A brief history of the nuclear defence triad

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Link here.

The essay is a fascinating look at the origins in the 1950s of the U.S.’s defense triad of ground-launched ICBMs, submarine-launched ICBMS, and bombers. The section on the history of ICBMs describes nicely the roots of the Atlas 5 rocket as well as many of the federal government’s contracting policies for its big government projects like SLS.

You can’t just call up a new weapons system from nothing by sheer will alone. As [Thomas Hughes, in his history of Project Atlas] explains, there were severe doubts about how one might organize such a work. The first instinct of the military was to just order it up the way they would order up a new plane model. But the amount of revolutionary work was too great, and the scientists and advisors running the effort really feared that if you went to a big airplane company like Convair and said, “make me a rocket,” the odds that they’d actually be able to make it work were low. They also didn’t want to assign it to some new laboratory run by the government, which they felt would be unlikely to be able to handle the large-scale production issues. Instead, they sought a different approach: contract out individual “systems” of the missile (guidance, fuel, etc.), and have an overall contractor manage all of the systems. This took some serious effort to get the DOD and Air Force to accept, but in the end they went with it. [emphasis mine]

Sounds remarkable like the way the SLS rocket program is organized, with different contractors building different engines and stages and one contractor (Boeing) acting as top manager. More interestingly, the way the military used to do things — put out a request and let the private sector build it — is similar to the way NASA is doing things in today’s commercial cargo/manned program. What forced the transition from having the private sector design things to having the government entirely in charge? I have highlighted the key phrase, “the scientists and advisors running the effort.” They might have been sincere and they might even have been right, at the time, but nonetheless their approach was still a power grab, taking control of design and construction from the private sector and shifting it to them and the government entities building the rockets.

When construction actually started, the government ended up with six different rocket programs, Redstone, Atlas, Thor, Titan, Polaris, and Minuteman.

The redundancy was a hedge: the goal was to pick the top two of the programs and cancel the rest. Instead, Sputnik happened. In the resulting political environment, Eisenhower felt he had to put into production and deployment all six of them — even though some were demonstrably not as technically sound as others (Thor and Polaris, in their first incarnations, were fraught with major technical problems). This feeling that he was pushed by the times (and by Congress, and the services, and so on) towards an increasingly foolish level of weapons production is part of what is reflected in Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning about the powerful force of the “military-industrial complex.”

Once again, this history illustrates the power grab that took place in Washington in the 1950s, something that Eisenhower did not like. Sixty years later, the rocket industry is struggling to transition back to the old way of doing things, because it actually works better. Before the 1950s, our innovative, competitive, and fast moving technological private sector made the United States an unbeatable powerhouse. Afterward, we increasingly lost the ability to innovate and compete, because the system created by these scientists and advisors did not encourage competition. Instead, they instituted a top-down centralized command approach, ironically quite similar to the Soviet model, the very philosophy the United States was opposing during the Cold War.

The failures of that top-down approach — illustrated starkly by SLS’s gigantic budget, interminable delays, and little produced — might finally be coming home to roost, allowing a new power grab by a competitive private sector. The change I think will be generally beneficial, not only to the needs of the federal government but to the needs of the general population, as it will generate a lot more wealth, a lot more innovation, and a lot more excitement, as it once again makes the U.S. a powerhouse, this time out among the planets.


  • ken anthony

    Very well said. Bravo!

  • Tom Billings

    WW2 was what started the US government into government-run technical programs in a big way. The Tanks we fought WW2 with were all built by private industry, but designed by Army Branches, which fought interminably between themselves over things like guns sizes and shipping weights. The Sherman Tank, for instance, could have had a 90mm gun on the beaches at Normandy, but the Infantry Generals wanted anti-tank weapons under their control, so that infantry divisions would not be obsolete. So, high velocity tank guns, and larger guns, went to “tank destroyers”, that were under-armored and had no tops on their turrets to save weight. This also ensured they, in turn, had to be protected by infantry, or risk getting rushed by hidden infantry and having grenades thrown into their turrets.

    Similar programs, run by government, through the agencies set up by Vannevar Bush, were those for proximity fuses that made anti-aircraft artillery 10 times as effective as before, and radar, which guided the guns and aircraft both. The ultimate program that formed the basis of running new technology programs from government was one in which it was probably needed, …the Manhattan Project. That was run by the Army, but through a committee headed by General Groves, on which sat the most prominent Physicists of the day. Nuclear Energy was then handed over to the Atomic Energy Commission, massively dominated by people with science degrees, and ever-more deeply tied into Washington politics. This was probably *not* needed, but allowed Congress to reassure itself that *they* had someone else to blame if and when things went South at some point.

    Why? There was the security aspect of handing out technical knowledge to corporations in the middle of the atomic spies’ trials, when progressive politicians were making businessmen scapegoats for whatever went wrong. By then progressive politics had already taken hold enough that turning over to “mercenary businessmen” the most prized knowledge produced by government/academic collaboration was unthinkable to progressives, and they did *not* want to leave it in the hands of the Military, the major competitor of academia for funding. Why? The progressive movement came from, and depended upon academia for its base, and has never been willing to see academia’s expansion checked, whatever the excuse of the day for increases in funding, whether “the inferior social groups” were described racially, by economic class, or by industrial production.

    This competition for influence over funding, between academia and the military, shaped each of the government/academic combinations, and contributed to “the other paragraph” in Eisenhower’s Farewell Speech:

    ” “Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

    The Atlas program was but an interim expression of this growth in academia’s dominance through government. It did set NASA a strong model. If its basic ideas, that only academics and government can guide science and technology “properly” are not overborn, then we will see both descend into what “climate science” has become. Indeed, NASA, by now, has become the technological equivalent of “climate science”.

  • wayne

    This is an extremely interesting topic! (Broadly, as well as the historical minutia I personally find fascinating.)
    I’d echo what ken Anthony said & highly appreciate what Tom Billings wrote.

    (If I’m not entirely mistaken, Dupont did not want to build the B-Reactor at Hanford; they couldn’t guarantee it would work & they feared getting sued to death after the War for “profiteering,” as they had been harassed after WW1. In the end, they did it for “cost+$1.”
    It’s also extremely telling that General Groves, who had previously been in charge of building the Pentagon, felt the need to chronicle “everything” for the Manhattan Project, in case he was called to account for every penny later on.)

    I have not had time to watch this yet, but it might be enlightening and is on point;

    “Why Six Presidents Opposed State-Sponsored Science — And Why You Should Too.”
    Dr. Terrence Kealey
    July 11, 2016


    Descriptor blurb:
    “Andrew Johnson opposed the Smithsonian Institution all his life, James Buchannan vetoed the Morrill Land-Grant Bill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt halved the federal government’s research budgets, Harry Truman vetoed the National Science Foundation bill, Dwight Eisenhower dedicated much of his farewell address to regretting the government funding of university science, and Lyndon Johnson complained that the National Institutes of Health had produced no measurable health benefits. What inspired these presidents’ antipathy? What can we learn from it?”

  • Wayne

    I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t bring this us, as well.

    “Science, Technology, and Government”
    Dr. Murray Rothbard
    Essay written in 1959

    (available in PDF, e-book, HTML, & audio-book formats) (and its free!)

    “When Murray Rothbard wrote “Science, Technology, and Government” in 1959, supporters of the free market needed to confront a challenge that remains relevant today. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched its “Sputnik” satellite, thereby defeating the United States in the race between the two countries to be first into space.
    Did this victory show, or at least suggest, the superiority of Soviet centrally-planned science to the American market economy? Critics of the free enterprise system like John Kenneth Galbraith (one of Rothbard’s least favorite economists) claimed that scientific research and development required government planning and control.
    The free market, these critics claimed, could not carry out the vast efforts research now required. Could private enterprise have built the atomic bomb? The Soviets have long since departed, but the fallacies in the arguments for centrally-controlled science live on today. Government spending on science and technology has increased far beyond its level in 1959.

    In this brilliant monograph, Rothbard deftly turns the tables on the supporters of big government. In doing so, he displays his unique combination of mastery of theoretical principles and commanding knowledge of the empirical evidence and scholarly literature on every subject he addresses. He shows that science best advances under the free market: the claims to the contrary of the centralizers are spurious.

    He begins with a fundamental question: how do we decide how much money to spend on research. The more we spend, the less we have to spend on other things.
    The decision is best left to the free market.”
    >>A great excerpt that echos what Tom Billings wrote:

    “The myth has arisen that government research is made necessary by our technological age, because only planned, directed, large-scale “team” research can produce important inventions and develop them properly. The day of the individual or small-scale inventor is supposedly over and done with. And the strong inference is that government, as potentially the “largest-scale” operator, must play a leading role in even non-military scientific research.

    This common myth has been completely exploded by the researches of John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman in their highly important recent work.

    Taking sixty-one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. … Jewkes et. al. found that more than half of these were the work of individual inventors—with the individuals working at their own directions, and with very limited resources.”

  • Joe

    My question is, how much of the Cold War drove the development of the space race, how much of the two technology’s of Cold War missiles and Saturn, Apollo, etc. bleed through each other, would the space race have happened if Von Braun was not around?

  • Joe

    Wayne, Rothbard basically says that government paid scientists are just mouthpieces of the government and will say what the government wants them to, business on the other hand wants to make money and scientists in private enterprise are actually working and researching in order to come up with breakthroughs, or else why bother! This says to me that our current government is more like the Soviet Unions in that they control what their scientists say. I lie the muses site, I think they do a good job, also like what Hayack has to say, Keynesian economics is a failure.

  • Tom Billings

    “My question is, how much of the Cold War drove the development of the space race, …”

    The part of the “Cold War” (better described as WW3) that affected “the Space Race” was the Space Propaganda campaign initiated by Kruschev after Sputnik made a larger impression than had been anticipated by the Politburo. That campaigne boosted “the socialist camp” in the eyes of leaders of new nations all over the world, as European countries, having learned by the 1930s that colonialism, for the most part, only moved wealth around inside their own countries, to provide levers for those in power, were getting rid of colonies after WW2 as fast as was possible without making their abandonment too obvious, as in the Congo, or handing over to COMINTERN/NKVD operatives. These new rulers, and the undecided intelligentsia inside Europe, Canada, Australia, and the US and Latin America, were the targets of Kruschev’s Space Propaganda campaign.

    “how much of the two technology’s of Cold War missiles and Saturn, Apollo, etc. bleed through each other, would the space race have happened if Von Braun was not around?”

    Propulsion technology for spaceflight stopped being intermixed with bomb carrying missiles when the military switched to solid propulsion by the time the last Titan2s were replaced by MX in the US. The mixture lasted longer in the USSR, and they kept developing Kero/LOX engines longer than we did as well. Guidance tech stayed intermixed in components longer, but separated at the systems level earlier. Without Von Braun, the Pennemunde Team would not have been nearly as strong a contributor, as he conducted that orchestra quite well.

  • Joe

    Thank you Tom, much more home work for me to do, with regards to second comment muses is mises and lie is like, no edit key. Trying to do things on my cell phone better left to a computer.

  • Jim Davis

    “When construction actually started, the government ended up with six different rocket programs, Redstone, Atlas, Thor, Titan, Polaris, and Minuteman.”

    Jupiter should replace Redstone in this list.

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