Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake

  • Published

Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake by Ron Westrum. Naval Institute Press, 1999, 352 pp.

The Sidewinder air-to-air missile has proven itself a staple of air combat for more than half a century. In Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake, Ron Westrum chronicles the development of the AIM-9 Sidewinder, skillfully dissecting the intricate web of personal, organizational, and technical factors that led to the success of what would become a vital US weapons program. Westrum argues that China Lake, during the early development of the Sidewinder, was a unique phenomenon in the US government. It was a government-owned laboratory, operated by the Navy, but it had the heart of a Silicon Valley startup. Under the tenacious leadership of Bill McClean, the lab was a hotbed of budding technical talent, leadership, and innovation. Creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit that defied the bureaucratic norms of the military acquisitions process defined the success of China Lake.

Despite being described as a veritable Camelot for forward-thinking engineering, Westrum dutifully highlights the real struggles that the lab and the Sidewinder program endured along the way. As Sidewinder was not originally conceived from a published operational requirement, the lab suffered from gridlocks in Washington over issues such as funding and necessity. There seemed to be a constant battle between those in Washington, DC and the teams on the ground in the Mojave Desert. On several notable occasions, the program was nearly cancelled by the skepticism of a certain admiral or civilian who controlled funding. These struggles are largely paralleled today, as the ever-increasing cost of weapon development continues to drive fiery debate in Congress. A definite degree of luck was enjoyed by the lab during these critical phases of the program, but a lot more can be attributed to the hands-on leadership approach taken by the senior lab directors. They directly engaged the higher echelons of command with personal visits and powerful live demonstrations of the missile’s potential. The reader is quite able to get a holistic picture of the tribulations and triumphs of those at China Lake, thanks to the diligence of Westrum in gathering first-hand accounts from the lab’s major players.

The effort of Westrum to capture a thorough and near-complete narrative picture of China Lake is the book’s main strength. A lauded airpower academic, Westrum further develops extensive research notes that ground the storytelling with both primary and secondary source research. However, the narration does tend to stray at certain points throughout the book, which could be attributed to poor signposting of the book’s organization at the beginning and the occasional abrupt swing between chapters. Furthermore, to get the full benefit from reading Sidewinder, the reader should have some knowledge of basic engineering concepts. Although Westrum is able to keep the technical discussion of the missile to an appropriate level for a broad audience, there are some points at which technical terminology is not defined in context, which could mean the reader may have to do some additional external reading to more fully understand what exactly is being talked about.

The concluding chapters of Sidewinder are the most poignant for the contemporary airpower professional. Westrum is resigned to maintain that another government-owned lab could not operate in the same manner and spirit today as China Lake did during its heyday. The weapons development process has been largely outsourced to the private sector, with government labs serving as middlemen between them and Pentagon funding. Because the principal engineering efforts are accomplished elsewhere outside of government, the government loses its ability to be a “smart buyer.” As he emphasizes in the text, “There is no substitute for the actual practice of engineering.” (p. 267, Italics is retained from original text.) However, the book was first published in 1999, and since then the military has created new initiatives to innovate and be more creative within its ranks yet again. Therefore, the reader should use this book as a launch point to understand where we have been to better grasp where we are going. In a modern battlespace where the technical capabilities of aeronautical, space, and cyberspace weapon systems are the drivers of everything from tactics to geopolitics, getting the right systems at the right times is critical to success in meeting national objectives. The acquisition process influences the war fighter now more than ever; therefore, this book should be required reading for all operators of modern weapon systems as well as those involved in requirements writing or acquisition programs. This book also comes recommended for casual readers of military literature, as the narration and general storytelling is strong in its own right.

2nd Lt Scott T. Seidenberger, USAF
Tyndall AFB, Florida

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."