The Development of Air Power

By the end of the Second World War, the air was the key battleground of modern warfare; with control of the air, one could move small detachments of troops to deep behind enemy lines, gather valuable reconnaissance and, of course, bomb one’s enemies into submission/total annihilation. But the air was also the newest theatre of war, meaning that there was enormous potential for improvement in this field. With the destructive capabilities of air power, it quickly became obvious that whoever was able to best enhance their flight strength would have the upper hand in the wars of the latter half of the twentieth century, and as the Cold War began hotting up (no pun intended) engineers across the world began turning their hands to problems of air warfare.

Take, for example, the question of speed; fighter pilots had long known that the faster plane in a dogfight had a significant advantage over his opponent, since he was able to manoeuvre quickly, chase his opponents if they ran for home and escape combat more easily. It also helped him cover more ground when chasing after slower, more sluggish bombers. However, the technology of the time favoured internal combustion engines powering propeller-driven aircraft, which limited both the range and speed of aircraft at the time. Weirdly, however, the solution to this particular problem had been invented 15 years earlier, after a young RAF pilot called Frank Whittle patented his design for a jet engine. However, when he submitted this idea to the RAF they referred him to engineer A. A. Griffith, whose study of turbines and compressors had lead to Whittle’s design. The reason Griffith hadn’t invented the jet engine himself was thanks to his fixed belief that jet engines would be too inefficient to act as practical engines on their own, and thought they would be better suited to powering propellers. He turned down Whittle’s engine design, which used the forward thrust of the engine itself, rather than a propeller, for power, as impractical, and so the Air Ministry didn’t fund research into the concept. Some now think that, had the jet engine been taken seriously by the British, the Second World War might have been over by 1940, but as it was Whittle spent the next ten years trying to finance his research and development privately, whilst fitting it around his RAF commitments. It wasn’t until 1945, by which time the desperation of war had lead to governments latching to every idea there was, that the first jet-powered aircraft got off the ground; and it was made by a team of Germans, Whittle’s patent having been allowed to expire a decade earlier.

Still, the German jet fighter was not exactly a practical beast (its engine needed to be disassembled after every use), and by then the war was almost lost anyway. Once the Allies got really into their jet aircraft development after the war, they looked set to start reaching the kind of fantastic speeds that would surely herald the new age of air power. But there was a problem; the sound barrier. During the war, a number of planes had tried to break the magical speed limit of 768 mph, aka the speed of sound (or Mach 1, as it is known today), but none had succeeded; partly this was due to the sheer engine power required (propellers get very inefficient when one approaching the speed of sound, and propeller tips can actually exceed the speed of sound as they spin), but the main reason for failure lay in the plane breaking up. In particular, there was a recurring problems of the wings tearing themselves off as they approached the required speed. It was subsequently realised that as one approached the sound barrier, you began to catch up with the wave of sound travelling in front of you; when you got too close to this, the air being pushed in front of the aircraft began to interact with this sound wave, causing shockwaves and extreme turbulence. This shockwave is what generates the sound of a sonic boom, and also the sound of a cracking whip. Some propeller driver WW2 fighters were able to achieve ‘transonic’ (very-close-to-Mach-1) speeds in dives, but these shockwaves generally rendered the plane uncontrollable and they invariably crashed; this effect was known as ‘transonic buffeting’. A few pilots during the war claimed to have successfully broken the sound barrier in dives and lived to tell the tale, but these claims are highly disputed. During the late 40s and early 50s, a careful analysis of transonic buffeting and similar effects yielded valuable information about the aerodynamics of attempting to break the sound barrier, and yielded several pieces of valuable data. One of the most significant, and most oft-quoted, developments concerned the shape of the wings; whilst  it was discovered that the frontal shape and thickness of the wings could be seriously prohibitive to supersonic flight, it was also realised that when in supersonic flight the shockwave generated was cone shaped. Not only that, but behind the shockwave air flowed at subsonic speeds and a wing behaved as normal; the solution, therefore, was to ‘sweep back’ the shape of the wings to form a triangle shape, so that they always lay ‘inside’ the cone-shaped shockwave. If they didn’t, the wing travelling through supersonic air would be constantly being battered by shockwaves, which would massively increase drag and potentially take the wings off the plane. In reality, it’s quite impractical to have the entire wing lying in the subsonic region (not least because a very swept-back wing tends to behave badly and not generate much lift when in subsonic flight), but the sweep of a wing is still a crucial factor in designing an aircraft depending on what speeds you want it to travel at. In the Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird, the fastest manned aircraft ever made (it could hit Mach 3.3), the problem was partially solved by having wings located right at the back of the aircraft to avoid the shockwave cone. Most modern jet fighters can hit Mach 2.

At first, aircraft designed to break the sound barrier were rocket powered; the USA’s resident speed merchant Chuck Yeager was the first man to officially and veritably top 768mph in the record-breaking rocket plane Bell X-1, although Yeager’s co-tester is thought to have beaten him to the achievement by 30 minutes piloting an XP-86 Sabre. But, before long, supersonic technology was beginning to make itself felt in the more conventional spheres of warfare; second generation jet fighters were, with the help of high-powered jet engines, the first to engage in supersonic combat during the 50s, and as both aircraft and weapons technology advanced the traditional roles of fighter and bomber started to come into question. And the result of that little upheaval will be explored next time…

The Offensive Warfare Problem

If life has shown itself to be particularly proficient at anything, it is fighting. There is hardly a creature alive today that does not employ physical violence in some form to get what it wants (or defend what it has) and, despite a vast array of moral arguments to the contrary of that being a good idea (I must do a post on the prisoner’s dilemma some time…), humankind is, of course, no exception. Unfortunately, our innate inventiveness and imagination as a race means that we have been able to let our brains take our fighting to the next level, with consequences that have got ever-more destructive as  time has gone  by. With the construction of the first atomic bombs, humankind had finally got to where it had threatened to for so long- the ability to literally wipe out planet earth.

This insane level of offensive firepower is not just restricted to large-scale big-guns (the kind that have been used fir political genital comparison since Napoleon revolutionised the use of artillery in warfare)- perhaps the most interesting and terrifying advancement in modern warfare and conflict has been the increased prevalence and distribution of powerful small arms, giving ‘the common man’ of the battlefield a level of destructive power that would be considered hideously overwrought in any other situation (or, indeed, the battlefield of 100 years ago). The epitomy of this effect is, of course, the Kalashnikov AK-47, whose cheapness and insane durability has rendered it invaluable to rebel groups or other hastily thrown together armies, giving them an ability to kill stuff that makes them very, very dangerous to the population of wherever they’re fighting.

And this distribution of such awesomely dangerous firepower has began to change warfare, and to explain how I need to go on a rather dramatic detour. The goal of warfare has always, basically, centred around the control of land and/or population, and as James Herbert makes so eminently clear in Dune, whoever has the power to destroy something controls it, at least in a military context. In his book Ender’s Shadow (I feel I should apologise for all these sci-fi references), Orson Scott Card makes the entirely separate point that defensive warfare in the context of space warfare makes no practical sense. For a ship & its weapons to work in space warfare, he rather convincingly argues, the level of destruction it must be able to deliver would have to be so large that, were it to ever get within striking distance of earth it would be able to wipe out literally billions- and, given the distance over which any space war must be conducted, mutually assured destruction simply wouldn’t work as a defensive strategy as it would take far too long for any counterstrike attempt to happen. Therefore, any attempt to base one’s warfare effort around defence, in a space warfare context, is simply too risky, since one ship (or even a couple of stray missiles) slipping through in any of the infinite possible approach directions to a planet would be able to cause uncountable levels of damage, leaving the enemy with a demonstrable ability to destroy one’s home planet and, thus, control over it and the tactical initiative. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a strategy of defensive warfare and any long-distance space war becomes a question of getting there first (plus a bit of luck).

This is all rather theoretical and, since we’re talking about a bunch of spaceships firing missiles at one another, not especially relevant when considering the realities of modern warfare- but it does illustrate a point, namely that as offensive capabilities increase the stakes rise of the prospect of defensive systems failing. This was spectacularly, and horrifyingly, demonstrated during 9/11, during which a handful of fanatics armed with AK’s were able to kill 5,000 people, destroy the world trade centre and irrevocably change the face of the world economy and world in general. And that came from only one mode of attack, and despite all the advances in airport security that have been made since then there is still ample opportunity for an attack of similar magnitude to happen- a terrorist organisation, we must remember, only needs to get lucky once. This means that ‘normal’ defensive methods, especially since they would have to be enforced into all of our everyday lives (given the format that terrorist attacks typically take), cannot be applied to this problem, and we must rely almost solely on intelligence efforts to try and defend ourselves.

This business of defence and offence being in imbalance in some form or another is not a phenomenon solely confined to the modern age. Once, wars were fought solely with clubs and shields, creating a somewhat balanced case of attack and defence;  attack with the club, defend with the shield. If you were good enough at defending, you could survive; simple as that. However, some bright spark then came up with the idea of the bow, and suddenly the world was in imbalance- even if an arrow couldn’t pierce an animal skin stretched over some sticks (which, most of the time, it could), it was fast enough to appear from nowhere before you had a chance to defend yourself. Thus, our defensive capabilities could not match our offensive ones. Fast forward a millennia or two, and we come to a similar situation; now we defended ourselves against arrows and such by hiding in castles behind giant stone walls  and other fortifications that were near-impossible to break down, until some smart alec realised the use of this weird black powder invented in China. The cannons that were subsequently invented could bring down castle walls in a matter of hours or less, and once again they could not be matched from the defensive standpoint- our only option now lay in hiding somewhere the artillery couldn’t get us, or running out of the way of these lumbering beasts. As artillery technology advanced throughout the ensuing centuries, this latter option became less and less feasible as the sheer numbers of high-explosive weaponry trained on opposition armies made them next-to impossible to fight in the field; but they were still difficult to aim accurately at well dug-in soldiers, and from these starting conditions we ended up with the First World War.

However, this is not a direct parallel of the situation we face now; today we deal with the simple and very real truth that a western power attempting to defend its borders (the situation is somewhat different when they are occupying somewhere like Afghanistan, but that can wait until another time) cannot rely on simple defensive methods alone- even if every citizen was an army trained veteran armed with a full complement of sub-machine guns (which they quite obviously aren’t), it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of a terrorist group to sneak a bomb in somewhere destructive. Right now, these methods may only be capable of killing or maiming hundreds or thousands at a time; tragic, but perhaps not capable of restructuring a society- but as our weapon systems get ever more advanced, and our more effective systems get ever cheaper and easier for fanatics to get hold of, the destructive power of lone murderers may increase dramatically, and with deadly consequences.

I’m not sure that counts as a coherent conclusion, or even if this counts as a coherent post, but it’s what y’got.