Can a war be won from the air? A group of renegade pilots in the 1930s thought so.
- Malcom Gladwell's new book The Bomber Mafia traces the stories of major personalities during WWII as bombing tactics developed.
- Of particular interest to him were the men who dreamed of precision bombing as a way to make war quick, efficient, and far less deadly.
- He concludes that the Bomber Mafia was ahead of its time.
Humanity has always had the odd idea that one tactical change or new technology is going to make war painless. Nowhere is this dream presented as a greater drama than in the story of the Bomber Mafia, a group of young American Army Air Force officers who hoped to use technology developed by a grouchy Dutch genius to reduce war to a question of hitting the right targets.
Their attempt, their failure, and the triumph of their ideology is the subject of a new book, The Bomber Mafia, by author and frequent Big Think contributor Malcolm Gladwell.
The Bomber Mafia
The Bomber Mafia was a group of young Air Force pilots and officers in the 1920s and 30s. Stationed together in Alabama, they collectively dreamed up a new idea of warfare based around air power. They were led by a young romantic officer named Haywood Hansell. Their ideas were radical and, at the time, the stuff of science fiction.
They argued that a sufficiently large, well armed, high flying, and long ranged bomber fleet would always get through to target destinations, even in the face of enemy resistance. This invulnerability meant that daylight attacks — previously thought to be too dangerous to attempt — were feasible, which increased the possible accuracy of bombing runs. The invention of vastly improved precision bombsights, tools used to determine where a bomb would land after being dropped from a plane several miles up, by Dutch inventor Carl Norden provided the hardware needed to make it all work.
Taken together, the pilots believed that the precision bombing of any target, no matter how well defended, was possible.
In a presentation, these visionaries suggested that New York City could be brought to capitulation with seventeen well placed bombs. Their idea was that by focusing on targets like the electric grid, bridges, water supply, and other vital infrastructure, the ability of the city to function could be destroyed with a minimal cost to human life.
They proposed that entire wars could be won this way. Simple, effective, rapid bombing campaigns would end war quickly. There would be no more battles where tens of thousands of young men die. And unlike other theorists of the day, they thought it could be done without directly targeting civilians.
Bombing theory meets reality
The Bomber Mafia drew up the original plans for the use of American air power in Europe in line with their theories of precision bombing. It was decided that the cornerstone of the Nazi war machine was the simple ball bearing. Despite their small size, they are needed in a huge number of mechanical parts that rotate, including airplane engines. If the production of the five main ball bearing factories, all conveniently located in Schweinfurt, Bavaria, could be stopped, perhaps the war would soon follow.
A large fleet of B-17 bombers set out on a diversionary run, but the main attack force was delayed by weather for several hours. By then, the Germans were fully prepared for them when they arrived, and dozens of bombers were shot down.
Of the roughly 2000 bombs the main attack force dropped, only 80 managed to hit the factories. While ball bearing production dropped for a while, the damaged factories were soon back to full production. A follow-up attack produced similar results. While Hansell thought the attacks were successes and learning opportunities, his men started calling his bomb wing the "clay pigeons" after the targets sport shooters aim at.
While some of the failures against the target were attributable to the delayed takeoff, a large factor was the failure of the bombsight to work in non-ideal conditions. The lack of long range fighter escorts was also a major issue.
While Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer would later suggest that destroying ball bearing factories could have seriously hindered German industry if further attacks were carried out, they never were. The losses were too high and the returns far too low. Over time, the American strategy in Europe slowly evolved to one more akin to simple widespread strategic bombing.
In Japan, things got even messier.
Hansell tried to use similar tactics and got similar results. It was decided that aircraft factories were the economic target this time, and he tried to hit them in the same manner as the ball bearing factories. Again, bad weather delayed attack runs and spoiled those that were carried out — after all, you cannot hit a target obscured by clouds with any kind of precision no matter how effective the bombsight is.
Making things worse, the jet stream, a then poorly understood weather phenomenon with what seemed to be impossibly high wind speeds, made serious attempts at precision bombing impossible. Even if the pilots could keep the plane steady, the bomb would be blown off course every time. Higher ups began to demand that tests of tactics that Hansell protested as counterproductive area bombardment be carried out as their faith in precision bombing as a central tool faded.
While Hansell's last raid was effective in damaging the Japanese aircraft industry, the lag in knowledge of the efficacy of the bombing combined with his refusal to consider new tactics led to his sacking. He was replaced by Curtis LeMay, the commander of the diversionary attack at Schweinfurt.
Bombing: the old strategy becomes the new strategy
While LeMay agreed with Hansell on the ability of bombers to win a war, he disagreed on how to implement them. Rather than bombing a narrow range of targets to bring down an economy, LeMay favored as extensive and brutal of a campaign as was required to end the war quickly — including much larger direct attacks on civilians and factory workers.
His first big idea upon replacing Hansell was to use a new incendiary weapon, napalm, against the largely wooden Japanese cities in a firebombing campaign. This campaign, based on ideas that had been discussed for years and even proposed by other members of the Bomber Mafia, was much more aggressive in its targeting of Japanese civilians than what Hansell had commanded.
The firebombing was conducted at night by low flying bombers stripped of defensive weaponry so that they could carry more bombs. There was little effort to target anything other than the vast collections of wood and paper homes of the Japanese people.
The U.S. Army Airforce dropped ton upon ton of the jellied gasoline bombs on Tokyo on March 10th, 1945. Anyone who failed to flee their homes was incinerated. Some people dove into canals for safety only to asphyxiate when the firestorm consumed the oxygen in the air. Many were trampled by others trying to escape. Others fled to parks designed to serve as refuge points in the event of earthquakes and ensuring fires. These proved no match for napalm. The majority of the casualties were women, children, and the elderly.
The stench of burning flesh reached the planes a mile above the city. Many of the late arriving bomber crews had to use oxygen masks to endure their mission. Some of the planes had to be fumigated upon landing to remove the odor.
The raid on Tokyo likely holds the record for the most people killed within a six hour period. Estimates of the death toll go as high as 100,000. The physical damage was immense. Sixteen square miles of buildings were burned, about 7 percent of the city, and a million people were left homeless. Upon reviewing pictures of the destruction they had wrought, one commander looked at the devastation and remarked, "It's all ashes."
This was merely the first such raid. Tokyo was hit again, and the remaining firebombing campaigns targeted all the major Japanese cities and several minor ones — except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Precision bombing was relegated to a situational tool as weather allowed.
Could precision bombing have worked?
In his book, Gladwell concludes that if it hadn't been for the switch to LeMay's tactics, the war with Japan would have dragged on for much longer. He accuses Hansell of having a case of "true believer syndrome" and failing to recognize when his tactics ceased to work.
For his part, General Hansell maintained later in life that Japan would have surrendered without the need for the atomic bombs, invasion, or Soviet intervention by no later than November 1945. In his memoir, he cites statements by several Japanese government officials who spoke on the subject of how long they thought the nation would have held out before capitulating.
Exactly how clean these tactics would have been is also another question. Recall that the plan to defeat New York City involved leaving the population without water, power, or transportation until they gave up. How that would have translated into attacks on Japan is up for debate, but it certainly would not have been pleasant. Instead of burning to death, perhaps people would have starved to death.
Even if the idea of victory through precision bombing was impossible in the 1940s, Gladwell suggests that everything the Bomber Mafia ever wanted is now possible and an established part of American military doctrines. As Gladwell says at the end of his book:
"There is a set of moral problems that can be resolved only with the application of conscience and will. Those problems are the hardest kinds of problems. But there are other problems that can be resolved with the application of human ingenuity. The genius of the Bomber Mafia was to understand that distinction — and to say We don't have to slaughter the innocent, burn them beyond recognition, in pursuit of our military goals. We can do better. And they were right."
Today, the U.S. Air Force has the ability to hit particular wings of designated buildings if required. Bombers aren't even entirely necessary; drones can do it in a pinch. Technology has advanced to the point that precision wars are possible, though this ability came several decades too late for the Bomber Mafia.
In the end, Gladwell muses that although LeMay's tactics won World War II and were used for decades afterward, Haywood Hansell eventually won the war of ideas. And the world is better for it.
The Bomber Mafia nearly changed the world—and you've likely never heard of them.
- Much has been written about World War II in the seven and a half decades since it ended in 1945. But as writer Malcolm Gladwell shows with his new book The Bomber Mafia, some incredible stories and perspectives have been largely forgotten.
- A group of pilots, led by Brigadier General Haywood Hansell, earned the derogatory nickname Bomber Mafia because of a not-widely-shared dream that they could use a few strategic bombings to lower the death toll and have a "clean" war.
- "But that's not what war ever is," says Gladwell. "It never has that kind of fairy tale ending." A few failed attempts led to a changing of the guard, the invention of napalm, and a summer of attacks on Japanese cities that Gladwell says was at "a scale of destruction almost unmatched in human history."
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently issued $8 million in follow-up funding to a team of neuroengineers developing brain-to-brain and brain-to-machine technology.
- Brain-to-machine interfaces have existed for years, but wireless and non-invasive interfaces aren't yet precise enough to be useful in real-world applications.
- In experiments on insects, a team at Rice University has successfully used light and magnetic fields to both read and write brain activity.
- The team hopes to use the technology to restore vision to the blind, while DARPA hopes to use brain-machine interfaces on the battlefield.
Imagine wearing a helmet that enables you to communicate with people, or control a machine, with only your thoughts.
For the past few years, a team of neuroengineers at Rice University has been working to develop just that. The team recently received $8 million in follow-funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), having already conducted successful experiments on insects. Working alongside more than a dozen other groups, the researchers plan to use the funds to conduct further tests on rodents and, potentially within two years, on humans.
Of course, brain-machine interfaces aren't new. For decades, researchers have been developing technologies that connect brains to machines. People are already benefiting from surgically implanted brain-machine interfaces, such as amputees who use mind-controlled arm prostheses.
But non-invasive brain-machine interfaces are more complex, and they're currently not precise enough to be useful. That's why Rice University's MOANA ("magnetic, optical and acoustic neural access") effort aims to create an effective and noninvasive interface that enables brain-to-brain communication at the "speed of thought."
To read and write brain activity, the interfaces uses light and magnetic fields, both of which can penetrate the skull. In previous experiments, the researchers injected flies with nanoparticles and used ultrasound to guide the particles to specific neurons in the insects' brains. This allowed the researchers to control the flies' behavior. In more recent experiments, the team tested whether MOANA technology could transmit signals from brain to brain.
Insects that have been injected with nanoparticles
Credit: Rice University
"We spent the last year trying to see if the physics works, if we could actually transmit enough information through a skull to detect and stimulate activity in brain cells grown in a dish," Jacob Robinson, lead investigator on the MOANA Project at Rice University, told the university's Office of Public Affairs.
"What we've shown is that there is promise. With the little bit of light that we are able to collect through the skull, we were able to reconstruct the activity of cells that were grown in the lab. Similarly, we showed we could stimulate lab-grown cells in a very precise way with magnetic fields and magnetic nanoparticles."
If rodent experiments prove successful, the team plans to conduct trials on blind patients, who would be injected with nanoparticles. Using ultrasound waves, the researchers would guide the nanoparticles to the brain's visual cortex.
There, the nanoparticles would be stimulated to activate specific neurons, which could potentially restore partial vision to the patients. For example, blind people may someday wear a camera that transmits visual data through the interface and enables them to see what the camera is looking at.
Brain-machine interfaces in the battlefield
But while restoring vision to the blind is the near-term goal, DARPA has additional applications in mind. The MOANA Project is part of the agency's Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, first announced in March 2018. The Rice University team and others have been working with DARPA to develop noninvasive brain-machine interfaces that soldiers may someday use to, say, control drones in the battlefield.
"If N3 is successful, we'll end up with wearable neural interface systems that can communicate with the brain from a range of just a few millimeters, moving neurotechnology beyond the clinic and into practical use for national security," Al Emondi, the N3 program manager, said in a statement.
"Just as service members put on protective and tactical gear in preparation for a mission, in the future they might put on a headset containing a neural interface, use the technology however it's needed, then put the tool aside when the mission is complete."
If the human trials prove successful, it could greatly accelerate the development and adoption of brain-machine and brain-to-brain interfaces. After all, even if other types of brain-machine interfaces are effective, it's likely that many people won't want to have a device implanted into their skull.
"That's the big idea, this non-surgical interface," Robinson said.