Man is not yet Obsolete

April 1, 1958

On leave from Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he is a professor of physics, Dr. Valley is chief Scientist of the US Air Force. A member of the USAF Scientific Advisory Board, he was Project Supervisor of MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, which made major contributions to radar development during World War II. He has been closely associated with MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory since 1949 and was named its associate director in 1953, and has contributed to the solution of many air defense problems. He received AFA’s Science Trophy in 1951.

Too many people take missiles for granted. They have come to feel, because missiles are new and remarkable feats of technology, that they must automatically be superior weapons and will, therefore, inevitably be adopted. This is too simple a view. Missiles are, indeed, new weapons, but they are additions to our armament. Their properties are complementary to those of the manned airplane.

It would be a good thing for all who deliberate upon and write about our national policy to take a more moderate view of missiles as they affect the future of manned aircraft. I feel it a great mistake to infer, or to state, or even to imply, that there is some kind of competition between unmanned aircraft or missiles and manned airplanes. Missiles in the beginning will augment our manned force; they will not replace it until they are thoroughly tested and we are sure of their reliability. The Air Force policy is, and in my opinion should continue to be, that of replacing manned aircraft with missiles as rapidly as is practicable in those cases in which the missile appears to have a superior capability for accomplishing the mission.

Actually, in a deeper sense, there is no such thing as an unmanned weapon system. Missiles are a new method for transporting explosives; this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily good machines in the sense of being easily combined with the human component.

Human beings are human beings, and while there may be unmanned aircraft and unmanned missiles there still is no such thing as an unmanned weapon system. Even if and when push-button warfare reaches its ultimate degree of development so that the missiles are automatically maintained, as some propose, by digital computers and sit by themselves in holes in the ground, and when the only control is a push button on the President’s desk, there will still be that man in the system.

Our problem, there fore, is not so much to discuss manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft, as it is to compare two kinds of manned weapon systems; to compare systems in which some of the men involved are carried in the aircraft with systems in which all the men remain on the ground. The majority of the persons involved in operating any of our weapon systems do not fly. The majority of the people involved are engaged in maintenance, and in planning the missions, regardless of what kind of a transport vehicle is employed.

The attractive features of missiles, the features which makes us want to use them at all, are, of course, many. I am going to state some of them – not only those which are truly advantageous – but also some which require more discussion: first, it is generally considered, because the missile is a one-shot device and because, in general, takeoff is easier than landing, that the missile is not susceptible to the influence of weather; second, the missile in most cases is capable of higher accelerations than the human being can withstand, and this is particularly important in high lateral accelerations in order to intercept a bomber; third, in most cases the missile is very fast, and particularly in the case of offensive missiles such as the ICBM; it is so fast as to make the invention of an effective defense supremely difficult; fourth, and this is a point which is perhaps not widely appreciated, the missile generally has a less degree of instrumental complexity built into it than does the manned aircraft designed for the same mission.

I have gotten together some figures which indicate that in one case a manned bomber carries as much as three or four times the number of vacuum tubes and associated hardware as does the equivalent contemporary ballistic missile. In another case, a tactical winged missile carries but one-fifth the number of vacuum tubes and associated guidance material as does a contemporary fighter which can be used for tactical warfare. There are some who conclude from such comparisons that the individual missile would be easier to maintain than its complementary manned vehicle. They forget, however, that each of these vehicles is but a component of a much larger complex, the over-all weapon system, and vehicles by themselves do not give us any military capability. Ground support, ground guidance, and above all the crews of maintenance people, as well as of pilots, determine whether or not a particular system is any good. Fifth is the matter of economy. It is considered by some that the individual guided missile or unmanned aircraft is very economical to construct and to maintain. There are a number of reasons why this is thought to be so. One of them is that for the same mission, speed, and altitude the unmanned aircraft can be made lighter because it only goes one way, it doesn’t have landing gear, it need not be stressed for the same safety factor and as I mentioned before it does not usually carry nearly as big a load of guidance equipment. Another economic argument is that missiles, once made, can be stored, can be stored, like rifle bullets, against the day on which they may be needed; whereas the manned aircraft being flown continuously wear out, consume fuel, spare parts, and the tenuously wear out, consume fuel spare parts, and the like. It is my belief that this latter is not only a fallacious argument but a dangerous one.

In making these plans we need to study the problems of manned aircraft, in order to make certain that these problems or very similar ones will be taken care of.

When we consider the problem we have learned to solve in operating weapon systems involving manned aircraft we are led to study the special features of these aircraft which raise the problems and which, incidentally, also make them such valuable weapons.

First of these features, of course, is that the pilot of the vehicle can steer it. The second is that a man in the aircraft can act aggressively. It seems perfectly clear that in this, which is related to the concept of human free will, there is clearly a distinction between the manned and the unmanned airplane or missile. The third feature, somewhat related to the second, is that the pilot and crew of a manned airplane can respond to unexpected situations. Having observed, for instance, that a primary target has already been successfully attacked by some other weapon, they can change their minds and usefully attack a target of secondary importance; or they can select a target of opportunity. The fourth is that in the “surprise” era a warfare, aircraft can be “recalled” after launching, thus allowing us to increase our margin of safety.

Finally, the crew of a manned airplane has the ability to convert abstract ideas into specific concrete actions. For instance, having been told “to attack,” the crew of the manned aircraft can, on the basis of this very general order, go out and find the enemy and pull the trigger.

It seems to me that the current debate goes something like this: The missiles demonstrate higher speeds, higher altitudes, higher acceleration, and less cost and complexity per flying vehicle.

The manned aircraft demonstrate the overriding importance of flexibility of tactics, which derives from having men on board, and point out that the complexity of the equipment for missiles is at least as great as for manned aircraft if you count that ground equipment.

The rebuttal of the missile supporters then seems to be a double one: First, they deny that the human pilot is in principle or even in practice any better than the machinery in a missile. Second and more important, they say that since missiles make their own tactics and create their own special brand of simple strategy, the higher attributes of the human crew – aggressiveness, ability to generalize, ability to reduce abstractions to specific actions – these they say are simply unnecessary and irrelevant to the war, I think they would say that all of the targets which could possibly need to be attacked can be known ahead of time and a sufficient number of missiles assigned to each of these so that sufficient damage to overcome the enemy can be done to him with a purely statistical plan of attack. Those who support the missile to the exclusion of the manned bomber seem to argue that the strategic war is no longer a battle between men, but something more analogous to an engineering demolition program. They appear to believe that all can be planned engineering-wise in advance and that the only action required of men is to start the process. This implies that the strategy of missile warfare is so simple as to be completely plannable in advance.

Is the strategy, indeed, so simple that all can be planned in advance I refer now not to the strategy of the simple missile exchange, which is simple almost by definition, but rather to the over-all strategy of the combat between two nations which are entirely composed of human beings. I will not belabor this point, but I will only observe that wars in the past have hardly ever turned out to be conducted in the ways in which they were planned. In World War I, for instance, few foresaw that the machinegun would lead to trench warfare and to the particular kind of long drawn-out defensive infantry fighting which ensued. Similarly, it was not foreseen by many that tanks, which were originally invented to be used in trench warfare, would, in fact, not only replace the cavalry but would result in a highly mobile type of warfare such as we saw in North Africa and in Normandy. Many other examples of military history are available.

Are there then other new and non-scientific questions – questions of public opinion, questions of political administration, questions of economics, perhaps, involved in the use of missile I do not refer at all to such large questions as whether we should urge international control of space, or the abolition of atomic weapons, or such. Not at all. I propose to stick closely to the question, whether in a naughty world the United State should rely only on guided missiles for its own defense I propose that there are even in this specialized national question, grave problems, political, economic, and educational. We here as scientific, engineering, and military specialists, can call attention to these problems; they demand decisions. Until the decisions are made, the tremendous technical capability of guided missiles may yield only a proving ground potential, and the effective utilization of missiles in warfare may be, and remain, vanishingly small.

One of the sources of these non-technical problems is the need for continuing realistic practice on the part of the entire weapon system – men and machines together. I mean practice in the sense that football teams practice before the game, in the sense that orchestras practice before a concert. I have already said that there is no such thing as an unmanned system of any kind. There are no useful devices which work independently of people.

The Strategic Air Command practices continually. They have bombing competitions, they have real targets, which resemble very closely potential enemy targets, and they are constantly in the air testing their equipment and keeping their teamwork practice up so that they can function at all times with maximum effectiveness. Likewise, in the Air Defense Command, the interceptors are kept on constant alert, and because of the necessity of identifying by interception a considerable number of otherwise unidentifiable aircraft, there is a continual workout of the air Defense interceptor teams. They practice every day.

Now as far as I know it is not conceived, at present, for any of our missile systems, that anything like this continual practice can be accomplished.

The current belief is that the missiles will be emplaced in squadrons and batteries, that various simulated tests and partial component trials such as running up the engines will be done periodically, and that the crews will periodically be taken to proving grounds.

Solutions must be found to the serious problems in public relations, in politics, and in economics that are posed by real system practice at each operational missile site analogous to that which goes on at air bases equipped with manned aircraft. Our crews must practice on weapons not more or less identical with the weapons with which they are expected to fight, but they must practice with those identical weapons themselves. By this I mean very precisely they must practice with their own squadron or battery, emplaced in its normal operational location, not at a proving ground. I do not want to cast any doubt upon the technical capability of our guided missiles. I think that with proper testing and training they can be made to perform brilliantly and give us a military potential consistent with their technical capability. But the administrative and other non-technical and non-military problems which are inherent in the use of missiles in warfare are present. Until we allow the military to solve thee problems realistically, we are gambling with the future.

It is a dangerous fallacy also to assume that missiles, once built, can be stacked up like so much cordwood until needed. Missile systems are extremely complicated and the missiles can wear out simply by standing idle. For this reason, as well as because of the necessity for realistic training, we should reasonable expect to expend a sizable fraction of our missile stockpile each year. When realism has been injected into this aspect of the missile program, its economic advantages will certainly be less.


Mr. Yarbrough: With all the admitted trouble in community relations that is now occasioned, do you not think there will be more than a problem with longer [missile ranges

Dr. Valley: It is certainly a problem. It demands a great deal of education on the part of those of us who understand it with the public and with the governing agencies so that realistic practice training can take place; yes, sir.

Mr. Carroll: Dr. Valley, do we have adequate defense against submarine-launches missiles

Dr. Valley: I do not think we do at the present time, not long-range ballistic missiles.

From the Floor: Dr. Valley, are you specifically recommending that the Nike-Hercules and Bomarc be test-fired over the New York metropolitan area

Dr. Valley: I am recommending that we consider seriously this problem. I think your question assumes that the answer must necessarily be in the negative. I say we must consider the problem explicitly.

From the Floor: Sir, do you personally believe it is practicable for actual tests or actual runs to be made on ground-to-air missiles in protecting such cities as Detroit Do you personally believe it is practicable at this time for such missions to be carried out

Dr. Valley: May I ask you: If it is not practicable, then is it practicable to depend on them to defend you

From the Floor: do you believe, sir, that it actually can be done without endangering the civilian population

Dr. Valley: I think we have all assumed too idly that it cannot be done; and that the degree of danger to the civilian population has to be weighed against the degree of danger to the civilian population of not having continual training with these weapons.

From the Floor: That I take it includes the entire equipment

Dr. Valley: Very likely. I do not know if we need to go so far as to explode atomic warheads over the city. We fall considerable short of that right now. – End