Shooting down a $1,000 drone with a $5,000 missile is not a winning strategy

Thursday, July 11th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling In November 1973, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), the USAF shot down a hapless drone with a carbon-dioxide gas dynamic laser:

Mobile laser weapons are currently in the range of tens of kilowatts. Unlike earlier lasers powered by chemical reactions, they are electric, so can keep firing for as long as they have power, giving them an effectively unlimited magazine. They are not powerful enough to burn through armor but are capable of destroying missiles or small drones.

The great thing about lasers versus small drones is that the cost-per-shot is so low. Shooting down a $1,000 drone with a $5,000 missile is not a winning strategy. A $1 burst of precisely-guided laser energy makes much more sense. Also, the laser does not have a limited ammunition supply, but can keep firing as long as the generator has fuel. In principle, it can keep firing for as long as the drones keep coming, though lasers still tend to overheat after a while.


Even if it does not destroy the drone outright or cause it to crash, the laser will burn out optics and damage sensitive control surfaces or other components.


Although the laser may have a range of a mile or more, as soon as it is spotted or starts firing, the drone swarm is likely to drop low and hug the ground for cover, limiting the laser’s effective range to a few hundred yards at best.


If it starts at a few hundred meters, it will be less than ten seconds before the drones are at point-blank range.


High-energy lasers operate on a single wavelength, so anything that reflects or absorbs that particular wavelength may reduce its effectiveness. The laser defense may be defeated by something as simple a mirrored nosecone, although this is not nearly as easy as it sounds. The reflective surface has to be tailored to the type of laser it is facing.


Laser protection does not need to be absolute. Protection that means that each drone takes several seconds rather than one second to destroy will guarantee success for the swarm.

Raiders of the Lost Anachronism

Wednesday, July 10th, 2024

I recently re-watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time in decades, and I noticed that the film takes place in 1936 — which got me thinking about the year and what didn’t fit.

Fortunately Indy is approached by Army Intelligence, not the CIA, which didn’t exist yet, or its predecessor, the OSS, which was still a few years off, too.

What stood out though was the firearms. I couldn’t have told you what model of revolver Indy carried — apparently it was a Smith & Wesson M1917 — but it looked appropriate.

I couldn’t have told you what model of semiautomatic Indy carried, either. In fact, I didn’t remember him even carrying one, but it looked appropriate, too. It turns out the semiautomatic he used at the bar in Nepal was a Browning Hi-Power — introduced in 1935, and not comercially available for sale in the United States until decades later. This makes sense when you realize that Indy was originally envisioned as carrying a Colt 1911, and the Hi-Power is its rather similar successor — and the prop-masters found it more reliable with 9-mm blanks than the 1911 with .45 blanks.

Then the Gestapo agent pulls out his Walther P38, which, of course, was introduced in 1938. I would expect all the Nazis in a Hollywood film to be armed with the iconic Luger P08, and many are. If you pay attention, you can also catch an iconic Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” in the bar scene.

But what caught my attention was the German submachine guns. There’s a lot of fully automatic fire in the movie, and the German soldiers and Nepalese and Arab henchmen are all using MP40s, which, of course, were introduced in 1940. The MP40 did have a predecessor though, the MP38, introduced in 1938.

Apparently the German soldiers are mostly armed with the brand new Mauser Karabiner 98k bolt-action carbine, rather than the established Gewehr 98s rifle, but that’s a minor quibble.

It’s odd that large numbers of Germans are openly operating in Egypt in 1936, and its downright odd that they have a one-of-a-kind flying wing to transport the Ark:

The Flying Wing was designed for Raiders of the Lost Ark by production designer Norman Reynolds. It was inspired by the Horten Ho 229, a prototype German fighter/bomber that never entered production during World War II, and modeled after a Horten VII by the German brothers Reimar and Walter Horten. It was built in 1944 as a test bed for a bigger jet propelled Horten IX.

The design of the aircraft is similar to the Junkers G 38 that came out in the late 1920′s, particularly with regard to the landing gear, general shape and appearance. It was a flying wing based on Prof. Junkers’ own patent that predated Jack Northrop’s theories that the Horton Brothers used for their Ho 229.

The elaborate prop was built in England by Vickers Aircraft Company and painted at EMI Elstree Studios in London, before being disassembled and sent in parts to Tunisia, then rebuilt on location for filming.

After the Flying Wing was destroyed in the film in 1981, the remains sat quietly in the Tunisian desert, where parts of it was salvaged by prop collectors.

Indiana Jones with Panzerfaust
Perhaps the most anachronistic bit of military hardware though is the shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon Indy threatens to use against the Ark. The film prop is a Chinese Type 56 copy of the Soviet RPG-2, outfitted with a shoulder grip similar to an M9 Bazooka’s. The German Panzerfaust didn’t enter service until 1943. The American bazooka combined two cutting-edge innovations, shaped charges and rockets, and got shipped to our Soviet allies. Captured models inspired the German Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck.

The organization maintained a public face, an overt identity at the Pentagon called the Office of Space Systems

Tuesday, July 9th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAs President Kennedy’s new secretary of defense, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), Robert McNamara called for the Pentagon to assume control of all spy plane programs:

McNamara was at the top of the chain of command of all the armed services and believed his Air Force should be in charge of all U.S. assets with wings. The public had lost confidence in the CIA, McNamara told the president.


One plan was that the CIA might work in better partnership with the Air Force. President Kennedy liked that. On September 6, 1961, he created a protocol that required the CIA deputy director and the undersecretary of the Air Force to comanage all space reconnaissance and aerial espionage programs together as the National Reconnaissance Office, a classified agency within Robert McNamara’s Department of Defense. A central headquarters for NRO was established in Washington, a small office with a limited staff but with a number of empire-size egos vying for power and control. The organization maintained a public face, an overt identity at the Pentagon called the Office of Space Systems, but no one outside a select few knew of NRO’s existence until 1992.


“Because I was the person with a list of every employee at the area, it was my job to know not just who was who, but who was the boss of somebody’s boss. An individual person didn’t necessarily know much more about the person they worked for than their code name. And they almost certainly didn’t know who was working on the other side of the wall or in the next trailer over. Wayne Pendleton was the head of the radar group for a while. He was my go-to person for a lot of different groups. One day, Pendleton suddenly says, ‘I’m going to Washington, Jim.’ So I said, ‘What if I need you, what number should I call?’ And Pendleton laughed. He said, ‘You won’t need me because where I’m going doesn’t exist.’ Decades later I would learn that the place where Wayne was going when he left the Ranch was to a little office in Washington called NRO.”

Napoleon was a bona fide intellectual, and not just an intellectual among generals

Sunday, July 7th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon, while still “merely” a general, was elected a member of the Institut de France, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), then (as now) the foremost intellectual society in France:

Thereafter he often wore the dark-blue uniform of the Institut with its embroidered olive green and golden branches, attended science lectures there, and signed himself as ‘Member of the Institut, General-in-Chief of the Army of England’ in that order.


His proposers and supporters at the Institut undoubtedly thought it a boon to have the foremost general of the day as a member, but Napoleon was a bona fide intellectual, and not just an intellectual among generals. He had read and annotated many of the most profound books of the Western canon; was a connoisseur, critic and even amateur theorist of dramatic tragedy and music; championed science and socialized with astronomers; enjoyed conducting long theological discussions with bishops and cardinals; and he went nowhere without his large, well-thumbed travelling library. He was to impress Goethe with his views on the motives of Werther’s suicide and Berlioz with his knowledge of music. Later he would inaugurate the Institut d’Égypte and staff it with the greatest French savants of the day. Napoleon was admired by many of the leading European intellectuals and creative figures of the nineteenth century, including Goethe, Byron, Beethoven (at least initially), Carlyle and Hegel; he established the University of France on the soundest footing of its history.

A small drone with an electric motor is invisible

Thursday, July 4th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingWhile a hovering drone a few tens of feet away is an easy target, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), one approaching at a hundred miles an hour is virtually impossible to hit:

Hunters have difficulty hitting flying geese at more than about eighty yards, even with the spread of shot from a shotgun. Hitting one with a rifle is harder and putting a bullet through the Kevlar wing of a drone may only make it wobble. Unlike a goose or an airplane with “wet wings” containing fuel, a drone can only be seriously damaged by hitting a vital part.

A lethal drone like Switchblade will cover that last eighty yards to the target in around two seconds and its body presents a target four inches across. It can fly at low altitude, putting it below the horizon and making it difficult to see against a cluttered background. It can attack in complete darkness, and as it was seen in the section on swarming hunters, drones will come in from several directions at once. Some may even come from vertically above the target.


Before [World War 2], it was estimated that [anti-aircraft] guns would score one hit for every two hundred rounds. In reality it took closer to twenty thousand. A shell takes ten seconds or more to reach its target at high altitude, in which time a WWII bomber will have travelled about fifty times its own length. The slightest mis-estimation of range or speed means the shell has no chance of hitting. Anti-aircraft batteries fired a curtain of shells into the path of oncoming bomber formations rather than aiming individually. The mass of shell bursts did at least act as a deterrent.


Air defenses rarely shot down attacking aircraft. Shells did not hit planes, but sprayed them with high-velocity shrapnel fragments. The shrapnel generally caused minor damage or injured crew members, but this could force an aircraft to abort its mission and send it limping home. It took a lucky hit, or the cumulative damage from several near-misses, to down a plane.

Air defenses rarely shot down attacking aircraft. Shells did not hit planes, but sprayed them with high-velocity shrapnel fragments. The shrapnel generally caused minor damage or injured crew members, but this could force an aircraft to abort its mission and send it limping home. It took a lucky hit, or the cumulative damage from several near-misses, to down a plane.


One approach was to make every fourth bullet from a machine gun a phosphorus tracer round that leaves a glowing trail. This showed the path of the bullets so the gunner could adjust his aim, directing the visible stream of bullets towards the target. Like the wall of shell bursts from larger guns, the stream of tracer was also a deterrent: it takes a steely nerve to deliberately fly into a hail of bullets.


Unlike other aircraft, the kamikazes were not deterred by slight damage. Machines guns and 20mm and 40mm cannon consistently failed to prevent a kamikaze from hitting his target. Only the big five-inch naval guns could destroy a plane with one hit.


One analyst calculates that, because they scored so many hits compared to the casualties suffered, kamikaze attacks cost the Japanese fewer planes per hit than other types of attack.


Admiral Halsey’s solution to the kamikazes was an intensive program of air strikes on their airfields. Navy carrier air wings and Army Air Force B-29s destroyed large numbers of kamikazes on the ground, ending a threat that could not be stopped by anti-aircraft guns.


The guided missile was the air-defense equivalent of the smart bomb. Instead of firing thousands of rounds and hoping for a lucky hit, a single projectile homed in on the target and guaranteed a shoot-down. Heat-seeking missiles were effective at close range, while bigger and heavier missiles with radar guidance took over at longer ranges.

In the 1960s, the US foot soldier had his personal air defense in the form of the Redeye missile. This was a portable heat-seeking missile that could take out a fast jet two miles away, an almost impossible feat even for a quadruple heavy-machine gun that had to be carried on a truck. The main problem with early versions of the Redeye was that it was purely a “revenge weapon” – it could only lock on to a jet’s exhaust from behind, so you couldn’t shoot down a plane until it had already flown over and bombed you.

In the same period, protection from heavy bombers was provided by the Nike Hercules. This missile stood forty feet high and flew at Mach 3 and had a range of eighty miles. While the Redeye carried two pounds of explosive, Nike Hercules was armed with a twenty-kiloton atomic warhead capable of bringing down a whole formation of bombers in one go.


The plan was to take the existing M48 Patton tank and fit it with a new turret armed with a pair of WWII-era 40mm guns. Manual aiming was not enough; it would be guided by the radar from an F-16 aircraft with a new computerized fire-control system. On paper, the Sergeant York looked like a sound proposition.

The result was a billion-dollar fiasco. The Patton tank chassis were worn out, giving up after three hundred miles of road tests instead of the four thousand planned. The 40mm guns had been stored badly and were in poor shape. The biggest defect was the radar; designed for air-to-air combat in the open sky, it could not deal with all the clutter at ground level. It was easily confused by things like waving trees, which it mistook for helicopters.


The modern Stinger looks a lot like the 1960s Redeye, and the Patriot missile looks like a smaller version of the old Nike. Rather than being bigger and more powerful, they are smarter and more agile. As with bombs, intelligence trumps brute force.

Modern missiles can spot targets faster and shrug off the clutter that confused Sergeant York. They are highly resistant to jamming and deception. They are harder to avoid in the dance of death known as the “terminal engagement phase,” when planes maneuver wildly in a desperate attempt to get away as the missile closes in.

Air defense has become a duel between radar operators and “defense suppression” aircraft equipped with electronic warfare pods, decoys, and missiles that home in on radar emissions. The attackers attempt to blind, confuse, or evade the defenses and get close enough to launch their missiles. A radar signal is like a searchlight on a dark night, advertising its position over a wide area. Radar operators respond by only turning their radar on at intervals, and by moving position when possible. It is a duel whose outcome is largely determined by who has the best technology.

The current refinement of the Patriot missile is state of the art. This is several generations on from the missile that was hailed (inaccurately) as the Scud-buster of the 1991 Gulf War. The fifteen hundred pound missile travels at almost a mile per second and can destroy an aircraft anywhere from treetop height to eighty thousand feet, at a range of a hundred miles away. Costing somewhere over a million dollars per shot, the Patriot is an effective weapon against a whole range of targets. A battery of Patriots can defend against attack helicopters like the Hind, strike aircraft, heavy bombers, and is now effective against Scuds and other ballistic missiles.

The recent focus has been on tweaking Patriot for missile defense because shooting down aircraft simply is not an issue. US air superiority in recent conflicts means that nobody has been in a position to bomb US forces. According to the USAF’s 2014 Posture Statement:

“Since April of 1953, roughly seven million American service members have deployed to combat and contingency operations all over the world. Thousands of them have died as they fought. Not a single one was killed by an enemy aircraft. We intend to keep it that way.”


The sharp end of a Patriot missile battery comprises four launch vehicles, each with four missiles ready to fire. In principle, a Patriot battery can take on sixteen aircraft at a time (of four times that number with new, miniature PAC-3 missiles). While two or more missiles may sometimes be launched on different trajectories at a difficult target, the battery might take out sixteen Reapers in a matter of seconds.

Whether Patriot could even hit small drones is another question entirely.


It is hard to image a three-quarter ton missile engaging a four-pound drone. And even if every missile worked perfectly, the seventeenth drone would get through — along with all those following.

Patriot missile batteries rely on radar, which is vulnerable; one hit could put the whole battery out of action. The drones might target the launch vehicles and personnel. Systems like the Patriot are not armored against attack, and the M983 trucks that transport the Patriot are as vulnerable as any other truck. Missiles are explosive targets full of flammable rocket fuel.


Nor can the problem be solved by issuing Stingers to every soldier; at over $38,000 a shot, they are too expensive to be bought in such volumes. Worse, missiles like the Stinger are heat-seekers that depend on the target having a hot engine. A small drone with an electric motor is invisible.


The USAF’s F-22A Raptor is arguably the best fighter in the world, but its six radar-guided AMRAAM missiles and two infrared Sidewinders will not dent a swarm, even if they were able to lock on. The Raptor’s 20mm cannon makes little difference. The rotary cannon has a high rate of fire to ensure a good chance of a hit, and the entire magazine is expended by six one-second bursts.


Against most opponents, air supremacy means destroying enemy air fields so their aircraft cannot take off or land. This was the answer to the kamikaze threat.


Small drones do not need a runway, air base, or hangars.

From seventy thousand feet in the air, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs looked flat and lovely

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2024

Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen After Gary Powers was shot down, President Eisenhower had promised the world there would be no spy missions over Russia, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), but that promise did not include Soviet proxies:

In his new position as deputy director of plans, Bissell had used the U-2 to gather intelligence before. Its photographs had been helpful in planning paramilitary operations in Laos and the Dominican Republic. And in Cuba, overhead photographs taken by the Agency’s U-2s revealed important details regarding the terrain just up the beach from the Bay of Pigs beach. Photo interpreters determined that the swampland in the area would be hard to run in unless the commandos familiarized themselves with preexisting trails. As for the water landing itself, from seventy thousand feet in the air, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs looked flat and lovely. But because cameras could not photograph what lay underwater, Bissell had no idea that just beneath the surface of the sea there was a deadly coral reef that would later greatly impede the water landing by commandos.


When the Bay of Pigs operation was over, more than one hundred CIA-trained, anti-Castro Cuban exiles were killed on approach or left to die on the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs. Those that lived to surrender were imprisoned and later ransomed back to the United States. When the story became public, so did brigade commander Pepe San Roman’s last words before his capture: “Must have air support in the next few hours or we will be wiped out. Under heavy attacks by MiG jets and heavy tanks.” Pepe San Roman begged Richard Bissell for help. “All groups demoralized… They consider themselves deceived.”


There was plenty of blame to go around but almost all of it fell at the feet of the CIA. In the years since, it has become clear that equal blame should be imputed to the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and President Kennedy. Shortly before he died, Richard Bissell blamed the mission’s failure on his old rival General Curtis LeMay. Bissell lamented that if LeMay had provided adequate air cover as he had promised, the mission would most likely have been a success. The Pentagon has historically attributed LeMay’s failure to send B-26 bombers to the Bay of Pigs to a “time zone confusion.” Bissell saw the mix-up as personal, believing that LeMay had been motivated by revenge. That he’d harbored a grudge against Bissell for the U-2 and Area 51. Whatever the reason, more than three hundred people were dead and 1,189 anti-Castro guerrillas, left high and dry, had been imprisoned. The rivalry between Bissell and LeMay was over, and the Bay of Pigs would force Richard Bissell to leave government service in February of 1962.

There were many government backlashes as a result of the fiasco. One has been kept secret until now, namely that President Kennedy sent the CIA’s inspector general at the time, Lyman B. Kirkpatrick Jr., out to Area 51 to write up a report on the base. More specifically, the president wanted to assess what other Richard Bissell disasters in the making might be coming down the pipeline at Area 51.

Adding friction to an already charged situation was the fact that by some accounts, Kirkpatrick held a grudge. Before the Bay of Pigs, Richard Bissell was in line to succeed Allen Dulles as director of the CIA, and eight years earlier, Lyman Kirkpatrick had worn those coveted shoes. But like Bissell, Kirkpatrick was cut down in his prime. Kirkpatrick’s loss came not by his own actions but by a tragic blow beyond his control. On an Agency mission to Asia in 1952, Lyman Kirkpatrick contracted polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Kirkpatrick was relegated to the role of second-tier bureaucrat.

In a world of gentlemen spy craft and high-technology espionage, bureaucracy was considered glorified janitorial work. But when Kirkpatrick was dispatched to Area 51 by JFK, the fate and future of the secret base Richard Bissell had built in the Nevada desert lay in Lyman Kirkpatrick’s hands.

It produces enough glare inside the eye so that it is impossible to see far enough ahead to drive safely

Thursday, June 27th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingLaser dazzlers or “ocular interrupters”, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), are a good fit with drone capabilities:

They were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan as non-lethal weapons, especially for dealing with drivers. Shining the brilliant green light on a car windscreen signaled to a driver approaching a checkpoint that they need to stop; and when you cannot see, you cannot drive. It does not cause flash blindness, but produces enough glare inside the eye so that it is impossible to see far enough ahead to drive safely. The exact effect depends on conditions, but typically a driver would only be able to progress at 20 mph at best. The dazzling laser also prevents the target from effectively aiming a weapon at the source.

The GLARE MOUT made by B E Meyers has been used extensively by US forces in Iraq and elsewhere. It weighs under ten ounces and is normally clipped on the underside of a rifle; effective range is four hundred meters at night and perhaps half that in daytime, even though the output is barely one-eighth of a watt. Aiming it is as simple as pointing a flashlight, and it would be simple enough to link it to a drone’s camera.


Drones with laser dazzlers could close a road by dazzling drivers, or spread havoc by flying down a freeway and dazzling at random.

Tasers are also a good fit:

Modern Taser-type weapons require very little power. Early Tasers used several AA batteries, but the latest versions only need a couple of lithium batteries to give repeated five-second shocks. A drone equipped with this type of weapon can disable a human target for as long as necessary, for example to keep them out of action while the rest of the swarm completes an attack.

Curiously, the book was out of print

Wednesday, June 26th, 2024

Fourth Protocol by Frederick ForsythLarry Taunton downloaded Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol from Audible during the pandemic and listened to it while bouncing through the fields of his ranch on a tractor during breaks in his own writing. The novel contains fictitious letters from the very real English traitor Kim Philby, in which he explains to his communist hosts how British democracy might be subverted from within via a classic “march through the institutions”:

…all history teaches that soundly based democracies can only be toppled by mass action in the streets when the police and armed forces have been sufficiently penetrated by the revolutionaries that large numbers of them can be expected to refuse to obey the orders of their officers and side instead with the demonstrators….

Our friends have done what they can. Since taking control of numerous large metropolitan authorities, through the press and the media, at every level high and low, they have either themselves, or using wild young people of the Trotskyite [i.e., communist] splinter factions as shock troops, carried out an unrelenting campaign to denigrate, vilify and undermine the British police. The aim, of course, is to vitiate or destroy the confidence of the British public in their police, which unfortunately remains the most affable and disciplined in the world….

I have narrated all of this only to substantiate one argument … that the path [to socialism] now lies though … the largely successful campaign of the Hard Left to take over the Labour Party from inside…

He decided to order a hard copy of the book to inspect those passages more closely:

Curiously, the book was out of print.

How could this be? It was, after all, a major (if somewhat mediocre) movie starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan. Forsyth’s other books remain in print, so why not this one? From the seat of my tractor, I instead purchased a copy of the 1995 Bantam Books (US) edition from an online used book dealer. A few days later, it arrived.

These paragraphs were missing.

This was more than a little strange. Going still deeper into the warren of tunnels, I ordered a copy of the 1994 Viking (US) edition.

Again, not there.

Finally, I ordered the Hutchinson & Company (UK) first edition. Somehow, this was the one Audible had used. Comparing this original text with the Bantam and Viking editions, I found that it contained 24 chapters while the others contained only 23. This was because chapters three and four were combined in the North American editions. But that’s not all that was going on here. Someone had removed select paragraphs in chapters three and four and altogether rewritten portions of them, altering facts, dates, and removing 15 of 20 points enumerated in a Marxist strategy to seize the institutions of political power.

All of this, and yet the publisher’s page of the Bantam Books edition reads:

This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.

The capitalization is not mine; it is the publisher’s. And, of course, it’s not true. Whole pages had been omitted from the original hardback.

He actually visits Forsyth:

“Did you know that select passages have been removed from The Fourth Protocol?”

His eyebrows shot up. “I did not.”

I explained the missing passages, the total rewrites, and the rabbit hole that had brought me to him. I wasn’t sure which had surprised him more: that the book had been edited without his knowledge or the manner in which I had discovered it. I sensed that I was now being recategorized from groupie to something that intrigued him much more.

“I’ve been bowdlerized!” he exclaimed.


“I suppose someone,” Forsyth speculated, “decided the details about how to build a nuclear bomb were too dangerous, so they took them out.”

“Those aren’t the missing passages.”

He again looked surprised.

“Besides,” I continued, “Clancy did something very similar in The Sum of All Fears, and those parts weren’t removed either.”


“No, it’s not the parts about building a bomb. It’s the parts about how Marxists penetrate the government, the police, and the army especially, and capture them from within.”

He looked thoughtful. After a moment’s reflection, he offered a theory:

If you think about it, my earlier works can be read as history. They were all telling a fictitious story of something that had happened: an attempt on de Gaulle’s life; a hunt for a Nazi war criminal; a group of mercenaries overthrowing an African government. But Protocol is different. You don’t have to read it as history, but as something that might happen. Read that way, it could be deemed a dangerous “how-to” manual.

This made sense. The Fourth Protocol is a “what if.” What if a foreign government or terrorists smuggled parts for a nuclear bomb into Britain or the United States, assembled it, and detonated it? What if Marxists were able to penetrate a major political party in Britain or America, radicalize it, and slowly weaponize government agencies and offices, purging them of their conservative and democratic elements? Of the two scenarios, whoever edited the book thought the latter more unsettling.

The job proved too psychologically challenging for him

Tuesday, June 25th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAfter Khrushchev denied American claims that it was setting up missiles in Cuba, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA convened its Special Group and concluded that Castro had to be deposed:

The man in charge of making sure this happened was Richard Bissell.


Bissell’s official title was now deputy director of plans. As innocuous as it sounded, DDP was in fact a euphemism for chief of covert operations for the CIA. This meant Bissell was in charge of the Agency’s clandestine service, its paramilitary operations. The office had previously been known as the Office of Policy Coordination, or OPC.

The man he replaced was Frank Wisner, who had first introduced Bissell to the CIA:

It was Frank Wisner who’d knocked on Bissell’s door unannounced and then spent a fireside evening in Bissell’s Washington, DC, parlor eleven years before. It was Wisner who had originally asked Bissell to siphon off funds from the Marshall Plan and hand them over to the CIA, no questions asked. Wisner had served the Agency as deputy director of plans from August 1951 to January 1959, but by the end of the summer of 1958, the job proved too psychologically challenging for him — Frank Wisner had begun displaying the first signs of madness. The diagnosis was psychotic mania, according to author Tim Weiner. Doctors and drugs did not help. Next came the electroshock treatment: “For six months, his head was clamped into a vise and shot through with a current sufficient to fire a hundred-watt light bulb.” Frank Wisner emerged from the insane asylum zombielike and went on to serve as the CIA’s London station chief. A broken man, Wisner did not last long overseas. He shuffled in and out of madhouses for years until finally forced to retire in 1962: “He’d been raving about Adolf Hitler, seeing things, hearing voices. He knew he would never be well.” Tragically, on October 29, 1965, Wisner was getting ready to go hunting with his old CIA friend Joe Bryan at his country estate when he took a shotgun out of his gun cabinet and committed suicide.

Napoleon instinctively understood what soldiers wanted, and he gave it to them

Monday, June 24th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon believed above all, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), in the maintenance of strong esprit de corps:

‘Remember it takes ten campaigns to create esprit de corps,’ he was to tell Joseph in 1807, ‘which can be destroyed in an instant.’ He had formulated a number of ways to raise and maintain morale, some taken from his reading of ancient history, others specific to his own leadership style and developed on campaign. One was to foster a soldier’s strong sense of identification with his regiment. In March 1797, Napoleon approved the right of one, the 57th, to stitch onto its colours the words ‘Le Terrible 57ème demi-brigade que rien n’arrête’ (The Terrible 57th demi-brigade which nothing can stop), in recognition of its courage at the battles of Rivoli and La Favorita. It joined other heroic regiments known by their soubriquets such as ‘Les Braves’ (18th Line), ‘Les Incomparables’ (9th Légère) and ‘Un Contre Dix’ (One Against Ten) (84th Line) and showed how well Napoleon understood the psychology of the ordinary soldier and the power of regimental pride. Plays, songs, operatic arias, proclamations, festivals, ceremonies, symbols, standards, medals: Napoleon instinctively understood what soldiers wanted, and he gave it to them.


On campaign Napoleon demonstrated an approachability that endeared him to his men. They were permitted to put their cases forward for being awarded medals, promotions and even pensions, after which, once he had checked the veracity of their claims with their commanding officer, the matter was quickly settled. He personally read petitions from the ranks, and granted as many as he could. Baron Louis de Bausset-Roquefort, who served him on many campaigns, recalled that Napoleon ‘heard, interrogated, and decided at once; if it was a refusal, the reasons were explained in a manner which softened the disappointment’. Such accessibility to the commander-in-chief is impossible to conceive in the British army of the Duke of Wellington or in the Austrian army of Archduke Charles, but in republican France it was an invaluable means of keeping in touch with the needs and concerns of his men. Soldiers who shouted good-naturedly from the ranks would often be rewarded with a quip: when, during the Italian campaign, one called out a request for a new uniform, pointing to his ragged coat, Napoleon replied: ‘Oh no, that would never do. It will hinder your wounds from being seen.’


He would later on occasion take off his own cross of the Légion d’Honneur to give to a soldier whose bravery he’d witnessed.


Napoleon genuinely enjoyed spending time with his soldiers; he squeezed their earlobes, joked with them and singled out old grognards (literally ‘grumblers’, but also translatable as ‘veterans’), reminiscing about past battles and peppering them with questions.


He also ensured that wine from his dinner table was always given to his sentries.


His constant references to the ancient world had the intended effect of giving ordinary soldiers a sense that their lives – and, should it come to that, their deaths in battle – mattered, that they were an integral part of a larger whole that would resonate through French history.


Napoleon taught ordinary people that they could make history, and convinced his followers they were taking part in an adventure, a pageant, an experiment, an epic whose splendour would draw the attention of posterity for centuries to come.

During military reviews, which could last up to five hours, Napoleon cross-examined his soldiers about their food, uniforms, shoes, general health, amusements and regularity of pay, and he expected to be told the truth. ‘Conceal from me none of your wants,’ he told the 17th Demi-Brigade, ‘suppress no complaints you have to make of your superiors. I am here to do justice to all, and the weaker party is especially entitled to my protection.’ The notion that le petit caporal was on their side against les gros bonnets (‘big-hats’) was generally held throughout the army.


Napoleon learned many essential leadership lessons from Julius Caesar, especially his practice of admonishing troops he considered to have fallen below expectations, as at Rivoli in November 1796.


Far more often, of course, he lavished praise: ‘Your three battalions could be as six in my eyes,’ he called to the 44th Line in the Eylau campaign. ‘And we shall prove it!’ they shouted back.


Napoleon’s rhetorical inspiration came mostly from the ancient world, but Shakespeare’s St Crispin Day’s speech from Henry V can also be detected in such lines as ‘Your countrymen will say as they point you out, “He belonged to the Army of Italy.” The avalanche of praise he generally lavished on his troops was in sharp contrast to the acerbic tone he adopted towards generals, ambassadors, councillors, ministers and indeed his own family in private correspondence. ‘Severe to the officers,’ was his stated mantra, ‘kindly to the men.’

Efficient staff-work helped Napoleon to ‘recognize’ old soldiers from the ranks, but he also had a phenomenal memory. ‘I introduced three deputies of the Valais to him,’ recalled an interior minister, ‘he asked one of them about his two little girls. This deputy told me that he had only seen Napoleon once before, at the foot of the Alps, as he was on his way to Marengo. “Problems with the artillery forced him to stop for a moment in front of my house,” added the deputy, “he petted my two children, mounted his horse, and since then I had not seen him again.” ’94 The encounter had taken place ten years earlier.

One soldier compares it to firing a bullet through a car

Thursday, June 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling A hand grenade will do little damage to a vehicle protected by an inch of steel plate, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), but high precision and intelligent targeting make an effective substitute for brute force:

In the 1991 Gulf War, laser-guided Mk 82 bombs weighing five hundred pounds were used for “tank plinking” attacks against individual Iraqi tanks. Unlike in previous wars when dozens of bombs were needed to guarantee a hit on such a small target, laser guidance meant that a pilot could score four kills with four bombs. The bombs were accurate enough, and a bomb of this size was overkill even against heavily-armored Russian-made T-72 battle tank.

In the 2003 war in Iraq, the Hellfire missile weighing a fifth as much proved just as efficient at destroying tanks. Laser guidance meant that every shot was likely to find its mark.


The T-72 has frontal armor more than eighteen inches thick, and the Hellfire can punch through it. But tank armor is not distributed evenly.


The AT4’s warhead weighs just under a pound, and it is capable of penetrating an impressive fifteen inches of armor compared to three inches for the original bazooka. This is still not enough to take a T-72 head on — tank armor is specifically intended to defeat this sort of threat — but it means the soldier can tackle anything else on the battlefield.


From above, the T-72 is a much easier prospect. The large, flat surface of the top of the tank has comparatively thin armor; if it was as thick as the front, the tank would be too heavy to move. The top armor on the T-72 is around two inches thick, and there are spots where it is even weaker.

While a small charge can breach the armor, the damage it does — the “behind armor effect” — is limited. One soldier compares it to firing a bullet through a car — alarming for the people inside but not likely to cause real damage. The high-speed jet of metal will injure anyone it hits and may set off fuel or explosives, but in a vehicle the size of the T-72, most shots will do little harm. That happens when the shot placement is more or less random, as it is likely to be in battle using an unguided weapon like the AT-4, often at long range against a target that may be moving. In practice it usually takes multiple hits from this sort of weapon to stop a tank.


Current guided weapons sense a target and tend to aim approximately at its center of mass. (A major exception is heat-seeking missiles, which home in on hot exhaust pipes). As we have seen, a small drone has enough computing power to do something much more sophisticated.

The CIA learned what the Soviets could and could not see on their radars

Tuesday, June 18th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAfter Gary Powers’ U-2 got shot down, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA and the Air Force were anxious to get its Mach-3 replacement flying:

At Lockheed, each Mach 3 aircraft was literally being hand forged, part by part, one airplane at a time. The production of the aircraft, according to Richard Bissell, “spawned its own industrial base. Special tools had to be developed, along with new paints, chemicals, wires, oils, engines, fuel, even special titanium screws. By the time Lockheed finished building the A-12, they themselves had developed and manufactured thirteen million different parts.” It was the titanium that first held everything up. Titanium was the only metal strong enough to handle the kind of heat the Mach 3 aircraft would have to endure: 500-to 600-degree temperatures on the fuselage’s skin and nearly 1,000 degrees in places close to the engines. This meant the titanium alloy had to be pure; nearly 95 percent of what Lockheed initially received had to be rejected. Titanium was also critically sensitive to the chemical chlorine, a fact Lockheed engineers did not realize at first. During the summer, when chlorine levels in the Burbank water system were elevated to fight algae, inside the Skunk Works, airplane pieces started to mysteriously corrode. Eventually, the problem was discovered, and the entire Skunk Works crew had to switch over to distilled water. Next it was discovered that titanium was also sensitive to cadmium, which was what most of Lockheed’s tools were plated with. Hundreds of toolboxes had to be reconfigured, thousands of tools tossed out. The next problem was power related. Wind-tunnel testing in Burbank was draining too much electricity off the local grid. If a reporter found out about the electricity drain, it could lead to unwanted questions. NASA offered Kelly Johnson an alternative wind-tunnel test facility up in Northern California, near the Mojave, which was where Lockheed engineers ended up—performing their tests late at night under cover of darkness. The complicated nature of all things Oxcart pushed the new spy plane further and further behind the schedule.


Russia was spending billions of rubles on surface-to-air missile technology and the CIA soon learned that the Oxcart’s new nemesis was a system called Tall King. Getting hard data on Tall King’s exact capabilities before the Oxcart went anywhere near it was now a top priority for the CIA.


In 1960, “there were many CIA officers who thought ELINT was a dirty word,” recalls Gene Poteat, the engineer in charge of Project Palladium, which originated with the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence.


“We needed to know the sensitivity of Soviet radar receivers and the proficiency of its operators,” Poteat explains. With Khrushchev using Cuba as a military base in the Western Hemisphere, the CIA saw an opportunity. “When the Soviets moved into Cuba with their missiles and associated radar, we were presented with a golden opportunity to measure the system sensitivity of the SA-2 aircraft missile radar,” says Poteat.


Thornton “T.D.” Barnes was a CIA asset at an age when most men hadn’t graduated from college yet. Married at seventeen to his high-school sweetheart, Doris, Barnes became a self-taught electronics wizard, buying broken television sets, fixing them up, and reselling them for five times the amount. In doing so, he went from bitter poverty—raised on a Texas Panhandle ranch with no electricity or running water—to buying his new bride a dream home before he was old enough to vote. Barnes credited his mother for his becoming one of the CIA’s most important radar countermeasure experts. “My mom saw an article on radar in Life magazine when I was no more than nine or ten. She said I should write a school report on the subject and so I did. That’s when I got bit with the radar bug.”

At age seventeen, Barnes lied about his age to join the National Guard so he could go fight in Korea. He dreamed of one day being an Army officer. Two years later he was deployed to the 38th Parallel to defend the region alongside a British and a Turkish infantry company. It was in Korea that Barnes began his intelligence career at the bottom of the chain of command. “I was the guy who sat on the top of the hill and looked for enemy soldiers. If I saw ’em coming, it was my job to radio the information back to base,” Barnes recalls. He loved the Army. The things he learned there stayed with him all his life: “Never waste a moment. Shine your boots when you’re sitting on the pot. Always go to funerals. Look out for your men.” Once, in Korea, a wounded soldier was rushed onto the base. Barnes overheard that the man needed to be driven to the hospital, but because gas was scarce, all vehicles had to be signed out by a superior. With no superior around, Barnes worried the man might die if he didn’t get help fast, so he signed his superior’s name on the order. “I was willing to take the demerit,” Barnes explains. His actions caught the attention of the highest-ranking officer on the base, Major General Carl Jark, and later earned him a meritorious award. When the war was over General Jark pointed Barnes in the direction of radar and electronics. “He suggested I go to Fort Bliss and get myself an education there,” Barnes explains. So T.D. and Doris Barnes headed to Texas. There, Barnes’s whole world would change. And it didn’t take long for his exceptional talents to come to the attention of the CIA.

Barnes loved learning. At Fort Bliss, he attended classes for Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules missile school by day and classes at Texas Western University by night for the next fifty-four months. These were the missiles that had been developed a decade earlier by the Paperclip scientists, born originally of the German V-2 rocket. At Fort Bliss, Barnes read technical papers authored by former Nazi scientists. Sometimes the Paperclip scientists taught class. “No one really thought of them as former Nazis,” says Barnes. “They were the experts. They worked for us now and we learned from them.” By early 1960, Barnes was a bona fide missile expert. Sometimes, when a missile misfired over at the White Sands Missile Range, it was T.D. Barnes who was dispatched to disarm the missile sitting on the test stand. “I’d march up to the missile, take off the panel, and disconnect the wires from the igniter,” Barnes recalls. “When you are young, it doesn’t occur to you how dangerous something is.” Between the academics and the hands-on experience, Barnes developed an unusual aptitude in an esoteric field that the CIA was just getting involved in: ELINT. Which was how at the age of twenty-three, T. D. Barnes was recruited by the CIA to participate in a top secret game of chicken with the Russians that was part of Project Palladium. Although Barnes didn’t know it then, the work he was doing was for the electronic countermeasure systems that would later be installed on the A-12 Oxcart and on the ground at Area 51.


The plan was for the airplane to fly right up to the edge of Cuban airspace but not into it. Moments before the airplane crossed into Cuban airspace, the pilot would quickly turn around and head home. By then, the Russian radar experts working the Cuban radar sites would have turned on their systems to track the U.S. airplane. Russian MiG fighter jets would be sent aloft to respond. The job of Project Palladium was to gather the electronic intelligence being sent out by the radar stations and the MiGs.


“At the time, ECM [electronic countermeasure] and ECCM [electronic counter-countermeasure] technology were still new to both the plane and the missile. We’d transmit a Doppler signal from a radar simulator which told their MiG pilots that a missile had locked on them. When the Soviet pilots engaged their ECM against us, my job was to sit there and watch how our missile’s ECCM responded. If the Soviet signal jammed our missile and made it drift off target, I’d tweak my missile’s ECCM electronics to determine what would override a Soviet ECM signal.”


“Inside the airplane, we’d record the frequencies to be replayed back at Fort Bliss for training and design. Once we got what we wanted we hauled ass out of the area to avoid actual contact with Soviet planes.”


Back at Fort Bliss, Barnes and the others would interpret what NSA had captured from the Soviet/Cuban ECM transmissions that they had recorded during the flight. In listening to the decrypted Soviet responses to the antagonistic moves, the CIA learned what the Soviets could and could not see on their radars. This technology became a major component in further developing stealth technology and electronic countermeasures and was why Barnes was later placed by the CIA to work at Area 51.

We have them now

Sunday, June 16th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon arrived at 2 a.m. on Saturday, January 14 1797, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), at the plateau above the gorges of Rivoli, which would be the key deciding place — the point d’appui or Schwerpunkt — of the coming battle:

It was a clear, very cold, brightly moonlit night and he interpreted the number and positions of the campfires as meaning that the Marquis de Lusignan, an energetic, Spanish-born Austrian general, was too far off to engage until mid-morning. He knew the area intimately, having ridden across it often over the previous four months. If he could retain the Osteria gorge and the slope containing the chapel of San Marco on the eastern side of the battlefield, he believed he could hold off the main attack relatively easily. He needed to let Masséna’s division rest and to buy time for Rey to arrive, so he decided on a spoiling attack to concentrate Alvinczi’s attention. Joubert was ordered to march back onto the Rivoli plateau and send one brigade to Osteria before attacking in the centre, covered by all the French guns on the plateau. Meanwhile Masséna was told to send one brigade to hold Lusignan off for as long as possible.


11 a.m. Lusignan had arrived with 5,000 men. He had driven off Masséna’s detached brigade, and penetrated deep into the French left-rear near Affi, preventing any reinforcements from arriving. Napoleon was only just holding his centre, was under huge pressure on his right flank and Lusignan had turned his left. He had only one brigade in reserve and Rey was still an hour away. When the news arrived that Lusignan had got behind him, staff officers looked anxiously at the preternaturally calm Napoleon, who simply remarked: ‘We have them now.’


When the dense Austrian columns, covered by artillery, assailed the gorge and reached the plateau, they were struck by French artillery firing canister shot into their close ranks from all sides, then bayonet-charged by an infantry column, and then attacked by all the French cavalry available. As they recoiled into the gorge, a lucky shot hit an ammunition wagon — all the more devastating in the narrow space — whereupon Quasdanovich ordered the attack aborted.

Napoleon immediately shifted his own attack to the centre, where the Austrians had next to no artillery or cavalry. Having gained the plateau at great cost, all three Austrian columns were driven off it. Lusignan was checked on his arrival on the battlefield, just as Rey suddenly appeared to his rear.


Since the campaign had begun a year earlier, Napoleon had crossed the Apennines and the Alps, defeated a Sardinian army and no fewer than six Austrian armies, and killed, wounded or captured 120,000 Austrian soldiers. All this he had done before his twenty-eighth birthday. Eighteen months earlier he had been an unknown, moody soldier writing essays on suicide; now he was famous across Europe, having defeated mighty Austria, wrung peace treaties from the Pope and the kings of Piedmont and Naples, abolished the medieval dukedom of Modena, and defeated in every conceivable set of military circumstances most of Austria’s most celebrated generals — Beaulieu, Wurmser, Provera, Quasdanovich, Alvinczi, Davidovich — and outwitted the Archduke Charles.

Napoleon had fought against Austrian forces that were invariably superior in number, but which he had often outnumbered on the field of battle thanks to his repeated strategy of the central position. A profound study of the history and geography of Italy before he ever set foot there had proved extremely helpful, as had his willingness to experiment with others’ ideas, most notably the bataillon carré and the ordre mixte, and his minute calculations of logistics, for which his prodigious memory was invaluable. Because he kept his divisions within one day’s march of each other, he was able to concentrate them for battle and, once joined, he showed great calmness under pressure.

The fact that the Army of Italy was in a position to fight at all, considering the privations from which it was suffering when Napoleon took over its command, was another testament to his energy and organizational abilities. His leadership qualities — acting with harshness when he thought it deserved, but bestowing high praise on other occasions — produced the esprit de corps so necessary to victory. ‘In war,’ he was to say in 1808, ‘moral factors account for three-quarters of the whole; relative material strength accounts for only one-quarter.’


Of course he was hugely helped by the fact that the Austrians kept sending septuagenarian commanders against him who continually split their forces and moved at around half the speed of the French.

You can’t just run people over if they are in the road

Saturday, June 15th, 2024

Greg Ellifritz looks back at the “protests” of 2020 and offers his advice for surviving mob attacks on your vehicle:

One scenario that played out over and over again was when a mass of protesters blocked a road or highway. Those “protesters” would occasionally attack people in the cars that were stopped on the roadway. Others used the opportunity to carjack the victims and steal their cars. In one such carjacking attempt, an elderly man was dragged from his car by carjackers and beaten with his own oxygen tank.


Avoidance is key. Many protests and riots are either predictable or planned in advance. Stay away from the riots if you want to avoid being victimized. When you see masses of people blocking the roadways, STOP. Don’t go any farther. Do whatever necessary to change directions and get out of the area.


You can’t just run people over if they are in the road. The safest thing to do in a situation like this is to keep moving, bumping people out of the way with your car. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t legal. It’s considered vehicular assault. Even if people are illegally blocking the road, you will likely go to jail if you run them down absent a legitimate threat to your life.


The situation changes, however, once the rioters attack you or your vehicle. With your vehicle surrounded in a manner that you can’t escape and your attackers trying to burn your car, flip it over, or drag you out, it is reasonable to assume that you will suffer serious injury or death. That’s when you can start striking people with your car.


Doors locked and seat belt OFF. It should go without saying that your doors should be locked when driving.


You may not have enough time to do it, but cracking your windows and turning off your ventilation system would also be a good idea when driving in areas where crowds may gather. Windows that are down approximately 1/2” are actually harder to break than windows that are tightly closed. You want to turn off the ventilation system so you don’t get overcome by any smoke or tear gas that is in the air where you are driving. Your seat belt should be off. Seat belts will reduce your ability to draw a firearm. They will also prohibit you from making a speedy escape should your vehicle be set on fire or overturned. In general, it’s safer to stay inside the car in a crowd. If Molotov cocktails hit your car, drive quickly away. The wind will likely extinguish the burning liquid before you are hurt. If the car is disabled, and under fire attack, get out. It’s best to take your chances on foot than be trapped inside and burned alive.


Beware of other forms of roadblocks. The roadblocks designed to make you stop, may not take the form of people. The rioters will steal cars and then purposely abandon them in the middle of roadways. It causes you to stop and also prevents police/fire vehicles from getting to the scene. It’s a common occurrence around the world. Even more nefarious are homemade caltrops. A bunch of those strewn across the roadway would cause all kinds of havoc.

The cameramen were warned that it would only take the bats a few minutes to warm up and become active again

Thursday, June 13th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingAn arsonist can do tremendous damage with one lighted match, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), and incendiaries may be the weapon of choice where the payload is limited:

Even a small fire can quickly spread to engulf a building, a city block, or a forest. This was how the Japanese hoped to inflict serious damage with the Fu-Go balloon bombs mentioned in Chapter 1.

The military have preferred to use incendiaries on a gigantic scale. In WWII in Europe, massed Allied bombers would attack first with high explosives to break open buildings, followed by a wave of incendiaries to start fires. In Japan the buildings were less solid, and Boeing B-29 Superfortresses carried out pure incendiary raids on Tokyo and other cities. They dropped the M-69, a hexagonal steel pipe three inches across and twenty inches long filled with a newly-invented jellied gasoline mixed with phosphorus known as napalm. The pipe was heavy enough to break through roof tiles and penetrate into the rooms below; a few seconds after impact, the M-69 threw out flaming gobbets of napalm, which stuck to anything and burned whatever they touched.


Thirty-eight M-69s were bundled together in a “cluster bomb” that split apart midair and scattered its contents over a wide area. Each B-29 carried forty clusters, making over fifteen hundred M-69s per aircraft.

The plan was to start so many fires at the same time that it would be impossible to extinguish them. It worked exactly as intended.


“We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined,” claimed General Curtis LeMay. Although not quite accurate (the atomic bombs killed over 130,000, the Tokyo firebombing about 100,000), it shows how the atomic bomb was merely an extension of existing bombing.


In the right place, even a tiny incendiary would be practically guaranteed to start a fire. One ounce of napalm could be more effective than a dozen M-69s scattered at random, just as one aimed bullet is more effective than a thousand sprayed aimlessly.

This led to one of the most bizarre plans of the war, which makes even the Fu-Go look ordinary. It all started when biologist Dr. Lytle Adams noted that the humble bat might be capable of carrying “a sufficient quantity of incendiary material to ignite a fire.”

Project X-Ray involved capturing thousands of bats and putting them into a state of hibernation by refrigeration, taking advantage of the bats’ natural tendency to sleep when the temperature drops. Each bat could then be fitted with a tiny bomb. The bats were packed into special trays which were in turn fitted into bomb casings, which would be dropped on Japanese cities. Released mid-air the bats would naturally seek refuge and roost in the eaves of houses – after which the incendiary bomb carried by each bat would burst into flames.

The researchers found that a half-ounce bat could carry a load weighing more than itself. A suitable incendiary device was devised, a celluloid capsule filled with napalm with an igniter the size of a match head. It worked in a similar fashion to the static line used by parachutists that automatically pulls the ripcord. In this case, as soon as the bat flew free from the bomb it pulled a pin, releasing a chemical that ate through a wire and triggered the napalm in fifteen minutes.


Disaster struck at Carlsbad Auxiliary Airfield in a test when the bats were not supposed to be released. The X-Ray team was filming the effects of the bat bomb indoors. Live bombs were attached to six hibernating bats. The cameramen were warned that it would only take the bats a few minutes to warm up and become active again. Unfortunately the cameramen did not realize just how active bats can be. Frantic efforts failed to net any of the six armed bats and they flew off, seeking places to roost.

At least one of the six headed for a new control tower, another for a newly-built and unoccupied barracks building. Exactly fifteen minutes after the bombs were armed, both structures burst into flames. The fire rapidly spread in the dry desert conditions, consuming hangars and offices. It was too late to save the airfield buildings, but not too late to maintain security. Baffled firefighters who arrived to tackle the blaze were turned back from the gates while the buildings continued to burn. A few days later the burned remains were bulldozed to hide the evidence.