I’d like to think that I’m fairly open-minded when it comes to the use of technology. As I mentioned a few days ago, the changes in lifestyle brought about by technology are mind-boggling. The same is true for war fighting. I was with a group the other day touring a US Navy guided missile destroyer and my ears perked up during a briefing on the Bridge by the ship’s navigator. This young officer was enthusiastic and obviously proud of her position as the Navigator. I was pleased to see an electronic navigation system over her plotting table on the Bridge, but when she said that she was qualified to only use electronic navigation I took note. She continued that her goal was to become qualified in paper navigation at some point. I know that going to electronic navigation can save the Navy a ton of money by eliminating the need for lots of paper charts, to say nothing about the manpower needed to keep them up-to-date. It brought back memories of my third-class year at the Naval Academy and the year I spent learning basic navigation and celestial navigation. I even remember a brief section in the textbook, Dutton’s Navigation and Piloting, regarding the advent of LORAN-C, a new radio aid to navigation (you needed a degree in electrical engineering to make it work!). I struggled through endless P-Works (navigation exercises) in the Navigation Loft of Luce Hall. Luce Hall was also the place where we learned to read flashing light and signal flags. I endured a whole semester of celestial navigation, sun lines, local apparent noon, and latitude by Polaris calculations. As I recall, using planets to navigate was particularly difficult because those suckers were always moving around! Inevitably, I would wind up with a fix that was a triangle that put me somewhere in a 50 square mile spot in the ocean ( or worse yet, a point fix 25 miles inland!)
As an A-6 Bombardier/Navigator I experienced the same thing. As a junior officer the best we could do was write down the ship’s position about 45 minutes before we took off and hope that the ship didn’t go too far. Once airborne, the first thing you had to do was figure out where you were by finding a landmark on the radar. Then you had to find your target, hope the pilot could follow the steering directions and while you guide your bomb to the target (assuming you were using a laser guided weapon). Then you had to go back and find the ship and land. Now all that is done by GPS, the bomb guides itself to a target you never have to find. How sweet is that?
So is relying on state-of-the-art electronics a good thing or a bad thing? One would think that using GPS has got to make things easier, yet ships continue to run aground even with GPS in working order. I seem to remember that the USS LaMoure County ran into the continent of South America using GPS several years ago. The submarine USS San Francisco was using an electronic map when it hit a seamount in 2005. So clearly, electronic systems are not infallible (although there’s always an element of human error). One could argue had there been less reliance on technology and more reliance on the tried and true methods of navigation those events might not have happened. On the other hand, using these systems reduces manpower requirements (and cost), saves time and can enhance safety when used properly. Heck, without technology a pilot could never fly an F-18 and accomplish the mission because of the complexity of the aircraft and weapons systems.
So I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, “Should I rely on technology or tradition?” This is a classic dilemma that Dr. Rushworth Kidder addresses in his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices. Both choices are have merit and could be considered correct. I think this one falls into the category of the “trilema” mentioned in the book, which suggests there’s a third answer and that is to seek a balance. So when you are faced with deciding between technology and tradition, carefully consider the facts and seek a balance. With that thought, it’s time to take the slide rule out of my desk. I’m sufficiently comfortable with the calculator app on my iPhone that I think that piece of tradition is no longer needed.