Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars

  • Published

Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars by Vincent P. O’Hara and Leonard R. Heinz. Naval Institute Press, 2022, 336 pp. 

Vincent P. O’Hara is the author or co-author of more than 10 books, mainly on topics of World War I and II naval warfare.  In this latest book, Innovating Victory: Naval Technology in Three Wars, O’Hara has teamed up with Leonard Heinz, an experienced designer of wargames and simulations with emphasis on tactical naval problems. The authors use their expertise to explore six case studies that analyze technological developments in the twentieth century.

O’Hara and Heinz studied the development of weapons (mines and torpedoes), tools (radio and radar), and platforms (submarines and aircraft). The guiding idea was to focus, not on technical details but to explore “the process by which each technology’s possibilities were first recognized, tested, then used, or not used, to best advantage” (2). Aside from the specific technologies, the book also considers the effects of human factors such as prior established practice, politics, and policy. The goal was to divine any principles that governed the process and determine whether those principles applied across platforms, technologies, and nations. The authors also wanted to know whether any identified principles led to victory irrespective of the time in history or the specific technology pursued. This would help answer the question of whether those principles were generalizable enough to apply developing technology today.

The book is organized into eight chapters. The lead chapter, “Use, Doctrine, Innovation” provides an overview of the previously mentioned human factors. This is followed by six chapters exploring the historical development of mines, torpedoes, radio, radar, submarines, and aircraft. The closing chapter, “Conclusions,” lays out what the authors discovered as principles. Based on the scope of the bibliography and the well-documented endnotes, it is apparent that the chapters are thoroughly researched. The bibliography is well-organized, showing that the authors made liberal use of official histories and primary documents and hundreds of articles, chapters, and books by well-respected scholars. Moreover, the chapters are provided with useful illustrations, pictures, and graphics that emphasize the authors’ points.

Within each of these chapters, they do a commendable job of producing a pleasingly readable condensed history that compares development success and failure across several nations including the United States, United Kingdom, Russia (and the USSR), Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, although not all of them in each case.

Obviously, radio, radar, and aircraft are not technological developments exclusive to naval warfare so the authors found it necessary to discuss the development of these key innovations in broader terms that included the development of land-based systems. Those cases readily showed the complications that arose from politics, interservice rivalry, national competition, and policy decisions—particularly on the priority of capital investment. These human factors all contributed equally, or more so, than the science and engineering did in developing these technologies into effective weapon systems.

What stands out in some cases is how quickly these technologies went from discovered physical phenomena, to idea, developed prototypes, workable innovations, and dominating advantages in a period of only a few decades while in others the basic technology existed for more than a century before countries found a way to use it effectively in naval warfare. For example, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated his radio in 1896 and by 1897, the Italian Navy had trialed ship to shore communication. Naval commanders on both sides used radio extensively in the Russo-Japanese War from 1904–05. As use of the new technology became widespread, its liabilities also became manifest. By 1914, all major navies used radio communications but also learned to listen to adversary radio transmissions. Knowing that radio transmissions were easily intercepted, the navies developed cyphers and encryption, used jamming techniques, and developed direction finding to determine locations of enemy forces. O’Hara and Heinz conclude that each new technology offered a window of advantage that could be exploited until countermeasures were developed. Sometimes that window was open long enough to win a war.

In other circumstances, technology is only slowly exploited. An example documented by O’Hara and Heinz is China’s use of mines dating back to the tenth century during the Sung dynasty. Mines were placed in the river channel to block traffic or emplaced to protect a small harbor. The Japanese began to use mines offensively in the early twentieth century against the Russian fleet during the Russo-Japanese war. Mines were used both offensively and defensively during World War I where they were produced and laid by the tens of thousands. Mines are relatively cheap to manufacture, can be laid by many platforms either covertly or overtly, and cannot be ignored. Mine countermeasure are difficult to employ. Sweeping for them is a tedious and an uncertain process.

A point that O’Hara and Heinz make to explain this differential in development time is that there is an emotional current to developing technology. Mines, mine layers, and mine sweepers do not evoke the emotional attachment that flow to aircraft, ships of the line, and submarines with crews admired for their bravery and exploits. This emotional preference influences which technologies receive priority for development. Exciting technology garners the most attention and investment. This can create a blind spot for older technology that is used in a novel way. A technology might be boring but that does not mean it is ineffective.

Technological advantage in warfare is often due to integration and codevelopment with other technologies. Radio begat radar. But radar and radio intelligence became advantages only after navies learned how to compile and analyze information so that it could be acted upon tactically. Here it was apparent that top-down, centralized oversight of technological development was most useful when scientific and engineering attention were needed along with large amounts of capital. Rich national governments can provide those commodities better than anyone else. Once the technology existed, however, bottom-up experimentation and lessons learned were the quickest ways to develop effective exploitation methods. Thus, the US Navy developed the Combat Information Center and began to modify ships to include a dedicated space for consolidating information and controlling combat.

Submarines became effective along with improvements in radio and torpedoes. They became particularly deadly, and almost a war-winning application, when policy changed that shifted the submarine’s focus to targeting national trade by sinking merchant shipping without following the traditional rules of prize capture.

Similarly, aircraft needed to communicate with their ships, find targets, and deliver ordinance. They become most effective when the purpose-built ship—the aircraft carrier—was designed specifically to launch, recover, and maintain aircraft. Torpedoes had to be hardened to withstand the impact with the water when launched at the speeds necessary to keep aircraft aloft. Tactics had to be developed to find the enemy, report the location and direction, direct other aircraft to the attack the enemy, and finally to return to their own fleet and be recovered.

A theme that runs throughout the book is the idea of network effects. One radio is a novelty. Many radios in a network allow rapid communications for a variety of tasks and common understanding of the situation. Other technologies are similar. For instance, many radio direction-finding antennas provide more accurate locations and greater resilience against damage. Many mines are far more effective in constraining ship movement than a few that can be avoided. If Germany had fielded 50 more submarines when World War II began, the outcome may have been quite different. The limited application of technology produces a small effect, but massive proliferation produces a great effect.

The military professional might not be surprised by these lessons, but they are worth noting and many of the assumptions and biases demonstrated in the cases are still prevalent today. It is also important that one does not learn the wrong lessons from these historical snapshots. The book, including the index, is only 300 pages. The authors examined several nations but only six technologies and two platforms. That limitation raises concern over how generalizable the lessons are. Many more cases, covering more diverse technologies over longer spans of history and including differing cultures will be required before achieving the goals that the authors set out for this book.

Given the limitations of the cases presented here, the authors did a commendable job of creating an accessible and readable volume that points out some potential pitfalls to avoid and techniques for developing technological advantage in wartime. The target audience is not the Department of Defense Acquisition Professional or the cadre of doctrine writers who will not be surprised by any of the book’s findings. Military enthusiasts, whether professional or amateur, however, will enjoy the book and should add it to their military history library.

Phillip G. Pattee, PhD, USN, Retired

"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."