Global Positioning Synecdoche: An Interim Update

The next installment about guidance and navigation during the Gulf War is a little delayed since it’s sprawled from a brief description of a cruise missile targeting aid to cover photogrammetry and mensuration tools from the late 1960s to the near-present. That’ll take some wrangling to bring back under control.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about some of the trends in what I’ve already written. The systems that became associated with victory in the Gulf (GPS, cruise missiles, laser-guided bombs, etc.) were all reliant on a range of less obvious technologies. TERCOM guidance, for example, required accurate satellite mapping that was itself an offshoot of satellite reconnaissance photography. Few of the systems, either the marquee technologies or the supporting ones, were designed with their eventual use in mind. Only luck or serendipity brought them together in the way that led to the success. The commercial GPS receivers that were so popular during the war existed because President Reagan had made a political point by opening the system to civilian use. Ring laser gyroscopes in aircraft navigation systems were available because Boeing’s commercial aviation division had made a big bet on the technology when the Defense of Department had balked at widespread adoption in the late 1970s. What I’m working on, the story of the Point Positioning Data Base and Analytical Photogrammetric Positioning System, is a similar case of technology created for one mission that proved far more useful, in conjunction with other equipment, for a different one.

We’ll see how long this series lasts, but I’m realizing that the list of systems that deserve some coverage is pretty long. Reading about long-range radionavigation like Loran-C pointed to the fact that I can find almost nothing about Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN). The planning tools for each day’s airstrikes are more discussed, but there’s plenty to say about how they came into existence. I’ll have to figure out where to go after that.


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