Donald Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy (MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1993)

Author. ( - )
Professor of Sociology, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh

Deepening antagonism between East and West, deployment of new generation of missiles, revival of the peace movement, first strategic arms reduction treaty

Historical sociology of missile inertial guidance systems and its importance to nuclear doctrine

Written sources and oral interviews with technologists, politicians, and officers (military and civilian) involved in decisions affecting the development of inertial guidance technology

Accuracy is
both social and technical
innovative change.

Central Proposition
3 – This book reveals just how wrong it is to assume that missile accuracy is a natural or inevitable consequence of technical change…. Rather, it is the product of a complex process of conflict and collaboration between a range of social actors including ambitious, energetic technologists, laboratories and corporations, and political and military leaders and the organizations they head.

Other Major Propositions.
4 – To see the mundane social process that form the nuclear world is to see simultaneously the possibility of intervening in them, of reshaping that world…. There may be a very real, and politically important, sense in which accuracy can be uninvented.
9 – technological change is simultaneously economic, political, organizational, cultural, and legal change … Changes in technology go hand-in-hand with changes, small and large, in the preconditions of their use, in the ways they are used, in who uses them, and in the reasons for their use. … no single approach or framework has a monopoly on insight.
19 – Different technical pathways are seen by those involved as having different military and political meanings. Most important, how accurate one strives to make one’s missiles is related intimately to the targets one envisages.
93 – One might say that needs are created simultaneously with the means of fulfilling them. Once the belief developed that a black-box navigator was possible, it was obvious that it was needed (just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s needed though) the crucial link in the chain of connections, the credibility of the promise, was guaranteed by neither the structures of geopolitics nor by any autonomous logic of technology. Forging the link was the key role of the inventors of black-box navigation.
96 – The central theme that will emerge is the inseparability of technology, nuclear strategy, and organization. The missile revolution … was engineered largely (though not exclusively) from below … assisted by developments in other technologies, particularly the hydrogen bomb, and by a growing sense of a missile race with the Soviet Union.
162 – With political leaders by no means simply in command, the Soviet Union a shadowy mirror reflecting American fears rather than a well-understood foe, and nuclear strategy often rationalization after the fact rather than genuine guiding principle, the initiative for new missile systems came largely from below. Particularly important were technologists with career investment in and enthusiasm for particular lines of technological development.
168 – What turns the potential anarchy of technological change into a persistent trajectory is the way social interests are created in its continuing to take a particular form…. They invest money, careers, and credibility in being part of “progress,” and in doing so help create progress of the predicted form…. There is a sense in which the trajectory is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those lines of technical development that do not get pursued do not improve; those that get pursued often do.

Chapter 1 – A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance
5 – A straightforward, though not failsafe, way of grasping the role of the social in technical change is to see how different societies develop the same technology.
8 – the weapon-system case study freezes time. Unfreezing it, and bringing to attention phenomena that escape individual case study, is the virtue of a historical perspective.
10 – technology consists not just of artifacts, nor even of artifacts together with human activities, but also of knowledge…. There are always grounds for challenging any knowledge claim. But not all knowledge is challenged, nor is all challenge successful or even credible…. Central to the answers are matters of the interests, goals, traditions, and experiences of the social groups (technological and other) involved
23 – One of the main tasks of this book is to trace the links between issues of guidance system design, nuclear strategy, and these three types of actors: political, military, and technological.

Chapter 2 – Inventing a Black Box
27 – “individual genius” view of invention began to seem dated … What largely replaced it was … routinized and depersonalized invention … Insight and creativity became the province of science. Given access to scientific knowledge, ample resources, and trained staff (geniuses were no longer needed), the results would flow. “Applied science” became synonymous with technology.
29 – Power—economic and military—has been the subtext to much of the history of navigation.
31 – If one can measure its acceleration at all points in time, then, according to Galileo and Newton, one need only mathematically integrate that acceleration twice, with respect to time, in order to know the carriage’s position.
37 – Gyro culture was both international—in that its pioneers in different countries were well aware of each other’s work—and national—in that it was increasingly seen as a “technology of power” too important to permit dependence on external sources, at least if a country had pretensions of playing a major world role. (analogous to today’s cyber culture)
44/5 – The Treaty of Versailles attempted to place strict limits on German rearmament but in doing so created a climate in which resources were channeled into technological innovation to compensate for or circumvent these limits. … It sought to substitute quality—speed, maneuverability, and accurate gunnery—for quantity.
57 – With its trajectory arching up almost into space, its extraordinarily rapid descent toward its target, and its black-box guidance, it seemed impossible to defend against, and this, rather than its negligible immediate effect on the course of the war, established the ballistic missile as a crucial factor in the postwar world.
60/1 – Nothing automatically guaranteed that those who gained access to the human and material resources of German technology would go on to use them successfully to develop black-box guidance and navigation.… What we now see as the path to follow could equally have appeared as a blind alley.
65 – in the early postwar United States, cruise missile programs were more favored than ballistic … and the daunting guidance tasks this vast range posed seem to have been the primary reason for the establishment of major guidance efforts
66 – Proponents of inertial navigation had to combat two counterclaims: that the idea was impossible in principle, and that it was impossible in practice. … Einstein had argued that inside a black box … the effects of linear acceleration of the box were indistinguishable from the effects of a gravitational field … A “vicious circle” seemed to exist, making impossible simultaneous knowledge of acceleration and orientation. Inertial navigation seemed to rest on being able to measure independently physical phenomena whose effects within a black box were inseparable.
69 – An “earth-radius pendulum” was of course not feasible … but the same effect—freedom from the disturbing effects of acceleration—could be produced by designing a gyroscopic system such that it had the same period of oscillation … 84 minutes (Schuler cycle)
73 – The problem of the vertical did not go away … it became a “technical difficulty” … this part of the motion must be determined analytically from the known magnitude and direction of gravity as a function of position.
76 – Any drift of the gyroscopes, and consequent misorientation of the stable platform, could be detected and corrected by periodic—or maybe even continuous—automatic star-sighting.
81 – The device most central to American missile guidance … a single-degree of freedom floated gyro
85 – It was a project of heterogeneous engineering in at least two senses. First, the obstacles to the achievement of accuracy included human behavior. … So, the internal social world … had to be engineered … in machining, assembling, and testing a gyroscope … the knowledge of “how to do it” could not be transferred without face-to-face contact and hands-on experience. … The external social had to be engineered so that support was generated and sustained for the large and expensive activity … [Charles Stark] Draper’s key resource was people.
91 – the processes of creating the new technology of inertial navigation cannot be captured by the traditional notion of invention, with its single crucial “eureka moment.”

Chapter 3 – Engineering a Revolution
97 – As the missile revolution proceeded, the issue quickly became no longer whether strategic ballistic missiles were going to exist at all, but which organizations should develop and control them and how they should be designed.
99 – Perhaps the most crucial source of skepticism, however, was the assumption that such a weapon would be hopelessly inaccurate.
100 – Crucially, experience also seemed to the Air Force to demonstrate the bomber’s claim to be the prime delivery vehicle for the new [nuclear] weapon.
101 – It was not surprising, furthermore, that an organization dominated by pilots, as the Air Force was (and to a substantial extent still is), should be reluctant to see its central strategic role filled by anything other than a manned system.
102 – the assumption was that cruise missiles could be in service before ballistic missiles … Technical evolution was instead seen as more likely to culminate in the manned spacecraft as a weapon.
104 – In Army circles the ballistic missile met much less hostility and much less skepticism. It is hard to avoid the speculation that the ballistic missile’s analogy to the artillery shell eased its acceptance
105 – It is conventional to cite three causes of that sudden change [competition for missiles]: the invention of the hydrogen bomb … the start of the Eisenhower presidency in 1953; and the growing realization that the Soviet Union was pursuing a major long-range ballistic missile program.
107 – the coming into existence of the hydrogen bomb did not compel acceptance of the ICBM in 1953-1954 … The ceaseless efforts—technological, political, and organizational—by hydrogen bomb advocates, especially Edward Teller, and their promises of greatly increased yield-to-weight ratios, were a vital resource
121 – The ultimate cause of the shift to inertial is quite clear: the perceived vulnerability, in the eyes of the key military decision makers involved, of radio guidance.
122 – Funding of radio guidance dried up, and so the technique did not improve.
123 – Implicit in the setting of an accuracy specification of two miles or worse was the assumption that the primary target of the ICBM—and probably also the intermediate-range ballistic missile—would be cities.
125 – A 1954 Navy memorandum … quoted LeMay’s answer to the question “How do SAC’s plans fit in with the stated national policy that the United States will never strike the first blow?” … it is not in keeping with United States history … I am not advocating a preventive war; however, I believe that if the U.S. is pushed in the corner far enough we would not hesitate to strike first.
140 – At least in the United States, the solution to the need to know submarine position, velocity, and orientation was obvious by the mid-1950s. Ballistic missile submarines had to be equipped with black-box inertial navigation.
142-5 – Periodic “resets”—updates from external sources of navigational information—were seen as needed (around every eight hours in the case of Polaris) to stop unacceptable errors from building up. … French pessimism about reliably solving them has meant that French ballistic missile submarines are still equipped with star-sighting periscopes. Three solutions were pursued. The first involved surveying the sea floor with sonar and identifying distinctive features. … this in turn required a different source of navigational information. … a more accurate version of LORAN (Long Range Aid to Navigation) known as LORAN-C … however, stations designed—or believed to be designed—for submarine-launched ballistic missile navigation were to lead to open political dispute in New Zealand, Australia, and Norway. Free from such risk, and also at least in the immediate future safe from possible Soviet attack, was the third reset system. This was the world’s first satellite navigation system … the first experimental Transit satellite was in orbit by September 1959 … by 1964 the Applied Physics Laboratory’s gravity model was ready and “was sufficiently accurate to make possible [their] goal of better than 0.1 mile navigation at sea.
149 – This relaxed attitude to accuracy was a product of two factors…. What mattered was demonstrating feasibility—that it could be built, that the components would function individually and collectively—and having it available quickly, for bureaucratic as well as national reasons…. The second factor … was the assumption that the Polaris’ prime targets would be cities and industrial complexes.
150 – Finite deterrence involved abandoning the hope of preemption and even the subordinate elements of counterforce in the Air Force’s plan. All the United States needed, according to Burke, was a nuclear force that was invulnerable (unlike the SAC bomber bases) and sufficient to destroy Soviet cities.
153 – The goal of cheapness and the need to fit into this ambitious scheme for a huge automated missile “farm” structured [Col Edward] Hall’s detailed design for his [Minuteman] missile.
154 – Hall argued: “A force which provides numerical superiority over the enemy will provide a much stronger deterrent than a numerically inferior force of a greater accuracy.” … Unwittingly, however, in emphasizing economy Hall was laying the basis for Minuteman’s success once the 1961 Kennedy Administration was to bring the tools of cost-benefit analysis to bear on the world of strategic weapons. … It left the United States with an ICBM force, the vast bulk of which was designed … for a single, massive, and relatively indiscriminate attack.
155 – inertial guidance systems of the time needed substantial preparation before launch … All this could, however, be avoided if the guidance system were kept continuously running, and that became a key aspect of the Minuteman guidance system.
156 – In a self-activating (or “hydrodynamic”) gas bearing there is no mechanical contact
161 – No single person or organization decided what the American nuclear arsenal should look like.
162 – Nor did the actions of the Soviet Union determine in any detail the course of the missile revolution…. More generally, it can be concluded that the United States built its missile arsenal without any agreed understanding … of why it was doing so … for a reason no more sophisticated than that ballistic missiles were the coming thing.

Chapter 4 – The Beryllium Baby and the Technological Trajectory
166 – Conventional wisdom suggests that … Missile accuracy increased because it was natural
167 – a technological trajectory is a direction of technical development that is simply natural, not created by social interests but corresponding to the inherent possibilities of the technology (also called determinism or momentum by various authors)
170 – What ultimately has sustained this form of technical change had been the creation since the 1960s of a market for black-box navigation well beyond strategic nuclear systems.
172 – The key single event in the creation of the civil air inertial market was the agreement in 1966 … of a standard definition of an inertial navigator, Characteristic 561 … the probability of position errors greater than 25 nautical miles should be no more than 5 percent
174 – the accuracy norm for military aircraft inertial navigators became established in the 1950s and 1960s at roughly one nautical mile per hour, and has not, for most applications, grown
184 – Persuasive champions of the technology were needed to mediate between the technological enthusiasm of development teams and the caution and skepticism of corporate management.
193 – The form of cruise missile guidance chosen was an attempt to combine cheapness and high accuracy by “opening the black box” … This steers the missile into preplanned “boxes” where a radar altimeter generates an altitude profile that is compared with a computer-stored map and used to correct accumulated errors in the inertial system. … Because cruise missiles fly very low, their inertial systems would be strongly affected by the gravitational anomalies caused by such features as mountain ranges. … Gravity maps based upon ground-level surveys existed for some regions, but the Soviet Union and China, realizing the new military significance of gravity, were not prepared to divulge detailed gravity data.
196 – If the Navy won the argument that national nuclear strategy should rest primarily on the “ultimate deterrent” threat of the destruction of cities, then it was going to be difficult to dispute that Polaris, because of its invulnerability, was the best nuclear weapon system … so the long-term Air Force response to Polaris was … embracing counterforce
198/9 – almost as soon as the strategy of counterforce was announced, it began to fall apart. To the administration’s analysis, it was a way of attempting to limit and fight “rationally” a nuclear war. To at least some in the Air Force, it was carte blanche to develop as large and arsenal as possible with a view to being able, in a preemptive strike, to disarm the Soviet Union.
202 – Mutual assured destruction would promote “crisis stability.” With no need to fear being disarmed by a U.S. first strike, the Soviet Union would have no incentive to launch preemptively….The analysis prepared the way ideologically for the 1972 SALT and ABM treaties, which formalized the “balance of terror” between the two superpowers.
202/3 – In May 1957 the Pentagon Weapons Systems Evaluation Group spelled out what could be seen as the military advantages of the manned bomber in the age of the missile: a. Operational flexibility, b. Accuracy of delivery, c. High payload capability, d. Established reliability, e. Reconnaissance capability.
213 – As well as thus revealing something of the dynamics of technological trajectories, the episode shows how the Air Force could impose its wishes: “what happened was the guy in a blue suit said he wanted gas bearings … so he insisted we do them.” … It made Minuteman II into a counterforce weapon.
215 – the target flexibility, counterforce and warfighting capability were desirable attributes of MIRV, but its usefulness as a hedge against the possible deployment of a larger Soviet ABM system became more important
216 – The method of increasing accuracy was very much one of reverse salients…. Each time a predominant contributor to error is significantly reduced some other contributor becomes predominant and receives the spotlight. Given relatively stable hardware, most of this improvement was implemented in the form of software changes.
236 – the economic costs of achieving accuracy by traditional means have indeed become salient. So if the United States builds another ICBM inertial guidance system after AIRS, which is uncertain, it is unlikely to be a continuation of the path of technical development that led to the beryllium baby.
237 – the “technological trajectory” of ever-increasingly missile guidance system accuracy … for all its apparent naturalness … is a construct … sustaining it were Draper’s technological vision and the practice of his Laboratory, the Air Force’s interest in counterforce, and the acceptance … that the extreme accuracies … predicted in the early 1960s were a possibility

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.