Ron Westrum. Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1999. 304 pp. $32.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55750-951-2.
Reviewed by Jonathan D. Beard (Science Writer-Photo Researcher)
Published on H-War (March, 2000)
Although Sidewinder is a serious, well researched book dealing with many aspects of the development of what became America's most successful air-to-air guided missile, its plot is based upon two classic children's books. First, there is "Cinderella," or "the little missile that nobody wanted," with the Falcon and the Sparrow cast as the evil sisters, and the Pentagon as the stepmother. In addition, the book's story is overtly that of "the Little Missile that Could," a tale of success in the face of adversity and a lack of support from the Navy and Air Force.
Ron Westrum is a professor of "sociology and interdisciplinary technology" at Eastern Michigan University. When he began work on Sidewinder he knew little about missiles, and it is apparent that he is most interested in issues such as genius, teamwork, motivation, and others factors bearing on the central question of how this team of dozens of men and women, over the course of forty years, managed to create and sustain the magic atmosphere of the Naval Ordnance Test Station, better known as China Lake. The technology that went into each generation of Sidewinders is adequately explained, but anyone desiring an explanation of the physics of infrared detectors, or an understanding of how flares can duplicate the thermal signature of a B-47, must look elsewhere. There is a single chapter on the missile in combat -- Taiwan, Vietnam, the Falklands, Israel, Libya -- but only a handful of pilot reports of dogfights. Considering that Sidewinder has clearly been the most successful American missile design, it is interesting to note that Westrum implies that the knock-offs of the missile made by Israel (the Shafrir) and the Soviets (the Atoll) were as good or better than the original. But the war stories and other mis- siles are just footnotes -- it is people and institutions that Westrum cares about.
One of Westrum's central points is that Sidewinder was truly a missile that the Navy never asked for. It was born in the fer- tile brain of Bill McLean, a gifted physicist who had worked on proximity fuzes for the Office of Scientific Research and Devel- opment (OSRD) during World War II. In the early 50s it was ap- parent that although the .50 caliber machine gun won the air war over Korea, stopping nuclear-armed bombers would require some- thing more lethal. Air-to-air rockets had been used in World War II, as had ground-to-ground and air-to-ground guided missiles. Soon the Air Force had Hughes Aircraft working on the Falcon, and the Navy sponsored Sperry, Bendix and Raytheon in their work on the Sparrow. Both these missiles were radar-guided, and their guidance experts had trouble packing an effective radar system -- given the bulky vacuum tube electronics of the era--into a small missile. McLean thought that he could put a much simpler infrared detector and tracking system into a missile that would do better.
McLean, nominally at China Lake to work on fire control and test-ing of the Navy's missiles and rockets, quickly hijacked people, funds and facilities to work on Sidewinder. Despite years of frustration and failures, his team of scientists, engineers and technicians eventually created a missile that surely would have done well against high-flying bombers. Unfortunately, there never was a need for such a missile, and the team had much more trouble making a missile that would reliably hit maneuvering fighters -- the only targets Sidewinder ever encountered. In com- bat in Vietnam, Sidewinders outscored the Sparrow III, while the lavishly funded Falcon was deemed a total failure. In 1982, over the Falklands, Argentina's pilots, knowing how good the latest AIM-9L Sidewinder --which only the RAF had -- was, refused combat with British Harrier pilots. The missile had an 87 percent shootdown record there.
Why did Sidewinder, developed by a team so underfunded that its ground crews drove worn-out World War II trucks and its test pilots lacked proper pressure suits, beat the big corporations with official contracts? Westrum shows how Bill McLean inspired tremendous loyalty by listening to everyone, being willing to work 12-hour days and 7-day weeks, and out-maneuvering the top brass and Pentagon VIPs while rising to become Technical Director of China Lake. One of Westrum's major theories, in fact, is that the Sidewinder team did so well because their missile, rather than meet Navy specifications or detailed performance goals, simply "had to work." Another is that the generation of people he worked with, inspired by OSRD and other wartime work, were apt to be more idealistic, if also arrogant, than the postwar people at China Lake and other military and corporate R&D labs. A repeated observation is that in China Lake labs during the 50s and 60s, almost every space came with several kinds of electrical power and high-pressure air, while today China Lake -- now a Naval Weapons Center -- is mostly carpeted offices with computers. But, Westrum asks, can the "skunk works" template, so successful with the U-2 and Sidewinder, but less so with stealth aircraft, sur vive bureaucratic pressures in the long run? He would like to think so, but in 1992 the Navy merged China Lake with another station and has since effectively transformed it into a cog in its system.
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