The Limits of Command and Control

Young, David (2021) The Limits of Command and Control. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

[img] PDF (This version has a coversheet with an annotated changelog and with in-text changes coloured in red. For examiners only.) (Thesis - as examined) - Repository staff only - Requires a PDF viewer such as GSview, Xpdf or Adobe Acrobat Reader
Download (28MB)
PDF (This is the final thesis version with corrections but without annotated cover sheet or colour changes indicating edits. Please use this one for library storage.) (Thesis - as examined) - Requires a PDF viewer such as GSview, Xpdf or Adobe Acrobat Reader
Available under Licence Creative Commons Attribution.
Download (28MB) | Preview


This thesis examines the role of the human operator in command and control systems designed and developed for the US Air Force during the 1950s and 1960s. As understood within the discourse of defence research, command and control involved the efficient capture and management of information from the battlefield in the pursuit of a particular military strategy. The digital computer, although then still very much the highly protean object of military-industrial-university research networks, was repeatedly proposed as a crucial technology that would allow for greater and more accurate control of the battlefield.

I explore the discursive terrain occupied by the human operator through an analysis of two command and control systems, selected for their significance in employing digital computers to automate previously manual military practices. Firstly, I examine the operational principles established for Air Force crews in the SAGE system deployed in the late-1950s, tracing their elaboration within a series of psychological studies of stress led by psychologists at the RAND Corporation. In the absence of an actual Soviet invasion, SAGE crews fought simulated air wars while the effectiveness of their collective performance was systematically quantified. The second case study turns to the US Air Force's 'anti-infiltration' programme that targeted and bombed convoy routes used by the North Vietnamese Army to deliver supplies into South Vietnam. I focus on the role played by photo interpreters and systems analysts in the collection and verification of data used to confirm so-called 'vehicular activity' and 'truck kills'.

In histories of Cold War technopolitics, both of these case studies have frequently been presented as exemplars of the application of a quantitative, computational rationality to the planning and conduct of military strategy. However, for all the extensive discussion in this literature about the central role of digital computers in automating parts of these systems, there still remained human operators who clearly played a significant, if seemingly recessive, role in their day-to-day functioning.

My discussion of these case studies is based on close textual analyses of 'grey media'---the technical and administrative writing produced within bureaucratic institutions such as the US military and its defence research contractors. I foreground the effects grey media had on structuring and standardising specific operational practices, and consequently how it delimited the respective roles played by the human operator and the machine in the production of information about the battlefield.

Drawing on a Foucauldian understanding of power as it functions through institutional discourse, I argue that the human operator was instrumental in codifying and authenticating information generated by and for the computer. This varied from the regular re-structuring of data in machine-readable forms, to the longer-term tasks of quantifying the strategic effectiveness of the system. Far from simply making the processing of information more efficient, these computerised systems were enmeshed in a vast and contradictory 'regime of practices' in which manual work proliferated. I contend that in order to fully grasp how digital, networked technologies have reshaped the field of possibility in war, foregrounding the grey, recessive role played by the human operator is vital.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Goffey, Dr Andrew
Lucas, Prof Scott
Keywords: USAF, United States Air Force, command and control systems
Subjects: U Military science > U Military science (General)
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies
Item ID: 65063
Depositing User: Young, David
Date Deposited: 04 Aug 2021 04:41
Last Modified: 04 Aug 2021 04:41

Actions (Archive Staff Only)

Edit View Edit View