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.

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’.


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’.

The nuclear wastelands and cyberwar

I’m in Toronto, enjoying ‘Through Post-Atomic Eyes‘ enormously: wide-ranging yet focused, creative and critical, and above all wonderfully welcoming.  I’m also relieved – I’ve only been wandering in the nuclear wastelands for a matter of months, and being surrounded by scholars and artists who know so much more about these vexed issues has been truly invigorating.  I’ll post the slides from my presentation shortly – in the meantime, see here and here – but while I was searching for images I re-discovered this cover from The Economist:


Since my own presentation tried to sort out the entangled geographies of nuclear weapons and drones, I would be the very last person to object to the continuity conjured up by The Economist‘s apocalyptic vision: in fact yesterday both Joseph Masco and James Bridle in two sparkling presentations emphasised the intimacy of  the connections between computing, nuclear testing and the security state.

So it seems appropriate that my  e-flânerie should also have led me to a special issue of CyberOrient, edited by Helga Tawil-Souri, is appropriately online now (and open access), devoted to cyberwarfare:

This special issue of CyberOrient engages with the relationships between “cyber” and “real” battlespaces, the mediatization of war, the need to expand our definition of warzones, and the importance of asking who participates in wars, to what ends, using what kinds of technologies, and for what purposes. Taken together, the five essays demonstrate the expansion and blurring of the spaces of war. As importantly, they highlight that even warfare that is “only” fought in the virtual realm is laced with violent intents and real-life repercussions. Not only can we not separate the cyber from the real so neatly, but we must not overlook that no matter how we wish to classify “new” or cyber wars, it is citizens, along with their ways of life and their cultural records, that continue to be by far the largest losers.



Helga Tawil-Souri, Problematizing Cyberwarfare

Donatella Della Ratta, Violence and visibility in contemporary Syria: an ethnography of the “expanded places

Ruth Tsuria, Islamophobia in online Arab media

Emily Fekete, The shifting nature of cyberwarfare in Middle Eastern states

Attila Kovacs, Visual representation, propaganda and cyberspace: the case of the Palestinian Islamist movements

Christoph Günter, Presenting the glossy look of warfare in cyberspace – the Islamic State’s magazine Dabiq

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).


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.



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):


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…