologies developed at great expense have met dead ends. Airships are a prominent example in the book. “The searchlight is an example of a tool that had a specific combat use, one that navies believed would be decisive, and a technology that navies invested considerable research and funds to improve,” O’Hara and Heinz write. “However, when used in combat, it revealed itself also to be a weakness. Searchlights could illuminate the enemy and allow guns to target the enemy at night, but they also provided a wonderful point of aim.” By 1945 they had largely been stripped from most ships and replaced with antiaircraft guns.
Mines and torpedoes are weapons, whereas radio and radar are tools, while the ships and planes are platforms. The authors demonstrate how these three categories interact, and how they made battleships disappear from the world’s seas. Both mines and torpedoes were asymmetric threats that the submarine could pose to a battleship that was much larger, one hundred times as expensive, and carrying thousands of sailors compared to dozens. ‘Classic’ submarine warfare is hardly obsolete. When a British captain sank the Argentine vessel General Belgrano in the 1982 Falklands war, he used Type VII torpedoes that were seven decades old.
Mines are an example of simple and cheap technologies that get overlooked by navies. They were the most effective anti-submarine technology for most of the First World War. “By the end of the war, battleships were supporting minesweepers rather than the reverse,” for the dreadnoughts were already too precious to risk in unswept seas. Despite their clear utility, and massive production efforts during the war, mine development was universally ignored by admiralties until the eve of the Second World War. Today, major navies still do not prioritize mine warfare even though it remains effective, while the democratization of industrial technology has made mines available to small states and non-state actors, who use them as asymmetric threats.
Distributed innovation only works if there is high-level collaboration. Germany created separate development streams for air dropped and naval mines from 1939. Strategic oversight was so poor that thousands of advanced air-dropped Oyster mines were still in Germany waiting for distribution in the Normandy theater when Operation Overlord began.
Nor are potentially useful technologies necessarily popular ones. The adoption of radar was “a matter of naval professionals unable to embrace an invention being thrust upon them by engineers and scientists who, in turn, had limited appreciation of the conditions and needs of naval warfare,” they write. Radar was not adopted by all the interwar navies. “For many navies, it was a solution in search of a problem,” and so the Italians and Japanese started well behind, never catching up. “The way that the Allies were able to flood the oceans with small powerful radars in the air and afloat created an electronic environment that overwhelmed their enemies,” they write.
Some measure of centralization is certainly necessary, especially air defense. The chief advantage of the British Chain Home radar system over the German Freya radar stations was a centralized plotting room with telephone links to airbases around Britain.
Yet centralized innovation carries its own risks, for example in the Royal Navy being slower to adopt CICs, or in the absurd failures of German and American submarine torpedoes in the Second World War. Every navy in the second war had overestimated the completeness of mine and torpedo development in the first war. Japanese Long Lance Type 93 torpedoes were an exception that succeeded in battle, and might have been decisive in more engagements if the Imperial Navy had better adapted their doctrines. By contrast, Japan neglected electromagnetic development, dividing repsonsibility between army and navy, while discounting the threat of American submarines scanning the sea with radar; once the bugs were worked out of their Mark XIV torpedoes, American submariners quickly turned the war around in the Pacific.
US and German torpedo teething issues are illustrative. “In both cases a central technical bureaucracy orchestrated interwar development and produced and immensely complicated weapon,” the authors write. “The lesson is that the more complex the weapon, the more rigorous must be the testing and familiarization process.”
The more compicated the weapon became, the more the central bureaucracy displaced end users in development and testing. Security concerns kept end users relatively uninformed about the complex mechanisms and their potential malfunctions, while the mutliple flaws defied detection without rigorous testing under service conditions. Budget strictures limited testing. It was natural in this environment for developers to assume end users were doing something wrong, and for the users to think that developers had no grasp of operational realities.
Aircraft do not have this problem because the users (test pilots) are always involved in the development stream. Where the branch goes wrong is that theories of war must fit the aircraft, not the other way around. “The story of naval aviation demonstrates how subjecting control and use of a technology to the dictates of ideology, theory, and untested doctrine can compromise effectiveness at sea,” the authors conclude. The decision to consolidate flying forces in 1918 nearly proved disastrous to British interwar aircraft development.
A winning combination of tools, platforms, and weapons spurs further tehcnological developments. For example, the needs of military aviation drove the rapid development of weather science in the First World War. The requirement for machine assistance to crack machine codes spurred the development of computerization. Computers and sensors linked together made software development into a crucial part of the procurement system.
Reading this book, one concludes that major naval conflicts may have become rare because the pace of revolution has raised the risks of failure past the point of acceptability to penny-pinching policymakers. Maybe the ships just cost too much, anymore. With the extinction of the armored battleship and the price tag of one aircraft carrier exceeding most navies’ total budgets, it is easy to see why the median warship is smaller than it was a century ago — while the politicians risk their navies less often, and the admirals become more conservative than ever. Carrier aircraft are reaching the same point, the authors suggest.
“Human nature being what it is,” the authors conclude, “technologies trumpeted in their early stages as being transformative — torpedoes, submarines, aircraft, for example — have always attracted strong cadres of proponents, even prophets.” Contrarily, admiralties are always criticized for conservatism. This conceptual opposition is “compelling, but false.”
Despite most disruptive technologies coming from private innovators, “navies had to commit resources — always more than anticipated and often massive — to achieve worthwhile results.” Whereas navies have limited resources, “examples where excesssive conservatism has prevented the adoption of a new technology are hard to find.” Use derives from need, “but that use is not always predicated upon original need.” No prediction ever quite points to exactly where the revolution will lead; it is the conundrum of all naval planning.
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