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.

WWII Anti-Vessel Ordinance

The Magnetic Mine

Napoleon once said that he preferred marshals with luck. Somebody else said, “Luck is a matter of planning.” The story of defeating the magnetic mine, which to the British was a bad surprise, shows how one side’s poor planning was the other side’s luck.

Toward the end of 1939, some ships entering and exiting British ports were damaged by underwater explosions that hit their lower hulls. The damage usually was not fatal, but in many cases bottom plates were torn, rivets popped out, and internal machinery and propeller shafts dislodged. Many of these ships had to be written off or at best put into dry dock for repair.

An investigation confirmed that these ships were not hit by conventional sea mines. (Such a mine is usually placed at low depth and anchored to the bottom by a cable so that it will be positioned a few feet below the surface.) The investigation of the ships that managed to stagger into port pointed to an explosion beneath the ship but at a distance from it. This led to the conclusion that the damage was caused by a so-called “influence mine,” which was laid on the bottom and was activated by the propeller noise, the pressure wave of the approaching ship, or the effect of the ship’s metal hull on the local magnetic field of the earth. The experts tended to assume that these were magnetic mines, because already in World War I such mines were developed although never used. The trouble was that no effective countermeasures could be devised and employed without knowing the exact characteristics of the detonation mechanism, and finding one became a priority undertaking. But how do you identify and recover a mine lying somewhere on the sea floor? Here Lady Luck smiled on the British—and not once but twice.

A German aircraft dropping such mines made a navigational error at night. At high tide, the area flown over by the airplane was covered with water, and the pilot (or navigator) probably thought he was in the right position, but when the tide receded the mine was observed lying in the mud next to a British military base. The mine was moved into a workshop, and the experts (who already suspected it to be a magnetic mine) manufactured a set of bronze (nonmagnetic) tools, disassembled it, and learned how it worked. Here luck played a role again. The mine contained an antimotion device to protect against tampering if dropped on land. This device was to be deactivated by water entering it, if dropped at sea. The short time the mine spent in the water rendered it safe for handling.

The British developed three ways to counter the mine. The one that finally became standard, because it was the cheapest and did not require sailing through “cleared” corridors, was the “degaussing” of the ships. By dragging charged electrical cables over the hulls, the ships became nonmagnetic. This took about half an hour, although the process had to be repeated every six months. The technology of the magnetic mine was not really new, and the Germans chose a well-suited weapon to use. Without better information, the British might have groped in the dark for a long time, spending time and effort trying to deduce the exact nature of the mechanism. Navigational carelessness negated all the work the Germans invested.

The Acoustic Torpedo

An acoustic torpedo, which homes in on the noise the target produces, was thought of during World War I but, because of technical limitations, was never developed. The Germans were later the first to produce one designed to home in on the propeller noise of surface ships. A first variant was introduced in July 1943 but quickly superseded by a faster variant (the Zaunkoenig), which was used with moderate success. It had a major problem that the Germans were apparently unaware of: it sometimes exploded just when entering the turbulent wake behind the target. The Allies for some time suspected such a German development, because the Americans were busy developing their own acoustic torpedo and concurrently thought of potential countermeasures. So within sixteen days of the appearance of the Zaunkoenig, they introduced the Foxer, a towed noisemaker that caused the torpedoes to detonate prematurely (Macksey 2000, 143).

The Germans distributed this torpedo sparingly, and submarine crews were instructed to use it only against escort vessels and not merchantmen (Gannon 1996, 99–100). Later, when several such torpedoes were captured by the Allies, it was found that they could home in only on ships moving at twelve to nineteen knots (Gannon 1996, 101). It is not clear if the Germans were aware of this limitation or that the torpedo was designed from the start to attack escort ships as first priority.

The Americans advanced the homing technology much further. They had no need to attack merchantmen or escort vessels in the Atlantic but were acutely aware of the need to attack submarines. (The German submarine force was deemed of higher priority than the Japanese merchant fleet and its escorts.) From 1943, the ocean was regularly scanned by aircraft that took off from Iceland or Greenland and from convoys’ escort carriers. When such an airplane discovered a submarine, it would attack using bombs or depth charges and report the position to a Combat Information Center, which then decided whether to send a surface vessel (if one was available) or aircraft, which would force the submarine to stay submerged until the arrival of surface vessels.

But depth charges were of a limited efficacy. To explode near the submarine, the attacker had to follow the underwater maneuvering of the submarine and stay more or less above it. This remained true even after the next generations of forward-firing projectors—starting with the Hedgehog—were developed. More important, depth charges were set before firing to explode at a given depth. While this did not totally depend on guesswork, it was nearly so. Obviously, something better was needed.

In the fall of 1942, the U.S. Navy developed the sonobuoy. This device parachuted to the water, listened for anomalous sounds, and broadcast them to an airplane. It succeeded in detecting submarine propellers up to three and a half miles away. In order to fully exploit this capability, the United States then developed an acoustic torpedo that could home in on the submarine’s propellers, and specifically on cavitation noises. This torpedo, the Mk-24 (referred to as the Mk-24 Mine to hide its true nature, and nicknamed FIDO), entered service in the beginning of 1943 and was meant to be kept in production only until the end of the year. It was assumed that by that time the Germans would figure out its characteristics and its usefulness would be over (Price 1980, 110). To delay this possibility, the Allies introduced some strict rules. One of these said that this torpedo was not to be dropped against a submerged submarine when surfaced submarines were in the vicinity. By that time, the Allies controlled the air to such an extent that they could force even groups of submarines to submerge and then attack (Price 1980, 181). This torpedo also exploited the basic instinct of any submarine’s commander: when detected, dive as fast as possible. But running the motors at highest power caused cavitation, which was his undoing. In fact, if he had just shut down his motors, the torpedo would have lost its lock-on, but as pointed out, this was against the basic instincts of submariners. The secret of the Mk-24 torpedo was not compromised until the end of the war (Price 1980, 225n1).

Due to the combination of advanced technology and good secret keeping, this torpedo achieved a high success rate of nearly 20 percent sinkings and 9 percent damaged submarines, compared with 9 percent for depth charges.

“Long Lance”[1] Type 93 Torpedo

The modern torpedo, initially intended to be fired from surface ships, was developed by Robert Whitehead, a British engineer who lived in Italy (then under Austrian rule) and operated there a successful factory for marine engines. In 1848, Whitehead observed Austrian troops in Milan suppressing a popular uprising. He was horrified by what he saw and became a pacifist. He then thought of developing naval weapon so dreadful it would prevent future wars. His occupation with marine engines and his belief that naval warfare was the key to victory (in this, he anticipated Admiral Alfred Mahan) no doubt lay behind this conclusion. In 1860, he saw a demonstration of a remotely controlled explosive-carrying boat, but he thought that an underwater vehicle would be better and sat down to develop one. In 1870, he demonstrated his “torpedo,” and the Austrian navy, which at the time controlled part of the Adriatic Sea coast, was the first to buy it. The Royal Navy, the strongest naval power of the time, was the second, and in a few short years all the world’s navies were equipped with torpedoes. One of the torpedo’s main advantages was that even small boats could pack a punch comparable to big ships, which led to the development of a new class of ships—the “torpedo boat destroyer”—which eventually became the “destroyer.” The Royal Navy was the first to fire a torpedo in anger, in 1877, against some Peruvian rebels. It missed, but it was enough to scare the rebels away.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the torpedo was improved. Its original source of propulsive power, compressed air, was replaced by an internal combustion engine that received oxygen from a tank of compressed air. This was a major improvement but had a major drawback: Beside oxygen, air consists of 80 percent nitrogen, which does not contribute to the combustion and thus is exhausted as a visible wake of bubbles. This sometimes enabled a ship to avoid the torpedo by a quick maneuver. Everybody was looking for something better.

Replacing the air in the tank with pure oxygen, or high-concentration peroxide (H2O2), which the Germans tried, would have solved two problems. It would have increased the amount of oxygen in a given air tank, and since all combustion products were water-soluble, the bubbles would have been eliminated. However, the proximity of pure oxygen to grease and moving parts is an invitation for uncontrolled combustion, especially on surface ships engaged in combat.

Experimentation with oxygen was undertaken by several navies, and on the entrance of the United States into World War II, such torpedoes were at various stages of testing. However, Admiral King, the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, believed such research would interfere with the production of standard torpedoes and assigned it the lowest priority (Blair 1975, 279–80).

The Japanese, in their effort to achieve excellence, were aware of the dangers but decided that the advantages of oxygen technology surpassed its disadvantages. They developed several versions of this torpedo, to be launched from surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. Thanks to the use of oxygen, these torpedoes were faster, had more than double the range, and carried a heavier warhead than any comparable Western torpedo. After the war, the Japanese also reported that they had no shipboard accident with these torpedoes (Blair 1975, 279–80).

The Japanese were very careful to make sure that no such torpedo fell into the wrong hands. This policy sometimes caused large numbers of ships to search for lost practice torpedoes, which were supposed to surface after their run (Lowry and Wellham 2000, 38). Nevertheless, their security sometimes failed. Luckily for them, the Americans did not notice.

In 1934, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) translated a Japanese article that stated “our latest torpedoes ran with practically no track.” One of the officers who read that passage highlighted it, but there is no evidence that ONI pursued the matter further (Mahnken 2002, 70). A worse security leak occurred several years later.

At the end of 1939 or the beginning of 1940, the American naval attaché in Tokyo was approached in his tennis club by a local medical student who turned out to be Chinese. The man, angered by Japanese atrocities in China, told the American that the Japanese navy organized tours for students in order to encourage a national spirit and increase recruitment. The American asked some specific questions, and on their next meeting the man told him that the Japanese had developed an oxygen-propelled torpedo and cited its performance, which surpassed anything available in the West (Mahnken 2002, 70–71). The naval attaché forwarded a report to Washington, and although the range was understated by the Chinese student, it still caused a stir at ONI. A copy was forwarded to the Bureau of Ordnance, but they declared that such a weapon was impossible (Mahnken 2002, 71). They probably understood that to obtain such performance the torpedo had to utilize oxygen technology, as the Tokyo report clearly stated. But since the United States and Britain were struggling with this technology, they assumed the Japanese could not have perfected it on their own. The Bureau of Ordnance experts preferred to consider the report a mistake rather than face the spectre of Japanese technological superiority. Ironically, the Japanese developed this technology because of a mistaken belief that the British had already mastered it (Mahnken 2002, 71n101).

Armed with the judgment of the Bureau of Ordnance, ONI filed away all reports about oxygen-powered torpedoes and abandoned pursuing any further “rumors” about advanced Japanese torpedoes.

In response to the Guadalcanal landing and in an attempt to hit American supply ships in the area, the Japanese sent in a task force of cruisers and destroyers. In a night battle (the Savo Island Battle), it attacked and defeated a similarly sized American force in what was later described as the worst defeat in battle of the U.S. Navy, which lost four cruisers and a destroyer against no losses and only slight damage to the Japanese. It was the first in a series of night battles in which the Japanese fired long-range torpedoes at ranges far longer than the range of their or American guns.

In the beginning of 1943, such a torpedo, called the Long Lance, washed ashore at Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal, was taken apart, and its data was sent to Pacific Fleet intelligence, but nothing except rumors filtered back. In a meeting preparatory to one of these battles (Kula Gulf), the captain of one American cruiser who had heard the “rumors” warned the presiding admiral not to approach the Japanese to less than ten thousand yards. The admiral, who believed that a submarine sank one of his ships in a previous engagement, dismissed the story as “scuttlebutt” (Morison 1949, 196). In the ensuing battle, this captain’s ship, in addition to a destroyer, was sunk.

The U.S. Navy was aware of Japanese emphasis on night fighting, which reduced the advantages of American material superiority (Mahnken 1996, 435). This possibility was already exercised in 1933 in an American war game in which the American force was defeated by a torpedo attack, nine years before a Japanese admiral actually did this for real. (A night gun battle could not be efficient, let alone decisive, without radar.) Surprisingly, the Americans did not ask themselves whether the real-life Japanese (not those in the war game) would look for other means to circumvent their inferiority in radar technology.

And there was another failure, that of not realizing that the enemy thinks in a different way. In the United States, it was thought that radar developments would enable gun battles at night, and this might have led to the implicit assumption that when the Japanese would catch up in radar technology, naval battles would revert to gunnery, including at night. But apparently the Japanese understood early the advantage the Long Lance conferred on them. Their doctrine thus called for a night battle, initiated by torpedoes fired from cruisers and destroyers, and a daylight mopping up by guns. For this purpose, they equipped many destroyers and cruisers with large numbers of these torpedoes, and they even converted two cruisers to “torpedo cruisers,” which carried dozens of them (Mahnken 1996, 435).

[1] The Type 93, designated for Imperial Japanese calendar year 2593) was a 61 cm (24 in)-diameter torpedo of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), launched from surface ships. It is commonly referred to as the Long Lance by most modern English-language naval historians, a nickname given it after the war by Samuel Eliot Morison, the chief historian of the U.S. Navy, who spent much of the war in the Pacific Theater. In Japanese references, the term Sanso gyorai, lit. “oxygen torpedo”) is also used, in reference to its propulsion system. It was the most advanced naval torpedo in the world at the time.


57 Squadron Avro Lancaster with the “Usual” area bombing load of a 4,000lb bomb and 12 Small Bomb Containers, each filled with 4lb incendiary bombs.

4,000 lb bomb being loaded onto de Havilland Mosquito.

A blockbuster bomb or cookie was any of several of the largest conventional bombs used in World War II by the Royal Air Force (RAF). The term blockbuster was originally a name coined by the press and referred to a bomb which had enough explosive power to destroy an entire street or large building through the effects of blast in conjunction with incendiary bombs.

An important feature of the Lancaster was its large 33 ft (10.05 m) long bomb bay. Initially, the heaviest bomb carried was the 4000 lb (1814 kg) high capacity (HC) ‘Cookie’. Bulged doors were added to 30% of the Lancaster force to allow the aircraft to carry 8000 lb (3628 kg) and later 12,000 lb (5443 kg) ‘Cookies’.

The first type of aircraft to carry bombs operationally was the Wellington, but they later became part of the standard bomb load of the RAF’s heavy night bombers, as well as that of the Mosquitoes of the Light Night Strike Force, whose aircraft would sometimes visit Berlin twice in one night carrying bombs, flown by two different crews. The 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) and the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) could be carried only by the Avro Lancaster which needed to be slightly modified with bulged bomb-bay doors.

The first use of the 8,000 lb was by 15 Squadron Lancasters against Berlin on 2 December 1943. Bad weather and other factors meant their effectiveness was not noted.

The 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) “cookie” was regarded as a particularly dangerous load to carry. Due to the airflow over the detonating pistols fitted in the nose, it would often explode even if dropped, i.e., jettisoned, in a supposedly “safe” unarmed state. The Safety height above ground for dropping the 4,000 lb “cookie” was 6,000 feet (1,800 m); any lower and the dropping aircraft risked being damaged by the explosion’s atmospheric shock wave:

    We were flying at 6,000 feet which was the minimum height to drop the 4,000 pounder. We dropped it in the middle of town [Koblenz], which gave the aircraft a hell of a belt, lifted it up and blew an escape hatch from out of the top.

    — Jack Murray, pilot of “G for George”, reporting on G for George’s mission on 17th April 1943.

In August 692 Squadron [Mosquitos] at Graveley had a run of bad luck. On the 25th Squadron Leader W.D.W. Bird and Sergeant F.W. Hudson were killed when they crashed at Park Farm, Old Warden near Bedford. It was believed that the pilot misread his altimeter. On 27 August 1944 on a trip to Mannheim Flight Lieutenant T.H. Galloway DFM and Sergeant J. Murrell swung on take-off, caught fire and blew up. The ‘Cookie’ went off, but was not detonated, so it did not cause too much damage. Galloway and Murray got out when the Mosquito caught fire and ran to safety. Over the target Flying Officer S.G.A. Warner and Flying Officer W.K. McGregor RCAF were shot down and killed and the searchlights and flak followed them all the way down. On 10/11 September it was the old Milk Run again to Berlin. Terry Goodwin DFC DFM a 692 Squadron pilot at Graveley flew this operation, his last on the Mosquito and he had a rather anxious time, as he recounts:

After Hugh Hay had finished his tour I had several good navigators with nothing to worry about. However, when my last trip was coming up there was a new navigator posted in. He was a Warrant Officer with no trips in at all. I just could not figure that out when all crews at that time had a tour under their belts and knew what the score was. I took him for a cross-country, which was not satisfactory as he had trouble with the Gee. I did not know whether it was a ‘short’ or a ‘long’ trip: either the Ruhr or Berlin. It turned out to be the ‘big city’.

The night was clear. The take-off with the 4,000lb ‘Cookie’ was good. The aircraft was singing right along with all gauges OK. The track was out over the North Sea towards Denmark then a sharp turn right south-east to a point just west of Berlin then straight east for the bombing run. When we were approaching this turning point it was clear with no moon. I could see the coast outline right from Denmark south. The tram trolleys of Hamburg were still making their blue sparks and then shut down fully. Then the sprog navigator said to me, “I don’t know where we are!” I told him to get the course from the turning point and I would tell him when to start all over again. He did and got us just west of Berlin on time or at least I thought we were on time. I told him to log the time, then go and dump the Window down the chute. There was no action outside as we ran up looking for the ‘TIs’. Jerry was playing it very careful giving nothing away. Where was that PFF type? The TIs should be going down! Then all hell broke loose. Every searchlight in the city came on right on us and the flak was too damn close. I turned sharp right and dived 2,000ft, straightened out back on course, held it, turned left and climbed and got more flak but further away. And this kept on and on. Finally the lights were bending east so I thought we should be through the city. I turned back west and still no PFF. I told the navigator to drop the ‘Cookie’ (I don’t think we got a proper picture) because the flak was hard at us again. Then the TIs went down right ahead of us so we were pretty close. But the flak kept on and I twisted and dived and climbed and kept that up. I knew we were down to about 17,000ft when I suddenly saw the light flak opening up. You knew it was pretty if it was not so damn serious. I turned and climbed out on the west side of Berlin. I told the navigator to log the time. We had been in it for 11 minutes with Jerry’s undivided attention. Were there any fighters? Not that I saw, maybe I was just too busy. It would not have been a safe place for them with all that flak around. We did get home and logged 4 hours and 30 minutes. The next morning the Flight Sergeant found me and then showed me the aircraft. It was full of flak; the main spar of the tail plane was getting an 18-inch splice. He dug a piece of flak out for me. One piece had just nicked the intercooler rad, then the fairing for the main rad. but not the tubes, but was spent as it bounced around the engine.

Berlin at this time was the ‘favourite’ destination for the Mosquitoes. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights at 8 (PFF) Group stations were routed to the Big City over towns and cities whose air raid sirens would announce their arrival overhead, although they were not the targets for the Mosquitoes’ bombs. Depriving the Germans of much needed sleep and comfort was a very effective nuisance weapon, while a 4,000pounder nestling in the bomb bay was a more tangible ‘calling card’. The ‘night postmen’ had two rounds: After take-off crews immediately climbed to height, departed Cromer and flew the dog-leg route Heligoland-Bremen-Hamburg. The second route saw departure over Woodbridge and went to The Ruhr-Hannover-Munich. Two Mosquito bombers, which failed to return from the attack on Berlin on 13/14 September, were claimed shot down south-east of the capital by Oberfeldwebel Egbert Jaacks of I./NJG10 and at Braunschweig by Leutnant Karl Mitterdorfer of 10./JG300.

The ever-increasing Mosquito strength was put to good effect on 1/2 February, 1945 when 176 Mosquito sorties were flown on eight separate targets. Ludwigshafen, Mainz, Siegen, Bruckhausen, Hannover, Nuremburg and Berlin were all hit; the latter involving 122 Mosquitoes. Berlin would suffer mercilessly at the hands of the LNSF during the final months of the war and, from 20/21 February, the capital was attacked on 36 consecutive nights. Averaging 60 Mosquitoes per raid, 2,538 sorties were flown to Berlin, of which 2,409 were successful. Some 855 cookies were dropped on the city during this period alone and the LNSF continued to bomb Berlin right up to the arrival of the Russian forces in late April 1945.


4000 lb HC bomb

    Mark I: first production design

    Mark II: three nose pistols

    Mark III: no side pistol pockets

    Mark IV: no stiffening beam

    Mark V: U.S. production

    Mark VI: U.S. production

Filling was Amatol, RDX/TNT, Minol, or Torpex. In 1943, 25,000 of these were used; this rose to 38,000 in 1944. In 1945 up to the end of the war a further 25,000 were used.

8,000 lb HC

    Mk I

    Mk II

Filling was Amatex or Torpex. Bombs were produced from 1942 to 1945.

12,000 lb HC

    Mk I

    Mk II

Filling was Amatex or Torpex. 170 were used in the last two years of the war.

A Pole in Space: Polyus

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan announced the development of a shield in space to protect the United States from nuclear missile attack. The Strategic Defence Initiative, soon christened Star Wars by the media, was hugely ambitious, phenomenally expensive and ultimately unworkable, but it triggered immediate alarm bells in the Kremlin. As a consequence, Chairman Yuri Andropov authorised the production of systems to match and counter the US proposals.

One particular design for an experimental orbital combat station was called Polyus (Pole), or Skif-DM, and was designed to test a variety of new technologies. The design originated with Chelomei’s bureau and was based on a TKS-derived module originally intended to serve as the first component for the proposed Mir-2 space station. Normally Soviet space projects were undertaken on a five-year basis, but it seems that Polyus was pushed forward by the leadership who wanted quick results in their quest to keep pace with the Americans.

Andropov died in February 1984 and his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, continued to support the development of new Soviet space weapons. However, Chernenko was suffering with emphysema and died the following year, so it seems probable that others such as Ministers Oleg Dmitriyevich Baklanov and Oleg Shishkin were shaping events. They had jointly approved the assembly of Polyus at the Krunichev facility on 1st July 1984 and took overall control of the project. After Chernenko’s death on 12th March 1985, his successor Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to halt the development of space weapons, but he also made it clear to the US administration that the Soviet Union would respond directly to Reagan’s Star Wars programme if it continued to gain momentum. Gorbachev believed that the pursuit of space weapons could prove destabilising.

In July 1985 it was agreed to launch a Polyus test vehicle by September 1986. With the development of the Energia booster moving ahead quite rapidly, a decision was taken to launch Polyus as part of the first test flight, although adapting the spacecraft to Energia was proving rather difficult. The Polyus vehicle was 121ft (37m) in length, it had a diameter of 13ft 4in (4.1 Om) and a mass of 176,369 lb (80,000kg). The intention was to launch the spacecraft into a 173-mile (280km) orbit with a 64° inclination. The Polyus spacecraft carried a range of experimental military technologies designed for offensive and defensive use. Prototype weapons included a cannon that used a gas exhaust system to counter recoil and a chemical laser, which probably lacked sufficient power to vaporise targets but certainly had the ability to destroy optical sensors. A passive optical system was used to aim both of these systems (which was supported by radar) and a third weapon described as a nuclear mine dispenser also appears to have required the use of counter-recoil measures. It was also planned to determine the effectiveness of releasing barium clouds to diffuse the beams of Directed-Energy Weapons (DEWs) because this was considered to have good potential as a defensive measure.

Polyus would utilise secure radio data links, but another technology being tested was laser communication which avoided the possibility of eavesdropping or jamming. One other experiment involved stealth technology and the entire vehicle was covered in a matt black radar-absorbing paint. During the trials personnel on the ground, on ships and aboard aircraft would attempt to locate and track the spacecraft by visible, infrared and radar means. If it was detected, they would direct lasers towards Polyus and the beam would be reflected back to Earth by an onboard mirror. Under considerable pressure the engineers at NPO Mash completed work on the Polyus prototype and it was delivered to Baikonur on schedule during August 1986. It had been a massive effort to override the slow methods of working in the Soviet Union, compounded by the involvement of several major subcontractors who included NPO Digital Mechanics, NIIMASh, NPO Elektropribor and NPO Radiopribor. The spacecraft now underwent a lengthy series of tests and checks which were completed at the end of January 1987.

Apparently Gorbachev visited Baikonur during this period and expressed serious reservations about the project, believing it might send the wrong signals to the West about Russia’s intentions in space. Despite this the launch went ahead on 15th May 1987 and the Energia booster performed faultlessly. But there had been major difficulties adapting Polyus to Energia and engineers were forced to install boosters in Polyus’s nose. This meant that the spacecraft had to perform a 180° yaw manoeuvre after separation. Moments after Polyus detached, an inertial guidance sensor malfunctioned and the spacecraft was turned through 360° before engine ignition, causing it to crash into the South Pacific Ocean. Apparently several technicians lost their jobs as a result of this incident, and there were no attempts to build a second Polyus or to initiate work on the proposed Mir-2 space station. The existence of this project has only recently come to light and how much the CIA knew about Polyus remains unknown.

Ballistic Missiles at War: The Case of Iraq I

Al-Hussein missiles displayed in their erector-launchers. Baghdad arms exhibition, April–May 1989.

The Soviet “Scud” missile family.

The United States and Soviet Union backed away from a nuclear showdown with the Cuba Missile Crisis. Although the two nations continued to build weapons, the countries agreed to reduce certain types and quantities of nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missiles ranging from the MRBM to a number of ICBMs. Unfortunately, other nations had witnessed how these weapons provided an avenue to strike strategically and to coerce or affect a rival’s behavior. These weapons also became a symbol of national pride so that their mere existence allowed states to demonstrate their resolve in the face of regional disputes or to gain domestic cohesion in the guise of protecting the nation. The Soviet Union and other countries sold technologies and complete systems to bolster client states and earn hard currency from foreign military sales. Two nations that acquired these systems were Iran and Iraq, traditional enemies, but both supported through arms sales by the Soviet Union. Iraq would use its missiles against Iran and would later use them against the United States.

The Middle East erupts: Iran and Iraq

In the late twentieth century, Middle Eastern conflicts had normally revolved around the Arab world and Israel. However, the picture of a unified Islamic world against Israel was not clear. Tensions between secular governments and others, dominated by Islamic fundamentalists, spilled over borders. Different Islamic sects vied for control over nations. Ancient claims over territory did not distinguish between countries that were Arabic, Persian, or Israeli. Other concerns involved economic ones, influence over oil fields and their potential wealth. These problems erupted between Iran and Iraq in 1980. At the end of the conflict, some experts claimed that the two Islamic countries exchanged over several hundred ballistic missile attacks.

Iranian revolutionaries had overthrown a government friendly toward the United States and the West in January 1979. Islamic fundamentalists had created a revolutionary government intent on creating a state that would replace many non-Muslim influences with their fundamentalist Muslim thought and philosophy. Tehran illustrated clearly its focus on removing Western influence by seizing the U. S. embassy. Although the United States gained release of these hostages, the effect was chilling for many nations around the Persian Gulf. One of the goals of the Iranian government was to transform other nations’ governments and societies around the region to mirror its image. Iran tried to export its revolutionary movement west into Saudi Arabia to wrest control over many holy Muslim religious sites. The fundamentalist Islamic Iranians viewed the Saudi monarchy as a decadent group that had betrayed Islam by its continued dealings with the “Great Satan,” the United States and the rest of the West. This same country had supported the former corrupt Iranian government until the revolution. Iraq was also a target, since it had subjugated its Islamic Shiite sect majority; Shiite members dominated Iran. Saddam Hussein and his Sunni sect seemed at odds with the Ayatollah Khomeini by dealing with the godless Soviet Union. Iraq was also a secular state that came into confrontation with the ideals of an Islamic state like the Iranian government. Iran had already deposed of its Shah, who had tried to develop an Iranian secular state.

Iraq was another country subjugated by a single voice. A secular government formed by Saddam Hussein had turned a former monarchy into a socialist government, at least in name. The nation became a threat to surrounding nations such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab emirates, with the potential to spread political instability. These countries feared that Iran and Iraq would spread political unrest in their societies. A powerful Iraq could also threaten Israel directly or through its oil-funded support of its northern Marxist neighbor, Syria. Syrian and radical terrorist groups pressured Tel Aviv’s northern borders and Lebanon. The United States and other nations feared disruptions of oil supplies that could wreck their economies and throw their political futures into disarray.

By 1980, the collision between the Iranian Islamic government of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein seemed inevitable. Iran had depended on weapon purchases and training with the United States. This relationship all changed significantly when Islamic fundamentalists took control of the country and held the U. S. embassy personnel hostage for over a year. The United States refused to sell weapon systems and spare parts to Iran. Similarly, economic problems continued as the United States maintained sanctions, including the refusal to buy oil from Iran. Iranian air power, once a top regional force, had fallen into disrepair. Political will was strong, but Iranian military capability was lacking and had limited sustainability.

Iraq had access to the Persian Gulf through the Shatt al Arab area. Iran and Iraq had forged an uneasy agreement in 1975 over the vital property that allowed Hussein to ship oil from his country to sea lanes for export. Hussein’s government, like those of other countries around the Gulf, depended on oil for its economy. Hussein wanted the Iranian government to allow him expanded access to the Persian Gulf by allowing Iraq to control some islands in the Shatt al Arab. Hussein threatened the Iranians to comply with his demand. The Iranians refused.

Hussein decided to launch an attack on his neighbor. Although Iraqi artillery units had conducted some shelling along the border, Hussein ordered no major attacks conducted on Iranian military units. Through early September 1980, Iraq started to prepare for war. Hussein could achieve many of his objectives if he could defeat Iran. He could preempt a possible Iranian supported revolution that might topple the Iraqi government. Since Khomeini had threatened to topple secular states like Hussein’s, removing this menace was paramount. If Iraq pushed Iran back from the Shatt al Arab, then Iraq would have a secure border. A military victory had the potential to make Iraq the regional military and political power in the Gulf. Hussein could also encourage counterrevolutionary forces in Iran to break Khomeini’s power in Tehran. Hussein had strong motivations to feed his growing economy by taking Iranian oil fields. These motivations helped convince Iraq to take Iranian territory on September 10. Iraq demanded that Iran cede the captured area; Iran again refused and started to mobilize. The Iranians and Iraqis soon found themselves in a long war of attrition that would last until 1989.

Iraq’s military had been supplied by the Soviet Union. Iraq did not have to conduct a major military rebuilding program due to any open conflicts with Israel, previous border conflicts, or revolutions before its fight with Iran. On paper, the Iraqi military had a great advantage over the Iranians. The Iranian military was half the size of its prerevolutionary self. The government in Tehran suffered internal problems as the revolution made radical changes. Iraqi government officials believed that taking the islands in the Shatt al Arab would result in some international debate and minor skirmishing but that eventually the territory would remain in Baghdad’s hands.

Iraq tried to knock the Iranians out of the war early, but it could not. On September 22, the Iraqi air force bombed major western Iranian airfields to destroy aircraft on the ground. If the Iraqis could eliminate the Iranian air force, then any danger of Khomeini bombing major industrial or military sites or Baghdad would be remote. Iraqi aircraft also attempted to annihilate the Iranian navy to ensure it would not interfere with its access through the Persian Gulf. Iraqi failure to remove the air and naval threats would encourage the Iranians and allow them to expand the conflict by striking the source of Iraqi wealth and power, oil. Iranian patrol boats, aircraft, and other forces would later attack shipping and oil terminals. Iranian and Iraqi air forces were roughly equivalent in size and strength. Iranian aircraft could bomb Baghdad, Kirkuk, and a key transportation site, Basra.

The Iraqis also misjudged Iranian will to continue the ground war. Despite the material and training advantages, Iran continued to attack Iraqi positions, and it would not cede any lost territory. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces would conduct human wave attacks against the Iraqis. Soon, the conflict resembled World War I, with fighting between trenches and movements measured in yards, and it lasted for years. Control over areas around the Shatt al Arab and the borders was traded between the two sides. The Iraqis needed a new strategy to break the stalemate.


Saddam Hussein’s arsenal contained some rocket and missile systems before 1980. Hussein authorized his nation’s weapons inventory into operation against the Iranians. These systems focused on supporting battlefield operations. Iraqi systems were a supplement to artillery, not designed for strategic effects. The Iraqis did gain some experience by building and modifying these missile and rocket systems. Iraqi military commanders used multiple rocket launchers and missiles that had ranges of less than 100 kilometers (about sixty miles). The Soviet Union had sold the Iraqis some Free Rocket Over Ground (FROG)-7s (their Soviet designation is R65A or Luna), also deployed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, that had a limited range of sixty kilometers (thirty-seven miles). The FROG-7 was a development from the 1950s that was widely sold abroad. These rockets could not lift a sizeable conventional warhead in lieu of its designed twenty-five-kiloton yield nuclear payload. The FROG-7 had a 450-kilogram (about 1,000 pounds) conventional warhead capacity.

Iraqi military commanders started to use the FROG-7 in its early campaigns against Iran in 1980. The weapon had a single-stage construction powered by a solid propellant engine. This relatively primitive ballistic missile did not have a guidance system but was spin stabilized. The missile had limited usefulness and was very inaccurate, especially against entrenched Iranian forces. The FROG-7 had less capability than a German V-2, but it did possess a key advantage: it was launch capable off a single wheeled transporter/erector/launcher (TEL). An experienced crew could launch a missile every twenty minutes. Normally, another vehicle carrying three additional missiles followed the TEL. The Soviets had improved the FROG-7 by 1980, but it was still a primitive weapon.

Limitations of the FROG-7 forced the Iraqis to reconsider the FROG-7’s use against other targets, cities, or larger urban areas. Early Iraqi missile operations focused on two locations, Ahwaz and Dezful, that had limited military value. The strikes concentrated on supporting Iraqi ground movements into Iranian territory. These FROG-7 attacks were sporadic and of limited value, however. Crews used ten missiles in 1980 and then fired fifty-four missiles the next year. Iraqi military commanders later phased out the missile from a direct combat role with only a single missile in 1982 and two missiles in 1984. Even against relatively large targets like cities, the FROG-7 was ineffective. Some missiles, just like the earlier V-2s, missed the target entirely. Baghdad needed a new missile to strike Iranian cities with more punch and accuracy.

The Iraqi government sought to increase the yield and range of its ballistic missile inventory. It turned to its R-17 (NATO code named SS-1C SCUDB) missiles that the Soviets supplied to Iraq in the early 1970s. The SCUD-B was a single-staged, liquid fueled ballistic missile that used storable hypergolic propellants. A fully fueled and maintained ballistic missile could hit a target at an extended range of 330 kilometers (180 miles) with a CEP of about 450 meters (1,500 feet). SCUD-Bs could carry a 985-kilogram (2,175-pound) warhead. The missile had an inertial guidance system that used three gyroscopes to improve the accuracy of the missile over the FROG-7 despite the fourfold increase in range. Signals to the control vanes on the tail assembly would help correct the flight path of the missile in flight as long as the engine was operating.

The SCUD-B provided added capability to the Iraqis. Soviet engineers designed the SCUD-B to deliver nuclear, conventional, or chemical warheads. The warhead detaches from the missile’s body. This capability provided the Iraqis with an ability to select an appropriate yield with either a conventional or a chemical weapon. The SCUD-B was also a very mobile weapon, like the FROG-7. Crews launched it from a TEL that would raise the missile from a horizontal to vertical position, ignite it, and move to another position to fire another missile. Still, the SCUD-B had problems. Its range was not sufficient to hit Tehran or other key targets. Unless Iraqi forces could take more Iranian territory, the SCUD-B could do little against Tehran. The Iraqis needed improved capabilities since the ground war was a stalemate.

Hussein now faced the prospect of acquiring new longer-range SCUD-Cs which had a range of 600 kilometers (or 373 miles), which still could not reach Tehran. Another option for Baghdad was purchasing advanced ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union (like the OTR-22 IRBM or SS-12 Scaleboard) or building its own ballistic missiles. Soviet sales or deployments of IRBMs were not possible due to ongoing arms reduction negotiations with the United States. Sales of an SS-12 and a SCUD-C might also widen an ongoing arms race within the Middle East that could have long-term consequences for the Soviets. Expectedly, the Soviets declined to sell more advanced and more accurate weapons to Iraq. Saddam Hussein would have to gain ballistic missile superiority by modifying Iraq’s existing stock of SCUD-B missiles or by building variants of the delivery system. Iraqi missile engineers and designers would work on two variants of the SCUD-B, the Al-Husayn and Al-Abbas.

Modifying the SCUD-B into a delivery platform with an extended range required resources. Although the Iraqis had experimented with modifying some missiles, this was very different from extending the range of a relatively large ballistic missile. This effort required additional time, expertise, and funds. The ground war had slowed with no major effective offensive actions that had directly threatened either nation’s capitals. Expertise to improve Baghdad’s missile designs from other countries, such as the Soviet Union, would take time to find and then employ. The continued war on the ground, disputes in areas around oil terminals in the Shatt al Arab, and Iranian attacks on oil shipping lanes affected Iraqi finances. Trading off ballistic missile development against purchasing weapons to fight the war on the ground, air, and sea was a gamble. Still, Hussein started a program to modify the SCUD-Bs.

Iraqi launch crews would use SCUD-Bs and modified variants to attack some cities. Hussein directed these attacks against the cities to break the will of the Iranian population. These operations amounted to terror raids to force the Iranian government to either fail or negotiate an end to the war. On October 27, 1982, Hussein’s missile crews began to replace FROG-7s with SCUDBs. The crews would still launch a limited three SCUD missiles in 1982. SCUD-B crews began ramping up: to thirty-three launches in 1983; twenty-five firings in 1984; a huge barrage of eighty-two missiles in 1985; no launches in 1986; attacks in 1987 to match their record in 1984; and 193 attacks in 1988. There is some dispute about the actual number of missile launches, but most estimates place the number of launches at no more than 251. Iraq focused many of its early SCUD attacks on border cities such as Ahwaz, Borujerd, Dezful, and Khorramabad. Even with their greater range and improvement in payload, these missiles did not provide sufficient damage. Unless the missiles hit a large factory, school, or area where people gathered, they became merely terror devices.

Ballistic Missiles at War: The Case of Iraq II

A map indicating the attacks on civilian areas of Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait targeted during the “War of the cities”

Iraqi efforts to expand the SCUD-B’s capabilities resulted in development of the Al-Husayn missile. This missile had an increased range of 650 kilometers (400 miles) and was thus capable of striking central Iran. Iraqi engineers reduced the payload to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) and increased the amount of propellant carried by the missile by about 25 percent. Engineers extended the missile’s fuselage to carry five tons of additional liquid propellant to power it for a seven-minute flight. Launch crews could reload and fire an Al-Husayn within an hour.

Defense experts believed that the Al-Husayn had the capability to carry a high explosive or chemical warhead. As for its earlier SCUD-B cousin, launch crews for the Al-Husayn used a locally produced wheeled TEL for operations. There is some debate whether the Al-Husayn was solely of Iraqi design. Several nations, such as the Soviet Union, China, Egypt, France, East Germany, Libya, and North Korea, had the technology or experience with these ballistic missiles to provide Saddam Hussein’s engineers with sufficient information, components, or designs to modify the missile. Hussein also sought technical and component support from two unlikely allies, Argentina and Brazil. Hussein had offered financial help to these nations to develop their own ballistic missile programs. The Iraqis purchased 350 SCUD-Bs in 1984 and 300 more in 1986. These acquisitions provided additional systems for components and flight testing. Additionally, the Soviet Union may have supplied advanced SCUD-C components to allow the Iraqis to expand their weapons’ capabilities.

Iraq now had the capability to strike targets around Tehran. The missile’s seven-and-a-half-minute flight gave Iran little hope for warning its populace to take cover. Additionally, the Iranians had no active defensive capability to shoot down these vehicles, nor did they have a means to identify launch sites for attack by aircraft or artillery. These weapons provided a simple way to threaten cities and attack them without warning, a perfect terror device.

Iraq began to test the Al-Husayn in August 1987. Although flight tests proved the missile could work, there were some concerns. Iraqi engineers had to strengthen the airframe to compensate for larger fuel and oxidizer tanks. Fabrication teams had to extend internal tanks and provide additional air tanks to give adequate pressurization for the increased volume for the propellants. Iraq could use spare SCUD-B components for some assemblies, tanks, electronics, wiring, and other parts. However, they would have to weld them together, always a questionable proposition. In Iraq’s case, the welding quality would eventually affect the missile’s capabilities. Iranian forces witnessed many of these missiles that crashed, without warhead impact, due to welding problems. Pressurization or fuel leaks could have hampered the missile’s operation. Iraq also tried to improve guidance systems to increase the missile’s accuracy. Hussein’s government claimed that the missiles now had a CEP of 500 meters (1,640 feet). Some CEP estimates place the true accuracy at 2.6 kilometers (about 1.9 miles). The Al-Husayn missile effort was still a great strategic leap forward for Iraq. Even so, Iraq wanted even greater ranges.

The other major SCUD modification by the Iraqis was a more radical change to the missile to ensure it struck deeper into Iraq and potentially into other Middle East countries. Iraqi military officials tried to build on the success of the Al-Husayn by further reducing the SCUD-B’s payload and increasing the propellant capacity. Iraqi engineers christened this modified Al-Husayn vehicle the Al-Abbas. Engineers reduced the missile’s payload to only 300 kilograms (660 pounds), but it could strike a target at 900 kilometers (560 miles). Iraqi launch crews could now reach Tehran with ease and many parts of the Middle East as well, including all of Israel. Despite the greater range, the accuracy of the missile proved suspect. The CEP was about the same as that of the Al-Husayn, but official claims credited the Al-Abbas with a CEP of 300 meters (980 feet), less than a short-range unmodified SCUD-B. Iraqi missiles never met these capabilities in flight testing or apparently in the field. However, if crews launched the missile at large urban areas like Tehran and the purpose was to conduct a terror attack, then accuracy might not be necessary.

Iran was not helpless; it could respond to Iraqi missile attacks. Under Iranian air force control, launch crews fired SCUD-Bs against the Iraqis in March 1985. Libya first sold SCUDs to Iran, and then North Korea shipped about 100 missiles to Iran in 1988. News reports named Syria as a source of SCUDs for Iran. Curiously, these same countries may have provided components, technology, and assistance to Baghdad during the war. Iranian missile crews bombarded Iraqi positions and cities in retaliation for ballistic missile strikes. Iran first used fourteen missiles in 1985 launches; decreased to eight the next year; increased to eighteen in 1987; and spiked at eighty-eight missiles in 1988.

The Iranians did not have to modify their missiles. Iranian SCUD missiles did not have to traverse as great a distance to strike major cities as their Iraqi counterparts did. The distance between Baghdad and the border, less than 250 kilometers, or about 150 miles, was closer than Iraqi missile ranges to Tehran. As long as the ground war did not alter the battlefield, Iranian SCUDs could hit their targets. However, the Iranians did have an advantage over the Iraqis. Iranian revolutionary military forces held control of Iranian territory with vigor and wanted to avenge the unprovoked attack on their nation. Religious zeal allowed Iranian commanders to trade blood for territory through human wave attacks against prepared defensive positions. Time was on Iran’s side, as they could use attrition against the Iraqis. Tehran had to just push back the Iraqis and use its unmodified SCUDs. Iran was not motivated to extend its ballistic missiles’ range.

Superficially, Tehran had a tremendous advantage over the Iraqis in terms of missile range. However, several mitigating circumstances limited Iran’s ability to take advantage of this situation. Iran, under economic sanctions from many nations, had problems selling its main export commodity, oil. The constant fighting in the Persian Gulf between Iranian and Iraqi air and naval forces reduced the flow of oil to both countries and affected their ability to gain hard currency to purchase weapons or support. The Iraqis, however, had outside financial support to wage their war against Iran. Islamic fundamentalism threatened Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other countries that were supported by the Iranian religious and political leadership. These countries started to provide loans and direct financial support to Saddam Hussein in his effort to fight Iran. The Iranian air force was also running out of resources, and its capabilities diminished slowly with time. Iraq could supplement missile attacks with aircraft raids to strike the larger cities. Iran could not do the same with its aircraft and had to rely on ballistic missile strikes that came from a decreasing pool of available weapons. One option for Tehran was to try to build SCUD-B systems. Instead of focusing on ballistic missile modifications, Iranian engineers concentrated only on production capability, but they failed to make operational improvements. The production centers allowed Iranian military forces to launch forty-kilometer-range (25-mile) Oghab vehicles. Oghabs supported ground operations and limited attacks on Iraqi cities. Iranian military commanders used these unguided missiles like artillery.


The conflict between Iran and Iraq dragged on. There was no sense of any negotiations or efforts to end the conflict. Ground operations continued with horrendous casualties. Both sides were bled white with losses. The conflict focused on urban and economic targets to inflict sufficient pain to force one side to capitulate. Iraq would have to rely on aircraft strikes until its engineers and production capability could make the Al-Husayn or Al-Abbas system operational or push Iranian ground forces back. Iran could reply by its limited aircraft, but its SCUD-Bs had sufficient range to respond immediately. By 1987, attacks on cities started in earnest. When Hussein finally gained the capability to launch his Al-Husayn missiles, a new strategy emerged. Iraqi military forces could now hit Tehran without effect. On February 29, 1988, the Al-Husayn demonstrated its operational capabilities when Iraqi military missile crews launched five vehicles into Iran. This capability breathed new life into the Iraqi scheme to change the nature of the war. A new fifty-two-day “War of the Cities” erupted in the theater that would force both sides to the negotiating table.

From February 29 to April 20, both sides traded ballistic missile and air strikes on their capitals and other targets. While the missiles were inaccurate, Iraqi and Iranian SCUDs and their derivatives still produced massive physical damage and some casualties. Like their forebear, the V-2, and its attack on London, the missiles’ purpose was to strike terror on the population. Some analysts believed that the Iraqis’ missile inaccuracies approached several magnitudes above their stated CEPs. However, there were reports of Iraqi missile attacks conducted in salvos that landed around defined targets. Iraqi missile attacks appeared to gain in accuracy as the campaign continued. Even with the missiles’ improved accuracy, cities became the attack’s focus. Conducting a psychological attack on cities was easier than trying to destroy a specific military site like an airfield.

The greater Tehran and Baghdad urban areas sprawled for hundreds of square miles and had populations counted in the millions. Given each side did not have a warning system or a missile defense system, the population could do little except to prepare bomb shelters or leave the area. The only indication of an incoming missile strike was at warhead impact, as the vehicle attained speeds of Mach 1.5. The psychological impact of a missile that could kill many people quickly and allowed no defense terrorized the population. Ultimately, few died from these attacks, but their psychological effect created more impact than physical ones. Iran lost approximately 2,000 casualties and Iraq suffered only 1,000 losses in these attacks. These casualties were minor relative to the size of both capitals and major cities. Crowds could witness the destruction of a block or homes or large craters that forced people to speculate where the next Al-Husayn would land.

Iraq redoubled its efforts to panic the Iranian population. During the period, Iraqi air force pilots conducted over 400 sorties against urban and economic targets. Al-Husayn launch crews fired from 160 to 190 missiles against Tehran and Qom. Additionally, the Iraqis could use their SCUD-B stock to strike other border targets. The Al-Abbas was not ready for operation, but its flight testing and Iraqi propaganda statements continued to spew information about its future capabilities. The rate of Al-Husayn missile attacks was relatively low, about three per day during the “War of the Cities.” News reports concerning the possible Iraqi use of chemical weapons, however, chilled the Iranian population. The Iranian people became convinced that Baghdad had the will and capability to use chemical weapons against them, as reports surfaced about how Hussein authorized battlefield employment of his chemical munitions against Iranian military forces and later the Iraqi Kurdish population. Iranian military forces understood that the Al-Husayn and Al- Abbas also had the ability to carry chemical warheads. These fears forced Iranian populations to consider leaving Tehran and other cities. As the ballistic missile campaign intensified, people started to depart. Khomeini himself evacuated the capital. After news reports made his departure public, millions followed him. Approximately a third of Tehran’s population left for safety. While Iranian morale wavered, Iraqi confidence started to rise. The Iraqi strategy was starting to work.

Iran responded to the Iraqi attacks with its own SCUD-Bs. Iran launched about sixty-one ballistic missiles. These missiles represented most of Iran’s remaining SCUD stocks. Given the quantitative disadvantage in missiles and Iraq’s seemingly large production capability, Tehran needed to evaluate its position. Unlike the failed German V-2 campaign to pressure the British to negotiate, the War of the Cities had succeeded in forcing Iran to consider ending the war. Khomeini could not face a continued bloody war with his neighbor, economic atrophy, and a panicked population. Tehran considered the potential for continued Iraqi attacks with ballistic missiles and aircraft, and the Iranian government decided to accept a ceasefire with Baghdad in July 1988. The Iran-Iraq borders did not change appreciably; Hussein had gambled and received little for his nation’s sacrifice.

Al-Husayn missile attacks helped end the conflict. Given the prospects for peace, the growing discontent for additional casualties, fears of additional attacks, and no capability to win the war, the missile strikes took their toll. The United States had also entered the conflict by protecting commerce and ensuring security for oil deliveries in the Persian Gulf, one of the main weapons Iran used against Iraq. Given the crumbling military, political, and economic conditions in Iran, the ballistic missile launches created conditions that caused a faster unraveling of Tehran’s strategic position. Conventionally armed missiles and strategic bombardment proved a capable weapon against populations that were already in a fragile state to capitulate. Fortunately, Hussein did not arm the Al-Husayn with either a chemical or a biological weapon. With this success, Iraq would continue to develop advanced weapons programs. This lesson was not lost to Tehran, as that government also worked to develop long-range missile systems. Each side would later seek to arm these vehicles with an ultimate weapon, a nuclear device.