Today, with modern air power operating inside the atmosphere, we can impose kinetic effects at the speed of sound. With the maturing of hypersonic weapons, we will be able to do that at multiples of the speed of sound.

Flight at five times the speed of sound and above promises to revolutionize military affairs in the same fashion that the combination of stealth and precision did a generation ago. Hypersonic air weapons offer advantage in four broad areas. They counter the tyranny of distance and increasingly sophisticated defences; they compress the shooter-to-target window, and open new engagement opportunities; they rise to the challenge of addressing numerous types of targets; and they enhance future joint and combined operations. Within each of these themes are other advantages which, taken together, redefine air power projection in the face of an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.

The Physical Component is the one with which airmen and women tend to be instinctively the most comfortable. It is about the platforms, capabilities, weapons and `stuff’ that, to many, define what the RAF `is’. This applies just as much to the Space domain as it does to the Air domain, and the best way of achieving this may be to address both domains as seamless entities. In years gone by, the reality of doing just that was limited by technology separation: what worked in space did not work in the air and vice-versa. But modern technology – especially with hypersonic engines, pseudo-satellites, high-resolution optics and radar technologies – makes it conceivable that, with appropriate investment choices, future military capabilities could have the potential to be employed in both domains, perhaps even within the same mission. These technological enhancements are also likely to deliver the improvements in speed, reach, persistence, coverage, survivability, and precision necessary to provide an increased range of options for military commanders and political masters alike. But to embrace this new technology will undoubtedly require us to change our preconceived ideas of air power as being delivered predominantly from manned, fixed-wing, air-breathing platforms which operate at relatively low altitude. The blurring of the Air and Space domains allows us to translate our experiences of inner atmosphere aviation into even higher vertical limits and far greater ranges of effect. In the remaining paragraphs of this section, I will explore what I believe to be the four greatest technological developments that will allow us to transform air and space power over the next 30 years.

Hypersonic Engines.

At a glance, hypersonic engines may appear to be a `silver bullet’ which will unleash air and space power in the twenty-first century. This field of technology shows great promise, and much is possible within the next couple of decades providing there is investment in the emergent technology. So, what can hypersonics offer the Air environment? A good place to start would be to look at what Reaction Engines Limited (REL) has to offer with their experimental Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE. 9 Initial work looks incredibly exciting and could give rise to a working platform by 2030 that is capable of Mach 5+ and offers high cadence space access as well as long range inner-atmosphere flight. Such technology also appears promising because it purportedly offers `speed as the new stealth’ and potentially increases the survivability against an array of current and anticipated anti-access systems. Furthermore, while the technology claims to enable space access it can also, in theory at least, provide a vehicle from which a space payload could be launched. But hypersonic technology is not limited to just platforms. It can be applied effectively to weapons: air and groundlaunched, offensive and defensive. Whatever the manner of its employment, hypersonic technology has the potential to provide significant benefit to all operating domains – a true force multiplier. Thus, even at this relatively early stage in its programme, hypersonic technology represents a very strong candidate to address the physical aspects of the blurred Air and Space domains. While there are numerous hypersonic technologies under development, SABRE is novel, it is British, and therefore offers a sovereign capability with all the accordant benefits for our national prosperity agenda.

Hypersonic Vehicles Aerial vehicles that can travel in excess of five times the speed of sound, or Mach-5, are labelled hypersonic. Hypersonic weapons can be broadly divided into two categories, that is, Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM).

DARPA seeks to “develop and demonstrate a technology that is critical for enabling an advanced interceptor capable of engaging maneuvering hypersonic threats in the upper atmosphere.” And it wants this technology in a hurry: Glide Breaker should be tested in 2020.

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles

The aerodynamic HGV is a boost-glide weapon-it is first `boosted’ up into near space atop a conventional rocket and then ejected at an appropriate altitude and speed. The height at which it is released depends on the intended trajectory to the target. Thereafter, the HGV starts to fall back to Earth, gaining more speed and gliding along the upper atmosphere, before diving on the target.

Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

An HCM on the other hand, is typically propelled to high speeds (around Mach 4 to 5) initially using a small rocket; thereafter, an air-breathing supersonic combustion ram jet or a `scramjet’ accelerates it further and maintains its hypersonic speed. HCMs are hypersonic versions of existing cruise missiles but would cruise at altitudes of 20-30 km in order to ensure adequate pressure for its scramjet. Standard cruise missiles are difficult to intercept-and the speed of the HCM and the altitude at which it travels complicates this task of interception manifold. The United States’ underdevelopment `WaveRider’ is a typical HCM. Russia’s HCM, the aircraft-launched Kh-47M2 `Kinzhal’, (Dagger), has a reported top speed of Mach-10 and a range of about 2000 km. India’s underdevelopment `Hyper Sonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle’ (HSTDV) too, capable of speeds around Mach-7, falls in the category of an HCM.

1. Aerial vehicles that can travel in excess of Mach-5 are labelled as hypersonic.

2. Three nations (Russia, China, USA) have been testing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), although a number of other countries are also pursuing hypersonic programmes.

3. An HGV, armed with a nuclear or a conventional warhead, or merely relying on its kinetic energy, has the potential to allow a military to rapidly and pre-emptively strike distant targets anywhere on the globe within hours or less.

4. On account of their quick-launch capability, high speed, lower altitude and higher manoeuvrability vis-a-vis Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles , HGVs are difficult to detect and intercept with existing air and missile defence systems.

5. This capability could tempt a nation to consider using HGVs for a disarming and first-strike on an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.

6. While numerous challenges remain, operational deployment of HGVs would thus compel target nations to set their nuclear forces on a hair-trigger readiness and “launch on warning” alerts, leading also to the devolution of command over nuclear weapons.

7. Overall, this would aggravate strategic instability, and also generate unacceptable levels of instability in crisis management at many levels.


Transfer of military technologies: Imitation

Messerschmitt Me262A-1A Schwalbe

Conquest is not the only route through which war disseminates technology. War and preparation for war also encourage societies to imitate one another’s promising military technologies. Often enough, imitation of a military innovation requires assimilation of a whole new set of technologies with both civilian and military applications. In this way, copying swords may require learning to build plowshares. There are several ways in which military technologies developed by one society can spread to others. These include secondary use, simple observation, voluntary technology transfers, reverse engineering, and espionage.

Of course, several of these avenues of diffusion do not require warfare. Commercial competitors often imitate one another’s products and even engage in industrial espionage to ferret out one another’s secrets. In many cases, however, there is resistance on the part of established interests, both military and civilian, to the introduction of new ideas and new technologies that threaten the existing order and their power and prominence in it. Established nineteenth-century physicians disputed the germ theory of disease as early twentieth-century physicists resisted the idea of quantum theory. Peacetime navies commanded by battleship admirals denied the value of aircraft carriers that, among other things, would enhance the power of their rivals within the navy. American auto executives in the 1960s were confident that the huge, gas-guzzling vehicles upon which their careers and profits had been built would always rule the road and dismissed Japanese auto engineering innovations. The list of examples is endless.

War, however, puts enormous pressure on societies to identify and assimilate useful innovations. Though it offers no guarantee that innovation will prevail, in war, the penalty for failing to acquire and learn to use important new technologies or modes of organization can be quite severe. Hence, in wartime, the objections of established interests to innovation are more likely to be brushed aside as detrimental to a society’s chances of survival. War-driven acceptance of innovation takes many forms. During World War II, for example, Joseph Stalin decided it was better to follow the example of other armies and reduced the power of the Red Army’s political officers while increasing the authority of the army’s professional soldiers to make tactical decisions. Apparently Comrade Stalin disagreed with the slogan of America’s post-war peace movement and decided it was not better to be “red than dead.”

The most obvious and, perhaps, most common vehicle of military technological diffusion is what might be termed secondary use. This term simply refers to one state or society acquiring and using weapons built by another. The method of acquisition might be theft, purchase, or even battlefield scavenging. For instance, as I noted previously, long before they were fully conquered, some indigenous North American tribes acquired and became quite proficient in the use of firearms. Sometimes they purchased these weapons from traders; sometimes they were issued weapons in exchange for service in the US military; in some instances, they acquired them through raids and theft. Whatever the precise mode of acquisition, this form of secondary use represented a very limited transfer of technology. Indigenous tribesmen learned how to fire weapons but lacked the technological base from which to actually build firearms and produce ammunition for them. Generally speaking, the wider the technological gulf between the recipient and source of military technology transfers, the more likely that the transfer will be limited to secondary use.

This principle usually holds true in the case of a major source of secondary use today, namely, arms sales. The United States sells tens of billions of dollars of arms every year, mainly to nations in the Middle East and Asia. Most of America’s Middle Eastern customers, Saudi Arabia in particular, have little in the way of manufacturing capability, much less a sophisticated arms industry. These recipients of American arms are dependent upon the United States for maintenance, spare parts, and ammunition, hence the transfer of technology is very minor. America’s Asian customers, on the other hand, most notably Japan and Taiwan, have very large and sophisticated manufacturing bases and could probable copy the American weapons they purchase. These nations are, however, constrained from so doing by agreements with the United States, as well as a calculation that it would be too expensive and politically risky to build the most sophisticated weapons in their own factories. While the Japanese and Taiwanese undoubtedly examine and are capable of reverse-engineering the aircraft and antimissile systems they purchase, the actual technology transfer is limited.

Whenever weapons are sold to a technologically sophisticated customer, however, there is a risk that the weapons transfer will not be limited to secondary use but will rather be reverse-engineered so that their secondary users learn the principles required to build them. Israel, for example, had sufficient technological capability to reverse-engineer the weapons it purchased from the United States and other suppliers and to use them as the foundations of its own arms industry. According to press reports, Israel routinely makes use of the underlying technologies of weapons it purchases from the United States. Of course, to build a modern arms industry, the Israelis also had to develop the ability to manufacture sophisticated computer and electronic components, and today Israel boasts an enormous number of technologically advanced start-up firms that serve both the military and civilian markets. In this way, the transfer of military and civilian technology went far beyond the narrow secondary use that might have been intended by Israel’s arms suppliers.

In some instances, nations have been able to purchase weapons, components, and plans on the international arms market from third-party suppliers. Such purchases often circumvent any restrictions that might have been place to prevent secondary users to build their own weapons. Indeed, in several cases, nations seeking to acquire modern arms technology have purchased American or other Western firms in possession of such know-how. The Chinese have sought to buy American technology firms. The Iranians, it has recently emerged, were able to acquire a factory in Germany that had the ability to manufacture components that might have been useful in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Of course, one might say that there is nothing new here. Nineteenth-century British and German arms manufacturers sold their wares and their nations’ technologies to the United States and any other nation that could pay for them.

Reverse-engineering has been an important element in the dissemination of military technologies. Unlike simple secondary use, reverse-engineering requires a level of technology similar to that of the society that produced the weapon or weapons system in the first place. The new user must be able to grasp the engineering principles represented by the weapon and possess an industrial base capable of producing copies of the weapon. Thus, the extent to which basic technology is actually transferred may be militarily important but limited in scope. Often-cited examples of reverse-engineered weapons include the Soviet Tu-4 bomber, which was directly copied from the American B-29 bomber. The Soviets had a chance to closely examine the B-29 during World War II when several American planes on missions over Japan developed problems and landed on Soviet territory. Similarly, the Soviet K-13/R-3S air-to-air missile was a reverse-engineered version of the American AIM-9 Sidewinder. The Soviets were able to examine the American missile after one fired by a Taiwanese fighter hit a Chinese MIG without exploding. Today, Iran claims to have reverse-engineered the American Predator drone and to have produced its own version of the American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has proven to be a useful weapon in America’s arsenal.

Again, while reverse-engineering can be militarily useful, the actual extent to which technology can be transferred in this way is limited. Only those who already possess a level of technology sufficient to understand the principles embodied by the weapon and to build factories capable of making their own versions can benefit from reverse-engineering. A Predator drone somehow captured by a tribal group in the jungles of South America would not offer much in the way of benefits to them.

Another very common vehicle for the diffusion of military technologies is simple observation. One nation, observing a potentially useful weapon or weapons system fielded by others, may endeavor to build its own version of the weapon. Like reverse-engineering, imitation—though an important form of flattery—is not a particularly powerful instrument of technology diffusion. Weapons can only be copied by societies whose own level of technology is comparable to that of the society that produced the weapon. Thus, copying is more likely to diffuse weapons than engineering skill or scientific understanding. Take the case of naval power in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe.

Political scientist Michael Horowitz writes that during the first half of the nineteenth century, Great Britain was the world’s dominant naval power—a dominance based upon heavily armed, wooded-hulled sailing ships. However, the British observed the launch of a new French ironclad, steam-powered vessel, La Gloire, whose armor was capable of withstanding British gunfire. When the British also analyzed reports of the clash between the Monitor and Merrimack in America’s Civil War, they quickly shifted their production of warships first to iron and then to steel. The use of these materials and steam rather than wind power allowed the construction of warships much larger than any that had been built before and permitted their builders to mount huge guns with rotating turrets on the vessels’ decks. Indeed, the new guns, with their own armored turrets, were too heavy to be mounted at a ship’s sides and had to be installed midship, and ships redesigned to remove obstacles to the rotation of their turrets. The construction and deployment of these ships required changes in naval organization and methods of training, the development of new technologies in the production of steel, as well as the development of turbine engines capable of powering the enormous battleships and battlecruisers introduced by the Royal Navy in the early years of the twentieth century.

The 1906 launch of the HMS Dreadnaught, followed by a series of other powerful warships, as well as the reorganization of the Royal Navy’s tactics emphasizing battle fleets of auxiliary vessels organized around capital ships, was closely observed by the world’s other maritime powers—including in particular Germany and Japan. Many maritime powers halted their naval construction programs while they considered how to best respond to the British innovations. Several of these states possessed adequate levels of technology, as well as the organizational and financial capabilities, to imitate the British and proceeded to do so. Germany, for example, concluded that the new British warships represented a significant change in naval warfare that rendered existing vessels and fleets obsolete. Germany possessed a large and modern steel industry as well as the industrial infrastructure to build powerful warships on the British model. German military planners, moreover, had little difficulty understanding the organizational and tactical changes introduced by the British and adapted them for their own use.

In a similar vein, Japan was eager to imitate the Royal Navy’s new warships and tactics. In its efforts to build a modern navy following Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit, Japan had adopted the British Navy as a model for its own ships and tactics. For a half century, Japan had worked to build an industrial base that would allow it to compete with the West. By the turn of the century, Japan possessed an adequate level of technology to copy the new British warships. What the Japanese were not able to do for themselves, the British were more than happy to do for them. Britain viewed Japan as a counterweight to its rival Russia and encouraged Japanese naval modernization, selling the Japanese ships, large-caliber naval guns, and technologies and helping Japan to organize its own naval academy modeled on the British naval academy at Dartmouth. The Japanese were, as a result, able to quickly copy the new British warships and assimilate the British naval tactics designed to make best use of the ships. Ironically, of course, within a few years the Japanese used their new navy to attempt to drive the British from Southeast Asia.

Dissemination by observation was also important in the case of the tank. Tanks were introduced by Great Britain toward the end of World War I. The British believed that tracked, armored vehicles had the potential to penetrate heavily defended German trenches and pave the way for successful infantry assaults. Though early British tanks were slow and cumbersome and prone to mechanical breakdowns, it was evident to all sides that the tank could become a formidable weapon. The Germans decided to copy the British tanks but did so in a desultory manner until the British offensive of 1918, in which large numbers of improved British tanks, attacking in waves, were able to achieve decisive breakthroughs and penetrated deep behind the German lines. Watching their defense lines crushed by massed British armor convinced the Germans that the tank was, indeed, a powerful weapon. This realization came too late to affect the outcome of the war, since Germany soon capitulated, but it was to have a profound impact on German planning for the next war.

After the Versailles Treaty was signed, the army of the new German republic was severely limited in size and weaponry and could build no tanks. The Germans circumvented this restriction by entering into an agreement with the Soviet Union. The Soviet military, too, had been impressed with reports of the power of British armor and, indeed, during the Russian Civil War, had faced a small number of tanks fielded by the White Russian Army. After the Communist victory, Soviet officers had studied theories of armored warfare and very much wished to copy British tanks, but Soviet factories lacked the technological capability to build modern tanks. The Germans proposed a deal. The two nations would collaborate on tank design, with the Germans providing technical assistance for tanks that would be built in the USSR. Officers from both nations would train in a tank school established in the Soviet city of Kazan.

From this beginning, the German and Soviet armies both developed powerful tanks and doctrines of armored warfare emphasizing what the Germans would call blitzkrieg, or lightning war, and the Russians would call “deep battle.” In both cases, the emphasis was on the use of massed tank formations to break through, envelop, and cut off enemy forces with infantry following to exploit the armored advances. Initially, the Germans and Soviets both copied British tank designs. Gradually, however, they introduced improvements, but, of course, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, this episode of German–Soviet cooperation came to an end. Within a few years, tank officers who had trained together at Kazan faced one another in battle. Interestingly, the Germans had provided the technical expertise in the 1920s but by the 1940s the Soviets had learned to build better tanks, including the T-34, generally thought to have been the best tank of the war. Indeed, the Germans found themselves copying the armor from the T-34 for their own tanks.

Again, successful imitation requires a level of technology similar to that possessed by the nation whose weapons are being imitated and is, as a result, not the most robust mechanism of technology transfer. British tanks were easily copied by the Germans and Russians. Germany and Japan, along with the United States and, to a lesser extent, France, Italy, and Russia, were able to copy British naval innovations. These nations already possessed the level of technology needed to build British-style battleships and battle cruisers and, once shown an example, imitated it with relative ease. Those who did not possess the technological ability already could not copy the ships.

This limitation is not true in the case of a fourth form of imitation—voluntary technology transfer. Technology transfer differs from, say, arms sales, insofar as the donor or seller provides not only finished weapons but also donates or sells the technology needed to manufacture and maintain the weapons. This sort of sale or donation involves a more substantial transfer of technology than the simple sale or donation of the weapons themselves. Understanding the technology may allow the recipient to move forward scientifically or technologically and move on to produce other civilian and military products that might previously have been beyond their reach. Such transfers take place for a number of reasons and, despite frequent efforts on the part of technology-rich nations to prevent their technological assets from being acquired by others, such flows are difficult to control. In some instances, nations are willing to share military technology with their allies in order to promote its use against their enemies. As noted above, in the early twentieth century, Great Britain shared naval technology, including plans for the construction of modern warships, with Japan as part of its effort to blunt Russian power. This transfer of technologies is a classical case of a tactic that seemed to be a good idea at the time, but was discovered out later to have been rather problematic.

In other cases, a transfer of technology involves civilian technologies that turn out to have military uses. Take, for example, the enormous transfer of American manufacturing technology to the Soviet Union that took place before and during World War II. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet leadership was quite conscious of the fact that the USSR’s level of industrial development was far behind that of Western Europe and the United States. Always fearing attack from the capitalist West, the USSR was especially anxious to develop its armaments industries. Accordingly, the USSR contracted with American industrial firms to build plants such as the Kama River truck factory, in which Soviet engineers learned how to build modern trucks—a skill set that transferred quite easily to the manufacture of military vehicles.

Today, the United States seeks to monitor and prevent the transfer of technologies with military potential. In practice, such transfers take place every week. American corporations often sell technological know-how to foreign purchasers. These corporations usually claim to have been unaware that the technology had military applications. In 2011, for example, the United Technologies Corporation, a major American defense contractor, paid a $75 million fine for selling engine-control software to China that the Chinese used to build that nation’s first military attack helicopter. The firm’s Pratt and Whitney subsidiary had initially claimed to be unaware that the software had potential military uses, but then acknowledged that some of its executives had made false statements to the government when denying the allegation.

In some instances, foreign governments will demand a transfer of technology as a condition for purchasing American products. In a recent case, Brazil threatened to purchase military aircraft elsewhere if the United States continued to impose restrictions on technology transfers. Brazil wanted to sell twenty-four aircraft containing US-built components to Venezuela. The components had been sold to Brazil with the stipulation that they could not be transferred to a third nation. Brazil declared that if the United States refused to lift this restriction, it would award a fighter plane contract worth as much as $7 billion to a French or Swedish company rather than an American firm.

A recent case of voluntary technology transfer poses grave dangers. Nuclear technology developed in Pakistan was sold to both North Korea and Iran. The technology was sold by prominent Pakistani engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan, possibly with the connivance of some Pakistani officials. North Korea has tested an atomic bomb it was able to develop with the help of Khan’s information, and Iran is making every effort to build its own nuclear weapon. Iran asserts that it seeks nuclear technology for peaceful uses, while North Korea enjoys threatening the United States with a nuclear attack. In all likelihood, both states are lying.

The Khan case also illustrates another common factor in voluntary technology transfer—the internationalization of scientific training. Every year, American and European universities train thousands of scientists and engineers in the most advanced technologies. Some of these individuals remain in the countries where they received their training, but the majority return home with the skills they have acquired. Abdul Khan, for example, was trained in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In the Netherlands, Khan had access to documents concerning gas centrifuge technology, an important element in the fabrication of nuclear bombs. Of course, America’s own atomic bomb was originally devised by scientists trained in Germany. No doubt, engineers trained in the Roman army later built ballistae for the Goths.

Finally, there is the matter of espionage. Since ancient times, nations have relied upon spies to inform them of one another’s plans and capabilities. One important form of espionage is collection of information on the use and manufacture of weapons. In some instances, espionage has provided information that allowed one or another nation to copy complex weapons systems that it might not easily have been able to develop on its own. In the 1940s, for example, Soviet spy rings penetrated American security and copied the plans and designs for American nuclear weapons. This intelligence coup allowed the Soviet Union to build an atomic bomb years earlier than its scientists and engineers might have been able to construct such a weapon on their own.

In recent years, China has been quite active in the realm of technological espionage. Chinese agents allegedly were able to acquire microwave submarine detection technology, space-based intercept systems, electromagnetic artillery systems, submarine torpedoes, aircraft carrier electronic systems, and various other military technologies. Recently, a Chinese citizen, Sixing Liu, was sentenced to seventy months in federal prison for attempting to transfer information about the “disk resonator gyroscope,” a device that allows drones, missiles, and rockets to hit targets without satellite guidance, to the Chinese military. Liu was employed by US defense contractor L-3 Communications, where he had access to the gyroscope. Similarly, Chi Mak, another L-3 employee, was convicted of passing information on the navy’s quiet drive submarine propulsion technology to China, while another Chinese agent was convicted of acquiring American microwave submarine detection technology for China.

Of course, China is not the only nation that uses covert means to acquire American military technology. In recent years, Russian agents have been accused of attempting to export US military equipment and technology, and a number of Iranian agents have been apprehended seeking to obtain American technology and hardware for Iran’s military and nuclear programs.

Mid twentieth-century Soviet atom spies generally had to physically obtain or photograph documents and components. While this traditional form of espionage continues to be important, today’s spying also includes cyberattacks on computer systems that store useful military and technological information. In recent years, computer attacks, mainly originating in China, have targeted a number of American defense firms, including Northrop Grumman, whose computer systems contain valuable information on American military systems. What, if any, technology was transferred through these attacks has not been made public.


War and preparation for war provide nations with a powerful incentive to identify and copy one another’s useful military technologies. Whatever form such imitation takes, with the exception of simple secondary use, imitation of a foreign military innovation may allow—or indeed, require—learning and assimilating whole new sets of technologies with both military and civilian applications. As I observed earlier, copying swords may teach societies how to build plowshares.

Take the case of jet propulsion. Work on jet engines had been undertaken in Britain, France, and Germany during the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, German industrialist Ernst Heinkel saw the possibility of attaching a jet engine to an airplane. Along with an engine designed Hans von Ohain, Heinkel built the He 178, the world’s first jet plane. With subsequent technical improvements, the Germans were able to build the world’s first jet fighter, the Me 262, which entered combat in 1944. The Messerschmitt jet could attain a top speed of about 550 miles per hour, which was more than 150 miles per hour faster than conventional Allied fighter aircraft. The Me 262 was quite successful in downing Allied bombers, particularly after the introduction of a two-seat version with radar gave it an enhanced ability to fly and fight at night.

The Me 262 was introduced too late in the war to have any appreciable effect. Other air forces encountering the German jet fighter, though, recognized its clear superiority to piston engine aircraft, as well as to the British Gloster Meteor, a somewhat more primitive jet fighter developed by the British. Accordingly, Allied forces made every effort to capture an Me 262 for study, hoping to copy its design and technology. The US Army Air Force had created an intelligence effort dubbed “Operation Lusty,” tasked with acquiring German aircraft and weapons technologies. No Me 262, though, was captured until the end of the war, when both the Americans and Soviets were able to seize a number of the jets in fairly good condition. The United States shipped nine of the Me 262s, along with other German equipment, to an airfield in Newark, New Jersey for study. There the German planes were reverse-engineered and immediately became the basis for America’s jet fighter and jet bomber programs.

Within a few years, of course, jet engines were being used to power commercial airliners. With improvements in their power, reliability, and fuel efficiency, they soon replaced piston engines on most large civilian aircraft. The jet engine has dramatically shortened flight times and reduced the costs associated with travel and commerce. Copying the sword produced a very important plowshare. Of course, jet technology had been under development before the war and had not been exclusively intended for military purposes. This point, however, raises the larger issue of how technology is transferred between civilian and military uses, a question to which we shall now turn.

Von Braun to the USA

Countless immigrants have come to America expecting to find the streets paved with gold, and the “German scientists” were no different. Instead of ensconcing them at a New World Peenemünde, however, the U.S. Army dropped them off in a crude cowpoke wasteland where the most notable recent events were the explosion of atomic bombs and the invention of the margarita cocktail. They were not so much put to work there as stashed where no other country could get at them— particularly Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, which had their own shopping lists for German expertise. One of their disarmed Wunderwaffen was put on display along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, under a billboard that read “This is a V-2 rocket seized by U.S. Army Ordnance,” but its inventors were hidden far from civilization in a guarded camp. The primary rationale for bringing them over in the first place had disappeared when Japan surrendered, but the reasons were multiplying all the time.

Wernher von Braun’s colleagues began to arrive from Germany at the end of 1945. They traveled across the Atlantic in Spartan troopships, not one of Donald Douglas’s transoceanic DC-4 “Super Mainliner” airplanes as had their boss (albeit in a military transport configuration). Their first job was to start what they had recently been forced to stop—constructing and launching V-2s, now using the boxcar-loads of jumbled parts for some 100 missiles that had been laid out in the Tularosa Basin’s caustic desert environment. Basically, they were to nurse the American military and civilian participants in Project Hermes along the learning curve that had consumed their attention since 1942. “That job took eight months,” von Braun later recalled. “We seemed to be expected to do it in two weeks.” Only about half of the roughly 6000 V-2s produced in Germany were ever launched during the war, so the experience at White Sands in 1946 was somewhat frustrating for the military, industrial, and academic boffins who converged there to try out the famous rocket. The V-2 trove was rapidly turning into scrap metal. Eighty miles from El Paso, moreover, the living conditions were rather less civilized than at the former Nazi showcase on the Baltic seashore.

The first shot on April 16 flew out of control, shed a tail fin, and crashed at close range. The second and third reached higher altitudes, but smashed to smithereens in deep craters on impact (as designed), pulverizing the technical payloads placed aboard by eager scientists like James Van Allen from the University of Iowa and teams from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The V-2 was a battlefield munition with lots of problems, they soon appreciated, not a refined scientific instrument. By the end of 1946, the launch failure rate was more than 33 percent. “Frankly, we were disappointed with what we found in this country during our first year or so,” von Braun later said. Still, it was not such bad duty at a time when German cities lay in ruins, many of his countrymen were destitute and starving, millions were nothing but ash, and former leaders awaited execution for war crimes. And it got steadily better.

Not all American scientists were keen to use the V-2 booty and the onetime enemies who came with it. In January 1947, for example, prominent faculty members at Cornell—such as the renowned German émigré Hans Bethe, who had directed the Manhattan Project’s theoretical division, and illustrious aerodynamicist William R. Sears—spearheaded a protest against the War Department’s importation of German scientists and engineers. “The fact that these men were directly or indirectly linked with a regime whose infamous record included, among other things, the most brutal persecution of free science must fill every citizen, and in particular every scientist, with deep apprehension,” stated a resolution sent to the Federation of American Scientists, advising that the Germans be sent back to where they came from when their work was finished. A month earlier, following War Department-sanctioned publicity about Operation Paperclip, Overcast’s successor, forty luminaries—including Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Norman Vincent Peale, and Rabbi Stephen Wise—had sent a telegram to President Truman, protesting that the Germans’ “former eminence as Nazi Party members and supporters raises the issue of their fitness to become American citizens or hold key positions in American industrial, scientific, and educational institutions.” This was exactly the kind of public reaction the military had sought to head off with strict secrecy. In the summer of 1947, Rep. John D. Dingell, Democrat from Detroit, gave the protest a populist voice on the floor of the House of Representatives, saying, “I have never thought that we were so poor mentally in this country that we have to go and import those Nazi killers to help us prepare for the defense of our country.” Perhaps to some small extent, certain elements of the U.S. military agreed with this line of thought, noting in a September 18, 1947, security report that Wernher von Braun “is regarded as a potential security threat,” though “not a war criminal” based on available records.

But the protests were evanescent, indecisive, handicapped by the secrecy of government policies, and swamped by larger issues. In addition to the first rumblings of cold war rivalry with the Soviet Union, there were business imperatives in Washington, as always. Leaders of American industry and their trade associations, many of whom had served in intelligence units that had cherry-picked all over Germany for superior technology and expertise, successfully lobbied President Truman for a commercial exploitation program, which ran until it was shut down in 1947 for the sake of German economic recovery. Military budgets naturally plummeted in the immediate postwar years, leaving Fort Bliss as bleak as ever, and the decimated aviation industry jumped at the chance to capitalize on German technology. “Very early on we became involved with von Braun and his associates when they were stationed at Fort Bliss (surely a euphemism),” remembered). Leland Atwood, president of North American Aviation, whose nascent Rocketdyne division in Los Angeles would become a premier producer of large rocket engines. “Our rocket work was, in large measure, built on the Peenemünde V-2 model to start with.”

Early in 1946, Wernher learned that his parents were alive, albeit completely dispossessed, in Silesian territory now part of Poland, thus reenacting the centuries-old ebb and flow of Junker fortunes. The family’s experience with gaining and losing estates was truly prodigious. Wernher was allowed to return to Germany under round-the-clock military guard in order to marry his eighteen-year-old first cousin, Maria von Quistorp, in March 1947. On the same trip, he collected the baron and baroness, who immigrated along with his bride to El Paso that month under the dependent provisions of Operation Paperclip.

Gradually, von Braun’s army handlers loosened their grip. Top officials in Washington from the Oval Office down fell into line with the notion of Germans as “intellectual reparations,” and life moved on with amnesiac velocity. In December 1947, the Dora war crimes trial at Dachau ended and its proceedings were classified, the army having helped von Braun to avoid in-person testimony. The Peenemünders were wise enough to shut their mouths and self-censor their own war stories, while their military milieu took care of placing their files under lock and key. The perceived value of their knowledge continued to trump any other considerations. The British released Walter Dornberger, who came to the United States under the U.S. Air Force’s newly independent auspices (and by 1950 was an executive at Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, New York). As early as July 1947, Popular Science magazine boasted that the U.S. Navy’s homegrown Viking missile would double the V-2’s altitude record and weigh much less than “one of those Nazi dinosaurs.” Just four years after the last V-2 fell on London, the British Interplanetary Society named von Braun an Honorary Fellow in 1949. Technological progress itself was making the “Nazi scientists” seem both less magical and less dangerous. To the lifelong benefit of most of them, it was also making what happened during the war more unbelievable.

On September 23, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb. On October 1, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China. In November 1949, von Braun’s extralegal immigration status was normalized with a proper visa by riding a trolley back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border at Juarez. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops attacked across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. For the last few years, von Braun had so much time on his hands that he wrote a science-fiction novel of nearly 500 manuscript pages, but the world suddenly changed very much in favor of a longtime anti-Communist rocket builder. The novel, titled “Mars Project”—in which seventy passengers go to Mars in ten spaceships after the West defeats the East with atomic bombs dropped from an orbiting space station—was an amateurish brick of 1920s space-travel fantasies and 1930s Nazi propaganda about the Bolshevik menace. It is safe to say that the many New York editors who turned it down could not appreciate how well it expressed a dream of what an unspoiled Peenemünde might have accomplished had Hitler fought the ultimate war of annihilation against the Asian hordes. Von Braun would eventually sell the rights to a German publisher, which had it rewritten by a Luftwaffe veteran and illustrated with Frau im Mond-style pictures.

In the spring of 1950, the Germans left Fort Bliss behind and transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, a former chemical munitions plant that Senator John Sparkman was godfathering out of its postwar doldrums. Von Braun moved with his wife and toddler daughter, Iris. Another daughter, Magrit, arrived in spring 1952 (a son, Peter, came in 1960). In addition to becoming a family man, he had found God. He told The New Yorker that “as long as national sovereignties exist, our only hope is to raise everybody’s standards of ethics.” “I go to church regularly now,” he added. “Did you at Peenemünde?” the reporter asked. “I went occasionally,” he replied. “But it’s really too late to go to church after a war starts. One becomes very busy.”

In 1952, he began an enormously successful sideline as a popularizer with a series of lavishly illustrated articles—pre-screened by the Defense Department, like all of his outside writing—in Collier’s magazine that let loose the same flights of imagination he had released at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, now amplified by the power of American advertising. The vivid full-color pictures of manned spacecraft, lunar and planetary exploration, and giant wheel-shaped orbital stations, with breathless commentary, struck a nerve of pleasure in the American public similar to what a later generation would experience at Star Wars movies, propelling von Braun into the heavens of mass media promotion. The Collier’s phenomenon led to similarly cathartic appearances in 1955 and 1957 on Walt Disney’s popular television shows that promoted “Tomorrowland” at the Disneyland theme park. On November 30, 1956, he appeared on comedian Steve Allen’s popular television show. Fan mail inundated his office, much of it answered in colloquial English by a public affairs man, though von Braun was a sponge for American slang. On March 13, 1958, he and Maria dined with Washington socialite Perle Merta, the famous “hostess with the mostess.” Had nothing else ever happened to von Braun in America, the Collier’s and Disney exposure would have cemented him in the minds of baby boomers in the way that Luke Skywalker took hold of mass consciousness a generation later. The illustrations and animated images were pseudoscientific, but they helped to sell an adventure to a gullible or skeptical audience. Von Braun had done it all before, of course.

By 1953, Redstone Arsenal was well on its way to being the American incarnation of Peenemünde, with von Braun installed as civilian director at the Army’s Guided Missile Development Division of the Ordnance Missile Laboratories, under the command of a Brigadier General, Holger Toftoy—essentially the same organizational scheme and vocabulary that the Wehrmacht had used. Huntsville would soon be called “the German part of the state” by native Alabamans, as the Peenemünders transplanted their cultural proclivities for music and literature into the provincial Southern town. They did not perturb the racially segregated society that the state epitomized and were as insulated from any center of liberal thought as they had been in El Paso. On April 14, 1955, von Braun became a U.S. citizen.

As at Peenemünde, the men developed weapons, not spaceships. Their first product was a liquid-fueled rocket dubbed the Redstone, essentially an updated A-4 with a nuclear warhead. Redstone finally manifested the massive destructive potential of guided missiles that the conventionally armed V-2 had only implied. It was followed by the more powerful Jupiter—known as an IRBM, or intermediate range ballistic missile, as compared to the ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles, being developed elsewhere—which devolved into a byzantine turf battle between the army and air force over which service would have the biggest, longest rocket and thus dominate the new field’s gigantic budgets. During this growing bureaucratic turmoil, which must have felt more than vaguely familiar to the Peenemünders, both the United States and the Soviet Union announced that they would try to launch a satellite around the earth as part of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year research program. The army was soon ready with von Braun’s Jupiter-C—a modified Redstone booster with two smaller stages on top—but the navy’s far less mature follow-on to Viking, called Vanguard, got the nod from Washington instead, much to his disappointment. As a result, the nation received its biggest political shock since learning about the Russian A-bomb when a satellite called Sputnik went into orbit on October 4, 1957. When Vanguard crumpled back onto its launchpad in a fireball after rising only a few feet off the sand at Cape Canaveral on December 6, a nationwide television audience carried away an indelible image of embarrassing inferiority.

To the rescue came Wernher von Braun’s Jupiter-C on January 31, 1958, when Explorer I joined Sputnik in orbit. The I-told-you-so sweetness of his triumph appealed to the spirit of Everyman, vaulting him from mere TV-star to national hero. Although the army still kept him on a leash, warning him in June 1958 not to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science because it was on the so-called pink list of Communist-influenced organizations, his persona now had a life of its own. Some matters remained sensitive, however. In December, an assistant answered a query from a researcher at the University of Texas about whether von Braun had ever been a member of the Nazi Party with a curt denial: “In answer to your question, Dr. von Braun was not a Nazi.”

The satellite contest convinced Ike that the nation should have a civilian space agency, which became von Braun’s first nonmilitary employer. Though the Soviets scored another goal when they launched the first man into space on April 12, 1961, it was von Braun’s reliable Redstone that answered for the home team on May 5. The young new President Kennedy then decided to go for broke. From these Olympian heights, von Braun would not descend until after the moon was covered with boot prints. The past was erased. Nothing else mattered. He was the prophet of the Space Age.

SCUD-Types Redux

Notable missile systems such as Scud, Scaleboard and Scarab gave Soviet commanders the means to strike deep into the enemy’s lines of communication and across the battlefield. The initial generation of mobile medium- and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles such as the SS-4 Sandal and SS-5 Skean were transported by cumbersome trailers. (The latter systems gained some infamy after they were involved in the Cuban missile crisis.) These were followed by much more mobile self-propelled missiles mounted on their own transporter-erector-launchers (TELs).

The Soviet Union viewed its strategic rocket forces as the heart of its defensive system and the rocket personnel as the very elite of the Soviet forces. The strategic rocket forces evolved from the Soviet Army’s artillery, and the first commander-in-chief was also head of the artillery. They were formed in 1959 and were responsible for all Soviet land-based missiles with ranges over 1,000km. (Missiles with lesser ranges were assigned to the rocket and artillery branches of the ground forces.) Notably, the strategic rocket forces were considered the ‘primary service’ and their commander-in-chief took precedence over all other military supreme commanders.

SS-1 Scud Medium-Range Ballistic Missile

The SS-1C, known to NATO as the Scud B, was a medium-range surface-to-surface missile intended for battlefield strikes to hit troop concentrations, defences, depots and railways up to a distance of 280km. The missile was 11.4m long and could take high explosive, chemical and nuclear warheads. The rocket was a single-stage missile employing a liquid propellant. The Scud A and B were initially deployed on tracked carriers derived from the IS-3 (Joseph Stalin III) heavy tank chassis, but were later transported on the eight-wheeled MAZ-543. This had eight-wheel-drive, with the front four wheels steerable, and weighed 28 tons with the missile. The crew compartment consisted of a heated and air-conditioned cab divided into two by the missile. The original version was first seen in 1957, and the longer B variant five years later. The SS-1C Scud B was widely deployed with all the Warsaw Pact armies, as well as in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria. The Egyptians fired a number at Israeli targets in the Sinai in 1973, but missed. Around a thousand Scud B missiles were fired at Mujahideen targets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. The longer-range Scud C and D missiles were largely superseded by the SS-12 Scaleboard and the short-lived SS-23 Spider.

SS-4 Sandal Theatre Ballistic Missile

The SS-4 Sandal, with a range of 2,000km, was an upgraded version of the earlier SS-3 Shyster. It became operational in the late 1950s and was deployed in some numbers with Soviet field armies. This missile system, though, was not really very mobile as it required twelve vehicles towing special trailers, and the missile itself had to be erected and fuelled before firing. From the late 1970s it was replaced by the fully mobile SS-20 Saber, although this process was not completed until the late 1980s. The longer-range silo-based SS-5 Skean that appeared in the early 1960s was essentially a scaled-up version of the Sandal. It was withdrawn from service from the mid-1970s onwards.

SS-12 Scaleboard Medium-Range Ballistic Missile

The SS-12 Scaleboard, first reported in 1967, was previously known as the SS-1D Scud C, but Scaleboard was a much more powerful missile than the Scud. Its range of 800km made it more of a strategic weapon than one for battlefield support. Scaleboard missiles deployed in East Germany could have reached much of eastern and south-eastern England. The SS-12 was very similar in appearance to the earlier SS-1C and employed the same MAZ-543 chassis as the transporter/launcher, but with a more fully enclosed body behind the cab. The missile was erected for firing in a similar way but was contained in a ribbed casing until ready for launch. The longer-range SS-23 Spider was eliminated in the late 1980s under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

SS-14 Scapegoat Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

The SS-14 Scapegoat and SS-15 Scrooge were monstrous long-range ballistic missiles carried on tracked chassis. Neither was deployed, and subsequently the Soviets opted increasingly for heavy wheeled vehicles. The SS-14 was carried in a cylindrical container mounted over the carrier vehicle. Before launching, the container was raised hydraulically and placed in a vertical position on a launch pad lowered from the rear of the vehicle. The container was then opened and removed, leaving the exposed missile ready for firing. First observed on a mobile launch pad in May 1965, the SS-14 was an intermediate-range (3,500km) missile with a nuclear warhead; it measured about 10.7 metres in length and was propelled with a solid-fuel rocket. Due to poor mobility and slow missile deployment time, the system did not enter service and the missiles were replaced in 1970.

SS-15 Scrooge Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

The SS-15 Scrooge was an even larger intercontinental ballistic missile, measuring 18.3 metres, likewise carried in a tube on the back of a tracked vehicle. While erected in a similar way to the SS-14, it was fired direct from the tube. Propelled by a solid-fuel rocket, it could reach up to 5,600km. The carrying vehicles for both the SS-14 and the SS-15 were very similar, though their missile erecting systems differed. Interestingly, the running gear was derived from components of the IS-3 heavy tank or its later T-10 derivative.

The transporter had eight small road wheels (whereas the IS-3 had six and the T-10 seven) sprung on torsion bars. The long upper track was supported on five return rollers on each side, which were unevenly spaced. Power transmission was via rear drive sprockets and the engine was believed to have been a V-2 cylinder diesel similar to that in the T-10, which was capable of producing 700hp. In both systems the crew travelled in a superstructure at the front. Again the SS-15 was deemed simply too ungainly for use in the field.

SS-16 Sinner Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

This was the Soviet Union’s very first mobile ICBM, with a range of around 10,000km. The three-stage solid-propellant 18.5 metre-long missile was transported on a massive 12×12 TEL. According to the Soviets, it was never deployed, although Western Intelligence believed it had gone operational in the late 1970s, by which time 200 missiles had been built. Of these, fifty were deployed at the test training site in Plesetsk, but these ran foul of the SALT II Treaty and by the mid-1980s they had been removed from the training sites. Design work on this missile influenced both the SS-20 and the SS-25.

SS-19 Stiletto Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

The Stiletto, unlike the other nuclear missiles described here, was not mobile, but was a fourth generation silo-launched liquid-propelled ICBM (supplementing the earlier SS-9, SS-11, SS-13, SS-17 and SS–18). Alongside the mobile Soviet strategic rocket forces, the SS-19 was the backbone of the silo-launched missile force. It was initially deployed in the 1970s but was replaced by the upgraded SS-19 Mod 3. This had a storage life of twenty-two years and was armed with six MIRVs. By 2008 Russia still had 126 operational missiles, but the mobile SS-25 remained the most numerous ICBM. Clearly Moscow felt that mobile systems offered a greater deterrence and first strike capability.

SS-20 Saber Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile

In light of the Warsaw Pact’s numerical superiority in ground forces, NATO developed a tactical nuclear weapons option that could form part of a graduated nuclear response. In order to neutralise these forces in Western Europe Moscow developed a new mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead with a range in excess of 5,000km. This was given the NATO reporting name of SS-20 Saber, and entered service in 1976. The system was also intended to supersede the old SS-4 and SS-5 missiles.

A 37 ton, 16.5 metre-long missile based on two solid-fuel fibreglass-clad stages originally designed for the abandoned SS-16 Sinner mobile ICBM programme, the Saber initially had a single warhead but was made MIRV-compatible and transported on a 12×12 MAZ-547A/MAZ-7916 TEL. This mobile system so alarmed NATO that it responded by deploying ground-launched cruise missiles to Western Europe. By the mid-1980s an estimated 350 Sabers had been deployed, with 240 in eastern Russia threatening Europe and the remainder in Siberia targeting China and Japan. In total, 654 SS-20 missiles and 499 TELs were built, but they were withdrawn from service in the late 1980s under the terms of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and destroyed in 1991.

SS-21 Scarab Short-Range Ballistic Missile

The smallest member of the Soviet Union’s family of short-range ballistic missiles was the mobile SS-21 Scarab, with a range of 120km (compared to the 50km of the SS-23 and the 900km of the SS-12M). Mounted on a 6×6 TEL, the SS-21 could take fragmentation, nuclear, biological or chemical warheads. Developed in the late 1960s, it was used to replace the shorter-ranged FROG-7 battlefield rocket.

The Scarab A entered service with the Soviet Army in 1975 and was forward-deployed into East Germany in the early 1980s. From there, it could have destroyed NATO’s early warning radar and surface-to-air missile sites prior to air strikes. The longer-range Scarab B appeared in 1989, with a third version developed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By this stage Scarabs had replaced most of the FROG-7 rockets in Eastern Europe and had been supplied to Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Syria.

SS-24 Scalpel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

Unlike the SS-19, the SS-24 Scalpel was deployed in 1987 as both a railway-based and silo-based missile. The rail-mounted version understandably had limited utility in time of war. In total, fifty-six rail-based systems were produced but they have since been decommissioned.

SS-25 Sickle Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

Development of the SS-25 Sickle by the Soviets commenced in the late 1970s as an improved three-stage solid-propellant single-warhead mobile ICBM. The missile was deployed in a TEL canister on a 14×14 chassis. Measuring over 29 metres long and 1.7 metres in diameter, the missile was mounted on the MAZ-7310 or MAZ-7917. The TEL was normally supported by a mobile relay station and command support vehicle. Understandably, because the Sickle was fully mobile, it was vastly more expensive than the silo-based ICBMs. The first regiment equipped with it was activated in 1985; by 1991 the Russians had deployed 288 SS-25 missiles and five years later this figure had risen to 360. They were used to equip three strategic rocket forces missile armies totalling seven divisions.


Like those of the USA, the Soviet Union’s first post-war missile was a development of the German A-4; this led to the SS-1A (NATO = ‘Scunner’) with a range of 300 km and a 750 kg high-explosive warhead. The first nuclear battlefield missile to enter service (in 1957) was the Scud-A, which was mounted on a converted JS-3 heavy-tank chassis and carried a 50 kT warhead over a range of some 150 km. This was later supplemented by the Scud-B system, which carried a 70 kT warhead over a range of 300 km. Although Scuds were supplied to many other countries, nuclear warheads were only ever issued to the Soviet army and the system served throughout the Cold War, as plans to replace it with the SS-23 were cancelled as part of the INF Treaty.

The SS-12 (‘Scaleboard’) was a road-mobile, solid-fuelled ballistic missile, which was first fielded in 1962, followed by a modified version, the SS-12B (initially designated SS-22), in 1979. The missile had a maximum range of 900 km and a CEP of 30 m, carrying either a high-explosive or a 500 kT nuclear warhead, and system reaction time was estimated at sixty minutes. The SS-12B was withdrawn under the terms of the INF Treaty, and all missiles were destroyed.

One of the significant features of both the SS-1 and the SS-12 was that later versions were transported by 8 × 8-wheel TELs. These were highly mobile for off-road driving, were air-conditioned, accommodated the full crew and all necessary equipment, and even had an automatic tyre-pressure-regulation system. All these features enabled the missile detachment to move into a new location, set up the missile quickly, launch, and then move to a resupply point – the so-called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactic.

All Warsaw Pact exercises made use of battlefield nuclear weapons in support of attacks. A typical scenario, used some 233 weapons in the first strike, followed by 294 in the second strike. As used in these exercises, the intended purpose was to eliminate NATO forward troops – Area B, for example, coincided with the North German Plain. Following such a strike, the Warsaw Pact tank and motor-rifle units would have been able to advance rapidly into NATO rear areas.

The Soviet equivalent of the Honest John was known to NATO as the FROG (for Free Rocket Over Ground). The last model, the FROG-7, had HE, chemical, and nuclear warheads and a range of 42 miles. The SS-1C, known to NATO as the SCUD-B, was a guided missile with a range of 180 miles. During the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi-made crude versions of the SCUD proved widely inaccurate but were a tremendous nuisance to the Coalition, especially when Iraq fired them at Israel in a failed attempt to broaden the conflict. The Soviet SS-21 guided missile was a divisional-level system with a range of only 60 miles.

The SS-23 was an army-level system with a range of 300 miles. The SS-12 was a theater-level system with a range of 540 miles. All these Soviet systems carried nuclear warheads. Under the provisions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States agreed to eliminate the Pershing and the Soviets agreed to eliminate the SS-12 and SS-23.

Summit meeting between U. S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held in Moscow during 29 May–2 June 1988. It was the fourth such meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev since 1985. For Reagan, the conference coincided with congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra Affair. Because of this, some critics speculated that the president was trying to divert attention from the scandal by creating a newsworthy achievement at the meeting. The major accomplishment of the summit was the signing of the already-ratified 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on 1 June 1988. It did not represent a breakthrough in arms control.

From the Soviet perspective, the 1988 summit greatly enhanced Gorbachev’s domestic and international prestige. This was because of the obvious close relationship between the two leaders and Reagan’s international reputation as an anticommunist hard-liner. Gorbachev’s heightened prestige gave him important political capital, which was needed as he continued to move forward with his perestroika and glasnost reforms.

The meeting was carefully crafted to focus on the INF Treaty. The treaty had been forged at the December 1987 Washington summit meeting between the two leaders and was approved by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders in March 1988 and by the U. S. Senate on 29 May 1988. The treaty called for the destruction of 2,611 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with flight ranges of 300–3,400 miles. Included in the treaty were U. S. Pershing II missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles as well as Soviet SS-4, SS-12, SS-20, and SS-23 missiles. It also specified very detailed on-site inspection and verification procedures. In accordance with the treaty, by 1991 both countries would have eliminated all intermediate- range nuclear missiles.


To increase the survivability of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), military planners have always turned to mobility in order to complicate the calculations of an attacker. For the Soviet Union, development of mobile ICBMs was slow until the late 1960s owing to concerns about command and control and the ability to maintain positive control of Soviet missiles under all circumstances. Lack of communications links were an additional Soviet concern. In the United States, high operating costs and the need to operate systems over enormous expanses of land limited interest in mobile missiles. The U. S. Air Force pursued the railmobile Minuteman option in 1960, which would have been deployed at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, but for budgetary reasons Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara canceled the planned procurement of additional Minuteman ICBMs, which eliminated the need for the deployment scheme. As the accuracy of ICBMs improved, creating concerns about the survivability of ICBMs deployed in fixed silos, both superpowers revisited the issue of deploying mobile ICBMs.

The Soviets first attempted to use a tank chassis as a transporter for the SS-15 in 1968. After discovering that vibration of the chassis caused missile component failures, they canceled the system after ten test flights. After reviewing its options, the Soviet Strategic Forces decided that a truck chassis was a better vehicle than a tank chassis as a missile transporter, offered better road speeds, was relatively easy to maintain, and created fewer vibration problems. The SS-16 system that emerged in 1972 was concealable, highly mobile, and successful. It also became one of the major stumbling blocks in superpower arms control talks. The United States could not detect the missile launchers using reconnaissance satellites and tried to have mobile missiles banned. The SS-16 was specifically banned in the treaty resulting from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), although the Soviets kept the missile in their inventory in violation of the treaty. It was eventually withdrawn from service when better systems were ready for deployment.

After the SS-16 was decommissioned, the designs were used in the highly successful SS-20 intermediate- range ballistic missile (IRBM) that entered the Soviet arsenal in the 1970s. Soviet planners also decided that they required a secure second-strike capability and eventually deployed the road-mobile SS-25 and the rail-mobile SS-24 ICBMs. The SS-25 carried a single warhead, while the SS-24 carried ten multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). The SS-24 was deployed on missile trains that carried three missiles, their launchers, support equipment, and security railcars. These missile trains usually patrolled for about five days out of garrisons that were situated along the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In order to keep its defense posture as other strategic arms treaties entered into force, Russia replaced the SS-25 with the SS-27, another road-mobile missile.


A transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) is a self-propelled vehicle that transports and erects a missile to the vertical position in order to launch it. In the 1950s and 1960s, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were too heavy and too susceptible to vibration damage while being moved on a transporter. Development of a mobile ICBM was thus a high priority for both the United States and the U. S. S. R. The Soviet Union had a string of failures with its SS-14 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and its SS-15 ICBM, which were mounted on a tracked tank chassis. These two systems were never widely deployed because the tracked TELs could barely carry the weight of the massive ICBMs. Only with the development of the SS-16 ICBM and the SS-20 IRBM did the Soviets achieve their goal of a wheeled TEL.

The TEL carries not only a missile that is environmentally protected, but also electronics to monitor the missile, alignment equipment, and communications links to receive orders from headquarters. To increase the pre-launch survivability of the missile, the TEL must be able to traverse a variety of terrain types and move quickly over a large distance, especially to disperse to operating areas when placed on alert or during a crisis.

Russia currently uses a slightly larger TEL for its SS-25 and SS-27 ICBM force. Other nations have developed but not deployed mobile ICBM TELs. The United States developed a complex vehicle for the single-warhead Midgetman ICBM that could withstand a nuclear blast by hugging the ground. The MX missile also could have been TEL mounted, but it was never deployed in this configuration. Other short-range missile systems, most notably the Scud missile, often are mounted on trucks or simple tracked vehicles.

Reference Podvig, Pavel, ed., Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). A History of Strategic Arms Competition, 1945-1972, vol. 3, A Handbook of Selected Soviet Weapon and Space Systems (Washington, DC: United States Air Force, June 1976), pp. 204, 205, 209, 216. Jane’s Weapon Systems 1987-88 (London: Jane’s Publishing Company, 1988).

Indian War Elephants

War elephants, India’s distinctive contribution to the art of warfare. They were first recorded by Western historians at the battle of Gaugamela (330 BC), when a squadron of fifteen was included with the Indian contingent in the army of Darius III. They seem, like the British tanks at Cambrai in 1916, to have been either too unfamiliar to the generals or too few in number for decisive use. It was not until Alexander’s men reached the Hydaspes that they were faced by a whole corps of fighting elephants which, though eventually defeated, inflicted heavy casualties. The report that King Bimbisara of Magadha, the next monarch to the east, commanded several hundred of these sagacious pachyderms was an important factor in the decision of Alexander’s army to go no farther.

What was not invented could be borrowed. After capturing eighty battle elephants from King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes River, Alexander acquired one hundred more before returning to the west. Alexander’s Hellenistic successors made elephants the fad weapon of the era. Able to frighten horses and terrify men, trample infantry and cavalry alike, and even demolish wooden fortifications, elephants could charge at fifteen miles per hour. At that speed, however, they were hard to stop, and they often tended to run amok, trampling friend and foe alike.

Elephants were outfitted with a housing, or howdah, covered with cloth or carpet and bells around the neck and rump. Lower-ranked warriors armed with bows and other missiles were seated in the howdah. According to the Greek historian Megasthenes (c. 350-c. 290 b. c. e.), who was sent as a representative to the royal court of India, three archers and a driver rode on each elephant.

The elephants subsequently became a major arm in Western classical armies, some even being included with the Roman troops that conquered Britain.

In India they were considered to be royal beasts, whose ownership was reserved to the government. Their primary role was in the charge, for which the strongest and largest bulls were specially trained, their tusks tipped with sharpened steel, and their flanks protected by bamboo or leather armour. They were also used to smash palisades or push down gates, or for other combat engineering tasks, such as forming a bridge over shallow rivers or ditches. Smaller bulls and cows were used as baggage animals, giving an excellent cross-country performance in a country which until modern times had few made roads. With the invention of the gun, they were taken into the artillery service as draught animals. British as well as Indian commanders found them excellent mobile command posts, and elephants continued in use by the artillery in India until the early twentieth century.

Indian generals were fascinated by the elephant arm for over 2,000 years, despite repeated evidence of its weaknesses. Disciplined armies, admittedly not always readily available in Indian conditions, could usually avoid the worst impact of the elephant charge by opening lanes in their battle line, just as the Romans did against the elephants of Pyrrhus or Hannibal. Even the best trained elephant was liable to be panicked by the sights, smells and sounds of battle, especially by incendiary devices, and might, joined by its companions, turn into a common enemy, trampling friend and foe alike. Several decisive battles were lost when a Hindu king’s elephant rushed in the wrong direction, leading his soldiers to draw the conclusion that he was deserting them, so that the whole host collapsed like a ruined building. Although the Muslim invaders themselves had come to power by defeating Hindu armies that relied on elephants, they in the course of time became dependent upon elephants themselves and were defeated by subsequent invaders in much the same way.

Elephants generally carried a driver, or mahout, and three to four warriors. In response, the use of large caltrops, iron-pointed triangular devices set in the ground to impede elephant and cavalry advances, was developed. Such Indian tactics were old-fashioned by the tenth century, but they continued into the thirteenth. Hindu pride prevented leaders from learning from their foreign adversaries. Hindus valued strength in numbers over speed and mobility, a doctrine that rapidly caused their defeat.

The elephant’s tusks might also be sharpened or lengthened with sword blades, and it might pick up enemy soldiers with its trunk or trample them underfoot. The standard battlefield role of war elephants was in the assault, to break up the enemy ranks, but elephants were also used in sieges, to push over gates and palisades or to serve as living bridges. Equipped with an iron chain in its trunk and taught to wield it in all directions, an elephant could wreak havoc against an enemy force. Although these great animals were impressive and could frighten an enemy, they were also unpredictable and could retreat under attack into the ranks of panicked Indian foot soldiers. Frequently commanders rode on the elephants so that they had the best view of the battlefield; this high perch made the commanders prime targets for enemy arrows. If the commander was wounded, or if he felt the need to descend from the howda on top of his elephant, his troops often assumed that he was dead and scattered.

Shah Jahan is famous mainly as the builder of numerous palaces, particularly the Taj Mahal (1632- 1653), a monument to his love for his wife. Militarily, he succeeded to an extent in the Deccan but failed in his numerous attempts to oust the Persians from Qandahar. His illness in 1657 triggered a fratricidal war between his four sons, who all vied to capture the throne. Alamgir emerged the victor, becoming India’s sixth Mughal emperor and ruling until his own death in 1707. Elephants were used with great effectiveness in this succession struggle. At the Battle of Khajwa (1659), Alamgir’s brother and opponent Prince Shuja (died c. 1660) utilized elephants swinging large iron chains from their trunks, wreaking havoc among Alamgir’s troops. Alamgir, however, remained calm and emerged victorious.

A far more terrible invasion was that of the Amir Timur of Samarkand, more familiar to students of English literature as Tamberlane the Great. Despite the zeal with which various Sultans of Delhi had persecuted those guilty of unbelief, or of believing the wrong thing, the vast majority of their subjects continued to practise the Hindu religion. This was felt by Timur to be as pitch upon the faces of all true believers. Moreover, India contained great riches, notwithstanding the depredations of earlier invaders, and its defences, because of a civil war between two rival contenders for the masnad or throne of Delhi, were weak. As he wrote in his autobiography, his purpose in entering Hindustan was, therefore, twofold: `The first thing was to war with infidels, the enemies of the Islamic faith, and by this holy war to acquire some claim to reward in the life to come. The other was a worldly object, that the army of Islam might gain something from plundering the wealth of infidels.’ In the autumn of 1398, with a force of 90,000 Central Asian horsemen, he crossed the Indus and advanced on Delhi. On the ancient battlefield of Panipat he was met by an army (mostly of Muslim soldiers under Muslim commanders) which included 120 war elephants. Once again, however, the elephant threat proved to have been overrated. Timur gained an easy victory and captured Delhi, which was subsequently sacked with most of its citizens being killed or enslaved.

In the year 1524 Zahir al-Din Muhammad, surnamed Babur, the Tiger, ruler of Kabul, previously of Samarkand, a descendant of Sultan Timur, `placed my foot in the stirrup of resolution and my hand on the reins of confidence in God’ (as he put it, in the graceful Persian idiom) and invaded India following the example of his famous and awe-inspiring ancestor. He was also related, rather distantly, to Chingiz Khan, though, like Timur, he was in fact a Turk by ethnic origin, and utterly hated the Mongols. Nevertheless, it had become the custom for the inhabitants of Hindostan to refer to any set of invaders from Central Asia as Mongols and so it was that Babur, after some initial setbacks, became the founder of the great Mughal empire that eventually ruled over almost all India. His decisive victory over the Sultan of Delhi on 21 April 1526, on the old battlefield of Panipat, proved yet again how a relatively small force of desperate but well-led horsemen from Central Asia could almost literally ride rings round the much larger but unwieldy hosts of the Indian plains. Sultan Ibrahim put a lakh of men into the field with a hundred war elephants. He was, however, inexperienced in war, in Babur’s words, a general `who marched without order, halted or retired without method, and engaged without foresight’. Babur, on the other hand, was not only a practised commander but had at his disposal the latest military technology, a battery of wheeled artillery, that would become the great gun park which was the pride of the imperial Mughal armies. After the death in this battle of Sultan Ibrahim and 15,000 of his Muslim and Hindu soldiers, all the chivalry of the Rajputs took the field, seeing a chance to regain Hindustan for themselves. At Khanua (Kanwaha) on 16 March 1527 their army, including now 500 war elephants and 80,000 cavalry, tried the same tactic of a frontal attack on Babur’s field works as had the late Sultan of Delhi, with similarly disastrous results. Babur’s heirs and successors, ruling first from Delhi, then Agra, then Delhi again, followed the familiar pattern of conducting campaigns, whether against each other or in the conquest of the remaining Muslim and Hindu princes of India, in the traditional Indian way of warfare.

Although Akbar was young, was inexperienced, and lacked validity for his imperial title, he nevertheless showed determination and valor. At the age of thirteen, he was victorious at the Second Battle of Panitpat (1556) against the Sur descendants of Shir Shah, who were led by an admirable Hindu general, Himu Bhargav, also known as Hemu (died 1556). It is significant that at this battle Himu girded his war elephants in plate armor and stationed both musketeers and crossbow archers on their backs. Clearly, the innovative changes of the Mughal invaders were being adopted and adapted to traditional Indian methods of fighting. Himu was mortally wounded on the battlefield, which led to a rout of his troops and victory for the hard-pressed Mughals.

The Battle of Talikota (1565), considered one of the most decisive battles in this period of South Indian history, demonstrated the importance of having well armed, appropriately dressed troops in combat. The forces of the southern state of Vijayanagar commanded massive numbers but failed to equip their men with armor or even practical clothing. The Indian infantry, with their bamboo bows, short spears and swords, and foreign mercenaries wielding outdated artillery and muskets, were no match for the Deccan sultans who rode on Arabian horses, their armor-clad Iranian and Turanian soldiers carrying steel bows, metal javelins, and 16-foot lances. Additionally, the Muslims had mobile artillery carried on camels and elephants. B3bur’s tactic of using supplies as a wall of protection for the front line of gunners was utilized once again. Historians estimate that the defeat of Vijayanagar resulted in the deaths of 16,000 troops. The great southern empire of Vijayanagar and its capital were destroyed by the invaders.

The military system of the Mughals likewise soon came to resemble in many ways those of their predecessors. Essentially these systems were dictated by the problems of governing a large area with no faster system of communication than that which could be achieved by dispatch riders travelling by post horses over unmade roads. ‘Dihli dur ast’ (Delhi is far away) was the saying of many a Mughal official, reluctant to comply with unwelcome instructions such as those requiring the transmission of revenue. Most rulers worked on the sponge principle, allowing their subordinates to soak up the revenue and then squeezing them to obtain the proceeds.

The military and revenue systems in fact were interdependent. Although at times the major officers of the state were paid a regular stipend, the usual method adopted was one of jagir, the assignment of the revenue of a given area, in return for which the jagirdar or holder of the assignment was required to perform his civil duties and to maintain a stated number of cavalry troopers or sawars (literally, ‘riders’). This arrangement allowed a ruler to divide up the proceeds of conquest among his followers, while at the same time producing the military garrisons by which the conquest was subsequently maintained. The disadvantages included a reluctance of assignees to give up (or of rulers to resume from their old supporters) their assignments when the holders became too old to perform military service in person, and the tendency of the more ambitious assignees to use the armed men whom they retained under this system for purposes other than those approved by their ruler. Indeed for a ruler to assign too much of the revenue invited disaster, since, without forces of his own, he was dependent on the reliability of the magnates of whose contingents his army was composed.

A further problem was that assignees who actually lived in the areas whose revenues were assigned to them and who, in most cases, were actually involved in collecting the revenues (normally the government’s share of the annual crops) tended to become local chiefs. Indeed, often they originally had been local chiefs, Hindu rajas whose lands were not worth the trouble of absolute conquest, or whose military resources made them too hard a nut to be worth cracking as long as they passed on the proper share of the revenue and acknowledged a nominal subjection. At the other extreme, assignees tended not so much to misuse the military contingents they were expected to keep up, as not to keep them up at all and pocket that element of the revenue intended for their upkeep, with the result that when the army was called out, the expected numbers of trained, properly equipped, and well mounted men failed to materialise. When, in an attempt to enforce assignees to meet their obligations, periodic musters were ordered, the same men and horses moved round from assignee to assignee ahead of the muster-masters, to be counted over and over again, hired by each assignee in turn for the duration of the muster. The abuses were countered to a certain extent by systems such as branding the horses and describing the troopers, but all depended upon the honesty, efficiency, and energy of those operating the system, just as it did in Europe at the same time.

The highest officers of the Mughal empire, the Subadars, holders of a Suba or province, were at first called Sipahsalars, ‘commanders of the troops’, and the senior officials of the Mughal state were known as mansabdars, ‘holders of commands’. There were thirty-three levels of mansab, each grade distinguished not by a title but by a number, from 10,000 down to ten, according to the number of troopers the mansabdar was expected to maintain. The later Mughal emperors recognised that many who were granted high rank would not in fact produce the appropriate number of men, and introduced a system of parallel ranks, with the higher figure being honorary (zat) and the lower being that of the actual number of troops (sawar) to be maintained. The proportion of permanently employed soldiers in Mughal armies was small and comprised the household troops, artillerymen and other specialists, including the elephant drivers. All could be used for the many ceremonial functions inseparable from Indian court life. Otherwise the army was composed of the contingents produced, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by assignees who tended to become hereditary local governors, where sons were allowed to succeed fathers in office if central authority was too weak to enforce the appointment of another nominee.

The relationship between the revenue and the military systems in India was, until well after the Mughal era and well into that of the British, virtually one of symbiosis. The main purpose of collecting the revenue was to ensure payment for the military on whom the power of the government was based, while the main purpose of the military was to ensure the collection of the revenue from which it was paid. Even inter-state campaigns can be considered as having been undertaken with a view to increasing the base of the revenue, which in turn paid for the army which made the conquests, and the still larger army required to hold them. The expansion of the British Indian forces which took place in step with the expansion of British territorial possessions in India simply maintained a pattern set by the Mughals. Troops not involved in campaigning were required to accompany the agents of government whose task it was actually to collect the revenue, in cash or in kind. It is not without significance that the official title of the British district magistrates in the first provinces to be acquired by the British in India was ‘Collector’. The method of gathering the land revenue from the cultivators varied from region to region, but the conventional method in Hindustan was essentially one of tax farming. Wealthy individuals contracted with the government, or its assignees, to hand over an agreed sum and retain the remainder of what they had raised. Generally these tax-farmers (zamindars or land-holders) had a hereditary interest in the villages whose revenue they levied, and through custom and practice all sides knew what could reasonably be yielded, with reductions allowed in times of drought or other natural disaster. Where an area was the subject of disputed control, however, cultivators might be subjected to demands from rival rulers. Distress was also caused when, as in the early British period, market forces were left to determine what could be raised. Rival contractors tried to outbid each other in promises of what they could raise, in order to secure or retain their holdings, regardless of the productive capacity of the land and its cultivators. Troops were required to accompany the collectors, in order to ensure that zamindars actually disgorged all that they had contracted to hand over. Sometimes even artillery was included in such expeditions. As British rule became fully established, the military presence became a guard of honour rather than a threat to reluctant payers. Nevertheless it long continued, partly as a customary way of recognising the social status of those involved, and partly in acknowledgement of their martial spirit. While local chiefs expected to pay what was due, it was thought something of an insult to imply that they would have done so except under compulsion. In most societies taxpayers tend to pay their dues only in response to the threat of force majeure. In Indian society the threat took the colourful and visible form of a body of troops. When the revenue was collected, the troops were required to act as escorts against what was, in unsettled areas, a very real threat of raids by armed gangs or bandits (sometimes, the same people who had just paid it over) as it was taken back to the local seat of government.

It was with a military system based on these principles that the Mughal empire and its rivals conducted their campaigns during the course of more than 300 years. These included struggles against those Muslim states in Bengal and in the Deccan, which had previously been subject to the Sultanate of Delhi; wars of rebellion and succession among the Mughal princes themselves; invasions by Iranians and Afghans from those Central Asian territories where the Mughals themselves had originated; and, within India, risings by new or reviving Hindu powers. Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal emperors, came to power after a victory at Panipat in 1556 over a Hindu army which, in defiance of the lessons of military history, had relied on its 1,500 elephants.


Then Joseph Stalin got his atomic bomb, although Kurchatov and Khariton and their colleagues were not able to hold to their two-and-a-half-year timetable. Problems with the plutonium production reactor delayed the test for eighteen months. Nevertheless, they moved with a speed unexpected in Washington. At 6:00 A.M. on August 29, 1949, four years and nine days from the date Stalin had signed the order setting the postwar nuclear arms race in motion, they exploded a device identical to the Nagasaki bomb at a spot on the barren steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia northwest of the city of Semipalatinsk. The device was subsequently code-named Joe One by American intelligence. Beria, who came to observe this Soviet version of Trinity, and personally report to Stalin on the phone line to Moscow, embraced Kurchatov and Khariton and kissed them on the forehead as the mushroom cloud rose. There were indications later that Beria had been worried about his own fate if the enterprise had been a fiasco.

At the end of October, Stalin signed a secret decree, drawn up by Beria, passing out the rewards. In deciding who received what, Beria is reported to have followed the principle that the highest awards went to those who would have been shot first in case of a fizzle. David Holloway in Stalin and the Bomb says that the story may have been apocryphal, but that it accurately reflected the feeling of the scientists involved. Kurchatov and Khariton received the highest honors possible, Hero of Socialist Labor and Stalin Prize Laureate of the first degree; large amounts of cash; ZIS-110 cars, the best the Soviet automotive industry was making at the time; dachas; free education for their children in any establishment; and free public transportation for themselves and their families. In an enticement of what the future could hold, Stalin had already, back in 1946 when tens of thousands of rural families were living in dugouts under the rubble of their homes, built a fancy eight-room house for Kurchatov at his laboratory near Moscow, importing Italian craftsmen to furnish it with parquet floors, marble fireplaces, and elegant wood paneling. A number of the other leading physicists, engineers, and managers were similarly rewarded with the honor of Hero of Socialist Labor and with money, cars, and sundry other privileges in lesser degrees. Khariton was eventually also to be awarded his own private railway car.

In time, through the remaining years of Stalin and during the rule of his successors, Arzamas-16, its sister sites in the atomic industry network, and research centers for other branches of the Soviet military-industrial complex were to grow into self-contained cities, with their own schools, concert halls, hospitals, and, by Russian standards, first-class shops for food and clothing. Although officially secret, they became known as the “white archipelago,” and their privileged inhabitants, the scientists and engineers and their families, were referred to as chocolatniki by less fortunate Russians. Already by 1953, one of Stalin’s henchmen in the Politburo, Lazar Kaganovich, complained that the atomic cities had become like “health resorts.”

It would be erroneous, however, to conclude that these Soviet physicists lent their ingenuity to the building of the bomb because a life of privilege was held out before them if they succeeded. On the contrary, their motives were complicated. Imprisonment in a labor camp or execution were ever-present threats in Stalin’s Russia for failure to succeed or unwillingness to cooperate. On the other hand, David Holloway discovered in questioning them that they were also motivated forcefully by love of country, by the defense of their motherland. Many of them might not have liked Stalin’s system, but they could not change it. The Soviet Union was their country, the only one they had, a conviction ingrained all the more keenly by the war of survival, the Great Patriotic War, as Russians called it, that they had just emerged from with Nazi Germany. The atomic bomb project was, in an emotional way, a continuation of that primeval conflict. Andrei Sakharov was to become a world-renowned figure and to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 because of the persecution and internal exile he suffered in the cause of promoting civil liberties in the Soviet Union. In 1948, however, he was an imaginative twenty-seven-year-old physicist beginning the research that led to Russia’s hydrogen bomb. “I regarded myself as a soldier in this new scientific war,” he subsequently remarked of those years. “We … believed that our work was absolutely necessary as a means of achieving a balance in the world.”

Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall did not hand Stalin’s Russia the bomb, as most of the American public thought that the Rosenbergs and David Greenglass and other Soviet spies unknown and unnamed had done. Kurchatov and those with whom he chose to collaborate were notably competent physicists who, given time, would have created a bomb on their own without any intelligence input. In 1951, they detonated a much improved version of the Nagasaki bomb that weighed only half as much and yielded twice the force, forty kilotons, with a mixed core of U-235 and plutonium. The real secret of the atomic bomb was whether such a hellish device could be devised at all. That secret was exposed in the dawn of the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, with Trinity and then dramatized to the world when its monstrous power was unleashed on the inhabitants of Hiroshima.

What Fuchs and Hall did accomplish was to save the Soviet Union time, probably a year to two years, in the race to achieve strategic parity with the United States after the explosion of Trinity a bit more than four years prior to Joe One. Ironically, Stalin initially kept the achievement of his physicists secret for some unknown reason and it was Truman who announced that the Soviets had the bomb. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, set up in 1946 to take charge of all things nuclear, had not been unwatchful under its first chairman, David Lilienthal, despite the illusions at the top. It had persuaded the Air Force to cooperate in the Long Range Detection Program, which involved high-altitude flights off the Soviet Union by aircraft equipped with filters to capture nuclear residue from the air. A B-29 flying at 18,000 feet over the North Pacific on September 3, 1949, collected a slightly higher count of radioactive material than would normally be found in the air. Further checks as the high-level winds continued in their stream over the United States, the Atlantic, and Europe confirmed that the Soviets had tested an atomic bomb in the last few days of August.

The Soviet Union still lacked adequate means of striking the United States with atomic bombs. Even the hundreds of copies of the B-29, called Tu-4s (more than a thousand were to be built), that the Soviet aircraft industry was turning out on Stalin’s instructions lacked the range to reach most American cities and as propeller-driven aircraft were also vulnerable to the new American jet fighters in daylight bombing.

The practicalities of how the Soviet Union might drop an atomic bomb on the United States did not matter for the moment. The broken monopoly had been replaced by a balance of terror; the threat of nuclear devastation thrust into the minds and emotions of the American public and its leaders. The Berlin Blockade, while a defensive move by Stalin, had been interpreted yet again in the United States as evidence of aggressive intent. In Asia, a new Communist danger was rising as the armies of Mao Tse-tung neared their conquest of all of mainland China. Now the news that Russia had the bomb created a tangible sense of danger, a keener sense of insecurity in a nation already suffering from that malady.

The first response was to end the debate that had been going on over whether to build the hydrogen, i.e., thermonuclear, bomb. Truman reacted to his own apprehension and the clamor from the recently independent U.S. Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their allies in Congress by issuing an order on January 31, 1950, to begin developing this weapon, thousands of times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb. It was created and detonated within less than two years, on November 1, 1952.

Niels Bohr and other idealistic physicists who had lobbied to place international controls on atomic weaponry and thereby avoid a nuclear arms race after the Second World War were, it has become clear, scholarly Don Quixotes. All the control plans put forward by the Truman administration, such as the Baruch Plan promoted by the financier Bernard Baruch on the administration’s behalf in the United Nations, preserved an American monopoly, and Stalin would never have settled for second place. To have satisfied Stalin, Truman would have had to share the atomic bomb with him, a political impossibility.

Similarly quixotic was the attempt earlier in 1949 by Robert Oppenheimer and other physicists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project to stop development of the hydrogen bomb on the grounds that it was “in a totally different category from an atomic bomb” and might become a “weapon of genocide” with “extreme dangers to mankind.” (They also argued that technical problems stood in the way and higher-yield atomic weapons would serve any military needs, but it is clear that moral objections most concerned them.) As is now known, Kurchatov, undoubtedly at the behest of Stalin and Beria, had organized serious theoretical and design studies for a hydrogen bomb in 1948. By the end of that year, long before they had broken the American atomic monopoly, the Soviets had a basic design for an intermediate hydrogen weapon, Sakharov’s “Layer Cake,” which combined fission (atomic) and fusion (thermonuclear) elements. (“Nuclear fission” is the term for the explosive reaction that occurs in an ordinary atomic bomb, while “nuclear fusion” is the term used to describe the vastly more powerful release of energy that occurs when a hydrogen, or thermonuclear, device detonates.) Advanced design and experimental work got under way at Arzamas-16 in 1950, along with the creation of manufacturing facilities to produce the thermonuclear fuel, lithium deuteride, and other materials. The Layer Cake device was detonated at the test site on the Kazakhstan steppes on August 12, 1953, and yielded 400 kilotons, twenty times the power of the Nagasaki bomb. A bit over two years later, on November 22, 1955, just three years after the United States had detonated its first hydrogen bomb, a full-scale Soviet hydrogen weapon was exploded at the same Kazakhstan site. Kurchatov, Sakharov, and other Soviet physicists felt none of the moral qualms of their American counterparts. They saw the development of thermonuclear weapons as a logical second step to keep pace with the United States. Years later in his memoirs, Sakharov was certain that Stalin would not have reciprocated any American restraint in creating the hydrogen bomb. He would have seen it as either a trick not to be fooled by or as stupidity of which he should take advantage.

The Armorer’s Craft

Maximilian I on Horseback, Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531), German, 1508. Modern arms scholars have named a characteristic form of sixteenth-century armor after Maximilian I, which appears in Hans Burgkmair’s masterful engraving of the emperor. This armor combines the smooth, round shapes of Ifalian armor with the rippled flutes of Germanic armor. The culmination of a transition that began late in the fifteenth century, Maximilian armors typically have crisply defined vertical fluting on their major components, except for the lower leg defenses. This fluting corresponds to the style of civilian male fashion, mimicking in steel the effect of a cloth outer garment cinched by a waist belt-just as the long, pointed foot defenses of Gothic armor copied contemporary footwear. The breastplate itself is well rounded, like the civilian cloth doublet, and the foot defenses are broad-toed in the manner of early sixteenth-century shoes. Like corrugation, the fluting added rigidity without increased weight. This fluted fashion was, however, more complicated to produce, and was generally not popular outside of German lands. It peaked around 1525 and was rarely seen by the late 1530s, although it occasionally resurfaced after that time.

Mail shirt, Western European, sixteenth century. The most common form of metal body armor during the medieval period was mail, an interlocking, closely spaced network of riveted and solid rings, usually of iron, although brass was occasionally employed for decorative effect along the bortiers. Used in the Battle of Hastings and the Crusades, its name is derived from the Old French word maille, meaning “mesh.” Worn over a cushioned undergarment known as an aketon or haqueton, mail provided a reasonably effective defense against lighter cutting weapons, but offered little resistance to the crushing blows of heavier arms such as clubs and axes. To defend himself against such blows, the warrior carried a wooden, leather-covered shield on his nonsword arm. Other disadvantages of mail included its tendency to bunch up at the joints and the heavy weight it placed on the shoulders. The mail shirt shown here weighs approximately seventeen pounds.

Mail was replaced by plate armor as the primary form of European body defense during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but continued to serve as secondary protection for areas like the armpits and groin. It was also used by foot soldiers, who could not afford, or did not wish to use, a more expensive, restrictive plate harness.

Detail of mail shirt. Western European, sixteenth century. Mail is a network of interlocking iron or steel and occasionally brass rings whose density and tight construction created a surface quite resistant to the sharp edges of cutting weapons. The flexible nature of mail, however, meant that it offered little protection from the impact of crushing blows, a problem only satisfactorily addressed by the adoption of plate defenses.

Detail of a sabaton, possibly by Wolfgang Großschedel of Landshut (active c. 1521-1563), German, 1550/60. Tills foot defense is believed to be part of an armor belonging to Wilhelm V, Duke of Jülich, Cleve, and Berg (1516-1592). This sabaton, which mimics the shape of contemporary shoe styles, would have been worn over leather footwear.

Detail (proof mark) of three-quarter cuirassier armor, Italian, 1605/10. Generally speaking, elements of battlefield armor underwent strenuous testing with weapons. If a breastplate, for example, were meant to resist bullets, it would be shot at from close range. The resulting dent, or “proof mark, demonstrated that an armor was of high quality.

During the Middle Ages, armor production became an important and rapidly growing facet of European trade and commerce. Armorers were members of craftsmen’s guilds, which set very rigid standards to insure a high-quality product. The guilds also enforced regulations to control the work environment; these rules, however, varied across Europe and even from city to city.

Much of what we know about the working life and craft techniques of the armorer has been gleaned from surviving objects, documentary references, inventories of tools and appliances, and a handful of pattern-books and design drawings. Most of this material concerns a rather small number of makers and shops in Germany and Italy.

The heart of armor manufacture for much of the fifteenth century was Italy, particularly Milan, whose armorers were highly regarded throughout Europe. While a great deal of material was produced at other centers across the continent, it paled in comparison to the quantity and quality of pieces coming from the Italian workshops. Individual Italian armorers specialized in certain components of body armor and provided these prefabricated items under contract to others who would assemble the final products.

Brescia was also a major center of Italian arms production. Indeed, at one point Brescia had some two hundred workshops (botteghe), each with a master and three or four assistants. Furthermore, colonies of Italian armorers existed in France and the Low Countries. The armor ordered by the dauphin Charles (later Charles VII) of France for Joan of Arc is said to have been made by a Milanese armorer in Tours. Italianate style was widely imitated throughout fifteenth-century Europe, and much material was exported from Italy to England, Spain, and Germany.

By the end of the fifteenth century, German armorers began to cut into Italy’s near monopoly, and for the next century and beyond they more or less dominated the industry. Important centers were located in Augsburg, Cologne, Landshut, and Nuremberg.

Nuremberg provides a good case study for understanding the relationship between the individual armorer, his trade, his city, and commerce. Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, Nuremberg’s armorers did not belong to a trade guild, having lost this privilege following a general revolt of craftsmen in 1348-49. As a result, they had to select “small masters” to represent them on the city council and to inspect their manufactured goods. Further, the armorers were classified as those who worked with plate armor (Plattner) or mail (Panzermacher). Each master was permitted two journeymen and four apprentices, whose numbers could be increased only with the approval of the city council.

To reach the status of complete master armorer, an applicant had to prepare four ”masterpieces” (Meisterstiicke) upon finishing his apprenticeship, which five designated masters reviewed. Further, he had to provide an item for each area of armor making in which he wished to produce objects-for example, helmet, cuirass, arm and leg defenses, and gauntlet. Unlike in some other cities, in Nuremberg the applicant could not fashion a single armor containing the prerequisite pieces, but had to make each element separately. Following the masters’ evaluation, the armorer could only produce armor in those areas in which his masterpieces had passed inspection. If less than totally qualified, he would have to work in concert with other qualified masters to fill orders for full armors. If he passed the exam, however, the new master had his personal maker s mark recorded by the city. The city did permit some less-exacting production, but such materials were specially identified so they would not diminish the high production standards of first-rate Nuremberg output.

It is noteworthy that Nuremberg long recognized the great commercial potential of a thriving arms industry. The greater part of the makers’ output was in “munitions-quality” material (what today we would probably refer to as government-issue), a designated amount of which went to the city’s garrison.

The reputation of European armorers for high-quality, reliable production was affected not only by their expertise and standards, but also by the raw materials they used. At great expense, many armorers sought iron from the finest ore reserves in Europe, located in Austria around Innsbruck and the southeastern province of Styria. After being extracted, iron was transformed into thick plates called blooms, which the armorers then imported.

Tailor-made, high-quality armors required the client’s dimensions, which could be obtained from his clothing, or an existing arming doublet-the wearer’s padded textile “undergarment.” The armorer might also obtain wax casts of the limbs, or, ideally, take the client’s measurements directly. While no actual patterns for armors appear to have survived, scholars presume that they did exist. Indeed, to prepare for the production of large munitions-quality orders of nearly identical elements, an armorer probably made templates in varying sizes.

The raw plates were cut to shape with huge shears, heated, and roughly formed by hammermen. The actual armorers then received these plates, shaping them into elements with hammers, anvil irons, stakes, and other tools. Throughout the process, the armorer had to remain alert to the physical changes taking place in the piece he was crafting. Because hammering often made the metal brittle, the piece was heated, or annealed, from time to time, and was sometimes treated with chemicals. Annealing was done sparingly, for too much heat tended to weaken the plates. The armorer had to constantly bear in mind each element’s function and placement in order to insure that it was adequately thick where necessary and thinned out wherever possible to reduce weight. The finished element had an extremely hard surface with a more malleable interior. Throughout manufacture, pieces were examined, test- fitted, and, in some cases, viewed by outside inspectors.

Many decorative techniques were available for ornamenting arms and armor. These skills were often passed from one family member to another, as armorers and decorators wanted to keep their lucrative trade secrets in the family. Virtually all of the methods employed in the manufacture of contemporary European decorative arts were practiced by armorers at one time or another. Surfaces were fire-blued and gilded, painted, alternately decorated with black-painted surfaces and polished sections (to produce “black-and-white” armor), enameled, chased and engraved, embossed, fitted with applique, damascened, and encrusted with precious metals and gems. The most typical decorative technique was acid-etching, since it facilitated the transfer of finely rendered designs to the surface of the armor. This technique was then enhanced by the gilding or blackening of etched surfaces.

Goldsmiths embellished arms and armor with sumptuous precious metal for use in pageants. They also probably produced and attached cloth-of-gold coverings to extremely fine brigandines. The virtuoso goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer of Nuremberg made a set of silver saddle plates for Emperor Maximilian II, using motifs from the decorative arts objects made in his workshop. Generally speaking, no artist viewed the decoration of arms and weaponry as unworthy of his skills. As a result, the designs incorporated in arms and armor often display great creativity and finesse.

Once all armor elements were decorated, armor assembly entered its final phase, which involved the work of locksmiths. These men fitted the strapping, buckles, hinges, and other parts. After it was inspected and accepted, the armor was often stamped with the mark of its maker. In addition, the mark of the city where the armor was made was often punched into the surface, indicating that the piece met local standards for quality. Several additional types of markings appear on armors, including those of the mills that provided the rough plates, assembly marks, external serial marks to prevent the mix-up of very similar pieces, and arsenal numbers.

The true test of an armor of course was how successfully it functioned and how pleased the new owner was with his purchase. Only the most fortunate armorers found their clients as satisfied as Emperor Charles V was after trying on an armor made by Caremolo Modrone of Mantua: “His Majesty said that they [his armor elements] were more precious to him than a city. He then embraced Master Caremolo warmly … and said they were so excellent that… if he had taken the measurement a thousand times they could not fit better…. Caremolo is more beloved and revered than a member of the court.”



Giant crossbow

A letter from the west coast of India addressed to the Florentine regent Giuliano de’ Medici in 1515 is revealing. A seafarer named Andrea Corsali reported that he had discovered gentle people clad in long robes who lived on milk and rice, refused any food that contained blood, and would not harm any living creature—“just like our Leonardo da Vinci.” Corsali was describing the Jains, known for their extreme nonviolence; in the twentieth century they would have a profound influence on Mahatma Gandhi.

One of Vasari’s loveliest anecdotes about Leonardo concerns the artist’s love of animals: “Often when he was walking past the places where birds were sold, he would pay the price asked, take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom.” Did Leonardo, who had an exceptional desire for freedom and himself tried to fly, feel a special rapport with birds?

Of course Corsali would not have been reminded of the artist far away if Leonardo’s attitude had not seemed so remarkable. That a person would display empathy at all was quite unusual in this era, which had been devastated by violence. But the idea of actually forswearing the consumption of meat out of simple consideration for other creatures was unheard of in the West.

Vasari, who later wrote a biography of Leonardo, may have known these and other reports about customs in the Orient. In the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia birds are offered for sale in front of some temples even today so that people who want to ensure good karma can buy their freedom and send them soaring into the air. Vasari’s account of Leonardo’s bird liberation may have been no more than an appealing embellishment to his text.

Still, there is no doubt that Leonardo had a deep-seated aversion to all violence, as several passages in his notebooks confirm. His attitude certainly had more in common with the ethos of Eastern nonviolence than with the harsh customs then prevalent in the Christian West. Precisely because he respected the value of every creature, he was firmly convinced of the sanctity of human life. In reference to his anatomical studies, he wrote: “And thou, man, who by these my labours dost look upon the marvelous works of nature, if thou judgest it to be an atrocious act to destroy the same, reflect that it is an infinitely atrocious act to take away the life of man.”

Scythed chariot

Leonardo’s words make it difficult to grasp the gruesome fantasies his mind was capable of in designing his engines of war. On hundreds of pages, Leonardo sketched giant crossbows, automatic rifles, and equipment to bombard strongholds with maximal destructiveness. The sole function of these devices was to kill and destroy. He did not just record the technology, but provided graphic descriptions of the devastating impact of his inventions. In one sketch, archers are running away from an exploding grenade, which Leonardo referred to as “the deadliest of all machines.”4 In another, a war chariot with rotating scythes as large as men is mowing down soldiers and leaving behind a trail of severed legs and dismembered bodies.5 The battle plans Leonardo drew up are equally chilling. On Sheet 69 of Manuscript B, housed in Paris, we read about his preparations for chemical warfare:

Chalk, fine sulphide of arsenic, and powdered verdigris may be thrown among the enemy ships by means of small mangonels. And all those who, as they breathe, inhale the said powder with their breath will become asphyxiated. But take care to have the wind so that it does not blow the powder back upon you, or to have your nose and mouth covered over with a fine cloth dipped in water so that the powder may not enter.6

His involvement in the wars of his era extended well beyond the design of weapons and began even before he signed on with the in – famous, bloodthirsty Cesare Borgia in 1502. How could a man whose sense of empathy is said to have inspired him to free birds from their cages come up with ideas of this sort?

On one occasion, Leonardo justified his military activities with a statement that a modern-day reader could easily picture coming straight from the Pentagon: “When besieged by ambitious tyrants, I find a means of offense and defense in order to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is liberty.”

Doubts are certainly warranted here; after all, his first employer, Ludovico Sforza, was not exactly a champion of freedom. The historian Paolo Giovio, a contemporary of il Moro, called him “a man born for the ruin of Italy.” That might sound harsh, but without a doubt, “the Moor” was a major reason that Italy lost its freedom for centuries and became a battlefield for foreign powers.

Ludovico, an inveterate risk-taker, sized up his position on his very first day in power and realized that he was surrounded by enemies. In his own empire his right to rule was in dispute, since he owed his power to the violent murder of his brother, for which no one had been charged, and the arrest of the sister-in-law. Moreover, Venice and the Vatican tried to exploit Ludovico’s insecure position, and they armed for war. In March 1482, the Venetians attacked Ferrara, which was an ally of il Moro. At this time, Leonardo arrived in Milan and in his famous ten-point letter of application promised il Moro a whole new arsenal of weapons. Two years later, Ludovico was able to defeat the Venetians.

But il Moro, who was focusing all his efforts on legitimating his rule once and for all, needed a seemingly endless supply of weapons. Over the next few years, his dodges would determine not only the further course of Leonardo’s unsettled life but also result in the so-called Italian Wars, which lasted sixty-five years and brought about the political collapse of the country.

The disaster ran its course when Ludovico sought a strong ally against Naples. The king of Naples, Ferdinand I, had meanwhile given his daughter’s hand in marriage to the legitimate heir to the throne in Milan, Gian Galeazzo, and was quite indignant when he realized that Ludovico had no intention of ceding power to his son-in-law. Ludovico encouraged Charles VIII of France to invade Italy to overthrow Ferdinand. What followed was a bloody farce: Charles was asked to invade Lombardy with forty thousand soldiers, whereupon Gian Galeazzo was murdered. Two days later, Charles declared il Moro the legitimate duke of Milan. But the latter showed no gratitude. When the Neapolitans rebelled against the French occupation in the following year, the opportunist switched sides and entered into an alliance with Venice and the pope. The French were expelled and suffered great losses.

Just a few decades earlier, wars had been highly ritualized battles with relatively few casualties, but now they were developing into horrific bloodbaths. The handgun had been widely adopted; a few years later, Leonardo would contribute a wheel lock, which was one of the handgun’s first effective firing mechanisms. And there were growing numbers of portable cannons on battlefields. Since the earlier stone balls had been replaced by metal projectiles, the firearms shot more effectively than ever before, as Charles VIII’s soldiers proved when they demolished the ramparts of the mighty castle of Monte San Giovanni Campano with small cannons within hours, before attacking Naples. Until then the battle was won by the side that had more and better soldiers. From this point on, technology was key.

Leonardo had promised marvelous weapons to il Moro and was granted a tremendous degree of freedom in return. As the engineer of the duke, he received a fixed salary and no longer had to rely on selling his art on the market. This was the only way he could pursue his research interests and continue to perfect his paintings without any pressure to meet deadlines. We owe the magnificence of the Milan Last Supper, the studies of water, and his explorations of the human body to Leonardo’s clever move of offering himself up to one of the most unscrupulous warlords of his era. During his first seventeen years in Milan, serving Ludovico, he sketched the great majority of his weapons, among them his most dreadful ones.

All the same, Leonardo’s interest in weapons went far beyond the steady job they brought him. His drawings reveal an unmistakable fascination with technology. In the end, his inventions were the product of his inexhaustible fantasy, which gave rise to paintings, stories, projects to transform entire regions, tools—and weapons. One of these weapons, which he designed in Milan, looks like a water mill, but is actually a gigantic automatic revolver. Leonardo arranged four crossbows in a compass formation, with one pointing upward, one downward, one to the left, and one to the right. The wheel was powered by four men running along its exterior to turn it at breakneck speed. An ingenious mechanism with winches and ropes caused the bows to tighten automatically with each turn. The marksman crouched in the middle of the mechanism and activated the release. In one version, the wheel was equipped with sixteen rather than four crossbows. Leonardo devoted himself to refining the driving mechanism as well.

Even so, in comparison with the truly revolutionary firearms of the era, this contraption looks charmingly old-fashioned. At least for the years until 1500, Kenneth Clark was probably right in claiming that Leonardo’s knowledge of military matters was not ahead of his time. Even Leonardo’s most spectacular weapon, the giant crossbow he invented in 1485, was not really pioneering. With a 98-foot bow span, this monster was intended to stand up to cannons, to fire more accurately, and to save the soldiers from often fatal accidents with exploding gunpowder. There is no evidence, however, that anyone attempted to construct this giant crossbow during Leonardo’s lifetime. More than five hundred years later, when a British television production undertook this project, the results were pitiful. Specialized technicians were brought in to build a functionally efficient weapon using twentieth-century tools, guided by Paolo Galluzzi, one of the leading experts on Renaissance engineering. Since they were required to restrict their materials to those that were available in the Renaissance, they opted to build a bow with blades made of walnut and ash that would be five times larger than any before. A worm drive designed by Leonardo himself had to muster a force equivalent to the weight of ten tons to tighten this enormous spring, thus making it possible to catapult a stone ball over 650 feet. But when British artillerymen tried out the construction on one of their military training areas, the balls barely left the weapon. After a mere 16 feet in the air, they plopped to the ground. Video recordings showed that they could not detach properly from the bowstring. When the technicians added a stopping device to the string (not drawn by Leonardo), the range increased to 65 feet— still hardly sufficient to produce anything but guffaws on a Renaissance battlefield. And the fact that the replicators had made the bow thinner than in Leonardo’s design came back to haunt them—the wood broke.

When you look at many of Leonardo’s drawings from his years in Milan, it is hard to shake the feeling that Leonardo had no intention of supplying serviceable weapons. It seems to have been far more important to him to impress his patron—especially when he emphasized the enormous dimensions and the impact of his weapons. As the most talented draftsman of his generation, he knew how to create a dazzling effect. Leonardo enjoyed an outstanding reputation as a technician of war because he was a great artist. He portrayed the details of his designs so meticulously, using the effects of perspective, light, and shadow so skillfully, that it was easy to mistake reality for wish. The drawing of the giant crossbow features not only the knot of the string and the details of the trigger mechanism, but also the soldier handling the weapon. Like the face on the Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s war machines seem alive.


While Leonardo proved a master of illusion in designing weapons, he also made concrete contributions to military development. Military commanders needed to figure out how to put the latest firearms—mobile cannons—into action. How should they shoot? With bows and crossbows, the shooter simply aimed straight ahead; the range of the new firearms, by contrast, meant that the trajectory curve had to be determined to make the cannonball hit its target. But no one had a clear idea about the laws governing the paths of cannonballs. Progress on this matter could determine the outcomes of wars.

Traditional physics offered little help, because this discipline still adhered to the ancient view that a body moves only while a force acts on it. But if that were so, a cannonball would come to a standstill just after leaving the barrel of the cannon. The seemingly plausible concept of “impetus” was introduced: The cannon gives the ball its impetus, and only when the impetus is completely used up as it flies through the air does it fall to the ground. The cannoneers of the time were well aware that the impetus theory could not be correct; anyone who relied on it was off the mark. The error is that gravity sets in immediately to begin pulling down on the cannonball.

Leonardo’s interest in this question went far beyond its military implications. He was determined to figure out the laws of motion. He kept going around in circles because he could not relinquish the idea of impetus and because the crucial concept of the earth’s gravity was still unknown at the time. His notebooks document how bedeviled he was by the laws of motion. His explanations of mechanics were riddled with inconsistencies; at times he argued both for and against impetus within the space of a single paragraph.

But then he had a brilliant idea of how to determine the trajectory of projectiles not by conceptualizing, but by observing: “Test in order to make a rule of these motions. You must make it with a leather bag full of water with many small pipes of the same inside diameter, disposed on one line.” One sketch shows the small pipes in the bag pointing upward at various angles, like cannons that aim higher at some points and more level at others. The arcs formed by the spurting water correspond to the trajectories of the cannonballs. Leonardo’s trajectories were accurate in both this sketch and others. By means of a clever experiment—not involving mathematics—he had discovered the ballistic trajectory that Isaac Newton finally worked out mathematically some two hundred years later.

This little sketch offers a glimpse inside Leonardo’s mind. He was able to link together fields of knowledge that appeared utterly unrelated. From the laws of hydraulics, which he had investigated so exhaustively, he gained insights into ballistics. His thoughts ran counter to the conventional means of solving problems. Instead of attacking the matter head on, formulating the question neatly, and penetrating more and more deeply below the surface, Leonardo approached the problem obliquely—like a cat burglar who has climbed up one building and from there breaks into another across the balconies. Leonardo was unsurpassed in what is sometimes called “lateral thinking,” which enabled him to explain the sound waves in the air by way of waves in the water, the statics of a skeleton by those of a construction crane, and the lens of the eye by means of a submerged glass ball.

Leonardo’s experiments with models also represented a new approach. Since he neither understood how to use a cannon nor was able to observe the trajectory of an actual cannonball up close, he used a bag filled with water as a substitute. Of course an approach of that sort is unlikely to yield a coherent theoretical construct, because similarities between different problems are always limited to individual points, and Leonardo was far too restless to pursue every last detail of a question. Still, his models yielded astonishing insights. The French art historian Daniel Arasse has aptly called him a “thinker without a system of thought.”

In an impressive ink drawing, Leonardo illustrated the damage that could be inflicted by applying his insights into ballistics. A large sheet in the possession of the Queen of England shows four mortars in front of a fortification wall firing off a virtual storm of projectiles. Not a single square foot of the besieged position is spared from the hundreds of projectiles whizzing through the air. For each individual one, Leonardo marked the precise parabolic trajectory, and the lines of fire fan out into curves like fountains. Ever the aesthete, Leonardo found elegance even in total destruction.

Saturation bombing of a castle

It is difficult to establish to what extent Leonardo’s knowledge of artillery was implemented on an actual battlefield. When Ludovico had Novara bombarded in February 1500, the mortars were so cleverly positioned that the northern Italian city quickly fell. In the opinion of the British expert Kenneth Keele, il Moro was using Leonardo’s plans for a systematic saturation bombing.

Leonardo’s close ties to the tyrants of his day offer a case study of the early symbiosis of science and the military. Now as then, war not only provides steady jobs and money to pursue scholarly interests, but also prompts interesting theoretical questions. Even a man as principled as Leonardo was unable to resist temptations of this sort. He was not the first pioneer of modern science and technology to employ his knowledge for destructive aims. Half a century earlier, Filippo Brunelleschi, the inspired builder of the dome of the Florence Cathedral, had diverted the Serchio River with dams to inundate the enemy city of Lucca. (This operation came to a disastrous end; instead of putting Lucca under water, the Serchio River flooded the Florentine camp.) Leonardo’s struggle to strike a balance between conscience, personal gain, and intellectual fascination seems remarkably modern, and brings to mind the physicists in Los Alamos who devoted themselves heart and soul to nuclear research until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Of course we cannot measure Leonardo’s values by today’s standards. We have come to consider peace among the world’s major powers a normal state of affairs now that more than six decades have passed since the end of World War II, but we need to bear in mind that there has never been such a sustained phase of freedom from strife since the fall of the Roman Empire. In Italy, the Renaissance was one of the bloodiest epochs. The influence of the Holy Roman Empire had broken down, mercenary leaders had wrested power from royal dynasties, and a desire for conquest seemed natural. War was the norm, and a prolonged period of peace inconceivable.

Leonardo’s refusal to regard death and destruction as inescapable realities is a testament to his intellectual independence from his era. As far back as 1490 he was calling war a “most bestial madness.” And one of his last notebooks even contains a statement about research ethics. While describing a “method of remaining under water for as long a time as I can remain without food,” he chose to withhold the details of his invention (a submarine?), fearing “the evil nature of men who would practice assassinations at the bottom of the seas by breaking the ships in their lowest parts and sinking them together with the crew who are in them.” The only specifics he revealed involved a harmless diver’s suit in which the mouth of a tube above the surface of the water, buoyed by wineskins or pieces of cork, allows the diver to breathe while remaining out of sight.

Leonardo must have had his reasons for withholding particulars about the dangerous underwater vehicle. Perhaps his ideas were still quite vague, or he was afraid that imitators might thwart his chances for a promising business. But the key passage here is Leonardo’s statement about the responsibility of a scientist. He was the first to assert that researchers have to assume responsibility for the harm others cause in using their discoveries. Insights like these, and his high regard for each and every life, were quite extraordinary at the time. It is amazing that he embraced these ethical principles—but not surprising that he repeatedly failed to live up to them, at least by today’s standards.