TERCOM, System and Symbol: Part Two

Back to Part One

GPS was only one among many guidance technologies that saw their first use in the first Gulf War. One of the others was Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM), the guidance system behind a trio of American cruise missiles: the sea-launched Tomahawk, Air-Launched Cruise Missile, and ground-launched Gryphon. As Ingrid Burrington reported for the Atlantic earlier this year, GPS provoked some strong feelings that included an axe-wielding attack by peace protesters. TERCOM attracted some of the same attention.

None of the three cruise missile systems were uncontroversial, though the Gryphon attracted the lion’s share of the protests in the European countries where it was to be based (just google “Euromissiles crisis” or “Greenham Common” for a sample). In Canada, US flying tests of the ALCM over northern Alberta as a proxy for the terrain of Siberia led to substantial public protests. Some went beyond vigils, marches, and speeches. Two Greenpeace members climbed the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to unfurl a banner saying “No cruise, Greenpeace.” An art student, Peter Grayson, threw red ink on a copy of the Canadian constitution on display at the National Archives. In Prince George, BC, an ALCM was burned in effigy, near Wandering River, Alberta, Greenpeace launched a net carried by balloons during one test as a “cruise catcher.”

Canadian involvement with cruise missile development was also the spark for an act of violent protest reminiscent of the Kjoller-Lumsdaine “Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade” attack on GPS.

Direct Action in Rexdale
One of the companies building guidance packages for cruise missiles was Litton Systems Canada, the local subsidiary of Litton Industries. On the night of October 14, 1982, the Etobicoke Police Department received a telephone call reporting that there was a blue van filled with explosives parked outside the Litton Systems factory in Rexdale, Toronto. The van, which was filled with 250 kg of dynamite stolen from the British Columbia Highways Ministry earlier that year, was the work of Direct Action, a radical British Columbia group who had already blown up four power transformers on Vancouver Island to protest BC Hydro’s development there. Three of what became known as the “Squamish Five” after their arrest – Brent Taylor, Juliet Belmas, and Ann Brit Hansen – drove out to Toronto to carry out the bombing.

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Their target, Litton Industries’ Plant no. 402, had already been the site of protests against Litton’s cruise missile production contract. Direct Action took pains to avoid any casualties from their bombing. They placed an orange box with two sticks of dynamite and a warning on the van’s hood, then phoned in a warning message to the police. Despite their precautions, the bomb in the van detonated early, putting nine people in hospital. In their post-bombing communiqué, the group apologized for the injuries before going on to condemn Canadian complicity in the nuclear arms race.

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Direct Action’s members soon moved on to other activities, firebombing a series of stories in the Red Hot Video pornography chain and planning the robbery of a Brinks armored car, before they were captured by the RCMP in early 1983. Their attack on the Litton factory had effectively no effect on the work done there. John Clearwater, whose book on the subject documents the eighteen flight tests and the related protests in painstaking detail, reports:

the explosion did not stop cruise missile navigation systems production. In fact, the area in the factory, well insulated from shock and vibration, remained unharmed. The test pedestals on which the delicate instruments were calibrated remained mounted on their steel and concrete columns sunk far into the soil beneath the factory. After the blast, technicians simply rechecked the alignment of the test-beds with the stars and the earth’s axis to ensure the perfection of the TERCOM navigation instruments. Production was not halted. (Just Dummies, page 102.)

Hansen’s own memoir reported that the factory’s work was disrupted for only two days.

Direct Action’s communiqué taking responsibility for the Litton Systems bombing rooted their opposition to the cruise missile in opposition to nuclear war, as “the ultimate expression of the negative characteristics of Western Civilization,” whose “roots lie deep in centuries of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, class domination, and all others forms of violence and oppression that have scarred human history.” They condemned the cruise missile as one of set of weapons “designed for offensive first-strike use” (including the Pershing II, Trident, and neutron bomb), as well as Canadian involvement in US nuclear weapons production: not just Litton’s work on the cruise missile, but also launchers for Lance missiles by Hawker-Siddeley, hull cylinder torpedo tubes for Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident by Vickers, cranes to load Trident missiles by Heeds Inernational, and one component of the MX missile. In the context of Direct Action’s critique, neither inertial navigation nor terrain contour matching was of much specific interest.

Forward to Part Three

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