10 – Useful “near-term” solutions are “third best” solutions

To be effective in significantly changing the course of the American space enterprise, starting in 2009 with the new president, near-term engineering solutions need to be identified whose implementation can be initiated in 2009.  In Spacefaring America
blog 9, the concept of the Technology Readiness Level, or TRL, was described, as was my definition of a near-term system.


“A near-term system design is one that can enter full-scale systems engineering and manufacturing development without first requiring significant additional enabling technology maturation research in the laboratory.  What this means is that all critical technologies are either in operation or have been successfully brought to a stage of maturity (technology readiness) where their incorporation into the system design is believed to be possible without unacceptable costs, risks, or schedule delays.”


Picking the “best” solution to an important emerging need is not easy.  A good historical example was the case of Great Britain’s need for improved early warning from air attack in the late 1930’s.  The story, however, starts in World War I.


During the first world war, Germany attacked Britain with hydrogen-filled Zeppelins after the ground war on the continent stalemated. Flying at night to avoid anti-aircraft guns, the Zeppelins’ dropping of bombs became, essentially, the first psychological terror weapon.  (Note that this was after Germany had used poison gas in the ground war.) The British responded with the development of anti-zeppelin capabilities including anti-aircraft guns, search lights, and aircraft armed with new means to attack the Zeppelins. Conventional small caliber gunfire from aircraft was ineffective because, even though hydrogen leaked from the holes created, the leak rate was small and the hydrogen was not ignited by the bullet.  While ground anti-aircraft guns could reach the zeppelins, locating and targeting them at night was difficult.  A quick solution was needed as public expression of alarm was growing.


After several different approaches were tried, explosive and incendiary or tracer rounds fired from machine guns mounted on fighters proved to be the most effective.  The explosive rounds breached the hydrogen cells and the incendiary rounds ignited the escaping hydrogen.  Within two years of the initial attacks, the Zeppelin threat has been effectively countered.


Twenty years later, the renewed threat of aerial attack by German air forces prompted the need for a quick response from the British scientific establishment.  Germany and Italy had provided military support for winning nationalist forces in Spain during the 1935-1939 Spanish Civil War.  Russia had supported the losing republican forces.  The Spanish Civil War essentially became test ground for German land and air forces that would be later turned against Poland and France at the end of the decade.  This included both bombers and fighter-bombers.


British anti-aircraft forces had not changed much since the World War I anti-zeppelin efforts.  They relied on primarily ground observers and a central command system to locate enemy aircraft and direct fighters.  With the increased speed and altitude of the bombers, this approach did not give sufficient warning time for the fighters to engage the bombers before their targets had been attacked.  In 1933, the British military decided that improved aircraft detection and warning was needed.


Robert Watson-Watt, a descendent of James Watt, the 18th century inventor of the practical steam engine, joined the British government’s Meteorological Office in 1915 to focus on using radio to detect the location of thunderstorms to warn pilots.  By 1923 he had succeeded with the development of the directional antenna, to locate the thunderstorm, and the use of the cathode ray tube to display the detected signals from the detected lighting.  These successes led to his professional advancement until, in 1933, he was the Superintendent of the Radio Department of the National Physical Laboratory.  In 1935, Watson-Watt proposed the development of what became known as radar (radio detection and ranging).  By 1937, three test stations were built.  By the beginning of the Battle of Britain in 1940, 19 stations were operating.  These played a vital role in the detection of German bombers and the effective allocation of British fighters during the pivotal Battle of Britain during 1940-1941.


Knighted for his work, Sir Watson-Watt discussed his accomplishments in his autobiography.  He made note of the “Culture of the Imperfect” in describing the approach he used to rapidly develop and field the radar systems. “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late; the best never comes.”


Over the years, Watson-Watt’s “Culture of the Imperfect” has been restated as the “Law of the Third Best.” Arthur M. Squires, in discussing this “law,” identified the third best solution as the “the one that can be validated and deployed without unacceptable cost or delay.”


A “third best” solution is the “what best can be done now” solution.  Such solutions are what now need to be identified and proposed for the next president to change the course of the American space enterprise.  These are not, however–and this is very important–steps backward in technology or involve the use of out-dated design approaches. 


When Watson-Watt was developing the radar approach, the competing solution involved the use of large passive acoustic devices to detect the sound of the aircraft’s engines.  This was essentially a version of cupping your hands to your ears, although on a far larger scale.  While it worked, it did not have the potential to extend the detection range to the distance necessary to alert the fighters and provide time for the interception.  Watson-Watt saw the need to employ technologies brought to the TRL 6 level by his department’s efforts.  While further radar technology advancements were in development, he wisely choose to focus on deploying the “third best” solutions in hand to meet the nation’s immediate defense needs.



1. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, Three Steps to Victory, Odhams Press Limited, London, 1957, p. 74.

2. Arthur M. Squires, “The Tender Ship: Governmental Management of Technological Change,” Birkhäuser, 1986, p. 122.




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