The Killer Angel
Comparatively few people, if asked to list some of the most important defense contractors of World War 2 would mention the Crosley Corporation. The Crosley who? But this relatively obscure company produced the first batches of what became known as the proximity fuze without whose aid the US Navy would probably have been annihilated by the Kamikazes off Okinawa.
Vannevar Bush, head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during this war, credited it with three significant effects. It was important in defense from Japanese Kamikaze attacks in the Pacific. It was an important part of the radar-controlled anti-aircraft batteries that finally neutralized the German V-1 bomb attacks on England. Third, it was released for use in land warfare for use in the Battle of the Bulge, where it decimated German divisions caught in the open. The Germans felt safe from timed fire because the weather prevented accurate observation. Bush cites an estimated seven times increase in the effect of artillery with this innovation.
What the fuze does is simple. It detects the proximity, or nearness of a target and then detonates the main charge -- in most cases a shell. Before the proximity shell gunners had to guesstimate settings for a time fuze, a piece of clockwork or chemical train, so that shells would go off near their target. Since the five inch shell of the period had a lethal range of 70 yards, a region which a high speed shell would traverse in hundredths of a second, the guesstimate had to be correct to within this value. Not surprisingly the guesstimes were mostly wrong; and the Germans, who were the most methodical and precise of people, estimated it took over 3,300 88 mm shells to sucessfully shoot down a bomber flying straight and level over a city in Germany.
The USN did rather better. Using analog computers, which can be compared to an adjustable mechanical model which simulates a physical system, they could, by adjusting the settings so that the target aircraft's observed position coincided with the position predicted by the mechanical simulation, fire at wildly maneuvering targets like Kamikazes with much better precision than the Germans. But the fact that it took "only" a third of the number of 88s (it took 1,000 5"/38s to down a single suicider) was cold comfort. There wasn't time to fire that many shells at plunging aircraft. But the introduction of the proximity fuze meant a shell didn't have to hit directly, just pass near enough to damage an enemy plane, and that increased the lethality of gunnery once again, this time by a factor of five. It took 200 proximity fuzed 5"/38s to down a single Kamikaze.
Fire control and superior ordnance meant that USN ships effectively carried fifteen times the lethality per gun of their counterparts in Germany. The fire control and smart sensor revolution continues to this day. GPS, laser guidance, UAVs -- all the soft systems -- contribute far more to the "bang" than the bang itself. And since intelligence is to operations as fire control is to flak, the philosophically inclined will readily appreciate the importance of information systems in locating and directing a response toward the modern Kamikaze -- the radical Islamic terrorist.
And while it is tempting to attribute the superiority of the US Navy's anti-aircraft defenses (which were an order of magnitude better than anyone else's) to superior science, in reality the Navy advantages were due entirely to the superior application of science. People who have lived in the digital electronic age would be astounded to learn how in the 1930s and 40s people built near real-time computing devices with gears, cams and levers. They could stabilize an input, add them, multiply them, perform nonlinear functions and even do integration with objects that were reproducible in principle by a 19th century precision machine shop. There were no new principles involved, just new ways of use. In today's terminology, the USN's fire control advantage would be entirely due to business process innovations. (And BTW, the reader who has been following the links on this page will have possibly come to realize the solution to one of the great what-might-have-beens of World War 2. If an Iowa class met a Yamato class battleship in normal conditions the Iowa would have sent the Yamato to Davy Jones's locker in short order. Not simply because the 16"/50 had almost as good a pentration as the Yamato's 18.1" guns but because it's fire control systems were immeasurably better. - W.)
But just when you think ordnance and fire control can be developed no further, someone goes and takes it a step further. David Hambling at Wired has been following the reactive fragment revolution. It's a technology that makes the fragments of a warhead themselves smart weapons. Ordinarily fragments are just cleverly shaped hunks of metal. Reactive fragments, however, are by their very composition warheads in themselves. They can explode with controllable effects and improve the lethality of today's already deadly ammunition by 500 percent. That is about the same order of improvement as the proximity fuze had over its mechanical counterpart. What is counterintuitive is more utility can sometimes be achieved by dialling the warhead down to a fraction of its normal lethality. As I remarked in earlier posts, much of the expense and sophistication of modern weaponry comes not from making the bang bigger but more controllable and precise.
This makes it possible for reactive fragment warheads to do science fiction things. One of the ways the US military plans to use them is to create variably lethal effects. One concept calls for the ability to "set warheads to stun". Change the same setting and the same warhead can be "set to disintegrate". Somewhere out there the ghost of Gene Rodenberry is smiling.
But unfortunately technology proliferates. And in due time reactive fragmentation warheads will be part of every terrorist arsenal; and they (without a childhood of Star Trek to brainwash them) won't be interested in "setting warheads to stun". It will always be set to disintegrate. For example, one of the things the new materials can do is make EFPs much more lethal, a subject which would interest Teheran to no end. Wired says that "even Explosively Formed Penetrators, or EFPs, the 'superbombs' used to such deadly effect in Iraq and Afghanistan are candidates for the reactive materials revolution" because you can make the explosive slug do much more than just punch holes. BTW, the American Special Forces version of the EFP is lethal enough as it is:
America has its own EFP weapons, including the SLAM, or Selectable Lightweight Attack Munition, issued to Special Forces. The two-pound mine is small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, so several can be carried, and when triggered the metal slug will go through 40mm of armor at 25 feet. The mine can be used in several modes, with a built-in IR motion sensor and magnetic sensor, attached to a trip-wire, or on time delay as a demolition device.
Now the makers, ATK, are looking at enhancing SLAM by supplementing the copper liner with reactive material, (warning, large Powerpoint file) with the aim of an "increased target set and effectiveness."
We know that Iranian EFPs are being used against American vehicles in Iraq, but one wonders where on the modern battlefield the American SLAM is being used. But maybe those are questions for future historians (if civilization still exists) to answer. Back in 1945 practically nobody had heard of the proximity fuze. And still fewer knew about the Crosley Corporation. And yet even when future academics have traced out the last amazing narrative detail of today's saga to improve our destructive potential, and they wonder, even as we marvel today at the mechanical multipliers and integrators of the 1930s, the question will be why? Why do people ceaselessly bend every inch of their ingenuity toward improving their ability to destroy each other? Hamlet had an opinion.
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation
prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king
and queen moult no feather. I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so.
We have not yet created a business process patent for improvements in the human heart.
The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.