Arthur C. Clarke and the future of warfare — I

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about a childhood hero of mine, on the tenth anniversary of his death. Today, I'm writing about another one, and it's a happier occasion: it's Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 90th birthday!

Clarke has always been my favourite of the 'big three' post-war science fiction writers: he evokes a sense of wonder at the universe that was mostly missing in Asimov and Heinlein, as much as I loved their stories.1 From the decaying billion-year-old city of Diaspar in Against the Fall of Night (1953), to the giant interstellar interloper in Rendezvous with Rama (1973), to the last visitors from home in Songs of Distant Earth (1986), Clarke's universe is indifferent to humanity's presence, but it's precisely our human qualities which make its immensities explicable and bearable. It's terrific stuff, at its best Wellsian and Stapledonian, and just talking about it makes me want to go re-read it all again ...

I was casting around for some way to connect Clarke to the themes of this blog. I could have speculated on the parallels between the British Interplanetary Society, in which he was heavily involved from the 1930s to the 1950s, and aviation advocacy groups like the Royal Aeronautical Society or the Air League of the British Empire. Or there's his wartime work for the RAF on ground control approach radar. Or the way his experience of being billeted in the bombed-out East End in 1941 apparently inspired him to write a chapter on space warfare which he later used in Earthlight.2 Or the fact that the first publication of his famous idea for communication satellites in geosynchronous (or 'Clarke') orbits was in a letter on potential scientific applications of V2 rockets, which appeared in the February 1945 issue of Wireless World -- at a time when V2s were still falling on London!3

But then I found that in March 1946, RAF Quarterly published a prize-winning essay by Clarke on "The rocket and the future of warfare", which was outside Clarke's usual range of topics, but well within mine -- just too perfect a fit to ignore! But it's not available online like his satellite stuff, and nobody around here has the RAF Quarterly. Luckily it was reprinted in Ascent to Wonder, a compilation of his more technical papers, so I made an impromptu trip to the State Library this afternoon to check its copy.4

Clarke begins with some technical background on rocket propulsion, and draws up four classes of rocket, both manned and un-manned: short-range (e.g. Katyushas, bazookas), medium-range (e.g. Me 163, Wasserfall), long-range (e.g. V2 or A4, A9/A10), and infinite range (i.e. spacecraft). He suggests that the advent of anti-tank rockets may spell the end of tank warfare, since now a few soldiers can destroy the largest tanks. Buried rockets could even be used as anti-tank mines. He is greatly impressed by the amount of firepower carried by rocket-equipped aircraft, noting that a fully-loaded Mosquito is equivalent to a cruiser with 6-inch guns. And foreseeing a great future for air-to-air rockets, Clarke suggests that

a possible line of development is the heavily armed "destroyer" fitted with rocket-launching turrets. The rockets would be aimed by radar and detonated by proximity fuses when they approached their targets. The larger projectiles might even be guided, either from the launching plane or from the ground.5

But, moving into the medium range category, these would soon be replaced by aircraft which are themselves rocket-propelled. Clarke sees these as an almost insuperable threat to bomber streams, since they are so fast; massive barrages from defending destroyers might be one defence, but a better one would be speeds too high for interception.

The speed of attack is steadily increasing and the 3,400 miles an hour of A4 is merely the beginning. Against such speeds men can never hope to fight. Skill and courage and resolution -- in the end all are of no avail, for there comes at last a time when only machines can fight machines.6

And conventional bombers would not have a chance against unmanned, ground-controlled rockets, homing in on the infrared emissions from their engines. At sea, rockets will probably replace fighters as air cover for fleets, meaning the end of the carrier. At long ranges, rockets have tremendous potential as offensive weapons -- probably more cost-effective at short ranges than conventional bombers -- the more so since there is currently no defence against them once they have been launched:

The only defence of any kind would be the guided rocket, and one can visualize the development of small machines capable of accelerations of 100 g. or more and homing on radiation, radar or even local gravity fields.7

But even so, there'd be only seconds in which to intercept the incoming rocket. Clarke even ponders 'atomically propelled rockets [...] flying under continuous thrust at very high accelerations along constantly "randomed" paths'.8 These would be even harder to intercept, since their ultimate destination would not be clear until it was too late. He sees little point in the development of rocket bombers (i.e. capable of returning to base to rearm for another mission); single-use rockets can carry a greater proportion of explosive load. Finally, in the 'infinite range' category -- spacecraft -- Clarke pretty much dismisses chemical rockets as useless for anything other than scientific exploration. But if atomic power were to be used for propulsion ...

The least of the achievements we may expect to see is the establishment of stations in closed orbits at heights of a thousand miles or more, circling the world in periods of a few hours like artificial moons. The Germans were indeed planning such stations, and they present an attractive solution to the problem of world surveillance and control.9

This is getting pretty long, so I'll stop there for the moment, and save Clarke's analysis of the bigger picture for another post. Just a few closing observations.

Many of the details of Clarke's predictions didn't pan out (such as the super-Defiant rocket turret fighters), but that's an occupational hazard of technological prophecy. It's interesting (to me at least) that he dismisses the bomber, until now the premier weapon of mass destruction, but replaces it with the rocket, which will always get through, will tempt its possessor into making sneak attacks, and so on. From the language he uses, I don't get the feeling he has read much of the airpower prophets of previous decades, though he does mention Seversky by name; and surely he would have been well up on his Wells.

It's a bit odd that Clarke barely mentions the jet engine, another recent invention which as it turned out, has been far more widely used than rockets. Aside from the fact that the essay competition was specifically about rockets in warfare, I suppose Clarke might have assumed that anything jets can do, rockets can do better -- or at least faster, which seems to have meant much the same thing to him.

I was surprised by all the references, accurate for the most part, to experimental German weapons. I would have thought that details of these would still have been secret so soon after the war's end. Obviously that's not the case! The reference to German plans for space stations seems a bit of a stretch, though this page suggests there was some basis for it, and certainly von Braun continued to be obsessed with the idea of orbital battle stations.

Next up: radiation war, battle integrators, and -- surprise, surprise -- yet another incarnation of the international police force idea.

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  1. Asimov's non-fiction more than made up for this lack, of course. []
  2. Neil McAleer, Odyssey: The Authorised Biography of Arthur C. Clarke (London: Victor Gollancz, 1992), 47. []
  3. Arthur C. Clarke, "V2 for ionosphere research?", Wireless World, February 1945, 58. His better known paper devoted to geosynchronous communication satellites was published in the same journal the following October. See here for more on both articles. []
  4. 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. []
  5. Ibid., 73. []
  6. Ibid., 74. []
  7. Ibid., 75. []
  8. Ibid; emphasis in original. []
  9. Ibid., 76. []

6 thoughts on “Arthur C. Clarke and the future of warfare — I

  1. I honestly never could pick a favorite between the big three: they're so different and each has his own distinct heritage in the SF tradition.

    I'm a short-story fan: Clark does address some military matters there. Nine Billion Names of God has a couple of stories, for example: "Hide and Seek" and "Superiority."

  2. Post author

    Yes, that's a fair point -- it's almost a rock-paper-scissors thing: Clarke's sensawunda beats Asimov's logic puzzles beats Heinlein's rugged individualism beats Clarke's sensawunda ... I devoured all their works when I was a kid, but Clarke always had that extra something which moved me more than the other two.

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