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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 384-385

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Book Review

Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake

Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake. By Ron Westrum. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1999. Pp. xvi+331. $32.95.

Sidewinder air-to-air missile development from 1947 to the present was, Ron Westrum believes, a stage in missile-systems development between a successful skunk-works organizational style that evolved out of World War II and complex, bureaucratic, legalistic, impersonal establishments, whether governmental or commercial, that stifle innovation and produce expensive but not necessarily effective defenses. Westrum argues most plausibly that the teams put together at the Naval Weapons Laboratory at China Lake, California, were a highly effective technical operation that took a concept for unguided rockets and made it into a cheap, accurate, self-contained weapons system that has remained in use for the last forty-odd years.

This book is truly a blend of technology and culture. It shows how ideas were discussed among scientific-technological teammates, and with users, to the end of producing a missile that was both manufacturable and maintainable in the fleet. The key was the vision and drive of the leadership--notably Bill McLean, with his openness to new ideas, and with his wife LaV's networking in the Mojave Desert and in Washington, D.C. The lab was impelled not merely on the intellectual level but on the workbench, where scientists, engineers, and technicians tinkered, and by its capacity to ignore red tape, to act illegally if necessary, and to maintain direct contact with the top when it was required.

Westrum deals expertly with technological developments, how and why the Sidewinder was able to operate originally at 5,000 feet and much later at 85,000 feet, with the range increasing from 2 miles to 120 miles. Each advance revealed mundane problems that had to be tackled by building test boards and facilities, or scrounging launch aircraft and target drones as well as test pilots, and especially by training pilots in shooting the weapon. Combat in Vietnam showed that there were problems with the idea that "the only weapon you will need will be a missile." Just as before World War II dogfighting was thought to be obsolete, so too in the 1960s it was found that the U.S. Navy had to set up the Naval Fighters Weapons School ("Top Gun") to teach "active combat maneuvering." Missiles proved only 10 to 20 [End Page 384] percent as effective in war as in peace--an old but forgotten lesson in weapons history.

Westrum's book ends with the pessimistic view that something like China Lake at its best will never be allowed to operate again because bureaucrats will kill creativity with accountability to cover their own tails. A desert skunk works of two hundred people is no longer possible because too much money is spent on seeking complex and expensive solutions that are inherently likely to fail. This book should be required reading for students, professors, and bureaucrats.

Robin Higham

Dr. Higham, emeritus professor of military history at Kansas State University, was the premiere recipient of the American Military Institute's Samuel Eliot Morison Prize.

Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.



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