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 manuvres 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!
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. ↩
Ibid., 76. ↩
Ibid., 77. ↩
Ibid., 77. ↩
Ibid., 78. ↩
Ibid., 79. ↩
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. ↩
Clarke, Ascent to Wonder, 79; emphasis in original. ↩
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. ↩
OK, there were pre-atomic and pre-rocket precursors for most of these too. ↩
Clarke, Ascent to Wonder, 79. ↩
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://airminded.org/copyright/.