Counter-factual weapons systems

26 April 2011


V-2 single stage ballistic missile

The seeds of all our advanced weapons systems today are to be found in the technology of the 1940s, rapidly brought to an early fruition by the Second World War. I have previously mentioned the litany of jet engines, ballistic missiles, computers, and atomic weapons in The Dialectic of Stalemate, all of which became operational during the Second World War.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe ("Swallow") was the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. (from Wikipedia)

If we reflect upon this circumstance we are able to imagine, as a counter-factual thought experiment, how even the atrocities and mass death of the Second World War could have been worse if that contest had continued longer and the ongoing pressure had brought other weapons systems to a similarly early fruition.

The Boeing B-29 Superfortress was a four-engine propeller-driven heavy bomber that was flown primarily by the United States in World War II and the Korean War. (from Wikipedia)

The B-29 was one of the great technological triumphs of the Second World War and represents a integrated weapons system. One of the key measures of its sophistication was the very integration of the weapons systems of the B-29, and this was achieved by way of an analog computer, the Central Fire Control Computer (CSFC). Thus the B-29 constituted a computerized weapons system, although the computers employed were rudimentary analog computers.

B-29 Central Fire Control Computer

However, at the same time that the B-29 was employing analog computers for the fire control system of its automated turrets, at Bletchley Park the first electronic digital computers were in operation, working on code breaking. The Colossus computers — there were ten of them operational by the end of the Second World War — were so secret that they remained secret after the war, so secret that those who developed these early digital computers were deprived of their proper credit in the early history books on computers. This information did not begin to be known to the public until the 1970s.

A Colossus Mark 2 computer. The operator on the left is Dorothy Duboisson. The slanted control panel on the left was used to set the pin patterns on the Lorenz. The "bedstead" paper tape transport is on the right. (from Wikipedia)

It would not have taken a war of a much longer duration to bring together these technologies, which, while rudimentary, were already sufficiently robust to be employed in functional, operating weapons systems. Something like the B-29, only more advanced and sophisticated, might have employed Colossus-like computers in its fire control systems. After all, many of the largest bombers of the Second World War mounted radar systems that employed vacuum tubes — again, rudimentary but sufficiently robust for combat — so that the early construction methods of digital computers cannot be used as a reason to dismiss this possibility.

Nuclear weapons technology was one among many new technologies employed in the Second World War.

Similarly, it would not have taken a much longer war for the Axis powers to have produced atomic weapons and to put them on V-2 missiles, and handful of which would have leveled London, after which the Germans might have turned their attention to other targets. We know that the Germans were considering the design of longer ranger missiles, and it would have simply been an extrapolation of existing technology to do so. Jet-powered bombers would also, at that time, have been an extrapolation of existing technology, as would a cruise missile made from a V-1 augmented with computerized control systems.

The of the most famous photographs of Dresden after its annihilation by firebombing. Most of Germany had already been destroyed in this way by the time the atomic bomb was available.

Since the US did in fact produce atomic weapons first, it could have decisively settled the war in Europe as it settled the war in Japan — except that most of Germany’s cities had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, and that fissile materials would have taken time to produce. In the time it would have taken to produce additional fissile materials and therefore additional atomic weapons, other developments could well have made their delivery by the conventional means available to the Allies problematic.

Not only did these counter-factual scenarios fail to occur, but some of these possibilities were nearly extirpated from history. Churchill ordered the Colossus computers to be destroyed, broken into “pieces no bigger than a man’s hand,” and the blueprints were burned. Churchill obviously believed that this was a place that would not be re-visited. In this way, Churchill revealed himself as belonging to another era, to an era of pre-industrial gentility in which scientific discoveries could be as easily suppressed as earlier eras could stop the progress of an idea by burning copies of the books that explained it.

In this, Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” It may sound like a stretch to compare these accomplishments, but I think it betrays a similar outlook about civilization. It is a conception of civilization in which an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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