War at sea 1914-15: The virtual unreality (Part 2)
23 Sep 2015|

Ship radio

Command and control were key naval unknowns in August 1914. What hadn’t been properly appreciated in set-piece, largely visually conducted exercises before the war were the problems with radio. The full conceptual and practical difficulties associated with its use really only became apparent in the Grand Manoeuvres. These were neither frequent nor long enough to fully make the point. This would have fundamental implications for naval operations.

The potential of wireless to coordinate widely separated forces was appreciated almost from the first, just as the telegraph cable had been recognised in the nineteenth century. Before 1914, the Admiralty made heroic efforts to develop ‘network enabled’ warfare, with an Admiralty War Room as the operational command centre. But radios had problems of range, reception, wavelength, mutual interference and reliability, while there were difficulties with security, the encryption and decryption of signals and, above all, with the combined true and relative errors of navigation which meant that the ‘pool of errors’ was often very much greater than the prevailing visibility, particularly in the North Sea. Even if you were told were the enemy was and where he was heading, there was no guarantee—or even probability—that you would find him.

The greatest difficulty with radio, however, was that it created a ‘virtual unreality’, an unreality that navies were all too ready to immerse themselves within. Too many acted as though their commander were in sight—and this mattered.

Navies had a bi-polar culture of command, perhaps most extreme at the beginning of the twentieth century. Andrew Gordon has written an extraordinary book called The Rules of the Game examining the failures at Jutland. Gordon presents a compelling picture of the way that an over-controlling approach to tactics and manoeuvres created a system of operating a fleet at sea incapable of managing events under the actual stress of combat.

By their nature, however, navies arguably always operate this way. If ships are in company, then the culture is one of obedience to allow the admiral to coordinate the force to achieve the operational intent. This is still the case, because it generally works—and disobedience by a subordinate, such as Nelson’s apparent disobedience at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, is the exception that proves the rule. Such control is, of course, more effective if achieved by ensuring prior understanding of the intent, rather than frequent signalling.

Some of the British problems would be caused by more than the tight control of formations at sea, because this actually extended to control of everything. Following the flagship’s movements and routines was compulsory. If the flagship spread awnings, so did you. If the flagship declared a rest afternoon, so did you. This sort of thing, continued for day after day in every fleet or squadron when assembled, created not so much a culture of ‘senior officer veneration’, as one of ‘the senior officer present’.

This idea of ‘presence’ making the difference is important. The other part of the naval split personality was very different. If officers were out of visual contact, then they were expected to exercise their initiative. And they generally did. During the century of the Pax Britannica, such enterprise was consistently demonstrated, creating an expectation summed up by Lord Palmerston’s declaration that he would send a naval officer to solve a problem in distant lands.

There was at least partial awareness of the situation. We tend in 2014 to think of communication as practically instantaneous, but in the navy of the last century it was not, even for radio. A 1906 expert estimated that visual signalling speed rarely exceeded two and a half miles per minute in effect—and was often slower. Early experience of radio showed that its problems—even when ciphers weren’t in use—meant that its effective speed was often not much better and sometimes, much worse. The greater the distance, the greater the delay.

Furthermore, neither the language nor the concepts for communication by radio existed. This was why Army observers of naval manoeuvres had good reason to criticise. One senior observer noted that ‘the preparation of orders is not understood in the Navy, making all allowance for the general differences inherent’. The Navy had yet to develop a system for coordinating remote formations in a tactical environment, something with which the Army had been struggling for more than a century.

There were key aspects to be resolved. Before the radio, all tactical reporting was visual. This meant that the enemy had to be so close (either on the horizon or just over it) that absolute positional errors did not matter—what a commander was interested in was what the enemy bore and in what direction he was steaming. A remote report required not only much more precision—and the greater the distance the more important precision was – but also much more information. This was not fully understood. The first British radio format for an enemy contact report didn’t include either the enemy or reporting unit’s position, while the concept and practice of a tactical plot would take years to formulate.

However, the ‘virtual unreality’ came in the fact that, despite the limitations of radio, many commanders behaved as though their remote senior officer always knew more than they did, sometimes in direct contradiction of what they themselves were seeing. In the pre-war Grand Manoeuvres there were multiple instances of officers failing to act on their own initiative because they thought that higher authority somehow knew more.

Learning to use the new technology and changing the culture of command would take more than just the First World War to achieve. After the failures of the 1916 Battle of Jutland, an effort to return to the ideals of Nelson would be one of the principal concerns of the Royal Navy between 1919 and 1939. Events of the Second World War, starting with the Battle of the River Plate, suggest that this work to achieve cultural change wasn’t wasted.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, and one particular rhyme of 2015 with 1914-15 is apparent to me. The ever greater reliance upon networks and the instantaneous exchange of information in what have, since the end of the Cold War, been largely uncontested electronic environments may have created a new ‘virtual unreality’ with an expectation that higher command will always be accessible, not only to give direction but to be consulted. Thus, commanders at sea may complain they are being micro-managed, but at the same time become reluctant to do anything without first clearing it with their seniors.

Will such a culture work in a cyber war?