Michael A. Palmer, Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. $29.95.
Within these pages, in a masterful control of subject matter, Dr. Michael Palmer analyzes the evolution of naval fleet command and control from the Anglo-Spanish battle in the English Channel in 1588 to the Persian Gulf War. The essence of the book is the struggle of two opposing philosophies of naval (and military) command, that of the centralizers vs. the decentralizers. He takes as his benchmark the guidance and techniques used by Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson in his classic action at the Battle of the Nile in 1801 where he waged a battle of annihilation against the fleet of French Vice Admiral Francois Paul Brueys.
There, in conflict, were the prevailing theories of battle, the Frenchman favoring one scientifically controlled from above, using preplanned maneuvers and controlled by the commander using a well developed set of signals, in which subordinates would execute the plan in obedience to orders. The captains of the British fleet, having absorbed Nelson’s carefully taught doctrine emphasizing the initiative of the subordinate, knew they should not expect to see flags signaling what they were to do. Nelson was willing to accept a certain amount of confusion, disorder and even chaos in battle because he trusted his commanders to do what was expected of them. The main idea being that if trained ship commanders knew what to expect, they could prevail even in the "fog of war" where uncertainty is a constant. In Palmer’s view, this is still the central principle for success in battle.Despite revolutionary improvements in communications, the central crisis of command remains. From the firing of signal guns, the lowering of a topsail, the hoisting of elaborate flag signals, and the advent of continuous wave radio and voice communications, and even computer-driven data systems, technological improvements have not eased the dilemma. In fact, the impact of steam-driven ships, heavy armor, steam torpedoes, breech-loading guns, gas turbine engines, and ship-launched missiles have accelerated the need for rapid command decisions and greatly reduced the time required to make them. By the same token, the advent of the telegraph, submarine cables, wireless telegraphy, and satellite communications have only induced the naval commander’s worst nightmare, the tendency of headquarters staffs who are out of touch with local conditions to micromanage the battle space.This work is deeply researched, written concisely and with flair, and the author’s opinions are not hidden. This is an essential book for the libraries of navy officers, policy makers, naval scholars and military history buffs.
Reviewed by William S. Dudley, Ph.D.
Former Director of Naval History