The Other Lasers of the Gulf War, Part Three

Part of a three-part series on the development of the laser gyroscope and its military use. Back to Part Two or Part One

Meaning and Legacy
Sociologist Donald MacKenzie, whose book Inventing Accuracy remains pretty much the classic history of inertial guidance development, convincingly argues that there was nothing inevitable about the choices made in the development of these inertial navigation systems. After all, despite widespread military adoption in the mid-1980s, the laser gyro was hardly the only game in town. Despite granting $135 million in development funds to design laser gyro guidance systems for the abortive Small ICBM (aka the “Midgetman”) the US Air Force decided that the laser gyro wouldn’t meet the requirements and borrowed the mechanical gyro system used in the MX ballistic missile instead. Likewise, the F-117 stealth fighter entered service with the precise but off-the-shelf SPD/GEANS INS. Instead, the decisions to fund, buy, and develop technologies like the laser gyro reflected the strategic plans, aspirations, and expectations of technologists and users, as well as sheer coincidence. Charles Stark Draper was right that mechanical gryos would continue to be and to become more accurate for the foreseeable future, but the laser gyro had the promise of a radical technological breakthrough and the sexiness of the very word laser.

The case of the laser gyro also shows how tough it is to pigeonhole a technology as “military” or “civilian” in its origins. Is the laser gyro military technology because much of the initial development money came from military sources? Is it civilian technology because it was the commercial airliner industry that first bought them en masse and made the transition from prototype to standardized product? Does tracing that history help us understand how precision navigation contributes to either sphere of action?

I started looking at the navigational tools applied during the first Gulf War because of Ingrid Burrington’s article on a 1990s protest against GPS because of its military origins (which I commented on here). Writing in the Atlantic, Burrington describes how activists Keith Kjoller and Peter Lumsdaine snuck into a Rockwell International facility in Seal Beach, California and used wood-splitting axes to smash up nine GPS satellites “to slow the deployment of this system (which) makes conventional warfare much more lethal and nuclear war winnable in the eyes of some.”

Interviewed by Burrington twenty-two years later, Lumsdaine was firm that GPS remains “military in its origins, military in its goals, military in its development.” What I wanted to investigate was what that meant in comparison to all the other systems that contributed to the type of aerial campaign launched in the Gulf. Along the way examples dropped into my lap of similar protests against those technologies. Mass opposition to the installation of transmission towers for the Omega radionavigation aid, as opposed to the more precise and more military-used Loran-C. The bombing of a factory for the inertial navigation systems of the Air-Launched Cruise Missile.

Trying to parse the role of the laser gyroscope in the first Gulf War is tough because it was so widespread. I can’t find anyone who writes about using an INS in the Gulf, perhaps because it was such a mundane occurrence. But the development path of the laser gyro shows that calling it a military technology involves making some presumptions about whose contributions mattered. Early inertial navigation was bought and paid for by the military because of its use in strategic (i.e. nuclear) weapons, but within twenty years had trickled down into commercial aviation. The laser gyro was similarly funded in its development by the armed forces, but they went on to shun it as an initial product because it was not yet superior to what they had in service. It was commercial aviation, the previous trickle-down beneficiary, who put up the funds to turn the laser gyroscope into a practical and widespread device. This was technology that was normalized as civilian before it was normal in the military.

Perhaps not coincidentally, alongside the GPS receiver you probably carry in your pocket you also have a set of accelerometers and gyroscopes. Most modern smartphones include microelectromechanical (MEMS) inertial sensors to measure orientation and motion, which is used to do things like change the screen orientation when you turn your phone sideways. (This is a very cool video that explains how a MEMS accelerometer works and how it is manufactured.) Should you be concerned that you’re carrying around a miniaturized, albeit inaccurate, version of the technology mounted on the first ICBMs? Quite possibly, considering that researchers have shown how the gyroscopes in a phone could be used to eavesdrop on nearby audio or keystrokes. But probably not because it was the US Department of Defense that funded its origins.

Source Notes: Not much has been written about the history of gyroscope development. The notable exception is Donald MacKenzie’s exceptional history Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance. MacKenzie’s history of the laser gyroscope is a separate article, “From the Luminiferous Ether to the Boeing 757: A History of the Laser Gyroscope” (Technology and Culture, July 1993). Paul G. Savage’s paper “Blazing Gyros – The Evolution of Strapdown Inertial Navigation Technology for Aircraft” (originally published in Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics, May/June 2013) was also very useful. Given the absence of broader histories, Flight magazine’s archive was very useful for filling in some details.


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