#BookReview – Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home

#BookReview – Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home

By Dr Brian Laslie

Jack Clemons, Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2018. Appendices. Glossary. References. Further Reading. Hbk. 264 pp

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In the first of our space-related book reviews, Stages to Saturn, I discussed a book about a technology and a ‘thing,’ that thing being the family of Saturn rockets. This next review is a book about people or rather, a single person: Jack Clemons.

Author Jack Clemons is one of the 400,000 (or so) people who worked on Project Apollo. You should quickly surmise that 399,999 other stories could be told about NASA and space exploration, but this is Jack’s story. This is the story of one person’s efforts to help put Armstrong’s (and eleven others) boot prints on the moon, but at least as far as Clemons was concerned bringing him, as well as and Aldrin and Collins back to Earth. Clemons, employed by TRW Corporation and working for the Apollo program as a re-entry specialist, presents himself as part of the group of ‘Americans who embraced the study of engineering and the sciences’ (p. 3) and who joined President Kennedy’s call for landing a man on the moon, and the oft-overlooked second part of that sentence, returning him safely to Earth. The call for Clemons (p. 21) was so great that ‘I stayed in Houston for sixteen years for one reason, because that’s where NASA was.’

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The prime crew of the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission is photographed during spacecraft checkout activity at North American Rockwell Space Division at Downey, California. Left to right, are astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr., command module pilot; and Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot. (Source: NASA)

HBO’s TV series From the Earth to the Moon based on the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin introduced viewers to stories of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts. In one episode, the launch of Apollo 12 is shown to be struck by lightning, and the crew is informed they must ‘switch SCE to AUX’ to start restoring power to the crippled command module. This is also where Jack Clemons book Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home begins as well when flight controller John Aaron makes the call to have the crew switch Signal Conditioning Electronics to Auxiliary. This is what separates Clemons work from all that has come before it – and becomes the real strength of the work; this is not a book about the astronauts themselves, but about the unnamed masses of the support team.

This is not a purely academic work, and Clemons is clearly not speaking to an exclusive audience. Instead, he brings forth in a very accessible manner what it was like to be ‘in the trenches.’ Clemons also provides a certain levity in his book. He often ‘breaks the plane’ by talking directly to the reader, a massive ‘no-no’ in most professional writing, but it works and much to Clemons credit, I found myself smirking.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: his work on the Apollo Program and his later work in the Space Shuttle program. During Apollo and found many times throughout the pages of Safely to Earth, the role of technology is clearly on display. In the modern world where our phones hold more computing power than some of the early computers, it is nearly overwhelming to remember a time where so much of a computer processing ability first had to be input by hand. In one example, Clemons notes (p. 41) that the process of entering information into the IBM mainframes and waiting for results: ‘was a tedious and labor-intensive way to grind out data, but at the time it was cutting edge, high art, and great fun.’ Clemons primary work was on reentry data (p. 70), ‘[S]ince every Apollo mission was unique, reentry procedures had to developed and tested for each one.’

During the 1980s, Clemons moved over to IBM where he worked on the Space Shuttle’s computer programs and flight software, and this work provides a good history of the development and operation of the Shuttle. During these years, Clemons, responsible for the displays and controls of the Orbiter, worked closely with the early shuttle astronauts, including Bob Crippen and Dick Truly. Ostensibly, Clemons seeks here (p. 122) to ‘to convey here a sense of the scope of this singular effort, and an appreciation for some of the unheralded people behind the scenes’ and this occurs not only in the latter half of the book but throughout the entire text. The reader gets a sense of how many people at so many levels worked towards the singular goal of space exploration.

This is a welcome addition and is truly a unique work that contributes something new to an already overcrowded field of books about manned spaceflight. Clemons brings into focus what it was like to be one of the 400,000 who contributed to getting man to the moon and in doing so broadens our understanding of getting into space in general. While those aviation, history of technology, and space readers and historians will find much to enjoy here; those interested in race and gender issues, particularly as they apply to employment in STEM career fields, will also find enjoyment in the marked switch that occurred between Apollo and the Space Transportation System programs; Clemons covers this transition particularly well. The ultimate question posed by Clemons (p. 190), and so many others in recent years, and one for which we do not have a definitive answer for is, ‘[S]o where does human spaceflight go from here?’

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: The last of 13 captive and free-flight tests on 26 October 1977 with the space shuttle prototype Enterprise during the Approach and Landing Tests, validating the shuttle’s glide and landing characteristics. Launched from the modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the Enterprise’s final flight was piloted by Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton to a landing on the main concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base before a host of VIPs and media personnel. (Source: NASA)

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examines the varied use of air power during the conflict in Vietnam (1945-1975). Two thousand nineteen marks 50 years since the announcement of President Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. This marked a significant turning point in a conflict that dated back to the end of the Second World War when France returned to Indochina to reclaim her colonial possessions. Throughout this long conflict in Vietnam – both during the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War – air power played a significant role. Themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:

Roles | Operations | Strategy, Theory and Doctrine

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments

Organisation and Policy | Culture | Ethical and Moral Issues

National, International and Transnational Experiences

We are looking for articles of c. 2,500 words, though we will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We plan to begin running the series in May 2019, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line to discuss.

If you are interested in contributing, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

By Dr Brian Laslie

Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003. Illustrations. Notes. Sources and Research Material. Pbk. 544 pp.

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This entry in our continuing series of book reviews might strike you as something a bit different from what we usually publish in several respects. First, this is an older work and originally published as part of the ‘official histories’ by NASA. Initially published in 1979 by the NASA history office, this 2003 updated version published by the University Press of Florida, was written, at its creation, primarily for an internal audience. Second, and as promised, this is the first book review in a series on Space exploration and space power. Finally, this review is inherently about a thing, and a means rather than an event or person. It is a review of technological history.

Even with fifty years of retrospective, the images of the gigantic Saturn V rocket with the Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) perched atop the three-stage rocket remains impressive. Histories of NASA and the Apollo Program tend to focus on the Saturn as a completed unit, stacked and rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) ready for transportation to the launch pad and final countdown and liftoff of the series of Apollo missions. The University of Florida Press’s and author Roger E. Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles plays this familiar tale in reverse. The book begins with the launch of Apollo 11 and the ‘fiery holocaust lasting only 2.5 minutes’ of the first stage (S1-C) five F-1 engines that included the combination of 203,000 gallons of RP-1 kerosene and 331,000 gallons of liquid oxygen.

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SA-9, the eighth Saturn I flight, lifted off on 16 February 1965. This was the first Saturn with an operational payload, the Pegasus I meteoroid detection satellite. (Source: Wikimedia)

Bilstein then roles the tape back to the earliest days of rocketry before moving into the primary purpose of the book, the development of the Saturn family of rockets. This is the history of an object albeit, one of the largest moving objects ever created. Stages to Saturn is the story of the development of the launch vehicles that took man into deep space for the first time. There are hundreds of books (see our reading list) about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, but this book is fundamentally different in that it focuses on the creation of the means it took the latter program to get into space.

A note of warning for the prospective reader up front, this is not a book for the layman reader, and in all fairness, it is hardly a book for the professional historian. It is an extraordinarily technical history, what might be most justly described as a ‘dense’ read. If there is a drawback to this work, it is that one might enjoy the book more if one were an expert mechanic or an aircraft engineer, someone who fundamentally understands the way machines work. It is also as much an organisational and logistical history as it is a technological history. All, this should not indicate that the book comes across as is inaccessible; it does not. Still the reader should be prepared for some overly technical discussions of thrust chambers and cryogenic propellants.

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Rollout of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad, 20 May 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is built, not chronologically, but rather by component pieces of the rocket itself, each earning a detailed developmental history. This includes a ‘building blocks’ section which is a short history of rocketry but, thankfully, not a history of everything. From there the book details the development of the engines (RL-10, J-2, H-1, and F-1), before moving into the building of the various Saturn stages (S-IB, S-IVB for the Saturn IB and S-IC, S-II, S-IVB for the Saturn V) and finally on the management and logistics. While the development and building of the massive Saturn systems are fascinating enough in their own right, the logistical undertaking, which required ships and the development of special aircraft just to move the various stages and components to Cape Kennedy is a worthy addition to understanding of the continental network required simply to have the rocket components arrive at their destination. Bilstein ends his book with a disposition of the remaining Saturn systems (most on Static display now), but also a retrospective legacy section. It should also be noted that Bilstein includes a series of appendices covering everything from a detailed schematic of the Saturn V to the Saturn V launch sequence (beginning at nine hours and 30 minutes before liftoff) as well as R&D funding. While ‘richly detailed’ or ‘meticulously researched’ are overused in reviews, a trait myself am guilty of; they aptly apply to Stages to Saturn.

In the end, this is the story of the Apollo and Saturn programs that needed to be told. All the histories and biographies of the ‘Space Race,’ fail to rise to the level of detail and the important contribution of Stages to Saturn. It is a first-class organisational and technological history, and it stands alone as, perhaps the very best of the overall government ‘official histories.’ Historians of air and space power studies will find much to enjoy here, but also aerospace engineers. It is often said that 400,000 people helped get the United States the moon. This is the history of that rocket, but it is equally the history of those 400,000.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Apollo 6 interstage falling away. The engine exhaust from the S-II stage glows as it impacts the interstage. (Source: Wikimdeia)

#BookReview – Sovereignty and Command in Canada-US Continental Air Defence, 1940-1957

#BookReview – Sovereignty and Command in Canada-US Continental Air Defence, 1940-1957

By Dr Brian Laslie

Richard Goette, Sovereignty and Command in Canada-US Continental Air Defence, 1940-1957. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2018. Illustrations. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. xvii + 295 pp.

Soverignty

In case you missed it, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) turned 60 this year. It was an easy thing to overlook. Most of the time when I mention that I work at NORAD, the first thing that comes to most people’s mind is that it is the organisation responsible for tracking Santa (and that is a job taken very seriously). However, the day to day focus on the command remains on the defence of the North American continent. It does so through three mission areas: aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning. The most important concept to remember when discussing the history and operations of NORAD is that it is a binational command with shared responsibility between the United States and Canada.

Sixty years of shared defence

For more than sixty years now, Americans and Canadians have bi-nationally agreed to place the defence of the homeland in each other’s hands and entrust officers from both countries with commanding, directing, and controlling forces. To that end, Richard Goette’s new work Sovereignty and Command in Canada-US Continental Air Defence, 1940-1957, looks at the development of these relationships leading up to the creation of NORAD in September of 1957. Goette is an air power academic and Canadian air force historian as well as an Associate Professor in the Department of Defense Studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, where he is Deputy Chair of the Department of Military Planning and Operations.

Looking back retrospectively, it is easy to believe that a close relationship between the two nations was a foregone conclusion; it seems difficult to imagine a world in which Canada and the US would not cooperate on matters of national defence. This was indeed not the case immediately following the First World War. One of the demonstrative statements in the book comes at the beginning of Chapter Three where Goette states that ‘[I]t was by no means preordained that Canada and the US would cooperate in the defense of North America.’ Both countries had active war plans for conflict with each other. As Goette shows, ‘[C]anadian military officials continued to consider the US a potential adversary and planned accordingly.’ Likewise, America’s war plan crimson dealt with a conflict against Canada as part of a likely larger fight against Great Britain (War Plan Red) (p. 71).

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Air Marshal Charles Roy Slemon, Chief of the Air Staff , RCAF, 1953-1957, and the first Deputy Commander-in-Chief of NORAD.(Source: Candian Department of Defence)

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, this planning against the border nations morphed into cooperation between the two nations and eventually into a unique agreement where the defence of the two nations was shared. Goette (p. 23) aims to demonstrate ‘how Canadian and American officers debated and negotiated doctrinal definitions of command and control as the basis of the Canada-US continental air defence relationship from 1940-1957.’ Thus, Goette’s work pairs nicely with Joseph T. Jockel’s Canada in NORAD 1957-2007: A History. The author’s thesis (p. 5) is that the struggle from the Canadian perspective ‘was not control but command: command over Canadian air defense forces was the actual “acid test of Canadian sovereignty.”’

Sovereignty

Goette’s work is about sovereignty, particularly the sovereignty of Canada. ‘Sovereignty is a complex and contested concept without a universally accepted definition.’ (p. 27) Both countries had to find common ground and move from common conceptions of defence (working within services) towards bilateral (and later binational) defence. Nineteen-forty saw the earliest discussions held between the two nations with the US seeking both ‘strategic direction’ and ‘command,’ over Canadian forces, a clear problem for Canadian sovereignty and command of their forces. The calculus changed by the summer of 1941 and the new cooperative plan (ABC-22) saw that ‘each nation would retain strategic direction and command of its forces, which effectively recognized national sovereignty.’ More importantly, the groundwork was accomplished allowing the two nations to begin effectively working together with the goal of continental defence in mind (p. 81, 83).

The Second World War found the two nations working effectively together, and establishing relationships and procedures used during the war bore fruit in its aftermath. The post-war Basic Security Plan (BSP) was a combined effort aimed at continental defence that Goette (p. 116) shows ‘was a watershed in the Canada-US defence relationship.’ Between the acceptance of the BSP in 1946 and 1953, other plans and agreements between the two nations, particularly as they concerned cross-border intercepts strengthened the relationship between the two governments, but more importantly between the militaries. As the Cold War progressed, it became increasingly evident that the solution would be in a combined headquarters where US and Canadian personnel could work alongside each other. The problem, especially from the Canadian perspective, remained the spectre of American officers commanding Canadian forces. Interestingly, the ‘solution was avoiding the term “command” and using the principle of operational control.’ Thus, in 1957 the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) began operations. Headed by an American four-star with a Canadian three-star deputy, each officer held ‘operational control.’ Day-to-day operations and ‘operational control’ were held by the American Commander-in-Chief NORAD, but in his absence, the Canadian Lieutenant General held control over the American officers. Administrative matters, punishment, and other matters of command remained sovereign, i.e. national and service responsibilities. This unique command structure remains in place today (p. 177).

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The SAGE ‘Blue Room’ at the NORAD Underground Complex at Canadian Forces Base North Bay, Ontario, c. 1972. (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

There is really nothing to critique here, Goette has successfully produced a deeply researched work that is the first significant study of the development of Canadian-US continental defense in the post-Second World War era and, as such, it will remain the go-to book for those looking to understand the origins of this unique relationship for the foreseeable future. Sovereignty and Command will quickly find a following in the fields of history and air power studies but will also find a wide readership in the fields of political science, civil-military relations, and international relations. If you have an interest in how the homeland is defended this is a must-read and demonstrates the unique Canadian-US relationship that has stood the test of time for more than 60 years and looks to easily double that as the unique, nay special, binational relationship continues to evolve into the future.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: A Royal Canadian Air Force Avro Canada CF-100 Canuck in flight with a Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, c. 1950s (Source: Royal Canadian Air Force)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

By Dr Michael Hankins

In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.

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John Boyd during his service in Korea. (Source: Wikimedia)

Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’[1] On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’[2] Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect.[3] However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.

First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.

Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.

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This chart, a typical example of the types of charts Boyd produced, compares the agility of an F-4 Phantom II and a MiG-21, but specifically under conditions of a 5g turn. (Source: USAF Academy Department of Aeronautics)

Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft.[4] However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years.[5] One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.

Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.[6]

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McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)

Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust.[7] Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.

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An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, c.1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

After his retirement in 1975, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.[8]

Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.

One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.

The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind.[9] For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.

Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments.[10] However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.

Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.

Bibliographical Note

For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008.  (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.

[2] Carl Prine, ‘Q & A with Merrill ‘Tony’ McPeak,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 23 November 2017.

[3] See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.

[4] Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.

[5] USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.

[6] For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).

[7] On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).

[8] These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[9] For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,’ Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.

[10] For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).

SPACE FORCE: The Militarisation of United States Space Policy from Eisenhower to Trump

SPACE FORCE: The Militarisation of United States Space Policy from Eisenhower to Trump

By Bradley Galka

On 18 June 2018, President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to create a new branch of the United States armed forces. This new branch, the US Space Force, would be charged with controlling the nation’s military activities in space. The fact that the US would be involved in military activities in space in the first place should not be taken for granted. The US’ first military space policy was based on the principle that space ought to remain a ‘sanctuary’ from the sort of martial competition that was taking place on earth’s surface. Despite these peaceful beginnings, nearly every successive president has established a military space policy more aggressive than the last. The proposed establishment of the Space Force as a new branch of the US military represents the apex of this decades-long trend toward increased militarisation of space.[1]

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President Eisenhower visiting the George C. Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, 8 September 1960. (Source: NASA)

The US government’s first space policy was established during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower and the military saw the nation’s developing satellite program as a valuable tool in monitoring Soviet military concentrations and looked forward to developing the critical capacity of detecting hostile missile launches from space. The president’s views differed with military leaders in significant ways. While the military advocated the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile technology and other generally hostile technologies for use in space, Eisenhower was more interested in the scientific possibilities of the space program. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 29 July 1958, as a separate entity from the Department of Defense – one with a purely peaceful civilian mandate. Though he did green-light some early research into ASAT technology, the US never developed a functional ASAT capability during Eisenhower’s presidency.[2]

John F. Kennedy took the first steps toward a more militarised space policy by approving the full-scale development of the anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile technologies first considered during Eisenhower’s tenure. Kennedy was concerned with the nuclear ‘missile gap’ that was said to be developing between the US and the Soviet Union and was alarmed by reports that the Soviets were seeking a capacity to place nuclear weapons in earth’s orbit. Ultimately, however, Kennedy chose not to increase tensions between the superpowers through military competition with the Soviets in space, but rather to seek a diplomatic agreement limiting or banning such hostile actions. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, brought about the successful culmination of these efforts with the signing of the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty by the US and the Soviet Union in 1967. The terms of this treaty forbade the testing or positioning of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction in space, prohibited the construction of military installations or fortifications on the moon, and banned any military manoeuvres in earth’s orbit. The terms of the treaty stipulated that space would only be used for peaceful, scientific purposes.[3]

Richard Nixon’s presidency was not marked by significant changes in the US’ military space policy. Gerald Ford, however, set the US on a drastically new, and far more aggressive, course. During Ford’s presidency, a series of internal government review boards reported to the president that the US’ existing space policies were woefully insufficient to protect the nation’s important space assets from the threat of Soviet attack. Experts warned that deterrence was not enough. The US, they said, would need to develop not only substantial defences in space but would need to obtain potent offensive firepower as well. Ford acted on this advice by drafting a new military space policy. This policy declared that ‘the Soviets should not be allowed an exclusive sanctuary in space for critical military supporting satellites.’ The employment of non-nuclear anti-satellite technology, Ford declared, would enable the US to ‘selectively nullify certain militarily important Soviet space systems, should that become necessary.’ By the end of his presidency, Ford had put in place the US’ first outwardly aggressive military space policy, mandating that the nation obtain both offensive and defensive capabilities in space.[4]

Jimmy Carter followed in Ford’s footsteps by officially rescinding the US’ self-imposed prohibition on testing anti-satellite weaponry in space. In 1978 Carter promulgated a new space policy which affirmed the right of the US to ‘pursue activities in space in support of its right of self-defense.’ Regarding anti-satellite capability, Carter declared that the US would continue to seek a ‘verifiable ban’ on such technology but would continue its research and development ‘as a hedge against Soviet breakout.’ In other words, the Carter administration sought to obtain a ban on ASAT technology but was unwilling to let the US fall behind if the Soviets refused to cooperate or broke the terms of any prospective treaty.[5]

Excalibur_firing
Project Excalibur was a proposed x-ray laser based anti-missile technology. It used a nuclear warhead surrounded by a number of metal rods that acted to focus the output of the explosion into narrow beams that would be aimed at nuclear missiles and their warheads. (Source: Wikimedia)

When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981 the US upped-the-ante yet again. One of the most notable products of Reagan’s whole presidency was his famous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known popularly as the ‘Star Wars’ program. The nature of SDI changed significantly over time but was a program designed to give the US the capacity to intercept and destroy a massive Soviet missile barrage en-route to the US or its allies using space-based weapons platforms. Though regarded by most now and many in his own time as wildly unrealistic given the technology of the day, Reagan’s intention of stationing military weapons in space capable of defeating Soviet attacks on earth was far beyond anything the US had been willing to attempt before. This technological program was coupled with Reagan’s stated unwillingness to continue negotiating with the Soviet Union over any form of disarmament which he believed would interfere with American prerogatives or American interests.[6]

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the ambitious nature of Reagan’s SDI program was scaled back under George H.W. Bush from a massive global missile shield to a smaller, regional defensive program capable of interdicting missiles in smaller numbers but with higher accuracy, reflecting the new realities of a post-Cold War world. Both H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton maintained the US’ stated willingness to both attack and defend military assets in outer space, but the post-Cold War world saw a marked decrease in the perceived importance of military space readiness. Bill Clinton was notable for his administration’s desire to open up the US’ space technology for the benefit of civil and commercial interests around the world. GPS, the global positioning system which serves as the basis of modern satellite-directed navigation, was initially a military asset unavailable to the public until Clinton opened access to the program in the 1990s.[7]

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US Navy Ordnance handlers assemble Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs in the forward mess decks before putting them on elevators headed for aircraft on the flight deck aboard USS Constellation, c. 2003. JDAM’s are guidance kits that convert existing unguided bombs into precision-guided ‘smart’ munitions. The tail section contains an inertial navigational system and a global positioning system. JDAM improves the accuracy of unguided bombs in any weather condition. (Source: Wikimedia)

The advent of the Global War on Terror and the protracted conflicts in the Middle East has reinvigorated the government’s concern with space policy in recent years. George W. Bush took steps to limit the free access to GPS established by Bill Clinton claiming the nation’s enemies – whether conventional military, insurgent groups or terrorist organisations – could use GPS as a useful tool against US interests. Perhaps the most notable use of military satellite technology, however, has been the drone program. Satellite-enabled drone reconnaissance and bombing missions have been central to US military operations around the world since the 1990s and have only grown in importance. George W. Bush and Barack Obama each found space assets to be indispensable in the conduct of their military missions abroad and have each affirmed the importance of space in their iterations of national space policy.[8]

In his 2006 exposition of US space policy, George W. Bush declared:

In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not. Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power. In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity, and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.[9]

By declaring that space is just as crucial to the modern military as air power and sea power Bush seems to have prefigured the seminal development in US space policy that incumbent President Trump announced in 2018: the planned establishment of the US Space Force.

In the six decades between Eisenhower’s first military space policy and the space policy of Trump, the US has gone from a purely peaceful conception of space to a grudging acceptance of defensive militarisation to a modern policy in which an aggressive militarisation of space is regarded as essential to national defence. The elevation of space activities from auxiliary status to an independent branch of the armed forces not only solidifies the importance of space in the modern US military but represents the next logical step in a pattern of increasingly aggressive military space policy established since the earliest days of the US space program.

Bradley Galka obtained his Master of Arts degree in history from Kansas State University in 2017. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Kansas State. His research focuses on the relationship between politics and the military in the United States, particularly regarding fascism and the U.S. military during the inter-war period.

Header Image: The launch of the STS-74 mission aboard the space shuttle Atlantis from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Source: NASA)

[1] Namrata Goswami, ‘The US Space Force and Its Implications,’ The Diplomat, 22 June 2018.

[2] Nelson Rockefeller, National Security Council, ‘US Scientific Satellite Program,’ NSC-5520, 20 May 1955; Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, KS, S. DDE’s Papers as President, NSC Series, Box 9, 357th Meeting of the NSC, NAID#: 12093099, Everett Gleason, National Security Council, ‘US Objectives in Space Exploration and Science,’ March 1958; Eisenhower Presidential Library, DDE’s Papers as President, NSC Series, Box 9, 339th Meeting of the NSC, NAID#: 12093096, S. Everett Gleason, National Security Council, ‘Implications of Soviet Earth Satellite for US Security,’ 10 October 1957.

[3] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Kennedy Administration National Security Council, ‘Certain Aspects of Missile and Space Programs,’ NSC-6108, 18 January 1961; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Johnson Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson, ‘Cooperation with the USSR on Outer Space,’ NSAM-285, 3 March 1964; United Nations General Assembly, ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 27 January 27, 1967.

[4] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Ford Administration, Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council, ‘Enhanced Survivability of Critical US Military and Intelligence Space Systems,’ National Security Decision Memorandum 333, 7 July 1976; George C. Marshall Institute,  Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Ford Administration, Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council, ‘US Anti-Satellite Capabilities,’ National Security Decision Memorandum 345, 18 January 1977.

[5] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Carter Administration, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Review Memorandum – NSC 23, ‘A Coherent US Space Policy,’ 28 March 1977; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Carter Administration, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC 33, ‘Arms Control for Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Systems,’ 10 March 1978; The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Atlanta, GA, Presidential Directives, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC-37, ‘National Space Policy,’ 11 May 1978, pp. 1-2.

[6] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 42, ‘National Space Policy,’ 4 July 1982.

[6] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 85, ‘Eliminating the Threat from Ballistic Missiles,’ 25 March 1983; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘White House Announcement on the Development of a Defensive System Against Nuclear Ballistic Missiles,’ 25 March 1983; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 119, ‘Strategic Defense Initiative,’ 6 January 1984; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 195, ‘The US Position: Nuclear and Space Talks,’ 30 October 1985.

[7] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the George H.W. Bush Administration, George H.W Bush, NSD-30, NSDP-1, ‘National Space Policy,’ 2 November 1989, p. 3; George C. Marshall Institute,  Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, Office of the Press Secretary, PDD/NSC-23, ‘Statement on Export of Satellite Imagery and Imaging Systems,’ 10 March 1994; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, William Clinton, PDD/NSTC-2, ‘Convergence of US-Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite Systems,’ 5 May 1994; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Fact Sheet: US Global Positioning System Policy,’ 29 March 1996.

[8] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the George W. Bush Administration, George W. Bush, ‘US National Space Policy,’ 31 August 2006; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Obama Administration, Barack Obama, ‘National Space Policy of the United States of America,’ 28 June 2010.

[9] George W. Bush, ‘US National Space Policy,’ 31 August 2006.

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

By Dr Peter Layton

Editorial Note: In the second part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War. The first part of this article can be found here.

In retrospect, during the Cold War, the dice were stacked against armed unmanned aircraft.  Improving aircrew survivability in a major war – the primary requirement – involved operating in a very hostile, sophisticated air environment in the presence of extensive jamming that could defeat the data links necessary to control unmanned aircraft. Furthermore, the computers, aircraft systems and onboard sensors needed to make such an aircraft work were all big, cumbersome, unreliable and costly. Even when cost was not an issue as in the case of Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System project of the late Cold War, the unmanned aircraft designs ended up being very large, technically challenging, of doubtful effectiveness and somewhat inflexible in operation.

In the 1990s the stars radically realigned to favour armed unmanned aircraft. In the early 1990s, armed violence erupted in Yugoslavia. The conflict was slow paced with a need for protracted surveillance rather than episodic reconnaissance, but none of the existing systems seemed quite right. Manned aircraft lacked persistence while satellites had predictable orbits and known overhead times, could not easily be repositioned to survey new areas and were impacted by bad weather. Meeting the new requirements driven by the wars in the Balkans was however eased somewhat by the air environment now being permissive with little threat from air defences. In the winter of 1992, the US Joint Staffs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a quick reaction program for a long-endurance unmanned aircraft. First flight came within six months of contract award, and a year later the General Atomics Predator unmanned aircraft was in operations over Bosnia.

Seemingly quick, the Predator’s rapid entry into service exploited some 15 years of DARPA experiments, trials, partial successes and utter failures. The overall airframe design was point-optimised for the particular mission with a slender fuselage with pusher configuration, long sailplane-like wings, inverted V-tails and a ventral rudder. The engine was a horizontally-opposed, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, geared piston engine with a minimal frontal area that offered high power at a moderate rpm, very low fuel consumption and very low vibration. The Vietnam-era unmanned jet aircraft saved weight by not being fitted with an undercarriage but were difficult to launch and recover. Predator’s used a tall, lightweight fixed undercarriage that gave considerable ground clearance.  This design meant that the Predator had a maximum speed of only some 120kts, but they could loiter for almost a day flying at 70kts at an altitude of 12-15,000 ft. This performance was adequate – if not sparkling – for the new requirement for long persistence albeit useless for the earlier Cold War type missions where survivability was critical.

In design terms, the airframe and engine were skillful but somewhat primitive having more in common with the 1944 TDR-1 unmanned aircraft (see Part One here) than a 1990s military aircraft. The real innovations that addressed the big technological challenge – how to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft in combat for 24 hours or more without on-board humans – lay in the electronics. Computer advances now allowed dramatic increases in computing power, speed and reliability while communication advances connected the Predator literally to the world, changing everything.

Controllability was addressed using a purpose-built flight control computer more powerful than that used in the F-16 fighters of the time. This made the Predator stable in flight in all weathers and easy to control remotely especially during the problematic take-off and landing phases. Navigation was addressed using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Earlier unmanned aircraft had significant navigation problems with Vietnam era aircraft often missing their planned target by some 10-12 kilometres. GPS was a real breakthrough that provided an off-board, ubiquitous, highly accurate navigation method. However, it was new communications technology that made armed unmanned aircraft practical.

Over its first few years of operational service, the Predator system took advantage of and was integrated into, the rapidly advancing online world. It broke away from being dependent on line of sight control with the fitment of high bandwidth satellite communication data links. This has made the armed unmanned aircraft both remarkably flexible and remarkably useful.

Remote Split Operations endowed remarkable flexibility. A small team at a forward airbase launched a Predator using a line-of-sight wireless link and then transferred control to operators located anywhere globally who used satellite communications links. These remote operators then flew the long-duration operational part of each sortie, changing crews throughout the mission as necessary. After the mission, the Predator was handed back to the small forward deployed team which landed the aircraft and turned it around for the next mission. This way of operating meant the forward team was small, requiring only very limited support and minimising the people and equipment needed to be deployed.

The second aspect – that of being remarkably useful – was made possible using modern communications technology that allowed data from the unmanned aircraft to be sent worldwide in near-real-time.

By the late 1990s, sensor technology had considerably advanced allowing relatively small high-quality daylight and night television systems to be made for an affordable cost. Moreover, these, when combined with a laser rangefinder and the onboard GPS navigation system, allowed an unmanned aircraft to now very accurately determine the location of the object being looked at. Such pictures and the position data though were of limited use if access to them had to wait for the aircraft’s return to base. Now with high-bandwidth satellite communication systems, full-motion video tagged with its accurate location could be sent to distant locations. Multiple users worldwide could access real-time imagery of events as they occurred.

The impact of this was that not just the aircrew controllers could see the video and make use of it. Now local land, sea and air commanders could have instant access to the imagery allowing more active command and control of assigned forces. High-level commanders and government ministers at home could also gain an appreciation of the tactical events unfolding. These live feeds from the world’s battlefield were compelling viewing; the term ‘Predator Porn’ was coined – you cannot take your eyes off it.

As importantly, imagery analysts and other exploitation specialists at locations worldwide could now bring their expert skills to bear to provide instantaneous advice on niche aspects to the complete command chain, including the operators controlling the Predator. The satellite communications links allowed many skilled people to be ‘onboard’ the unmanned aircraft flying in some distant theatre of operations, making its operations much more useful than a manned aircraft traditionally could be.

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A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper awaits maintenance 8 December 2016, at Creech Air Force Base. The MQ-1 Predator has provided many years of service, and the USAF is transitioning to the more capable MQ-9 exclusively and will retire the MQ-1 in 2018 to keep up with the continuously evolving battlespace environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The final technological piece in the armed unmanned aircraft jigsaw came together with the fitment of air-to-ground weapons. On operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, Predator’s provided imagery that was used to cue manned aircraft to essential targets, so they could deliver weapons on them. This worked well but sometimes the manned aircraft were not readily available and hours might elapse before they were overhead. This delay meant that hostile forces could group and attack civilians or friendly forces before defensive measures could be taken.  To overcome this, lightweight, small-warhead Hellfire missiles were fitted to the Predators that could be fired by the remote aircrew controllers against time-urgent targets. The range of weapons that could be fitted greatly expanded in later Predator developments but the fundamental constraint of needing to be lightweight to allow the unmanned aircraft to fly long-duration missions remained. Manned aircraft were still necessary for the battlefield situations and targets that required large warhead weapons.

In the early part of the 21st Century, armed unmanned aircraft finally came of age. This occurred with the coming together of several factors. Firstly, in the operational circumstances of the time, the air environment was much less hostile allowing simple aircraft to survive and potentially undertake meaningful roles. Secondly, there was now a pressing operational need for persistent surveillance; a task manned aircraft were unable to meet. Thirdly, aircraft technology has sufficiently mature to allow an unmanned aircraft to be controllable, navigate successfully, carry suitable sensors and incorporate satellite communications equipment. Lastly, in the internet age, once a video stream was received anywhere, it could be sent worldwide to allow anybody with an authorised computer terminal to access and use it.

After more than half-century of development, the aircraft was the easy bit. It was the electronics onboard and overboard, the ground controlling equipment, the complex support base and the large numbers of skilled staff involved at every level that made the whole operation work. It was not surprising then that defence forces pivoted to talk less of unmanned aircraft and towards terminology such as Unmanned Air Systems. Predators and their ilk were a system of systems, mostly ground-based but with one element that flew.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

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