Losing sight

May Jeong – whose excellent investigation of the US air strike on the MSF Trauma Centre at Kunduz I’ve commended before – has a new, equally enthralling extended report over at the Intercept on the sole survivor of a US drone strike in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan on 7 September 2013: ‘Losing Sight‘.

It’s a long, rich read, but there are two issues I want to highlight.

First, May captures the stark, bio-physical horror of an air strike with an economy and force I’ve rarely seen equalled.  As I’ve noted before (see here and here), many critical analyses emphasise the bio-convergences that animate what happens behind the digital screens of the kill-chain and say remarkably little about those that lie on the other side.  It’s all too easy to lose sight of the embodied nature of remote warfare, though in another powerful essay Joseph Pugliese argues that it’s often not possible to speak of the corporeal at all in the face of such catastrophic violence: ‘The moment of lethal violence transmutes flesh into unidentifiable biological substance that is violently compelled geobiomorphologically to assume the topographical contours of the debris field’ ( ‘Death by Metadata: The bioinformationalisation of life and the transliteration of algorithms to flesh’, in Holly Randell-Moon and Ryan Tippet (eds) Security, race, biopower: essays on technology and corporeality (London: Palgrave, 2016) 3-20).

So here is May describing the strike on a pick-up truck in the early evening as it ground its way along a rough road through the Pech Valley; inside the cabin were the driver, three women and four young children, while seven men were crammed into the back along with sacks of flour they had bought to take back to their village.  There were a couple of miles from home, Gambir, when five missiles hit the truck in a 20-minute period.  Minutes later a second truck – which had been racing to catch up with the first – arrived close to the scene.  The driver (Mohibullah) scrambled up a small hill with a local villager:

[T]hey saw the husk of the pickup, strafed and lit up in flames. They hurried toward the fire.

When Mohibullah arrived at the blast site, he saw that of the 17 bags of flour he had helped load onto the truck, just two were intact. The rest had splayed open. There was a sick beauty to the scene — white powder over blood-red carnage.  These were men and women Mohibullah had grown up with, but he couldn’t recognize any of them. Their mangled body parts made it difficult to ascertain where one person ended and another began: spilled brains over severed limbs over ground flesh…

At first, it was just Mohibullah, another driver named Hamish Gul, and three villagers from Quroo who came to help. Most people in the area knew to stay away. The ghanghai [drones] often attacked again. Even so, the five of them worked at untangling the dead bodies — among them Aisha’s mother, father, grandmother, and little brother — and stacking them in neat rows atop the bed of Mohibullah’s truck.

Astonishingly, there was one survivor, but she too had been brutalised beyond recognition:

Mohibullah did not recognize the girl — her face had been “scrambled, she didn’t have her nose.” She still had both of her legs, but he wasn’t sure if her torso was connecting them to the rest of her body. It wasn’t until she asked in a frail voice — “Where is my father? Where is my mother?” — that he understood her to be his 4-year-old niece Aisha

A neighbor named Nasir held Aisha together for the drive back to Gambir. During the 2-mile journey, Aisha did not make a sound. Life seemed to be slipping away from her. Nasir assumed she would be buried. But when they arrived in Gambir, Aisha turned her head and asked for water. Her voice was so full of intent that they decided to rush her to a hospital in Asadabad.

Read those paragraphs again to see what Pugliese means.

Now the second issue starts to come into focus.  They reached Asadabad Provincial Hospital at 10 p.m., but the duty nurse could do little for Aisha:

Her stomach was missing, as were parts of her face and her left arm. He registered her into the hospital database, writing “acute abdominal injuries” next to her name, treated her with basic first aid, and sent her to the nearest hospital in Jalalabad, 57 miles away.

Aisha reached Jalalabad Public Health Hospital shortly after midnight, where her burns were dressed.  But here too there was little the surgeon could do; she had multiple head injuries, had lost one of her hands, and had major internal injuries.  A helicopter was called to take her to Kabul but it couldn’t land; a second helicopter arrived at midnight – 24 hours after she had reached Jalalabad – and ferried her to the French military hospital at Kabul Airport.

That hospital was a NATO Role 3 hospital, which had been run by the French since July 2009; by the summer of 2013 43 per cent of the procedures carried out by its staff had involved orthopaedic surgery.  Half of these were emergency surgeries; just 17 per cent of the patients were French military personnel and another 17 per cent were Afghan National Army or other ISAF soldiers,  while 47 per cent were Afghan (adult) civilians and 17 per cent were children.

Like other Role 3 hospitals, the facility was tasked with ‘damage-control’, for which it could call on three surgical teams rotation with a general surgeon, (abdominal, chest or vascular surgery) and an orthopedic surgeon as well as an ophthalmologist,  a neurosurgeon and an ENT or maxillofacial surgeon (I’ve taken these details from O. Barbier and others, ‘French surgical experience in the Role 3 Medical Treatment Facility of KaIA (Kabul International Airport…’, Orthopaedics and Traumataology: Surgery & Research 100 (6) (2014) 681-5; see also Christine Joubert and others, ‘Military neurosurgery in operation’, Acta Neurochir 158 (8) (2016) 1453-63).

While Aisha was being treated the hospital was visited by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  Here is May again:

There, Karzai was confronted with a girl who had lost her sight, her nose, her lower lip, the skin on her forehead, the skin on her torso, her left hand, and nine members of her family, including her grandmother, her uncles, her aunts, her cousin, her mother, her father, and her baby brother.

“I cannot describe what I saw there,” Rangin Spanta, who served as national security adviser under Karzai and accompanied him to the hospital that day, told me from his home in Kabul. We were sitting on a rattan set on his front porch. In telling this story, Spanta covered his face and wept. “Still I have my trauma.” Spanta had lost five family members in the war, but the sight of Aisha, a girl who had been reduced to a “piece of biological construct,” gave him “the feeling that this was a kind of a nightmare.” Spanta, who had seen the guts of suicide bombers splattered across his car window and has visited double, triple, and quadruple amputees, said Aisha was the “most shocking thing I’ve seen in this war.” Karzai asked the attending doctor why her face was covered. “Because there is nothing there” was the answer.

That a high proportion of patients the military hospital were Afghan civilians was by no means unusual for a Role 3 facility, but as I’ve noted before ISAF had strict Rules of Medical Eligibility.  Afghan civilians who were injured during military operations and/or needed ‘life, limb or eyesight saving care’ – both of which applied to Aisha – could be admitted to the international medical system.  But as soon as possible, Afghans were to be treated by Afghans and so, after surgical intervention, they had to be transferred to the local healthcare system.



That system was – is – often rudimentary, which is why Aisha was passed from Asadabad to Jalalabad before reaching Kabul.  And returning someone in her post-operative condition to that system was obviously fraught with danger.  Here is Emily Mayhew in A Heavy Reckoning describing the dilemma for doctors at the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand province:

Some of the most difficult decisions taken by the Deployed Medical Director related to local patients, Afghans civilians, their families and others. Locals made up the majority (probably as much as 80 per cent) of the patients cared for during the lifetime of the hospital. During the war there were no Afghan hospitals with the technology or capability to ventilate patients with severe chest wounds, therefore leaving Bastion meant death. So anyone intubated who could not be returned to Britain had to stay at Bastion until they could breathe unaided, which sometimes took days or weeks. They were discharged only when it was certain they could survive away from Bastion: probably in a local hospital that was under severe stress, and which could only provide medical care for two or three hours a day, where the rest of the time they would be looked after by their families.

I’ll return to this in a later post, because in some cases those local hospitals have been supplemented and even supplanted by more advanced medical facilities operated or supported by international NGOs like Emergency or MSF.

But what is extraordinary in Aisha’s case is that her pathway did not follow any of these routes.  Karzai had asked both the French and the Germans to help, but they deferred to the Americans who insisted that she be taken to the United States for further treatment.  ‘Twelve days after the strike,’ May reports, ‘Aisha was gone’: but nobody ever told her relatives what had happened to her.  Every attempt they made to find out was rebuffed.

Months later her uncle was informed that she was at Walter Reed hospital in Maryland; she had been sponsored by an American organisation, Solace for the Children.  According to its website:

Each Summer Solace for the Children Summer Medical Program brings children from areas affected by war to the United States so they may receive medical care unavailable to them in their country. We currently focus our efforts on children in Afghanistan. Each fall, applications are accepted for treatment. Our office in Afghanistan typically receives more than 50 applications they must review and qualify. Youth are qualified for services based on need and health condition. They are then placed with a host family for approximately 6 weeks while receiving the medical care they require. After care, youth return to Afghanistan with a better quality of life, brighter future and hope for peace.

While ‘there was no official relationship between the U.S. military and Solace,’ May was told by the charity’s director Patsy Wilson, ‘individual members of the military often reached out to Solace, which had been the case for Aisha.’

“We just get calls. We get calls from the military all over Afghanistan,” she said. She repeatedly deferred to the military, stating, “I am sure they don’t say we kidnap children.” Wilson also expressed doubts that Aisha had been injured in a drone strike, despite the claims of scores of villagers interviewed by The Intercept. “We do not necessarily believe Aisha was in a drone strike, but I know that is one of the stories,” she said. When pressed for details, she said, “I have been told not to discuss that,” adding, “We have no facts. There are no facts.”

Those last sentences are becoming all too familiar, but in this case ISAF not only acknowledged the ‘IM [international military] aerial attack’ but carried out its own investigation into the civilian casualties.  It has never been declassified.

The slow violence of bombing

When I spoke at the symposium on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ in Utrecht before Christmas, one of my central arguments was about the slow violence of bombing.  The term is, of course, Rob Nixon‘s, but I borrowed it to emphasise that the violence of sudden death from the air – whether in the air raids of the First and Second World Wars or the drone strikes of the early twenty-first century – neither begins nor ends with the explosion of bombs and missiles.

Paul Saint-Amour speaks of ‘traumatic earliness’: that dreadful sense of deadly anticipation.  The sense of not only preparation – communal and individual – but also of an involuntary tensing.  I described this for the First and Second World Wars in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’, which you can download from the TEACHING tab, but here is A.L. Kennedy who captures it as well as anyone:

Add to that the blackouts, the new landscape of civil defence with its sandbags and shelters, the new choreography of movement through the war-time city, the air-raid sirens and the probing arcs of the searchlights.

Perhaps this seems remote, but it shouldn’t.  Modern technology can radically heighten that sense of foreboding: calibrate it, give it even sharper definition.  Here is Salam Pax, counting down the hours to US air strikes on Baghdad:

Fast forward to drone strikes.  The sense of dread visited on innocents by multiple US drone programmes is readily overlooked in the emphasis on ‘targeted killing’, on what the US Air Force once called its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’, and on the individuation of this modality of later modern war.  ‘The body is the battlefield’, as Grégoire Chamayou argues.

I’ve written about all those things, but there is a powerful sense in which the battle space still exceeds the body: for in order to target the individual these programmes also target the social, as this set of slides from my Utrecht presentation tries to show:

Here too, surely, is traumatic earliness.  (I’ve discussed this in more detail in ‘Little Boys and Blue Skies’ [DOWNLOADS tab], and I’m indebted to Neal Curtis, ‘The explication of the social’, Journal of sociology 52 (3) (2016) 522-36) for helping me to think this through).

And then, after the explosion – the shocking bio-convergence that in an instant produces the horror of meatspace – the violence endures: stored in the broken buildings and in the broken bodies.  In the Second World War (again as I show in ‘Modern Wars and Dead Cities’) the landscape was made strange every morning: buildings newly demolished, people driven from their homes and their workplaces, roads blocked by hoses and ambulances, by craters and unexploded bombs, rescue workers still toiling in the rubble to remove the dead and the injured, hospitals still treating and caring for the casualties.

And the violence of a drone strike lingers too: not on the same scale, but still the destroyed houses, the burned-out cars, the graves of the dead and above all the traumatized survivors (and their rescuers), some of them forced into newly prosthetic lives (see here and here).  The explosion is instantaneous, a bolt from the blue, but the pain, the grief and the scars on the land and the body endure.

These effects have a horizon that is not contained by any carefully calculated blast radius.  The grief spirals out through extended families and communities; and – depending on the target – so too do the casualties.  As I’ve said before, power stations in Gaza or Iraq have been targeted not for any localised destructon but because without power water cannot be pumped, sewage cannot be treated, food (and medicines) stored in refrigerators deteriorates.  And hospitals have been systematically targeted in Syria to deny treatment to hundreds and thousands of sick and injured:

The work of enumerating and plotting air strikes, in the past or in the present, is immensely important.  But those columns on graphs and circles on maps should not be read as signs of an episodic or punctiform violence.

Drones through Post-Atomic Eyes

A post-script to my last post: the (very!) long-form version of “Little Boys and Blue Skies: Drones through Post-Atomic Eyes” is now available under the DOWNLOADS tab.  The sections are:

  1. Escape from Hiroshima
  2. Atomic clouds and drones
  3. Atomic bombs and drones
  4. American Hiroshimas
  5. Predator and prey
  6. Manhattan Projects 1.0 and 2.0
  7. Visual economies
  8. Little boys and blue skies

This is a draft, so if you have any comments or suggestions I’d be pleased to have them.

Drone Imaginaries and Society

News from Kathrin Maurer of a conference on Drone Imaginaries and Society, 5-6 June 2018, at the University of Southern Denmark (Odense).  I’ll be giving a keynote, and look forward to the whole event very much (and not only because, while I’ve visited Denmark lots of times and loved every one of them, I’ve never made it to Odense):

Drones are in the air. The production of civilian drones for rescue, transport, and leisure activity is booming. The Danish government, for example, proclaimed civilian drones a national strategy in 2016. Accordingly, many research institutions as well as the industry focus on the development, usage, and promotion of drone technology. These efforts often prioritize commercialization and engineering as well as setting-up UAV (Unmanned Arial Vehicle) test centers. As a result, urgent questions regarding how drone technology impacts our identity as humans as well as their effects on how we envision the human society are frequently underexposed in these initiatives.

Our conference aims to change this perspective. By investigating cultural representations of civilian and military drones in visual arts, film, and literature, we intend to shed light on drone technology from a humanities’ point of view. This aesthetic “drone imaginary” forms not only the empirical material of our discussions but also a prism of knowledge which provides new insights into the meaning of drone technology for society today.

Several artists, authors, film makers, and thinkers have already engaged in this drone imaginary. While some of these inquiries provide critical reflection on contemporary and future drone technologies – for instance issues such as privacy, surveillance, automation, and security – others allow for alternative ways of seeing and communicating as well as creative re-imagination of new ways of organizing human communities. The goal of the conference is to bring together these different aesthetic imaginaries to better understand the role of drone technologies in contemporary and future societies.

 The focus points of the conference are:

–     Aesthetic drone imaginaries: Which images, metaphors, ethics, emotions and affects are associated to drones through their representation in art, fiction and popular culture?

–     Drone technology and its implications for society: How do drones change our daily routines and push the balance between publicity and privacy?

–     Historical perspective on drones: In what way do drone imaginaries allow for a counter-memory that can challenge, for instance, the military implementation of drones?

–     Drones as vulnerability: Do drones make societies more resilient or more fragile, and are societies getting overly dependent on advanced technologies?

     Utopian or dystopian drone imaginaries: What dream or nightmare scenarios are provided by drone fiction and how do they allow for a (re)imagining of future societies?

–     Drones and remote sensing: In what way do drones mark a radical new way of seeing and sensing by their remotely vertical gaze and operative images?

     Drone warfare: Do drones mark a continuation or rupture of the way we understand war and conflict, and how do they change the military imaginary?

The conference is sponsored by the Drone Network (Danish Research Council) and Institute for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark.

 You can contact Kathrin at  kamau@sdu.dk

The conference website is here.

Tracking and targeting

News from Lucy Suchman of a special issue of Science, Technology and Human Values [42 (6) (2017)]  on Tracking and targeting: sociotechnologies of (in)security, which she’s co-edited with Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber.

Here’s the line-up:

Lucy Suchman, Karolina Follis and Jutta Weber: Tracking and targeting

This introduction to the special issue of the same title sets out the context for a critical examination of contemporary developments in sociotechnical systems deployed in the name of security. Our focus is on technologies of tracking, with their claims to enable the identification of those who comprise legitimate targets for the use of violent force. Taking these claims as deeply problematic, we join a growing body of scholarship on the technopolitical logics that underpin an increasingly violent landscape of institutions, infrastructures, and actions, promising protection to some but arguably contributing to our collective insecurity. We examine the asymmetric distributions of sociotechnologies of (in)security; their deadly and injurious effects; and the legal, ethical, and moral questions that haunt their operations.

Karolina Follis: Visions and transterritory: the borders of Europe

This essay is about the role of visual surveillance technologies in the policing of the external borders of the European Union (EU). Based on an analysis of documents published by EU institutions and independent organizations, I argue that these technological innovations fundamentally alter the nature of national borders. I discuss how new technologies of vision are deployed to transcend the physical limits of territories. In the last twenty years, EU member states and institutions have increasingly relied on various forms of remote tracking, including the use of drones for the purposes of monitoring frontier zones. In combination with other facets of the EU border management regime (such as transnational databases and biometrics), these technologies coalesce into a system of governance that has enabled intervention into neighboring territories and territorial waters of other states to track and target migrants for interception in the “prefrontier.” For jurisdictional reasons, this practice effectively precludes the enforcement of legal human rights obligations, which European states might otherwise have with regard to these persons. This article argues that this technologically mediated expansion of vision has become a key feature of post–cold war governance of borders in Europe. The concept of transterritory is proposed to capture its effects.

Christiane Wilke: Seeing and unmaking civilians in Afghanistan: visual technologies and contested professional visions

While the distinction between civilians and combatants is fundamental to international law, it is contested and complicated in practice. How do North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers see civilians in Afghanistan? Focusing on 2009 air strike in Kunduz, this article argues that the professional vision of NATO officers relies not only on recent military technologies that allow for aerial surveillance, thermal imaging, and precise targeting but also on the assumptions, vocabularies, modes of attention, and hierarchies of knowledges that the officers bring to the interpretation of aerial surveillance images. Professional vision is socially situated and frequently contested with communities of practice. In the case of the Kunduz air strike, the aerial vantage point and the military visual technologies cannot fully determine what would be seen. Instead, the officers’ assumptions about Afghanistan, threats, and the gender of the civilian inform the vocabulary they use for coding people and places as civilian or noncivilian. Civilians are not simply “found,” they are produced through specific forms of professional vision.

Jon Lindsay: Target practice: Counterterrorism and the amplification of data friction

The nineteenth-century strategist Carl von Clausewitz describes “fog” and “friction” as fundamental features of war. Military leverage of sophisticated information technology in the twenty-first century has improved some tactical operations but has not lifted the fog of war, in part, because the means for reducing uncertainty create new forms of it. Drawing on active duty experience with an American special operations task force in Western Iraq from 2007 to 2008, this article traces the targeting processes used to “find, fix, and finish” alleged insurgents. In this case they did not clarify the political reality of Anbar province but rather reinforced a parochial worldview informed by the Naval Special Warfare community. The unit focused on the performance of “direct action” raids during a period in which “indirect action” engagement with the local population was arguably more appropriate for the strategic circumstances. The concept of “data friction”, therefore, can be understood not simply as a form of resistance within a sociotechnical system but also as a form of traction that enables practitioners to construct representations of the world that amplify their own biases.

M.C. Elish: Remote split: a history of US drone operations and the distributed labour of war

This article analyzes US drone operations through a historical and ethnographic analysis of the remote split paradigm used by the US Air Force. Remote split refers to the globally distributed command and control of drone operations and entails a network of human operators and analysts in the Middle East, Europe, and Southeast Asia as well as in the continental United States. Though often viewed as a teleological progression of “unmanned” warfare, this paper argues that historically specific technopolitical logics establish the conditions of possibility for the work of war to be divisible into discreet and computationally mediated tasks that are viewed as effective in US military engagements. To do so, the article traces how new forms of authorized evidence and expertise have shaped developments in military operations and command and control priorities from the Cold War and the “electronic battlefield” of Vietnam through the Gulf War and the conflict in the Balkans to contemporary deployments of drone operations. The article concludes by suggesting that it is by paying attention to divisions of labor and human–machine configurations that we can begin to understand the everyday and often invisible structures that sustain perpetual war as a military strategy of the United States.

I’ve discussed Christiane’s excellent article in detail before, but the whole issue repays careful reading.

And if you’re curious about the map that heads this post, it’s based on the National Security Agency’s Strategic Mission List (dated 2007 and published in the New York Times on 2 November 2013), and mapped at Electrospaces: full details here.

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’.