Bombing the USA

CHOW Age of the worl dtargetI’ve noted before how one of the most immediate and long-lasting effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on American post-atomic culture was an extraordinary sense of vulnerability: hence the steady stream of visuals imagining a nuclear attack on cities like New York and Washington.  In The Age of the World Target, Rey Chow writes about

‘…the self-referential function of virtual worlding that was unleashed by the dropping of the atomic bombs, with the United States always occupying the position of the bomber, and other cultures always viewed as the … target fields.’

But in an important sense she couldn’t be more wrong.  Here is Paul Boyer in By the Bomb’s Early Light:

‘Physically untouched by the war, the United States at the moment of victory perceived itself as naked and vulnerable. Sole possessors and users of a devastating instrument of mass destruction, Americans envisioned themselves not as a potential threat to other peoples, but as potential victims.’

Or, as Peter Galison put it, writing in Grey Room 4 (2001),

Here stands a new, bizarre, and yet pervasive species of Lacanian mirroring. Having gone through the bomb-planning and bomb-evaluating process so many times for enemy maps of Schweinfurt, Leuna, Berlin, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Tokyo, and Nagasaki, now the familiar maps of Gary, Pittsburgh, New York City, Chicago, and Wichita began to look like them.

And, as it happens, American cities did become targets – for US Strategic Air Command.

Operation Pacific NYT 17 May 1947

In May 1947 an exercise – ‘Operation Pacific’ – was carried out over the cities of the Eastern seaboard from New York to Washington.  Its title was not a tribute to the geospatial intelligence of the US Air Force: General George Kenney, commander of SAC, asked reporters to emphasize that this was, in its way, a peace-keeping mission, ‘an exercise not an attack’, and that the cities involved were ‘objectives’ not targets – so they weren’t candidates for inclusion in the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World

But it was a disappointment to all concerned:

Operation Pacific, New York, May 1947.001

The public was let down by the lack of spectacle.  According to the New York Times,

‘The squadron from Fort Worth missed the rendezvous by twenty minutes… [which] destroyed the effect of a mass bombing the main-in-the-street had been led to expect…

‘Check-up from the Battery to the Yonkers line indicated that public disappointment was general if not unanimous. Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, where hundreds of thousands turned out on the streets and on rooftops, alike reported that nowhere was there acclaim or enthusiasm, except in school-yards and other places where small-fry congregated.’

The senior brass were even more dismayed.  Philip Meilinger described it as a ‘sad situation’ so ‘in August SAC tried again, against Chicago, but the performance was even worse.’

In 1948 Kenney was replaced by another veteran, Curtis LeMay, who was determined to lick SAC into shape – and preferably far from the watchful eyes of the public.  Three months after he assumed command, LeMay ordered a bombing exercise against a target field near Wright-Patterson AFB at Dayton, Ohio.  In To kill nations, Edward Kaplan bleakly observes:

‘To simulate the inaccurate maps of many Soviet targets, [LeMay] gave the bomber crews 1930s-era charts.  As LeMay suspected, because of equipment failures when taken up to operational altitudes [until then the crews had been flying at 15,000 not 40,000 feet] and gaps in training, the crews utterly failed to accomplish the mission.  Everything that could go wrong, did.  Not one crew would have bombed the target successfully.  Of 303 runs made at the target, the circular error probable was 10,100 feet, outside the effective radius of a Hiroshima-size weapon.’

LeMay ordered an intensive programme of training and practice.  A key resource was radar bomb scoring (see also here):


According to Sigmund Alexander, in 1947 SAC completed more than 12,000 radar bomb scoring runs; the next year the number soared to 28,049, an average of about 76 runs per day.  In 1956 Popular Electronics – from which I’ve borrowed the diagram above explained the procedure:

‘Airmen cried “Bombs away!” but instead of devastating blasts the only visible evidence of the crew’s ability to destroy a target was cryptic electronic signals observed by technicians at work inside a special radar station.… When the airplane signals “Bombs away!” a radar pulse is sent from the bomber to the ground station, known as a Radar Bomb Scoring (RBS) unit. The station is built inside a mobile van. A Mobile Radar Control System (MSQ) in the van uses the received pulses to track the course of the bomber, while computers determine the accuracy of “hits.” Blips across a radarscope represent the flight path of the plane. The results of the scoring computer are shown as a thin red line traced by an electronic “pen” on a sheet of blank paper. With this data, the RBS group working in the van knows just where the “bomb” hits.’


This was virtual bombing, and it was a highly skilled affair.  Colonel Francis Potter recalls:

These practice bomb runs …  required a large amount of skill between the radar operator and the navigator to correctly identify the necessary check points to arrive at “bombs away” time on the correct heading and on time. The co-pilot would normally contact the bomb site via VHF (Very High Frequency) radio and relay the required information…. If memory serves me, we reported crew number, operator’s name, target designator, altitude, and type of release, IP (initial point, where you started the bomb run) and direction of flight at the time of “release.”  This info would be repeated to us and confirmed. Our position would be reported when over the IP point, usually some 50-60 miles out. After passing this point, directional control of the aircraft would be passed to the radar operator, who could tie it into his sighting system, and using the auto pilot small directional controls would be made. At the proper time prior to “release”, a continuous radio “tone” would be emitted which would alert the scoring site that release was imminent. At the proper time and place, the tone would stop. This was the release point. The co-pilot would announce to the site “bombs away.”  The site would then “score” the probable impact point, using wind drift and other factors that apply. After a few suspenseful moments, the site would contact us with an encoded score. We could de-code this and find that our bomb had hit XXX feet in which direction and distance from the intended point of impact. Obviously close to the desired spot was always the hoped for results. We would then return to the same IP or another in the same area and perform another run. We often stayed at the same site for several hours running one practice run after another. The scores the operator obtained would be catalogued and a probable CE (circular error) would be determined. This would be determined for each set of bomb runs and would be considered in determining the “over-all” accuracy of the individual operator.

But aircrews soon became over-familiar with the fixed targets on designated bombing ranges.  Here is Don Ross:

When the aircrew was scheduled to simulate bombing a target in our area (we had about 15 or 20 targets, which could be a barn, a building, a cross roads, a fence post, or just coordinates on a map), they would contact us and we would position the target they were going after on our plotting board, track them in and measure how well they did….

Well, the aircrews flew against these targets so often, that they became good at hitting them, Damn good. So good, they could do it in their sleep. So, to ensure they were able to actually keep remembering how to set up and find the target, SAC set up even more targets all over the country. As they were well beyond the reach of our detachments, each Squadron was given a train…

Starting in 1961, three special trains were fitted with the necessary equipment (see below; more images here and here):

RBS Express 11th RBS Squadron

Targets would now move from city to city onboard the ‘RBS Express’:

RBS Express.001


During the wars in Korea and Vietnam, radar bomb scoring was reverse-engineered to guide bombers to their targets (see my discussion of ‘Skyspot‘ in ‘Lines of Descent: DOWNLOADS tab; you can also find much more in this evaluation report from Vietnam here).

But here’s the thing.  In a previous post I described how the Michelin brothers established a bombing competition (the Aero-Cible or Air Target Competition) in 1911 to convince politicians and the public that bombing was the future of military aviation – and, no doubt, that Michelin was the company to produce the aircraft:


The results, incidentally, were not especially encouraging:

Michelin aero-cible

The idea of bombing as a ‘sport’ figured in my subsequent discussion of the moral economy of bombing.  Here, for example, is John Steinbeck on US bomber crews in the Second World War in Bombs Away!

The Big League.001

Radar bomb scoring carried this extraordinary metaphoric into the Cold War with Strategic Air Command’s inaguration of what became known as ‘Bomb Comp’, held between 1948 and 1992.  Here are the lucky winners in 1970, the 8th Air Force’s 340th Bomb Group – note the trophy and the baseball caps.

Bomb Comp Winners 8th AF 340th Bomb Group 1970

This often involved competitions with Britain’s Royal Air Force, and it became known not as Steinbeck’s ‘Big League’ but as ‘the World Series of Bombing’:

World Series of Bombing.001

You might be able to blow it up – but you couldn’t make it up.

Drone observations

I’m just back from a lovely week at Dartmouth, so there’s lots to catch up on.  This post is confined to (yet more) notes on writing about drones.  It’s selective, partly because I’m sure I’ve missed all sorts of important recent contributions – and if I have please let me know – but partly because so many supposedly critical interventions retrace familiar steps unburdened by substantive research.

This is far from the case with this one.  Part of the purpose of my stay in Dartmouth was to spend time with Kate Kindervater, one of the first cohort of five post-docs at Dartmouth’s new Society of Fellows (selected from 1700 applicants!).   She completed her PhD at the University of Minnesota last year on ‘Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War‘.

Interdisciplinary both in scope and method, my dissertation, Lethal Surveillance: Drones and the Geo-History of Modern War, examines the history of drone technology from the start of the 20th century to the present in order to understand the significance of the increasing centrality of drones to current American military engagements and security practices more generally. Much of the scholarship on drones and many other contemporary military technologies tends to view the technology as radically new, missing both the historical development of these objects as well as the perspectives and rationalities that are embedded in their use. For this research, I focused on three main periods of drone research and development: the early years of World War I and II in the UK, the Cold War, and the 1990s. In studying this history of the drone, I found that two key trends emerge as significant: the increasing importance of information to warfare under the rubric of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance; and a shift toward more dynamic, speedier, and individualized targeting practices. I argue that the widespread use of drones today thus represents the culmination of attempts in war to effectively link these two trends, creating a practice I call lethal surveillance — with the armed Predator effectively closing the loop between identifying and killing targets. The concept of lethal surveillance, which in my dissertation I place squarely within the histories of modern scientific thinking and Western liberal governance, allows us to see how techniques of Western state power and knowledge production are merging with practices of killing and control in new ways, causing significant changes to both the operations of the state and to practices of war. Framing the drone through the lens of lethal surveillance, therefore, allows us to see the longer histories the drone is embedded in as well as other security practices it is connected to.

We had lots of really good conversation, and while I was at Dartmouth Kate had a paper published at Security dialogue, drawing from her thesis: ‘The emergence of lethal surveillance: Watching and killing in the history of drone technology’:

This article examines the history of the development of drone technology to understand the longer histories of surveillance and targeting that shape contemporary drone warfare. Drawing on archival research, the article focuses on three periods in the history of the drone: the early years during World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and the 1990s. The history of the drone reveals two key trends in Western warfare: the increasing importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and the development of dynamic targeting. These trends converge today in a practice of lethal surveillance where ISR capabilities are directly linked to targeted killing, effectively merging mechanisms of surveillance and knowledge production with decisions on life and death. Taking this history of lethal surveillance into account not only reframes current debates on drone warfare, but also connects the drone to other practices of security and control.

Kate is absolutely right to trace through the trajectories of ISR and dynamic targeting, and I applaud the way in which she doesn’t move directly from colonial ‘air policing’ and ‘pilotless bombing’ (in the case that interests her the most, in Iraq in the 1920s) to today’s remote operations but insists on the pivotal importance of the Cold War and, post-1989, Kosovo.  Kosovo is particularly interesting, I think, and here is my own summary take on developments there:

Predator precedents in Bosnia.001 Predator precedents in Bosnia.002 Predator precedents in Bosnia.003

Another exceptionally interesting paper is Cara Daggett‘s ‘Drone disorientations: how unmanned weapons queer the experience of killing in war’, which appeared in the International journal of feminist politics 17 (3) (2015) 361-379:

Killing with drones produces queer moments of disorientation. Drawing on queer phenomenology, I show how militarized masculinities function as spatiotemporal landmarks that give killing in war its “orientation” and make it morally intelligible. These bearings no longer make sense for drone warfare, which radically deviates from two of its main axes: the home–combat and distance–intimacy binaries. Through a narrative methodology, I show how descriptions of drone warfare are rife with symptoms of an unresolved disorientation, often expressed as gender anxiety over the failure of the distance–intimacy and home–combat axes to orient killing with drones. The resulting vertigo sparks a frenzy of reorientation attempts, but disorientation can lead in multiple and sometimes surprising directions – including, but not exclusively, more violent ones. With drones, the point is that none have yet been reliably secured, and I conclude by arguing that, in the midst of this confusion, it is important not to lose sight of the possibility of new paths, and the “hope of new directions.”

There have been several commentaries that take the ‘un-manning’ of remote operations literally and seriously, and I drew on several of them in accounting for the moral economy of bombing in my Tanner Lectures last month: the (hideous) claim that bombing is, in all sorts of ways, virile and manly – so that, by extension, those who fly today’s Predators and Reapers are neither since they are never in harm’s way.  It’s an alarming argument, since it inadvertently legitimates (and even celebrates) the masculinism of conventional bombing, misses the new reality of today’s air wars, and ignores a crucial observation made by Robert Gates [the slides below are from my Tanner Lectures]:

Unopposed air war.001Unopposed air war 2.001

Cara’s argument is much more artful than that, and well worth thinking through.

As both writers know, the use of military drones is not confined to targeted killing (though so many continue to write as though that were the case).  That said, Laurie Calhoun‘s We kill because we can: from soldiering to assassination in the drone age (Zed Books, 2015) is as deft an examination of the issues that you can find:

Welcome to the Drone Age. Where self-defense has become naked aggression. Where courage has become cowardice. Where black ops have become standard operating procedure. In this remarkable and often shocking book, Laurie Calhoun dissects the moral, psychological and cultural impact of remote-control killing in the twenty-first century. Can a drone operator conducting a targeted killing be likened to a mafia hitman? What difference, if any, is there between the Trayvon Martin case and the drone killing of a teen in Yemen? We Kill Because We Can takes a scalpel to the dark heart of Western foreign policy in order to answer these and many other troubling questions.

CALHOUN We kill because we canPreface

Part I: Find
1. Drone Nation
2. From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure
3. The Logic of Targeted Killing
4. Lethal Creep

Part II: Fix
5. Strike First, Suppress Questions Later
6. The New Banality of Killing
7. The Operators
8. From Conscience to Oblivion

Part III: Finish
9. Death and Politics
10. Death and Taxes
11. The Death of Military Virtue
12. Tyrants Are as Tyrants Do

Appendix: Drone Killing and Just War Theory

You can find an extended interview with Laurie here.

Finally – and as you’ll soon see from an upcoming post – I can’t seem to stop wandering through the nuclear wastelands.  I described the role that drones played in the early development of Strategic Air Command (through its “Project Brass Ring”) and in monitoring US atomic tests in the Marshall Islands in my “Little Boys and Blue Skies” presentation at Toronto last fall (see DOWNLOADS tab and the extended post here), which I reworked for one of my presentations at Dartmouth.  Over at Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, Dan Gettinger replays the same little-known story – though he doesn’t play it forward to the atomic tests that took place at the Nevada Proving Grounds and the role of Indian Springs as a base for those early drone missions in the continental United States.  Indian Springs is now Creech Air Force Base, of course, one of the central nodes for today’s remote operations.