Drones and atomic bombs

I’ve had my head down these past few weeks writing the long-form version of ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ (see here and here for preliminary notes), and en route I’ve been doing some more digging into the entanglements between nuclear weapons and drones.  And, as you’ll see, I ended up in Korea.

Until now I’ve focused on the US Air Force‘s use of B-17 drones flown by remote control from ground stations and accompanying director aircraft to sample the atomic clouds produced by tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands from 1946, and its Project Brass Ring in the early 1950s designed to convert a B-47 Stratojet into a similarly remotely operated carrier capable of delivering the next generation of thermonuclear (hydrogen) bombs.

But the US Navy was no bystander.

In fact, the first series of postwar atomic tests, Operation Crossroads in July 1946, was an attempt by the Navy to move centre stage after Hiroshima and Nagasaki – when the Air Force had played the leading role – and to establish that sea power was still relevant in the atomic age.  The target for the bombs was a fleet of 95 ships (ironically readied at Pearl Harbor) and now anchored in the Bikini lagoon. But critics inside and outside Congress doubted the value of the tests: the bombs would be of the same type as ‘Fat Man’, dropped over Nagasaki, so no development in weapons technology was involved, and in any event surface ships were unlikely to be the targets of such devastating weapons.   They dismissed Crossroads as an expensive, purely theatrical extravaganza. And certainly, despite the remote location, 4,000 miles from San Francisco, every effort was made to attract international attention, both public and professional; the official record trumpeted that ‘never before had a nation fanfared its most secret weapon so closely before the eyes of the world’ [the official ‘pictorial record’ is here].

As far as the Air Force was concerned, however, Crossroads would be ‘a laboratory test’ not a ‘bomb-versus-battleship stunt’ [Sidney Shalett, ‘Atomic bomb test no “stunt” to AAF’, New York Times, 21 February 1946].  It would involve not only bomb delivery by one of its bombers but also cloud monitoring by drones.   ‘Almost as dramatic as the flight of the B-29 bomber’, General W.E. Kepner told reporters, ‘will be the plunge of the unpiloted but mothered drone planes into the sky-reaching, irradiated cloud.’  ‘Where men cannot go,’ he added, ‘the drone will take electronic and other recording instruments.’  Vice-Admiral William Blaney told reporters that ‘robot aircraft will dive into the atomic blast to gather scientific data’ and ‘uncover facts of radioactive phenomena as well as supply data on blast effects on airborne aircraft.’

As I noted in my earlier post, both the Air Force and the Navy supplied the drones.

For its part, the Air Force retained its love affair with the heavy bombers that had driven its ill-fated Project Aphrodite in the dog days of the war, in which war-weary B-17 Flying Fortresses were filled with high explosives and flown from an accompanying director aircraft into enemy targets in Occupied Europe. This time its Drones Unit utilised new B-17s: four were converted into drones operated by radio-control from four others flying at a safe distance, while one acted as the master control aircraft.  The drones were stripped of all their defensive armaments and fitted with radio and television equipment; air filters were fixed to their top turrets to trap particles from the cloud and collection bags installed in their bomb bays.  Ground controllers launched the drones from control jeeps and then handed off to the airborne controllers (‘beeper pilots’) on board the accompanying B-17s who directed the aircraft into the cloud before returning them to the ground controllers who managed the landing.

But the Navy had experimented with its smaller, carrier-based aircraft during the war too.  Its Project Option had used TDR-1 drones loaded with 500-2000 lb bombs with nose-mounted TV cameras controlled from the back seat of an Avenger Torpedo bomber.

As it happens, one of the first missions of the Special Task Air Group (STAG-1) had been to deploy its drones in support of a US assault on the Marshall Islands, but the Marines landed long before the planned invasion date; the Group was then tasked with attacking targets of opportunity throughout the Solomon Islands.  In a single month, between 27 September and 26 October 1944, STAG-1 launched 46 drones, of which 29 successfully destroyed their targets.  This was a short-lived project in another sense.  As with Aphrodite, these were all in effect kamikaze missions in which the unoccupied aircraft plunged into its targets and exploded:  James Hall provides a pilot’s view in his American Kamikaze, and you can find an exquisite analysis of the project in the second chapter of Katherine Chandler‘s thesis, Drone flight and failure: the United States’ secret trials, experiments and operations in unmanning, 1936-1973.  For Crossroads, less than two years later, the Navy used carrier-based Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighter aircraft as drones and as control aircraft, mustering 30 drones and 26 control aircraft (below, the USS Shangri-La en route to Bikini with the drones on the flight deck).

The first shot in the series, codenamed Able, took place on 1 July 1946. At 0900 Dave’s Dream dropped the bomb over the target fleet, but the result was not the thrilling spectacle that had been advertised [below: Able shot from Enyu Island].  Visually it was a damp squib.  Judged by its own Broadway razzamatazz, one reporter jibed, it was a complete flop: ‘Operation Chloroform, the logical sequel to Operation Build-Up and Handout.’

Scientifically it was not much better.  Although Vice-Admiral Blaney initially declared that the bomb was dropped ‘with very good accuracy’, in fact it detonated off-target, exploding over one of the instrumentation vessels and compromising the readings from many others.  Even most of the high-speed cameras missed the shot. One critic concluded that ‘from the standpoint of pure science no test was ever more haphazard’ [more in Jonathan Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll (1994) and Keith Parsons and Robert Zabella, Bombing the Marshall islands:a Cold War tragedy (2017)].

Against this catalogue of errors, which was glossed over in the official report, the aerial sampling missions were judged a considerable success.

(When the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty put an end to atmospheric testing in 1963 you might think the need for aerial sampling disappeared with the cloud.  But the US still operates two sampling aircraft as the ‘Constant Phoenix’ program that acts as a supplement to the satellite sensor network of the US Atomic Energy Detection System: earlier this year Constant Phoenix flew sampling missions to assess North Korea’s claim to have detonated a hydrogen bomb).

Back to the future.  As soon as the bomb was released over Bikini the first B-17 control aircraft turned its huge drone (Fox) into the cloud at an altitude of 24,000 feet; Fox was then switched to its automatic pilot, entering the cloud eight minutes after the explosion, while the control (or “beeper”) aircraft raced around the cloud and resumed control when the drone emerged on the other side.  Fox was followed by George (at 30,000 feet), How (at 18,000 feet) and Love (at 12,000 feet).  All four drones were directed back to Eniwetok atoll where they were handed back to the ground controllers in jeeps at the end of the runway who taxied them to the radiological safe area where the filters and bags were removed and flown to Los Alamos Laboratory for analysis (below).

The Navy launched four of its drones from the Shangri-La, but only three of them – Yellow, White and Blue – sampled the cloud at 5,000, 10,000 and 15,000 feet before being directed back to Roi island for a ground landing and sample recovery (below).

The official report emphasised that this was a notable first. ‘At Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’ it declared, ‘a few photographs and pressure measurements were made of the explosions, but almost nothing of value to physicists was learned.’ Crossroads had changed that; ‘for the first time samples had been taken from an atomic cloud’ during what one military engineer hailed as ‘the most hugely instrumented experiment in history’.

To the Air Force its drones had made crucial contributions not only to the aerial sampling programme but also to the development of remote operations more generally: ‘For the first time, four-motored drone aircraft had been flown without a safety pilot aboard.’  The author of the official report was equally impressed.  ‘With no one aboard,’ he marvelled, ‘these great planes were radio-guided through their prescribed flights across the target area, a unique and impressive feat.’  In a footnote he continued:

‘A number of Army Air Forces officials believe that the drone-plane program undertaken for Crossroads advanced the science of drone-plane operations by a year or more… Operation Crossroads was the first operation in which take-off, flight, and landing were accomplished with no one aboard.  The feat was an impressive one; many experts had thought it could never be accomplished with planes of this size.’

These were the experiments that captured the imagination of  Hanson Baldwin, a military affairs correspondent for the New York Times and Life magazine.  He had already predicted that ‘robot planes, rockets, television and radar bombing and atomic bombs will do the work today done by fleets of thousands of piloted bombers.’  Now he saw the future materialising in front of him.  ‘Today,’ he wrote in the New York Times for 25 August 1946, ‘planes without crews can be flown from almost anywhere, and can even survive… the atomic cloud.’  At Bikini the drones were controlled over a distance of eight miles or less, but Baldwin had been told that remote control up to fifty and perhaps even 100 miles was possible.  These were what today would be called line-of-sight operations, so their range was limited and Baldwin stressed that ‘an unmanned drone cannot be sent careening into a target in Europe by an operator standing at his “beep box” on La Guardia field in New York’.   But he was also adamant that a threshold had been crossed:

‘In the Pacific so much experience in the handling of drones was accumulated during the summer and the operations were so far in advance of drone operations during the war that it is safe to say that a simplified and reliable system of drone control – with all that implies – has been achieved…. Drones thus add a new and dangerous instrument to the growing armory of Mars, increase the power of the offensive and further complicate the tasks of the defensive’ [Hanson W. Baldwin, ‘The “Drone”: portent of a push-button war’, New York Times, 25 August 1946].

He was right, and the lines of descent from these post-war experiments to today’s remote operations by the US Air Force reveal continuing entanglements with nuclear weapons.

The official report of Crossroads makes no mention of the implications for remote operations of the smaller Navy drones.  Yet the Navy retained an interest in their development, and here too the connections with weapons of mass destruction are more than marginalia.

In April 1952 Herbert Johansen, an associate editor for Popular Mechanics, was invited to observe a flight of four F6F-5K Hellcats – though ‘they could just as well be our fastest jets’ – converted to drone operations at the Navy’s Pilotless Aircraft Laboratory and controlled from a single aircraft off the Atlantic coast.  Although the caption to a photograph noted that ‘Big Fellows’ – the Air Force’s Flying Fortresses – ‘can also be radio-controlled’ (see right), it was the smaller drones that got this reporter’s attention.

The Navy was ‘tight-lipped’ about its plans for the Hellcat drones, but Johansen had no difficulty imagining a future in which they would ‘carry atomic warheads and crash-dive as projectiles of destruction’ [‘No Live Operator Aboard’, Popular Mechanics 160 (4) (1952)].

Perhaps this was Johansen’s own, wild conjecture; perhaps not.  Bruce Cumings has shown that Washington had contemplated the use of nuclear weapons ‘from the first days of the Korean war’.  General MacArthur had requested atomic bombs to support ground operations as early as July 1950; in November President Truman, in response to a reporter’s question, insisted that their use was on the table, and Strategic Air Command was told that aircraft despatched to the Pacific theatre (based on Guam and Okinawa) should have ‘atomic capabilities’.  Cumings argues that ‘the US came closest to using nuclear weapons’ in April 1951, when the Pentagon prepared for immediate ‘atomic retaliation’ against any Chinese or Russian escalation; nine Mark IV bombs were transferred to the Air Force, and the President authorised their use against North Korean and Chinese targets.  But these were enormous bombs destined for the Air Force’s B-29s – each weighed 11,000 lbs and was far beyond the capacity of the Navy’s Hellcats (though not its AJ-1 bombers) – and they were never used.  Still, the Pentagon continued to consider the nuclear option, and in September and October 1951 flights of B-29s carried out simulated runs over the North, dropping dummy atomic bombs to assess their utility as battlefield weapons [see Bruce Cumings, ‘On the strategy and morality of American policy in Korea, 1950 to the present’, Social Science Japan Journal 1 (1) (1998) 57-70; see also here; Daniel Calingaert, ‘Nuclear weapons and the Korean War’, Journal of strategic studies 11 (2) (1988) 177-202; and here).

One year later the same bleak prospect as Johansen’s was conjured up by a naval officer much closer to the conflict, who was overseeing an experimental flight of Navy drones against targets in North Korea. Between 28 August and 2 September six Hellcat drones on the carrier USS Boxer were loaded with 2000 lb bombs and, with TV pods slung under their wings, yoked to director aircraft – AD-2Q Skyraiders this time – whose pilots used TV screens to guide what were now described as ‘robot missiles’ on to their targets.

The test roared on to the front pages.  An American correspondent cabled a vivid description of what he called ‘one of the most dramatic and historical events of the Korean War’:

‘We watched a guided missile roar off a catapult, climb north-westward in a sweeping turn and head for a dangerous flak-ridden communist target in North Korea more than 150 miles away.

‘As the doomed craft streaked towards its target, grim-faced electronic experts, in a secret room on this ship, rode with the missile, mile by mile, through wondrous electronic instruments.  On their dials in the secret room, the experts crossed the Sea of Japan and watched the jagged peaks of Eastern Korea loom in the distance and grow larger.  Far from the missile, an automatic device transmitted every dying moment of the missile’s last hour to the USS Boxer.

‘The target – an enemy concentration in a valley between two shadowy hills – was indicated on the receiving instrument – a real flak-ridden trap for any hapless Allied pilot.

‘A second to go now – the signal of the instruments grew stronger as the guided missile dived straight at the target at hundreds of miles an hour.  Then the instruments went suddenly blank.  The screaming dive had ended squarely on the target and the missile had crashed to oblivion’ [His dispatch was dated 1 September but delayed and censored; it was published in several regional newspapers in the United States and in the Australian press almost three weeks later: ‘United States ready for push-button warfare’, Canberra Times, 19 September 1952].

With that blank screen, he continued, those on board the Boxer knew that ‘here at last in actual combat, was a new era of battle’, when ‘electronic brains will ride in tough, dangerous places, saving the lives of American pilots.’  Or, as one observing officer marvelled, ‘It’s a nice way to fight a war’ [More from Jeremy Hsu, ‘When US Navy suicide drones went to war’, here].

Although observers were ‘amazed at the drone’s sensitive response to remote control’ and the TV screen supposedly ‘enabled the controlling officer to keep the drone “on the target” until the last second, giving the missile unbelievable accuracy’, only one of the six hit its target [‘Navy uses robot missiles against targets in Korea’, New York Times, 18 September 1952].  The others recorded near-misses, but this was enough for Lt-Cdr Lawrence Kurtz, the (less than tight-lipped) commander of Guided Missile Unit 90 responsible for the trial, to boast that the United States had enough of them to ‘launch and sustain a large-scale robot campaign’.  And he then added this ominous rider: some of the ‘missile planes’ were ‘capable of carrying an atomic bomb from one continent to another’ [ ‘United States ready for push-button warfare’; ‘Guided missiles in Korean War: Deadly new US technique’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1952].

Agency reports of his comments were played down in the United States, where they evidently incurred the wrath of his superiors. Rear Admiral John Sides described the use of the Hellcat drones as an ‘interim measure’ before the development of ‘more effective guided missiles’, conceding that ‘it wouldn’t take much imagination to realize that there are better ways of doing this job.’  But he would give no further details: the Navy was ‘investigating the use of classified information in news dispatches on the employment of pilotless bombers in Korea’, but refused to elaborate [‘Korea robot raids “interim measure”’, New York Times, 19 September 1952].  Instead, Sides switched the focus from the aircraft to American lives.  The  object of the experimental programme observed by the Popular Mechanics correspondent earlier in the year was ‘to obtain air kills by individuals operating from beyond the range of the enemy’s armament’, he emphasised, and in Korea ‘a controller sitting in relative safety’ outside the range of anti-aircraft defences ‘had been able to direct an effective drop on the enemy positions.’ The previous Times report had already underlined the significance: ‘The planes were sacrificed but, of course, not a man was lost.’

On 22 September NBC broadcast a short Department of Defense film describing what it called the dawn of ‘a new era in warfare’ in Korea but which made no mention of nuclear weapons.  Instead the commentary emphasised that the pilot of the ‘robot bomber’ was ‘safely out of range’ and that these ‘guided missiles’ might ‘someday eliminate the human element’ altogether :

‘The carrier USS Boxer launches guided missiles for the first time in combat, bringing the push-button war of tomorrow into present day reality. Defense Department films show the first mission of the robot bombers, weapons that may someday eliminate the human element from air war.

The robot missile is catapulted aloft. It is a semi-obsolete Hell Cat, carrying a one-ton bomb load and a television camera instead of a pilot.

Already in the air is the mother plane, with an observer who flies the drone by remote control. Side by side, missile and mother plane head for the target. Then the pilot, safely out of range of interception and anti-aircraft fire, guides the robot directly into the target with unerring accuracy.’

And this was, of course, the larger and sharper point.  The reason drones were originally used to fly through the atomic cloud (though they were later replaced by crewed missions); the reason the Air Force needed a remotely operated aircraft to drop the next generation of nuclear weapons; the reason the Navy wanted ‘offensive drones’ and ‘robot missiles’ to attack heavily defended targets was to save the lives of American crews.  It is the same mission that continues today in the US prosecution of what are its avowedly asymmetric wars: to ‘project power without vulnerability’.

Fragments

The flu has restricted me to not so much light reading as lighter-than-air reading, so here are some short contributions and notices that appeared during the Christmas break and which address various aspects of (later) modern war and military violence:

Peter Schwartzstein on ‘The explosive secrets of Egypt’s deserts‘ – the recovery of military maps, aerial photographs, personal journals and sketchbooks from the Second World War to plot the vast minefields that continue to haunt ‘one of the most hotly contested killing fields of the twentieth century’.  You can find more in Aldino Bondesan‘s ‘Between history and geography: The El Alamein Project’, in Jill Edwards (ed) El Alamein and the struggle for North Africa (Oxford, 2012).

I discussed those minefields in ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), and that essay intersects in all sorts of ways with my good friend Gastòn Gordillo‘s project on terrain, so here is a short reflection from him entitled Terrain, forthcoming in Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen.

Not the ‘war on drugs’ but the war through drugs: Mike Jay‘s sharp review essay (‘Don’t fight sober’) on Łukasz Kamieński‘s brilliantly titled Shooting Up: a short history of drugs and war and Norman Ohler‘s over-the-top Blitzed: drugs in Nazi Germany (for another, equally critical take on Ohler, see Richard J Evans‘s splenetic review here; more – and more appreciative – from Rachel Cooke‘s interview with Ohler here).

Here’s an extract from Mike’s review:

9780190263478In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines. ‘Dutch courage’ – originally the genever drunk by British soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War – has many components. With alcohol, soldiers can tolerate higher levels of pain and hardship, conquer fear and perform acts of selfless daring they would never attempt without it. It promotes disinhibition, loosens cultural taboos and makes troops more easily capable of acts that in civilian life would be deemed criminal or insane. The distribution of alcohol and other drugs by medics or superior officers has an important symbolic function, giving soldiers permission to perform such acts and to distance themselves from what they become when they’re intoxicated.

Opium, cannabis and coca all played supporting roles on the premodern battlefield but it was only with the industrialisation of pharmaceutical production that other drugs emerged fully from alcohol’s shadow. Morphine was widely used for the first time in the American Civil War and the 19th-century cocaine boom began with research into its military application. Freud was first alerted to it by the work of the army surgeon Theodor Aschenbrandt, who in 1883 secretly added it to the drinking water of Bavarian recruits and found that it made them better able to endure hunger, strain and fatigue. During the First World War cocaine produced in Java by the neutral Dutch was exported in large quantities to both sides. British forces could get it over the counter in products such as Burroughs Wellcome’s ‘Forced March’ tablets, until alarms about mass addiction among the troops led to a ban on open sales under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1916.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707During the 1930s a new class of stimulants emerged from the laboratory, cheap to produce, longer-acting and allegedly less addictive. Amphetamine was first brought to market in the US by Smith, Kline and French in 1934 in the form of a bronchial inhaler, Benzedrine, but its stimulant properties were soon recognised and it was made available in tablet form as a remedy for narcolepsy and a tonic against depression. As with cocaine, one of its first applications was as a performance booster in sport. Its use by American athletes during the Munich Olympic Games in 1936 brought it to the attention of the German Reich and by the end of the following year the Temmler pharmaceutical factory in Berlin had synthesised a more powerful variant, methamphetamine, and trademarked it under the name Pervitin. As Norman Ohler relates in Blitzed, research into its military applications began almost immediately; it was used in combat for the first time in the early stages of the Second World War. Ohler’s hyperkinetic, immersive prose evokes its subjective effects on the German Wehrmacht far more vividly than any previous account, but it also blurs the line between myth and reality.

This too blurs the line between myth and reality, or so you might think.  Geoff Manaugh‘s ever-interesting BldgBlog reports that the US Department of Defense ‘is looking to develop “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants”.’  Sustainable shooting.  But notice this is ammunition only for use in proving grounds…

shotgun

At the other end of the sustainable spectrum, John Spencer suggests that ‘The most effective weapon on the modern battlefield is concrete‘.  To put it simply, you bring today’s liquid wars to a juddering halt – on the ground at any rate – by turning liquidity into solidity and confounding the mobility of the enemy:

Ask any Iraq War veteran about Jersey, Alaska, Texas, and Colorado and you will be surprised to get stories not about states, but about concrete barriers. Many soldiers deployed to Iraq became experts in concrete during their combat tours. Concrete is as symbolic to their deployments as the weapons they carried. No other weapon or technology has done more to contribute to achieving strategic goals of providing security, protecting populations, establishing stability, and eliminating terrorist threats. This was most evident in the complex urban terrain of Baghdad, Iraq. Increasing urbanization and its consequent influence on global patterns of conflict mean that the US military is almost certain to be fighting in cities again in our future wars. Military planners would be derelict in their duty if they allowed the hard-won lessons about concrete learned on Baghdad’s streets to be forgotten.

When I deployed to Iraq as an infantry soldier in 2008 I never imagined I would become a pseudo-expert in concrete, but that is what happened—from small concrete barriers used for traffic control points to giant ones to protect against deadly threats like improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and indirect fire from rockets and mortars. Miniature concrete barriers were given out by senior leaders as gifts to represent entire tours. By the end my deployment, I could tell you how much each concrete barrier weighed. How much each barrier cost. What crane was needed to lift different types. How many could be emplaced in a single night. How many could be moved with a military vehicle before its hydraulics failed.
Baghdad was strewn with concrete—barriers, walls, and guard towers. Each type was named for a state, denoting their relative sizes and weights. There were small barriers like the Jersey (three feet tall; two tons), medium ones like the Colorado (six feet tall; 3.5 tons) and Texas (six feet, eight inches tall; six tons), and large ones like the Alaska (12 feet tall; seven tons). And there were T-walls (12 feet tall; six tons), and actual structures such as bunkers (six feet tall; eight tons) and guard towers (15 to 28 feet tall).

concrete-barriers-stored-at-bagram-afb-january-2015

But it’s nor only a matter of freezing movement:

Concrete also gave soldiers freedom to maneuver in urban environments. In the early years of the war, US forces searched for suitable spaces in which to live. Commanders looked for abandoned factories, government buildings, and in some situations, schools. Existing structures surrounded by walled compounds of some type were selected because there was little in the environment to use for protection—such as dirt to fill sandbags, earthworks, or existing obstacles. As their skills in employing concrete advanced, soldiers could occupy any open ground and within weeks have a large walled compound with hardened guard towers.

Now up into the air.  My posts on the US Air Force’s Bombing Encyclopedia (here and here) continue to attract lots of traffic; I now realise that the project – a targeting gazetteer for Strategic Air Command – needs to be understood in relation to a considerable number of other texts.  Elliott Child has alerted me to the prisoner/defector interrogations that provided vital intelligence for the identification of targets – more soon, I hope – while those targets also wound their way into the President’s Daily Brief (this was an era when most Presidents read the briefs and took them seriously, though Nixon evidently shared Trump’s disdain for the CIA: see here.)  James David has now prepared a National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book (No 574) which provides many more details based on redacted releases of Briefs for the period 1961-77.

Two of the most critical intelligence targets throughout the Cold War were Soviet missile and space programs. U.S. intelligence agencies devoted a huge amount of resources to acquiring timely and accurate data on them. Photoreconnaissance satellites located launch complexes and provided data on the number and type of launchers, buildings, ground support equipment, and other key features. They located R&D centers, manufacturing plants, shipyards, naval bases, radars, and other facilities and obtained technical details on them. The satellites also occasionally imaged missiles and rockets on launch pads. There were four successful photoreconnaissance satellite programs during the four administrations in question. CORONA, a broad area search system, operated from August 1960 until May 1972. The first successful high resolution system, GAMBIT-1, flew from 1963-1967. The improved GAMBIT-3 high resolution satellite was launched from 1966-1984. HEXAGON, the broad area search successor to CORONA, operated from 1971-1984. High-resolution ground photography of missiles and rockets displayed at Moscow parades and other events also proved valuable at times.

sigint-targets-ussr

Signals intelligence platforms [above] also contributed greatly to understanding Soviet missile and space programs. Satellites such as GRAB (1960-1962), POPPY (1962-1971), and AFTRACK payloads (1960-1967) located and intercepted air defense, anti-ballistic missile, and other radars and added significantly to U.S. knowledge of Soviet defensive systems and to the development of countermeasures. Other still-classified signals intelligence satellites launched beginning around 1970 reportedly intercepted telemetry and other data downlinked from missiles, rockets, and satellites to Soviet ground stations, and commands uplinked from the stations to these vehicles. Antennas at intercept sites also recorded this downlinked data. During the latter stages of missile and rocket tests to the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Pacific, ships and aircraft also intercepted telemetry and acquired optical data of the vehicles. Analysis of the telemetry and other data enabled the intelligence agencies to determine the performance characteristics of missiles, rockets, and satellites and helped establish their specific missions. Radars at ground stations detected launches, helped determine missile trajectories, observed the reentry of vehicles, and assisted in estimating the configuration and dimensions of missiles and satellites. Space Surveillance Network radars and optical sensors detected satellites and established their orbital elements. The optical sensors apparently also photographed satellites.

And for a more recent take on sensors and shooters, coming from Yale in the Spring: Christopher J Fuller‘s See It/Shoot It: The secret history of the CIA’s lethal drone program:

An illuminating study tracing the evolution of drone technology and counterterrorism policy from the Reagan to the Obama administrations.

This eye-opening study uncovers the history of the most important instrument of U.S. counterterrorism today: the armed drone. It reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the CIA’s covert drone program is not a product of 9/11. Rather, it is the result of U.S. counterterrorism practices extending back to an influential group of policy makers in the Reagan administration.

Tracing the evolution of counterterrorism policy and drone technology from the fallout of Iran-Contra and the CIA’s “Eagle Program” prototype in the mid-1980s to the emergence of al-Qaeda, Fuller shows how George W. Bush and Obama built upon or discarded strategies from the Reagan and Clinton eras as they responded to changes in the partisan environment, the perceived level of threat, and technological advances. Examining a range of counterterrorism strategies, he reveals why the CIA’s drones became the United States’ preferred tool for pursuing the decades-old goal of preemptively targeting anti-American terrorists around the world.

You can get a preview of the argument in his ‘The Eagle Comes Home to Roost: The Historical Origins of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program’ in Intelligence & National Security 30 (6) (2015) 769-92; you can access a version of that essay, with some of his early essays on the US as what he now calls a ‘post-territorial empire’, via Academia here.

Finally, also forthcoming from Yale, a reflection on War by A.C. Grayling (whose Among the Dead Cities was one of the inspirations for my own work on bombing):

grayling-warFor residents of the twenty-first century, a vision of a future without warfare is almost inconceivable. Though wars are terrible and destructive, they also seem unavoidable. In this original and deeply considered book, A. C. Grayling examines, tests, and challenges the concept of war. He proposes that a deeper, more accurate understanding of war may enable us to reduce its frequency, mitigate its horrors, and lessen the burden of its consequences.

Grayling explores the long, tragic history of war and how warfare has changed in response to technological advances. He probes much-debated theories concerning the causes of war and considers positive changes that may result from war. How might these results be achieved without violence? In a profoundly wise conclusion, the author envisions “just war theory” in new moral terms, taking into account the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust and laying down ethical principles for going to war and for conduct during war.

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):

radar-scores-sac-bombing-test-pe-december-1956-2

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.’

BombScoreMission-

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

insideMSQ39

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:

aero_cible_michelin_1_bib

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.

Seeing ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes’

All the videos from Through Post-Atomic Eyes last October are now available on YouTube here, including my “Little Boys and Blue Skies: drones through post-atomic eyes. My slide deck is available under the DOWNLOADS tab.

This is the sawn-off 30-minute version; I’ll be giving an extended version when I’m at Dartmouth later this month – and I’m really looking forward to that.

Planetary bombing

NORAD's Santa

You’ve probably read the tinsel-and-glitter story about NORAD tracking Santa Claus on Christmas Eve – like Santa’s sleigh, it goes the rounds every year – but Matt Novak provides an appropriately explosive rendition of it here.

It was a smart move for the military. When American kids asked their parents what NORAD was, the U.S. parents would be able to respond “those are the people who help Santa” rather than “those are the people who are ensuring our second strike capabilities after you and everyone in your play group are turned to dust by a nuclear attack.”

Among other plums in the pudding, Matt pulls out a syndicated story from AP in December 1955, in which the military promised that it would ‘continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas‘ (emphasis added).

Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959 JPEG

Just before Christmas this year, while NORAD was busy preparing to track Santa’s sleigh again, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released US Strategic Air Command’s Atomic Weapons Requirements Study for 1959, produced the year after that AP story.  The study

‘provides the most comprehensive and detailed list of nuclear targets and target systems that has ever been declassified. As far as can be told, no comparable document has ever been declassified for any period of Cold War history.’

Based on the Bombing Encyclopedia of the World, the Air Force planners proposed

the “systematic destruction” of Soviet bloc urban-industrial targets that specifically and explicitly targeted “population” in all cities, including Beijing, Moscow, Leningrad, East Berlin, and Warsaw. Purposefully targeting civilian populations as such directly conflicted with the international norms of the day, which prohibited attacks on people per se (as opposed to military installations with civilians nearby).

The study ‘listed over 1200 cities in the Soviet bloc, from East Germany to China, also with priorities established. Moscow and Leningrad were priority one and two respectively. Moscow included 179 Designated Ground Zeros (DGZs) while Leningrad had 145, including “population” targets.’  Every target was preceded by an eight-digit code from the Bombing Encyclopedia.

Selected SAC targets 1959 JPEG

William Burr provides an excellent, detailed commentary to accompany the Study here; you can also find more from Joseph Trevithick on this ‘catalog of nuclear death over at War is Boring here.

But all of this is prelude to the real plum in my Christmas pudding, the best paper I’ve read all year: Joseph Masco‘s ‘The Age of Fallout’ in the latest issue of History of the Present [5 (2) (2015) 137-168].

Being able to assume a planetary, as opposed to a global, imaginary is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Although depictions of an earthly sphere are longstanding and multiple, I would argue that the specific attributes of being able to see the entire planet as a single unit or system is a Cold War creation. This mode of thinking is therefore deeply imbricated not only in nuclear age militarism, but also in specific forms of twentieth-century knowledge production and a related proliferation of visualization technologies.  A planetary imaginary includes globalities of every kind (finance, technology, international relations) – along with geology, atmosphere, glaciers, oceans, and the biosphere – as one totality.

What is increasingly powerful about this point of view is that it both relies on the national security state for the technologies, finances, and interests that create the possibility of seeing in this fashion, but also, in a single gesture, exceeds the nation-state as the political form that matters. A planetary optic is thus a national security creation (in its scientific infrastructures, visualization technologies, and governing ambitions) that transcends these structures to offer an alternative ground for politics and future making. Proliferating forms of globality – including the specific visualizations of science, finance, politics, and environment – each achieve ultimate scale and are unified at the level of the planetary. This achievement ultimately raises an important set of questions about how collective security problems can, and should, be imagined.

It’s a tour de force which, as these opening paragraphs show, is beautifully written too.  Joe begins with a richly suggestive discussion of the idea of ‘fallout’:

‘Fallout comes after the event; it is the unacknowledged-until-lived crisis that is built into the infrastructure of a system, program, or process. Fallout is therefore understood primarily retrospectively, but it is lived in the future anterior becoming a form of history made visible in negative outcomes.’

Its horizons are as much spatial as they are temporal – though Joe makes the sharp point that radioactive fallout was initially conceived as ‘the bomb’s lesser form’ and that it was the ‘explosive power of the bomb that was fetishized by the US military’ – and that fallout involves ‘individual actions and lived consequences, a post-sociality lived in isolation from the collective action of society or the war machine’ that mutates into what he sees as ‘an increasingly post-Foucaudian kind of governmentality’.

FALLOUT JPEG

When he elaborates the multiple registers in which radioactive fallout appears as an atmospheric toxicity Joe moves far beyond the nostrums of Peter Sloterdijk and others – which, to me anyway, seem to be based on almost wilfully superficial research – and connects it, both substantively and imaginatively, to contemporary critical discussions around global climate change and the Anthropocene.

In a cascade of maps and images, Joe shows how

Space and time are radically reconfigured in these fallout studies, constituting a vision of a collective future that is incrementally changing in unknown ways through cumulative industrial effects. The logics of a national security state (with its linkage of a discrete territory to a specific population) becomes paradoxical in the face of mounting evidence of ecological damage on a collective scale, not from nuclear war itself but rather from nuclear research and development programs. It is important to recognize that while cast as “experiments,” U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests were in reality planetary-scale environmental events.

In short, ‘since 1945 human beings have become post-nuclear creatures, marked with the signatures of nuclear weapons science.’

Towards the end of his essay, Joe says this:

In applying the lessons of the twentieth-century nuclear complex to contemporary geoengineering schemes to manage climate change, we might question 1) the claim to both newness and absolute crisis that installs a state of emergency and suspends normal forms of law and regulation; 2) a process that rhetorically reproduces the split between the event and its fallout so completely; and 3) the suggestion that geoengineering is a novel activity, that it is not an ancient practice with many antecedent examples to think with in assessing our current moment. We might also interrogate how the past fifty years of multidisciplinary work to create detailed visualizations of the planet has installed a dangerous confidence in globality itself, as increasingly high resolution visualizations come to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty, and thus enable psychosocial feelings of control over vastly complex earth systems that remain, at best, only partially understood.

It’s an immensely provocative, perceptive paragraph; it not only makes me retrace my own wanderings through the nuclear wastelands (see here, here and here) but it also obliges me to rethink what I once called ‘the everywhere war’, to map its contours much more carefully  (the original impulse was simply to provide a counterpoint to those commentators who emphasised war time – ‘the forever war’, ‘permanent war’, ‘never-ending war’ – and who never noticed its spaces), and – particularly with that remark about ‘high resolution visualizations com[ing] to stand in for both objectivity and sovereignty’ in mind – perhaps even to see it as another dimension of Joe’s ‘Age of Fallout’.

Big Data and Bombs on Fifth Avenue

Big Data, No Thanks

James Bridle has posted a lightly edited version of the excellent presentation he gave to “Through Post-Atomic Eyes” in Toronto last month – Big Data, No Thanks – at his blog booktwo.  It’s an artful mix of text and images and, as always with James, both repay close scrutiny.

If you look at the situation we are in now, a couple of years after the Snowden revelations, most if not all of the activities which they uncovered have been, if not secretly authorised already, signed into law and continued without much fuss.

As Trevor Paglen has said: Wikileaks and the NSA have essentially the same political position: there are dark secrets at the heart of the world, and if we can only bring them to light, everything will magically be made better. One legitimises the other. Transparency is not enough – and certainly not when it operates in only one direction.  This process has also made me question my own practice and that of many others, because making the invisible visible is not enough either.

James talks about the ‘existential dread’ he feels caused not ‘by the shadow of the bomb, but by the shadow of data’:

It’s easy to feel, looking back, that we spent the 20th Century living in a minefield, and I think we’re still living in a minefield now, one where critical public health infrastructure runs on insecure public phone networks, financial markets rely on vulnerable, decades-old computer systems, and everything from mortgage applications to lethal weapons systems are governed by inscrutable and unaccountable softwares. This structural and existential threat, which is both to our individual liberty and our collective society, is largely concealed from us by commercial and political interests, and nuclear history is a good primer in how that has been standard practice for quite some time.

newyorker-720-loIt’s a much richer argument than these snippets can convey.  For me, the high spot comes when James talks about IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (really), which turns out to be the most explosive combination of secrecy and visibility that you could possibly imagine.

I’m not going to spoil it – go and read it for yourself, and then the title of this post will make horrible sense.  You can read more in George Dyson‘s absorbingly intricate account of Turing’s Cathedral: the origins of the digital universe (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012).

Atomic soldiers and the nuclear battlefield

As promised, I’ve posted the slides from my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies: drones through post-atomic eyes” under the DOWNLOADS tab.  Given my previous posts (here and here) these ought to be reasonably self-explanatory, but I’ve added a series of images derived from Matt Farish‘s brilliant presentation “Beneath the bombs” at the same conference and these probably need explanation.

Tumbler-Snapper 1 June 1952.001

One of the central themes of my presentation was the emphasis placed on American lives by those who planned the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which is why the crew of the Enola Gay had to execute such a tight turn to escape the shock waves from the blast – and by American commentators who almost immediately contemplated the possibility of a nuclear attack on the continental United States.

The same was true of those who prepared for subsequent nuclear strikes (which is why the US Air Force experimented with drones to ‘deliver’ the bombs) and by those who orchestrated subsequent nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and in Nevada (which is why the US Air Force and the US Navy used drones to fly through the atomic clouds to collect samples).

As I showed in the presentation, these same priorities have been extended to today’s use of armed drones by the US Air Force, which repeatedly cites its Predators and Reapers as ‘projecting power without vulnerability’.

All of this will be clear from my slides and posts.

Troops watching atomic test, Yucca Flat, November 1951

But what I didn’t know was that the US Army and Marine Corps had no such qualms about exposing the bodies of their soldiers and marines to the dangers of atomic tests.  Matt described a series of exercises in Nevada – Desert Rock – held between 1951 and 1957 in which ground troops not only watched the tests from a distance (this I did know: see the image above) but were also ordered forward to secure the blast area.  Here is an official video (watch from 3.00).

This is a silent film, but if you prefer a video with a jaunty, reassuring commentary you can find one from the Internet Archive here.  It’s accompanied by this transcript of an interview between a sergeant and a training officer before a blast:

Question. “How many of your men would volunteer to go up and be in the foxholes?” (one-half mile from ground zero)

Answer. “I guess about half a dozen.”

Question. “It’s quite a loud noise when that bomb goes off … would it do them any harm?”

Answer. “No sir, not the noise, no.”

Question. “How about the radiation? Do you think there is much danger?”

Answer. “Radiation is the least of their worries that the men are thinking about.”

Question. “I think most thought radiation was the greatest danger, didn’t they? Where did they learn differently?”

Answer. “They were, prior to our instructions here. We received a very thorough briefing.”

royal_nevada_atomic_soldiers_19550418_courtesy_las_vegas_news_bureau_WEB-300x300

Part of the purpose of the tests was indeed to show how safe the tests were.  As Dr Richard Meiling, the chair of the Armed Forces Medical Policy Council, explained in a memorandum to the Pentagon on 27 June 1951:

‘Fear of radiation … is almost universal among the uninitiated and unless it is overcome in the military forces it could present a most serious problem if atomic weapons are used…. It has been proven repeatedly that persistent ionizing radiation following air bursts does not occur, hence the fear that it presents a dangerous hazard to personnel is groundless.’

Meiling-Richard-L.-218x300Meiling recommended that ‘positive action be taken at the earliest opportunity to demonstrate this fact in a practical manner’, ideally by deploying a Regimental Combat Team ‘approximately twelve miles from the designated ground zero of an air blast and immediately following the explosion . . . they should move into the burst area in fulfillment of a tactical problem.’

In effect, Meiling wanted to conduct an extended psychological experiment in which the Test Site would become a vast human – as much as physical – laboratory.

Simon 1953 EMP shock test

According to a report from the Human Resources Research Organization:

By means of attitude measurement methods measuring psychological effects of stress, both applied at critical points during the maneuver, an attempt was made:

1. To evaluate effects of atomic indoctrination on troop participants; and

2. To estimate effects of the detonation together with its accompanying affects on performance.

One Army officer, Captain Richard Taffe, provided a remarkably cheery first-hand account for Collier’s on 26 January 1952:

I walked through an atom-bombed area. I didn’t get burned, I didn’t become radioactive, and I didn’t become sterile. And neither did the 5,000 guys with me. Furthermore, I wasn’t scared—either while taking my walk through the blasted miles, or while watching the world’s most feared weapon being exploded seven miles in front of me.

But, I’ve been asked a hundred times since the Desert Rock maneuvers at Yucca Flats in the Nevada atomic test site, “What was it like?”…

Suddenly it came. A gigantic flash of white light, bright as a photoflash bulb exploding in our eyes—even with our backs turned. The order “Turn” screamed over the public address system and 5,000 soldiers spun and stared. As we turned, it was as though someone had opened the door of a blast furnace as the terrific heat reached us. There, suspended over the desert floor, was the fireball which follows the initial flash of an atomic bomb.

Hung there in the sky, the tremendous ball of flame was too blinding to stare at, and suddenly there was much more to see.

Sucked into that fireball were the tons of debris from the desert floor. Almost at once dust clouds climbed hundreds of yards off the ground for miles in each direction. Then the familiar column of dirty gray smoke formed and started to rise.

Up to this point we had seen, but we had not heard and we had not felt, the explosion.

But then came the shock wave. The ground beneath us started to heave and sway. Not back and forth as you might expect, but sideways. The earthquakelike movement of the ground rocked us on our haunches and, had we been standing, it could have knocked us down.

About that time, our heads were snapped back with the force of the terrible blast as the sound finally crossed those seven miles and reached us. The tremendous crack was a louder one than most of us had ever heard before. And right behind it came another crack—there seemed to be some debate as to whether this was an echo or another chain reaction in the fireball.

From the throats of everyone there came noises. Noises, not words. I listened particularly for the first coherent statement, but, like myself, few people could voice normal exclamations. It was not something normal and words just wouldn’t come out—only unintelligible sounds.

The first words I did hear came from a caustic corporal behind me, who said, almost calmly, “Well, I finally located that damned Ground Zero.”

Our roar of laughter broke the tension, but the spectacle was far from over.

The horror turned to beauty. It isn’t difficult to associate the word beautiful with such a lethal exhibition, because from this point on, the atomic blast became just that—beautiful. A column rose from where the fireball had dimmed, crawled through the brown doughnut above the fireball, and boiled skyward. The dirty gray of the stem was rapidly offset by the purple hues and blues of the column. Then came the mushroom—the trade-mark of an atomic bomb.

Capped in pure white, the seething mushroom emitted browns, blood orange, pastel pinks, each fighting its way to the surface only to be sucked to the bottom and then back into the middle of the mass of white. Within minutes, the top was at 30,000 feet and then the huge cloud broke loose from the stem and drifted in the wind toward Las Vegas. . . .

This explosion had three lethal qualities. They were: blast, heat and radiation. The greatest fear the public has today in connection with the atom bomb probably is radiation. People forget that it caused only 15 per cent of the 140,000 deaths at Hiroshima.

One second after an air burst of an atom bomb, 50 per cent of the radiation is gone. All danger of lingering radiation has disappeared after 90 seconds.

As to the other two qualities, blast caused 60 per cent of the deaths at Hiroshima. Heat and the accompanying fires accounted for the other 25 per cent. . . .

As we moved up the road in the trucks, the effects of the blast became more apparent. About two miles from Ground Zero—and incidentally the bomber dropped his lethal egg in the proverbial bucket, right on the target—it became obvious that a terrible force had been at work.

At one of the closest positions we again left the trucks and walked through the charred area. Despite the devastation, there was no doubt that a successful attack could have been made by friendly troops directly through the blasted area—immediately after the explosion.

You can find much more here (scroll way down).  The purpose of reports like this was clearly to ‘indoctrinate’ a far wider audience than the US military.

All of this raises two questions.  One is about the radical difference between saving the lives of airmen and risking the lives of ground troops; the answer surely lies only partly in the insistence that there was no risk at all – since the Air Force clearly believed otherwise – and so must also lie in a dismal cost-benefit analysis that reckoned the cost (and time) involved in training aircrew against that involved in training ground troops.

The other is about what could possibly have required a ‘successful attack’ on ground zero and what would have been left for those troops to ‘secure’ after the blast…

Note: If you wonder about the long-term effects of the tests on residents of the area around the Nevada Test Site, see Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, Killing our own: the disaster of America’s experiencewith atomic radiation, which is open access here (see chapter 3: ‘Bringing the bombs home’).

The US Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments provided a report on the effects on ground troops in The Human Radiation Experiments (1996) (Ch 10: ‘Atomic veterans: human experimentation in connection with bomb tests’).

“What is that sound high in the air?”

Coming from MIT in April next year, a new book by the ever-creative anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, Drone: remote control warfare.

GUSTERSON DroneDrones are changing the conduct of war. Deployed at presidential discretion, they can be used in regular war zones or to kill people in such countries as Yemen and Somalia, where the United States is not officially at war. Advocates say that drones are more precise than conventional bombers, allowing warfare with minimal civilian deaths while keeping American pilots out of harm’s way. Critics say that drones are cowardly and that they often kill innocent civilians while terrorizing entire villages on the ground. In this book, Hugh Gusterson explores the significance of drone warfare from multiple perspectives, drawing on accounts by drone operators, victims of drone attacks, anti-drone activists, human rights activists, international lawyers, journalists, military thinkers, and academic experts.

Gusterson examines the way drone warfare has created commuter warriors and redefined the space of the battlefield. He looks at the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance involved in remote killing: is it easier than killing someone on the physical battlefield if you have to watch onscreen? He suggests a new way of understanding the debate over civilian casualties of drone attacks. He maps “ethical slippage” over time in the Obama administration’s targeting practices. And he contrasts Obama administration officials’ legal justification of drone attacks with arguments by international lawyers and NGOs.

People of the bombI met Hugh at a conference on Orientalism and War in Oxford several years ago, and I’ve recently been reading his Nuclear Rites: a weapons laboratory and the end of the Cold War and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America’s Nuclear Complex as I continue my wanderings through the nuclear wastelands.

The coincidence between Hugh’s previous projects and his new one intersects with my presentation on “Little Boys and Blue Skies” in Toronto last week – see here and here – which sketched out a series of entanglements between drones and the nuclear wastelands (hence the Eliot quotation which serves as my title for this post).

Drones and atomic clouds

I’m off to Toronto on Thursday to speak at the symposium “Through Post-Atomic Eyes“.  I posted some of my earlier notes for my presentation, ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones through post-atomic eyes‘, and since then I’ve been digging deeper into the strange intersections between nuclear weapons and today’s Predators and Reapers.

In my original post I described the US Air Force’s early attempts to devise a way of delivering atomic bombs from remotely piloted aircraft – notably Project Brass Ring:

B-47 drone.001

Following a tip from Matt Farish (who will also be speaking at the conference) I’ve now discovered that drones were also used to monitor the ‘atomic clouds’.

Shortly after the Second World War the US Air Force’s Pilotless Aircraft Branch resumed its experiments with remotely controlling B-17 bombers from ‘director aircraft’ and from ground stations:

B17 experiments.001

By July 1946 six to them were being successfully operated by the Army Air Group’s Drone Unit, and they were in action over Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands for the series of nuclear tests known as Operation Crossroads.   The first test (Able) was carried out on 1 July 1946, when a B-29 Superfortress (“Dave’s Dream”) dropped a plutonium bomb of the same power used against Nagasaki from a height of 30,000 feet on a target fleet of 90 obsolete ships; it was an air burst, detonating 520 feet above the ships (the aim point was the battleship USS Nevada, perhaps appropriately enough given that state’s use for nuclear testing in the decades ahead; it was painted bright red to make it visible to the bombardier, but the bomb missed it y 1870 feet).

Bikini2

Operation Crossroads Target Array

The B-17s were on station 20-30 miles away, and they were the first to approach the target area.  Eight minutes after Mike Hour one of them entered the cloud at 24,000 feet, followed by three others at 30,000 feet, 18,000 feet and 13,000 feet.  The image below shows a B-17 landing at Eniwetok under ground control:

B-17 drone Bikini

There was nothing secret about their use – like the bomb itself, making the drones public was a vital part of demonstrating American military and technical superiority.  Here, for example, is an image from Mechanix Illustrated in June 1946 describing Operation Crossroads :

Crossroads at Bikini Mexhanix Illustrated June 1946

According to Bombs at Bikini, the official (public) report on Operation Crossroads, prepared for Join Task Force One and published in 1947:

A number of Army Air Forces officials believe that the drone-plane program undertaken for Crossroads advanced the science of drone-plane operations by a year or more. To be sure, a fewwar-weary B-17’s had been flown without crews during the latter part of the recent war [Operation Aphrodite], but they and their cargoes of explosives were deliberately crash-landed. Also, a few B-17’s had been landed by remote control; but pilots were aboard, ready to take over control in case of trouble. Operation Crossroads was the first operation in which take-off, flight, and landing were accomplished with no one aboard. The feat was an impressive one; many experts had thought it could never be accomplished with planes of this size.

As this video clip shows (start at 6.01), take-off was under the control of a ‘ground beep pilot’, who then handed over to a ‘beep television control pilot’ in an accompanying director aircraft (‘the mother ship’), who handed back to the ground beep pilot for the landing.  This parallels today’s ‘remote-split operations’, though on a greatly reduced spatial scale, where a Launch and Recovery crew stationed in or near the combat zone is responsible for take-off and landing while the mission is flown by a ground control crew in the continental United States):

The B-17 drones operated in concert with the US Navy’s F6F-5 Hellcat drones which made transits of the cloud at 20,000 feet, 15,000 feet and 10,000 feet (see the first image below; the tail fins are painted different colours to indicate different control frequencies: more here).  The second image shows a pilot on the deck of the aircraft carrier Shangri-La controlling an F6F-5 before take-0ff; landing on the deck of a carrier was difficult enough at the best of times and with a skilled crew on board, and not surprisingly the Navy drones returned to Roi island, part of Kwajalein Atoll.

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Paul Hoversten reports:

No manned aircraft flew over the center of the blast, called Zeropoint, until four hours later, although manned boats were on the scene after two hours.  Drones were also flown after the second test, Baker, on July 25, which was an underwater shot suspended from a target ship in Bikini’s lagoon.

Bikini atoll target disposition

In each case the drones were tasked to take air samples from the cloud (using filters housed in boxes under the wings) and to photograph the cloud formation:

Bikini 4

As the official pictorial record boasted (its very existence underlining the importance of a controlled ‘publicness’ to these tests):

Drone planes penetrated where no man could have ventured, flew through the mushroom cloud on photographic missions, sampled its poisonous content, televised to remote onlookers their instrument panel readings for flight analysis.

The samples were crucial, and drones remained of vital importance in collecting them.  The image below shows the air filters being removed from a remotely operated B-17 used in Operation Sandstone (a series of nuclear tests conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission at Eniwetok Atoll in 1948):

Boeing_B-17_drone_at_Eniwetok_1948

The capstone attempt to deliver atomic bombs by remote controlled aircraft, Project Brass Ring, was abandoned in March 1951 when the Air Force determined that a manned aircraft could execute the bomb delivery safely (at least for those on board), but drones continued to be used during atomic tests.  In 1953 QF-80 drones were in use at Indian Springs, the Air Force portal to the Nevada Proving Grounds (the full story is here):

Drones at Indian Springs.001Drones at Indian Springs 2.001

Lockheed QF-80 drone (FT-599) and director aircraft (a Lockheed DT33) ready for take-off at Indian Springs

Lockheed QF-80 drone (FT-599) and director aircraft (a Lockheed DT33) ready for take-off at Indian Springs

This was the first time ‘jet drones’ had been used during continental tests.  NULLO (‘No Live Operator Onboard’) operations used the same system of hand offs between beep pilots and director aircraft that had been used for the B-17s, but Sperry claimed that its precision marked a new milestone in remote operations.  Here’s a video of the drones in operation – and the effects of the blast on the aircraft:

But some tests were designed to evaluate the effects of the blast and the cloud on living creatures.  Here is a clipping from the Chicago Tribune, reporting on a test carried out over Nevada on 6 April 1953 – in fact the mission shown in the last still photograph above.  Note that the radiation effects were expected to be so powerful that all air traffic was excluded from an area of 100,00 square miles:

Chicago Tribune 6 April 1953

Today Indian Springs is known as Creech Air Force Base: the operating hub for the US Air Force’s MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers…

Doomsday Books

DOOMSDAYStill wandering through the nuclear wastelands… (see also here, here and here).  Not surprisingly, there is a considerable literature on the United States and nuclear war, but much less on the UK.  I still have my tattered copy of Doomsday:  Britain after nuclear attack by Stan Openshaw, Philip Steadman and Owen Greene, published more than thirty years ago.  Those were heady days: the authors were members of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, and the book was put together soon after the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal launched by E. P. Thompson (who famously announced he had “left his desk” to further the campaign), Mary Kaldor, Dan Smith and Ken Coates.

Next to Doomsday is my equally battered and well-thumbed copy of a book of essays edited by two other British geographers, David Pepper and Alan Jenkins, The geography of peace and war, which appeared in 1985.  It was in three Parts, ‘The geography of the Cold War and the arms race’, ‘The geography of nuclear war’ (which included an update from Stan and Philip) and ‘The geography of peace’ (with an essay on nuclear weapon free zones).

Fast forward twenty years, and these emphases are in stark contrast to Colin Flint‘s edited collection, Geography of war and peace, in which nuclear war receives just passing mention(s).  The same is true of Audrey Kobayashi‘s still more recent Geography of peace and armed conflict – apart from one brief chapter concerned with Iran.

HOGG British Nuclear CultureAll of this will explain why I am looking forward to the publication of Jonathan Hogg‘s British Nuclear Culture: official and unofficial narratives in the long 20th century, coming from Bloomsbury in January:

The advent of the atomic bomb, the social and cultural impact of nuclear science, and the history of the British nuclear state after 1945 is a complex and contested story. British Nuclear Culture is an important survey that offers a new interpretation of the nuclear century by tracing the tensions between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ nuclear narratives in British culture.

In this book, Jonathan Hogg argues that nuclear culture was a pervasive and persistent aspect of British life, particularly in the years following 1945. This idea is illustrated through detailed analysis of various primary source materials, such as newspaper articles, government files, fictional texts, film, music and oral testimonies. The book introduces unfamiliar sources to students of nuclear and cold war history, and offers in-depth and critical reflections on the expanding historiography in this area of research.

Chronologically arranged, British Nuclear Culture reflects upon, and returns to, a number of key themes throughout, including nuclear anxiety, government policy, civil defence, ‘nukespeak’ and nuclear subjectivity, individual experience, protest and resistance, and the influence of the British nuclear state on everyday life. The book contains illustrations, individual case studies, a select bibliography, a timeline, and a list of helpful online resources for students of nuclear history.

Joseph Masco – author of The nuclear borderlands: The Manhattan Project in post-Cold War New Mexico and The theater of operations: National security affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror  – likes it, which is more than enough for me:

We know the atomic bomb fundamentally transformed modern life, but Jonathan Hogg shows us that it did not do so in the same way everywhere. This is a important contribution to nuclear studies as it takes both nation and region seriously in the production of a nuclear culture. Hogg does not just follow expert concerns or defense policy debates, he also attends to the vernacular forms of local activisms across British cities and generations. British Nuclear Culture leads the way to a new comparative nuclear studies, and with it, a deeper understanding of the nuclear revolution.

Here is the Contents List:

Introduction
1. Early Nuclear Culture
2. The Manhattan Project
3. 1945 – 1950: Early Responses to the Bomb
4. 1950 – 1958: Maturing Responses
5. 1958 – 1979: Radicalised and Realist Responses
6. 1979 – 1989: Extreme Realism
7. 1989 – 2011: The Persistence of Nuclear Culture
8. Conclusion

For those who don’t think it surprising that – apart from people like Michael Curry, Matt FarishScott Kirsch and Fraser MacDonald– human geographers should have turned away from a critical scrutiny of atomic geographies so speedily with the presumptive waning of the Cold War, notice the title of Chapter 7…