How Much Can Missiles Really Do?

Sept. 1, 1956
Few weapons have ever caught the fancy of the public as have guided missiles. Pictures and movies of spectacular launchings, the promise of long-range flights at tremendous speeds and altitudes, and the uncanny black boxes which take the place of the human pilot, navigator, and bombardier—all have fired our imagination.

Actually, the guided missile is a not new weapon. Depending on definition as to what constitutes a guided missile, we can go back hundreds of years, to the fire arrows launched from catapults and to the rockets used by the famed British Rocket Corps in the Eighteenth Century.

However, even taking the strictest definition of a guided missile—an unmanned aerial vehicle, carrying a warhead and guided to its target while in flight—you can go back to World War I when the Air Service built production models of what was called a Flying Torpedo, a small aircraft-type missile powered by an internal combustion engine and propeller.

In the course of World War II, rapidly advancing military technology permitted increasing operational employment of guided aerial weapons, ranging from guided bombs such as the American Razon and the German Fritz X, to the V-I semi-guided missile and the V-2 ballistic missile.

But it took the major improvements in jet and rocket engines as well as in guidance and control during the years following World War II to assure the guided missile a prominent place in the arsenal of military weapons. Today, more people know more about guided missiles than a handful of competent scientist knew but a few years ago.

And herein lies a great danger. The publicity given to some spectacular successes and the speculations of imaginative writers have tended to create a somewhat distorted and exaggerated picture of what guided missiles can do today and what they may be able to do tomorrow.

As of now, the Air Force possesses two operational missiles—the surface-to-surface Martin Matador and the air-to-air Hughes Falcon. Other missiles, ranging from guided aircraft rockets to ballistic missiles, are presently in various stages of development.

There is no doubt that our operational missiles are effective weapons and that the missiles now under development hold much promise. But it must be realized that, while the concept of the guided missile may not be new, the science of guided missiles is still in its infancy. We are still facing problems in reliability, in materials, in fuels, in electronics, and in many other fields. We are confident that we shall solve these problems, but it will take time.

Even when guided missiles are adopted for operational use as dependable weapon systems, manned weapon systems will remain as an important part of our Air Force structure to carry out the roles and missions of the Air Force. This point has already been well stated.

Missiles can and will be capable of performance far beyond the performance limits of weapon systems carrying human crews. But no matter how ingenious, how complex, and how advanced their guidance mechanisms, guided missiles cannot cope with contingencies which have not been previously keyed into them. Only the human brain can make important decisions quickly in unexpected situations.

Undoubtedly, misconceptions about the present and future roles of guided missiles have been caused and fostered by a lack of detailed information about them. In view of the potential importance of such weapons, it was, and still is; necessary to withhold, for security reasons, most data pertaining to their status, progress, and capabilities.

But there is much that can be told without endangering national security and, I believe, enough to give the public a clear picture of where we stand in this field and where we expect to go. For this reason, all of us in ARDC are grateful for this opportunity to present to you an account of some of our missile developments.

We know too little about the Soviet effort in this field to make valid comparisons. But there is little doubt that the Soviets recognize the potentialities of the guided missile as well as we do I and that they are using every means at their disposal to achieve superiority in this area.

For this reason, we must do the best we can to insure our qualitative supremacy in guided missiles just as we are endeavoring to achieve and maintain qualitative supremacy with respect to all of our other weapons.

LT. GEN. THOMAS S. POWER is Commander of the Air Research and Development Command. He was born in 1905. He completed flying training in 1929 and was commissioned in the Air Corps Reserve. During World War II he served in North Africa as Deputy Commander of the 304th Bomb Wing and as Commander of the 314th Bomb Wing on Guam. He acted as Assistant Deputy Commander during “Operations Crossroads” atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. In 1946 he went to Washington as Deputy Assistant Chief of Air Staff for Operations and in 1947 he became Chief of the Training Division in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. He went to London as Air Attaché in 194. Later that year he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command as Deputy Commander.