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 ...continue reading →
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. ↩
Nanotechnology is now starting to move out of science fiction and into the real world, though currently it's more advanced chemistry than the molecular-scale engineering foretold by K. Eric Drexler more than two decades ago. So no Strossiancornucopia machines yet, no swarms of nanobots swimming in our blood to clean out the cholesterol. But some people are already trying to think through the implications of what might lie over the technological horizon.
The November/December 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists contains a review, by Mike Tredar of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (blog here), of Jürgen Altmann's Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control (Routledge, 2006). The 'potential applications' of the book's title are both direct, for example 'specially designed warfare molecules'; and indirect, with the application of nanotech manufacturing techniques to the production of weapon systems of all types.
Thus, he [Altmann] warns, "MNT [molecular nanotechnology] production of nearly unlimited numbers of armaments at little cost would contradict the very idea of quantitative arms control," and would culminate in a technological arms race beyond control.
This is because anyone could -- with access to a nanofactory and the requisite blueprints -- construct vast quantities of very lethal weapons in very little time. Rogue states, terrorist groups, Rotary clubs. Anyone. There would be no way to police this. No hope for the future. Unless ... ...continue reading →
I can't say I'm terribly familiar with Lord Allenby, either the man or his career (and when I visualise him, he always looks like Jack Hawkins). But in my experience, retired field marshals are more likely to call for national service than a world state,1 so I was surprised when I came across Allenby's Last Message: World Police for World Peace, a pamphlet containing an address given by Allenby in his role as Rector of the University of Edinburgh on 28 April 1936. Sadly, he died only a few weeks later; in fact, the pamphlet contains a preface from Allenby dated 14 May 1936, the very day he died. It was published by the New Commonwealth, a society founded by Lord Davies to proselytise for an international police force (meaning an international air force, more or less, rather than something like Interpol), which would step in and stop wars, and hopefully deter them from starting in the first place. The speech is thin on practical details, being more of a call to (collective) arms directed at the rising generation.
First, Allenby outlined the danger:
There is danger in delay, for it seems likely that, unless an effort in the right direction -- a successful effort -- is made soon, the present social system will crumble in ruin; and many now alive may witness the hideous wreck. Then will loom the dreadful menace of the dark ages; returning, darker, black, universal in scope, long-lasting.2
'Recent progress in Science has now given to the machine the mastery over man its maker',3 Allenby claimed. Scientists everywhere were 'busily experimenting with new inventions for facilitating slaughter; [...] designing more monstrous methods of murdering their fellow men and women'.4 There would be no hesitation in attacking civilians with these new weapons in the next war. But science (by which he really means, technology) also gave him hope, for it enlarged people's horizons:
Man is now able to navigate the atmosphere, plumb the deep seas, travel in three dimensions of space, move anywhere at a speed unimaginable to our fathers. Willingly or unwillingly, he has become a world-citizen; and the duties of that citizenship cannot be evaded; duties calling for the whole-hearted co-operation of every man and woman alive, joined in mind and purpose to promote the good and the advancement of all.5
And his solution? A world state and an international police force.
Is it too much to believe that the human intellect is equal to the problem of designing a world state wherein neighbours can live without molestation; in collective security? It does not matter what the state is called; give it any name you please: -- League of Nations; Federated Nations; United States of the World. Why should there not be a world police; just as each nation has a national police force?6
It's somehow reassuring that Allenby could retain some measure of faith in the future after fighting the Battle of Armageddon!
Though for that matter, in 1930 Allenby did set up the British National Cadet Association in order to help preserve the public school cadet system after the Geddes axe. I'm sure Bobs would have approved. ↩
Allenby, Allenby's Last Message: World Police for World Peace (London: New Commonwealth, 1936), 8. ↩
It's the 75th anniversary of Stanley Baldwin's famous 'the bomber will always get through' speech. It's an important text which is widely quoted, both in my primary and my secondary sources, as a testament to the fear of bombing in the 1930s. But I've never actually read it very closely, and I think I'm in good company because it's usually the same couple of lines which are quoted, and the rest of it is ignored. And as it doesn't seem to be online anywhere I thought it would be a useful exercise to transcribe it and put it up on the web.
Baldwin was not Prime Minister when he gave the speech, as is sometimes said. He had been PM twice before, in 1923-4 and 1925-9 (and would be again in 1935-7), but at this time he was Lord President of the Council, a Cabinet-level post with no major duties attached to it. Baldwin's real importance was as leader of the Conservative Party, which had by far the most seats in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. He had power without responsibility, one is tempted to say.
The occasion for the speech was a debate in the House of Commons about disarmament, held on 10 November 1932 -- the eve of Armistice Day. The original motion was proposed by Clement Attlee, deputy leader of the Labour Party, and read:
This was obviously an attempt to embarrass the Prime Minister, a well-known pacifist -- and a hated former leader of the Labour Party. But MacDonald didn't speak in the following debate; instead, his Foreign Secretary, Sir John Simon, defended the Government's record and went into some hopeful diplomatic initiatives in some detail. George Lansbury, Labour's leader, lashed out and accused all nations of failing to fulfill any of the international peace pacts signed since the war. Baldwin spoke last of all. According to the Times's parliamentary correspondent, when he finished 'There was a deep and almost emotional round of applause' from the House.2 Of course, he was the party leader for most of the MPs, but it does seem that he had touched a chord. Baldwin had a longstanding record of concern about the air threat and his sincerity would have been evident. And -- not that there was ever any doubt given the huge majority enjoyed by the National Government -- Attlee's motion was defeated by 402 votes to 44.
The following transcript of his speech is taken not from Hansard but from The Times.3 I've edited it lightly, mainly to move the murmurs of approval from the listening MPs into footnotes. The phrases in bold are those which are most commonly quoted. ...continue reading →
It's 50 years since Sputnik I lifted off. Although I was airminded as a kid, I was much more spaceminded. So 1957 was always a crucial year in my understanding of history back then: it was where the modern age began. (In fact the very first historical work I ever I started -- but never finished! -- was a history of the space race from Sputnik on. I can't have been older than 12 so it's not exactly sophisticated ...)
More than that, to me 1957 was where the future began. A future where humans would spread out into the solar system and then explore the universe beyond. And who knows? Maybe I'd even get to take part in that somehow! That future hasn't quite worked out the way I'd envisaged it -- yet -- but of course, I'm in good company where failing to predict the future is concerned. There's a good article by Michael J. Neufeld in the July/August 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, on Wernher von Braun's proposals for manned orbital battle stations. In the early 1950s, von Braun predicted that these would be used to deploy nuclear weapons in orbit. For example, in a conference paper published in 1951, he wrote that
Our space station could be utilized as a very effective bomb carrier, and for all present-day means of defense, a non-interceptible one.1
The political situation being what it is, with the Earth divided into a Western and an Eastern camp, I am convinced that such a station will be the inevitable result of the present race of armaments.2
Neufeld makes the point that for all his expertise in rocketry -- including leading the V2's development team -- von Braun's obsession with space stations meant that he failed to realise that ballistic missiles actually made a lot more sense as a delivery platform for nuclear weapons, rather than space-launched hypersonic gliders -- a space station being a relatively big and very predictable target, for one thing.3
Von Braun wasn't the only one arguing along those lines. There were others. The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein co-authored a popular article in 1947 for Collier's Magazine which suggested putting nukes in orbit. In a novel published the following year, Space Cadet, he expanded upon this idea. Now, I read Space Cadet probably a couple of dozen times when I was a kid, but haven't for a long time so I'll have to rely upon the Wikipedia page to explain:
The Space Patrol is entrusted by the worldwide Earth government with a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and is expected to maintain a credible threat to drop them on Earth from orbit as a deterrent against breaking the peace. [...] The cadets are taught that they should renounce their allegiance to their country of origin and replace it by a wider allegiance to humanity as a whole and to all of the sentient species of the Solar System.
It never occurred to me before now, but this is nothing more than the international air force concept, so beloved of liberal internationalists in the 1930s (it was included in the Labour Party's manifesto for the 1935 general election, for example), but now updated for the coming space age! Only now instead of pilots of all nations standing by, ready to drop high explosives on any aggressor nation, it would be astronauts with atom bombs. Plus ça change ... sometimes, anyway.
When I was 12, I understood that Sputnik I was part of a 'Race for Space' between two superpowers, as I put it, but I mainly saw it it as a straightforward -- if impressive -- technical achievement, which the Soviet Union managed to do first. I certainly didn't have much clue about the bigger picture of the Cold War or the historical background to the decision to launch a small sphere into orbit, though. Now it's hard for me to see things in any other way, as all of the above probably demonstrates. But sometimes it's good just to forget about all that context and just appreciate the thing-in-itself.
So I'll end by reverting to age 12 and saying wow, that is just so ace!
Quoted in Michael J. Neufeld, "Wernher von Braun's ultimate weapon", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007, 53. ↩
But the fact that von Braun was still trying to sell the public on manned space stations in 1965 with no military role beyond reconnaissance suggests that it's more that he just really, really liked space stations, rather than that he wasn't aware of the potential of ballistic missiles. ↩