Nuclear strategy and the development of military technology. The case of the Fleet Ballistic Missile programme

CoverSometimes you wish you never accepted to review a friend’s book/article : you lack the time to read the document, tadalafil and once you finally find a few minutes/hours to discover it, click it proves disappointing (and it’s pretty hard to find an easy way to say that). Some other times, fortunately, it’s the opposite: you get just what you were looking for (but still have to find the right way to say it, not to look like you’re congratulating a friend for being a friend). I’m glad to write from the start that this monograph clearly belongs to the second group.

Of course, it cannot be said to be a huge surprise when someone studying both military innovation and nuclear weapons policies (curiously enough, not the two of them together) finds interest in a paper on the innovation processes that gave birth to US Navy’s ballistic missiles. Still, disappointment was a real possibility, either due to a lack of empirical research, superficial treatment of the issue, or lack of theorization. Again, you’ll find no such thing here.

In his monograph, Sébastien Miraglia, a researcher at the Oslo-based Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), reviews the development of the Fleet Ballistic Missile program from its creation back in the 1950s, to the Trident II D5, which currently equips US Navy’s Ohio-class SSBNs (as well as Royal Navy’s 4 Vanguard-class subs). Sébastien’s argument is that initial orientations taken by the Navy’s office in charge, the Strategic Project Office (SPO) weighed on its future choices and constrained its ability to respond optimally to external stimuli for change, such as new nuclear policies. This, in turn, created serious risks of disconnection between requirements identified at the policy level and available capabilities. For instance, following the deployment of the Soviet Galosh anti-ballistic missile defense system, SPO chose to respond not through the development of penetration aids – a path taken by the USAF for its Minuteman II ICBMs – but by putting multiple, smaller warheads on top of US SLBMs (MIRVing, for those who might not be familiar with the issue). It didn’t follow that path because MIRVing seemed to be the optimal way to deal with the threat from these rudimentary defenses. It took a path that would allow it to make good use of previous R&D on MIRVing, avoid entry costs associated with such developments as penetration aids, all the while fulfilling what it considered its core missions: saturate defenses and strike “soft” targets such as urban areas.

As one may guess, the paper rests heavily on concepts and approaches drawn from historical institutionalism and sociology of organizations. What one may not guess is that in addition to using classics such as MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy, Sébastien made extensive use of historical, unpublished material/archives from the SPO and its successor, various memoranda and transcripts of interviews of individuals directly involved in the program.

The result is a highly readable, rigorous and insightful research, as well as a great opportunity to discover the inside story – or close to – of the program and to understand how technical and operational dilemmas were solved. A great read for anyone interested military innovation, technology development and US nuclear history.

The study is available online for free (here) but you may as well consider buying a softcover copy as the format is great (much better, for example, than SSI monographs). Also, take some time to visit the IFS website and the other one dedicated to their publications, as you’ll find lots of interesting stuff here (by the way, people at IFS are the ones you should thank for last year’s amazing special issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies on the Information Revolution in Military Affairs).

Gratulerer, Sébastien !

Sébastien Miraglia, Nuclear strategy and the development of military technology. The case of the Fleet Ballistic Missile programme, Defence and Security Studies – Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (Institutt for Forsvarsstudier), 2/2010, 124 p. PDF or paper (free / 100 NOK or approx. ~USD 16.00)

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A propos Corentin Brustlein

Corentin Brustlein is the head of the Security Studies Center at the French Institute of International Relations, where he works on nuclear and conventional deterrence, US and French defense policies, modern warfare, military adaptation. He holds a PhD in political science from the Jean Moulin University of Lyon.
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