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Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter through Three World Wars

Network-Centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter through Three World Wars by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press, 2009, 424 pp.

Essentially, Network-Centric Warfare is a history of (primarily) US Navy command and control and naval battle management technologies/systems from just prior to World War I through the present day. Dr. Norman Friedman, award-winning author of 33 books, is a lecturer at senior US and coalition war colleges; visiting professor at the University College, London; and columnist for the US Naval Institute’s Proceedings. He has published articles in Joint Forces Quarterly and the Wall Street Journal and has appeared as an expert on the Discovery and History channels as well as National Public Television’s NOVA program.

Unclassified discussions of netcentric warfare have tended to focus on repeating the theories of the late Adm Arthur Cebrowski. This book is refreshing in that it avoids that repetition. Instead, Dr. Friedman dives right into naval history with no real introduction or overarching view of any currently accepted definition of the term netcentric or of what he believes it means. Throughout the work, he seems to oversimplify and distill all netcentric warfare down to picture-centric warfare, the former involving more than commanders having a good common operational picture. Friedman offers only meager “nuggets” to aid in understanding netcentric warfare. One must have a keen interest in naval warfare technologies; otherwise, the investment in plowing through the difficult prose to glean the occasional nugget will seem too costly. Many times when the author attempts to transform the painful history of naval technology into a morsel of netcentric-warfare understanding, there’s little-to-no follow-through. For example, he writes, “There is a radical difference between a networked attack against a nonnetworked enemy and net-on-net combat” (p. 120). Although this would be a great topic sentence for some pithy prose, the author does not elaborate but simply continues telling the reader who sold what naval system to whom.

Readers will find some great discussions late in the book, such as the one on the Worldwide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS): “The [WWMCCS] picture was not cleaned up until it became important for national ballistic missile defense. The moral is unpleasant. The picture is what determines whether a command and control system can support operations. If it is no good, the best communications in the world are worthless. Yet, it is much easier to buy better communications links, and their capabilities are also easier to quantify.”

Occasional technical content errors occur. For example, in discussing the attack on the USS Stark in 1987 (p. 142), the author refers to the Iraqi aircraft’s “Agave” radar. (The Iraqi Mirage F-1 was outfitted with a “Cyrano” radar. For an excellent discussion of the USS Stark incident, see The History of US Electronic Warfare, vol. 3, pp. 259–62.) The author also makes some curious errors of omission regarding the Cuban missile crisis: “The load on the Navy was increased because it was also conducting intensive [antisubmarine warfare] operations . . . and it was preparing to invade Cuba if ordered to do so.” No mention of the other services that would actually do the invading? I found this kind of oversight very “stovepiped” for a book on netcentricity.

The rare black-and-white photographs do much to supplement the text, but they would have been even better had the author circled the particular object of interest or used an arrow to point to it. Such aids, requiring little extra of the author or publisher, would have proven quite useful to readers not intimately familiar with the anatomy of military ships. An interesting aspect of the many high-quality black-and-white photographs and graphics is that they are accompanied by major portions of stand-alone text. Somewhat surprising were the blueprints of Navy combat information centers with “Confidential” markings still showing and no obvious declassification marks. At times, this accompanying text becomes excessive (e.g., that on “elephant cage” direction-finding antennas).

I suggest that readers keep one finger in the acronym section, but in many cases, it won’t do any good. For example, a number of acronyms are not in the listing of acronyms: AGSSN (p. 108); DCB (p. 112); WM (p. 120); PSSM (p. 134); and AOE (p. 144). Yet, even though the author defines NTDS on almost every page, he also includes it in the acronym section.

The author makes some interesting conceptual arguments, such as the one concerning antisubmarine-warfare aircraft already being combat information centers in a sense (pp.146–47). Readers may find these leaps of logic applicable to many of the Air Force’s platforms (e.g., RC-135s) and concepts (e.g., netcentric collaborative targeting). These conceptual discussions could prove useful and inspiring to readers grappling with issues of air, space, and cyberspace integration.

Individuals with a penchant for the history and evolution of technology as it relates to developing a commander’s common operational picture and, to a lesser extent, signals intelligence and electronic warfare will enjoy Network-Centric Warfare. Overall, the first 10 chapters are too focused on historical minutiae of naval matters/electronics to be of interest; moreover, the prose in those chapters is thick with acronyms and nested parenthetical explanations. For this reviewer, not intimately familiar with all forms and the history of naval plotting devices and accoutrements, “connecting the dots” was very difficult at times. I recommend starting at chapter 11, which covers the air war over the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War. For readers who wish to learn a great deal about netcentric-warfare strategy and/or policy, this book will disappoint. However, it may inspire someone to write a better air component equivalent.

Lt Col Wayne L. Shaw III, USAF, Retired

San Antonio, Texas


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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