The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all

Tuesday, April 16th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen The use of drones in warfare has its origins in World War II, Annie Jacobsen reminds us (in Area 51):

Joseph Kennedy Jr., President Kennedy’s older brother, died in a secret U.S. Navy drone operation against the Germans. The covert mission, dubbed Operation Aphrodite, targeted a highly fortified Nazi missile site inside Germany. The plan was for the older Kennedy to pilot a modified B-24 bomber from England and over the English Channel while his crew armed 22,000 pounds of explosives piled high in the cargo hold. Once the explosives were wired, the crew and pilot needed to quickly bail out. Flying not far away, a mother ship would begin remotely controlling the unmanned aircraft as soon as the crew bailed out. Inside the bomber’s nose cone were two cameras that would help guide the drone into its Nazi target.

The explosive being used was called Torpex, a relatively new and extremely volatile chemical compound. Just moments before Joseph Kennedy Jr. and his crew bailed out, the Torpex caught fire, and the aircraft exploded midair, killing everyone on board. The Navy ended its drone program, but the idea of a pilotless aircraft caught the eye of general of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold. On Victory over Japan Day, General Arnold made a bold assertion. “The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all,” he said. He was off by four wars, but otherwise he was right.

David Hambling covered the same incident in Swarm Troopers.

Well before World War 2, Jacobsen notes, a few visionaries saw the potential of drones:

Nikola Tesla mastered wireless communication in 1893, years before any of his fellow scientists were even considering such a thing. At the Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden in 1898, Tesla gave a demonstration in which he directed a four-foot-long steel boat using radio remote control. Audiences were flabbergasted. Tesla’s pilotless boat seemed to many to be more a magic act than the scientific breakthrough it was. Ever a visionary, Tesla also foresaw a military application for his invention. “I called an official in Washington with a view of offering him the information to the government and he burst out laughing upon telling him what I had accomplished,” Tesla wrote. This made unfortunate sense—the military was still using horses for transport at the time. Tesla’s friend writer Mark Twain also envisioned a military future in remote control and offered to act as Tesla’s agent in peddling the “destructive terror which you have been inventing.” Twain suggested the Germans might be good clients, considering that, at the time, they were the most scientifically advanced country in the world. In the end, no government bought Tesla’s invention or paid for his patents. The great inventor died penniless in a New York hotel room in 1943, and by then, the Germans had developed remote control on their own and were wreaking havoc on ground forces across Europe. The Germans’ first war robot was a remote-controlled minitank called Goliath, and it was about the size of a bobsled. Goliath carried 132 pounds of explosives, which the Nazis drove into enemy bunkers and tanks using remote control. Eight thousand Goliaths were built and used in battle by the Germans, mostly on the Eastern Front, where Russian soldiers outnumbered German soldiers nearly three to one. With no soldiers to spare, the Germans needed to keep the ones they had out of harm’s way.

In America, the Army Air Forces developed its first official drone wing after the war, for use during Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in 1946. There, drones were sent through the mushroom cloud, their operators flying them by remote control from an airborne mother ship called Marmalade flying nearby. To collect radioactive samples, the drones had been equipped with air-collection bags and boxlike filter-paper holders. Controlling the drones in such conditions was difficult. Inside the mushroom cloud, one drone, code-named Fox, was blasted “sixty feet higher than its flight path,” according to declassified memos about the drone wing’s performance there. Fox’s “bomb doors warped, all the cushions inside the aircraft burst and its inspection plates and escape hatch blew off.” Remarkably, the drone pilot maintained control from several miles away. Had he witnessed such a thing, Nikola Tesla might have smiled.

During the second set of atomic tests, called Operation Sandstone, in April of 1948, the drones were again used in a job deemed too dangerous for airmen. During an eighteen-kiloton atomic blast called Zebra, however, a manned aircraft accidentally flew through a mushroom cloud, and after this, the Air Force made the decision that because the pilot and crew inside the aircraft had “suffered no ill effects,” pilots should be flying atomic-sampling missions, not drones.

Again, Hambling goes over some of the same history.

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