Arthur C. Clarke and the future of warfare — II

In a previous post, I looked at some of Arthur C. Clarke's predictions, made in 1946, about how rockets would change the types of weapons and vehicles used by military forces of the future.1 He got some hits (space stations) but, on balance, more misses (rocket mines, more turret fighters). In the latter half of his paper, Clarke steps back to consider the broader implications of rockets for future warfare, and does rather better.

These are grim, given the advent of atomic weapons. It may be the case that for every weapon, Clarke says, a defence is eventually evolved. But

During the interval between the adoption of a new weapon and its countering, the damage done to the material structure of civilization grows steadily greater, and there must come a time at last when breakdown occurs. The present state of Germany shows how nearly that point had been reached even with the weapons of the pre-atomic age.2

One particularly interesting possibility Clarke considers is that of 'radiation war'.3 He notes that the vast majority of the radiation emitted by an atomic bomb must fall outside the visible spectrum, concluding that 'the bomb acts as an X-ray generator of unimaginable power'.4 So a bomb could be detonated at high altitudes to blind large numbers of people, or to ruin huge areas of crops. Atomic bombs carried by long-range rockets would be the 'ultimate weapon'.5

Such attacks might in time assume even more vicious forms. The rockets might be detonated nearer to the ground to induce artificial radioactivity which would compel the evacuation of the areas affected. Neutron and gamma-ray warheads might be developed against which only great thicknesses of rock could provide protection. And most terrible of all would be the threat -- even if it were no more than that -- of X-ray mutation. This might well daunt a race which would fight to the death against ordinary weapons.6

Armies, navies and air forces would still have their uses -- atomic-tipped rockets wouldn't have been much use in Burma, for example; and at sea, the 'mobile rocket launcher, almost certainly a submersible' has great potential7 -- but they will ultimately deploy only once the first rocket strike (quite possibly a surprise, Pearl Harbor-style attack) has secured victory. In the air, piloted aircraft will give way to unmanned vehicles operated by 'controllers sitting in safety before television screens'.8 Fully-automatic aircraft may even be possible, since

All possible combat manœuvres can be analyzed and recorded by suitable coding in machines of the punched-card type. It is conceivable that "battle integrators" may be constructed along these lines, capable of making operational decisions in a matter of milliseconds according to changing combat conditions.9

In fact, such computers could be used to make strategic decisions as well as tactical ones, leading to a 'new type of warfare which would be too swift and complex for detailed human control [...] the apotheosis of mechanized war'.10

Clarke closes with a section on the problem of defence. Actually, the problem is bigger than that: he quotes the Smyth Report to the effect that

civilization may soon have the means to commit suicide at will. The problem that now confronts us is not one of defence but of survival.11

He considers, but swiftly rejects, the idea that civilisation could move underground more or less permanently, to save itself from the bomb. Firstly, it would be practically impossible to arrange a food supply for a massive population of people for an indefinite period of time. Secondly, and more importantly, even deep underground there would be no guarantee of safety:

The penetrating power of a rocket falling from a hundred miles or more is enormous and would enable atomic warheads to be exploded at a considerable depth. Such "ground depth charges" could collapse or severely damage any cavity that could be built without an impossible amount of labour.12

The good news is that the British Empire, being so vast, is 'probably the least vulnerable target in the world'.13 The bad news is that Britain itself is indefensible, and so Clarke concludes that

the removal to Canada of the Central Government and the Service Departments must be carried out as a permanent measure. It would be impossible to do this after a war had started, and there would certainly be insufficient prior warning to enable such a vast transfer of administration to be made.14

But ultimately he doubts whether even a political unit as big as the Commonwealth could work effectively during an atomic war.15 The only winning move in this game is not to play:

In other words, the problem is political and not military at all. A country's armed forces can no longer defend it; the most they can promise is the destruction of the attacker.16

So, the United Nations is mankind's last, best hope for peace. How can rockets help it with this task? By backing up an international air force:

even if there is no intention of using them except as a last resort, the World Security Council should for psychological reasons possess long-range rockets. However, the weapons which it would use if force proved necessary would be the air contingents of its members, employing ordinary explosives and machines of the type that exist to-day. Behind these would be the threat, never materializing save in dire emergency, of the mightier forces against which there could be no defence.17

The international rocket force would need, according to Clarke, no more than 20 launch sites for world coverage. The personnel would come from every nation, and 'It would be the aim to inculcate in these men a supra-national outlook',18 much like the Red Cross. That most of them would be 'scientific' types would doubtless help this process along. And as support, they would need access to a research organisation that no nation could match:

This body might in time act as the nucleus around which the scientific service of the World State would form, perhaps many years in advance of its political realization.19

He sees this international force as only temporary, needed only until such time as 'a world economic system is functioning smoothly, when all standards of living are approaching the same level, when no national armaments are left'.20

I'm sure the RAF implied no endorsement of Clarke's views by publishing them in RAF Quarterly!

So, there are a couple of points of interest here. Firstly, there's the very early prediction of 'radiation war'. I've suggested before that pre-1945, the radiation effects of atomic bombs were not well understood. Here's some evidence, then, that not very long after the first atomic explosions, there was enough publicly available information to put together a fairly accurate picture of the longer-term and larger-scale effects of a nuclear war. (The fact that Clarke had immersed himself in 1930s pulp science fiction may have helped enlarge his imagination on this point too!) For that matter, in contrast to the first part of the paper, Clarke made quite a few accurate predictions: not just intercontinental ballistic missiles, which one might think was obvious,21 but also submarine-launched ballistic missiles, nuclear bunker busters, and unmanned aerial vehicles.22

Secondly, it's clear that Clarke was the very model of a liberal internationalist. His list of the causes of war -- economics and armaments, more or less -- speaks to the former, and his proposed solution to the latter. I don't know if Clarke was aware of groups like the New Commonwealth, who took pretty much the same line in the early 1930s (minus the rockets!) but it seems to me that the international air (rocket) force and the world state were temptations that many others of a technocratic persuasion had succumbed to before and since. And it's surely no coincidence that H. G. Wells was a huge influence upon Clarke, and Wells was practically obsessed with pretty much the same ideas in his later years (he died in 1945).

I'll close by quoting Clarke's two closing paragraphs in full, because they show just how strongly he felt about the need to reconstruct the world system, and also because the last paragraph, in particular, sounds very Clarke.

Only along these or similar lines of international collaboration can security be found: any attempt by great powers to seek safety in their own strength will ultimately end in a disaster which may be measureless.

Upon us, the heirs to all the past and the trustees of a future which our folly can slay before its birth, lies a responsibility no other age has ever known. If we fail in our in our generation those who come after us may be too few to rebuild the world when the dust of the cities has descended and the radiation of the rocks has died away.23

We'll never know whether Clarke was correct in his belief that an international air and rocket force could have ensured world peace. But we do know that he was wrong to say that disaster awaited us without such a force: we've managed to survive for more than sixty years. (So far, anyway!) I'm sure Clarke would be quite happy to admit that he was wrong about this, since that's allowed him to reach his four score and ten.

Happy birthday, Sir Arthur!

  1. Arthur C. Clarke, "The rocket and the future of warfare", RAF Quarterly, March 1946, 61-9; reprinted in Arthur C. Clarke, Ascent to Wonder: A Scientific Autobiography (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984), 71-9. 

  2. Ibid., 76. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Ibid., 77. 

  6. Ibid., 77. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Ibid., 78. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Ibid. 

  14. Ibid., 79. 

  15. It may seem odd to us now that anyone would even think that the Commonwealth would ever function like that, but of course it just had, in the war just past. 

  16. Ibid; emphasis in original. 

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Ibid. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Ibid. 

  21. But wasn't: see Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (London: Indigo, 2000), 16-7, where incidentally he discusses the May 1945 Lords debate I've talked about before

  22. OK, there were pre-atomic and pre-rocket precursors for most of these too. 

  23. Clarke, Ascent to Wonder, 79. 

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7 thoughts on “Arthur C. Clarke and the future of warfare — II

  1. Roger Todd

    I'm not surprised that Clarke wrote about radiation weapons in 1946, as the effects of radiation were being reported soon after the Hiroshima bombing.

    In the immediate aftermath of the bombing the year before, Wilfred Burchett, the first unescorted westerner to enter the stricken city, had written a headline-grabbing article for his paper, 'The Daily Express': I WRITE THIS AS A WARNING TO THE WORLD

    'In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb,' he wrote, 'people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly - people who were uninjured in the cataclysm - from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague.'

    His story was published around the world, but even before Burchett, a former Manhattan Project scientist, Prof Harold Jacobson of Columbia University, had written an article carried by several US newspapers on 8 August 1945, warning of the effects of radiation. He claimed (wrongly) that Hiroshima would remain uninhabitable for 70 years. However, he also wrote that, 'Rain falling on the area will pick up the lethal rays and will carry them down to the rivers and the sea. And animal life in these waters will die... Investigators in a contaminated area will become infected with secondary radiation which breaks up the red corpuscles in the blood. People will die much the same way that leukemia victims do.'

    Some of Jacobson's predictions were exaggerated, partly because the bomb was detonated in an airburst, which somewhat mitigated the generation of fallout. Jacobson was rubbished by the military and Oppenheimer, all of whom had come to realise the dangers of fallout, but were desperate to play it down. This essentially grew out of the secrecy surrounding the bomb project. In the months before the Trinity shot of July 1945, the Manhattan Project scientists had come to realise the possible effects of fallout on civilians in New Mexico. However, militray secrecy precluded an evacuation of the area, and so they basically trusted to luck that no-one would be adversely affected. Of course later, once the bomb had become known to the world, there was an equal relectance to admit to any radiation effects on the Japanese bomb victims for fear of accusations of using an inhumane weapon.

    There were, therefore, conflicting noises concerning nuclear weapon radiation with the authorities, on the one hand, downplaying it, and journalists and scientists, on the other, discussing it in public from very early on.

    In fact, if you go back further, Frisch and Peierls had suggested in 1940 that an atomic explosion might produce dangerous radioactive byproducts. And, of course, there had long been precedents of workers using radioactive substances suffering disproportionately from leukemia and specific cancers (not only early scientific researchers using x-rays, radium, etc., but also watch-dial painters, who used radium-based luminous paints, and who used to wet the tips of their brushes with their mouths and consequently suffered high rates of jaw cancers and the like).

  2. CK

    Nice piece Brett.

    You might want to have a squizz at this BBC doco from teh '80's (Oh! The graphics!) testing official Home Office advice on how one can quickly and easily survive a nuclear attack, and compare it to The Blitz.

    At least back in the '40's the government provided bomb-shelters.

    I'm guessing it was made following the introduction of Trident and use of US air-launched cruise missiles operating from bases on the stationery British aircraft carrier:

  3. CK

    And in response to Roger, Burchett's piece remains a crackling piece of reportage which, I think, illustrates some fundamental different Anglo-American points of view regarding Le Frappe.

    You can barely go past an intro like "I write this as a warning to the world," after all.

    US journalist George Weller showed similar independence of thought and courage, undertaking a similar perilous journey to Nagasaki as Burchett did to Hiroshima, but his conclusions were quite different.

    I should point out that his stories were never published. The silly bugger, having bucked the system by travelling to Nagasaki in the first place, then submitted his stories to Macarthur's office in Tokyo for clearance, with a fairly predictable result.

    From a NY Times report of 2005 after the yarns were found:

    From NYT:

    'When Mr. Weller arrived in Nagasaki on Sept. 6, 1945, the atomic bomb, he wrote, seemed ''a tremendous, but not a peculiar weapon,''

    ''Nobody here in Nagasaki has yet been able to show that the bomb is different than any other, except in a broader flash and a more powerful knockout,'' his account said. (The first American use of a nuclear weapon occurred three days earlier, against Hiroshima.)

    By telling those he encountered that he was an American colonel, Mr. Weller acquired an official guide, driver and place to stay. He also began to witness the bomb's different character and long-lasting effects.

    ''Several children, some burned and others unburned but with patches of hair falling out,'' a dispatch of his said, ''are sitting with their mothers. Yesterday Japanese photographers took many pictures with them. About one in five is heavily bandaged,'' but none, he said, were ''showing signs of pain.''

    ''Some adults are in pain as they lie on mats,'' Mr. Weller wrote. ''They moan softly. One woman caring for her husband, shows eyes dim with tears. It is a piteous scene and your official guide studies your face covertly to see if you are moved.''

    Mainichi Shimbun bought the articles from Mr. Weller's son, who hopes to publish the rest of them, about 25,000 words in all, in a book.

    George Weller was already a well-known, sometimes swashbuckling, reporter before going to Nagasaki. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1943 for an article about an emergency appendectomy performed on a submarine. He was detained for two months by the Gestapo in Europe and had many other narrow escapes during the war. '

  4. Post author


    Thanks for that, interesting about Burchett's piece. I gather from de Groot's book that this was a bit of an anomaly though? Was anyone talking about atomic mutants and enhanced radiation weapons at this time? Or was this sort of speculation still in the purview of science fiction writers?


    Thanks, that doco looks great. Might be a post in it ...

  5. Roger Todd

    CK, many thanks for posting that link to QED’s ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ on YouTube! I saw it when it was originally broadcast in the early 80s, and had seen neither hide nor hair since, though it was engraved on my memory. Utterly chillling. I was fascinated, bordering on obsessed, by the possibility of nuclear war and read and watched whatever I could get hold of on the subject.

    The director of the documentary, Mick Jackson, later went on to direct and produce the superb ‘Threads’, also made by the BBC (and which featured some of the FX shots from the QED film). As an aside, I always felt that 'Threads' made the better-known, and roughly contemporaneous, US film 'The Day After' look like a vicarage tea-party...

    Brett, I’m not sure how widely speculated about the effects of radioactivity were, though there is good reason to say ‘not much’ for the first few years after Hiroshima/Nagasaki. There is a fascinating book called ‘Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age’ by Catherine Caufield which discusses the whole shebang. The US observers who entered Hiroshima after Burchett claimed there was no radioactivity (the ‘New York Times’ account was headed ‘No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Rain’), and in general, such talk was pooh-poohed by the authorities. As Caufield writes:

    ‘Concern about radiation played no part in the public feeling about the atomic bomb. In the weeks after Hiroshima, radiation was not mentioned in a single one of more than 200 letters about the atomic bomb published in American newspapers. In this respect, the world underestimated the power of atomic bombs. Almost everyone thought that atom bombs, for all their awe-inspiring destructive force, were simply super-powerful versions of conventional bombs...’

    I would think that talk of enhanced radiation weapons (a very perceptive forecast by Arthur C, foreshadowing as it did the so-called ‘neutron bomb’) and radioactive mutants was very much in the realm of science fiction. It’s not really until the 1950s that you see the effects of radiation entering the public consciousness (one thinks of the welter of, usually cheap, sci-fi films with post-atomic war mutants and the like).

  6. Post author

    That's the impression I got from Boyer's By the Bomb's Early Light, and of course there was all that 'radioactivity is good for you!' stuff in the 1950s too. What I was wondering was whether 'radioactive mutants' were a staple of pre-Hiroshima pulp sf -- I'm still not sure after checking Clute and Nichols, though mutants were certainly abundant. But Muller had been carrying out experiments on mutations in flies by dosing them with X-rays since the late 1920s, so I suppose it wouldn't have been such a stretch.

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