Can Superfighters Stop the Bombers? (Aug, 1949)
Can Superfighters Stop the Bombers?
By Herbert Yahraes
Drawings by Ray Pioch
Are the huge new bombers invincible? Have they made fighters obsolete? Or will big, new “fighter-bombers” be the answer to air defense? Popular Science assigned a tough-minded reporter, with 110 previous military experience, connections, or prejudices, to interview the experts—military, civilian, and scientific. Here is his evaluation of the hottest argument in the history of air power.
The Editors THE whispered words, “Bee Thirty-Six,” will start an argument anywhere in aviation. And there are no neutrals in the war of words that has burst about this most controversial of all airplanes.
The Air Force says the B-36 can get out of town, do a job, and get back. The claims that these warplanes can take off from continental U. S., fly through enemy defenses, hit any major industrial area in the world, and come home nonstop, have been made the subject of a Congressional investigation.
They have also challenged the whole history, theory, and practice of air defense.
Bombers, historically, have always been vulnerable to fighter planes. Big warships have been sunk by torpedoes (the original guided missiles) fired by little warships and aircraft.
Why has moving the battlefield a mere two miles (straight up) from where it was in World War II seemingly changed all the rules? What happens at 40,000 feet to enable big planes to escape little planes?
These were some of the questions tossed at me. I was told I had been chosen for this chore because all the regular aviation writers and military writers affiliated with Popular Science either had served with the Air Force or the Navy, or had worked so closely with bombers or fighters that they might have unconscious prejudice.
So I talked to airmen in Washington and elsewhere. To salty fighter pilots now bright with brass, and peppery bomber boys now baldly gleeful. To scientists con- corned with the mathematics of the higher altitudes. To civilians now in laboratory and airline work who were pressing trigger buttons or dodging flak only a few years back. All of them tried to convert me to their very real faith.
The tough truth seems to be that big airplanes, flying very high and very fast, cannot easily be downed by little airplanes flying no matter how fast.
Imagine that you are an Air Force fighter pilot. What they call “early-warning radar” has spotted bombers a scant 200 miles away. That’s about as early as radar can get right now. And that’s about half an hour horizontally, plus whatever time it takes to get upstairs. How long it takes to get upstairs is another argument. But let’s suppose you are up—and at ‘em.
You are jockeying a jet job, screaming something over 500 m.p.h. You can even see your target. You start your gunnery run.
If you attack head on, your closing speed is 15 miles a minute. If the effective range of your guns is 400 yards, that means you have slightly less than one, single second in which to do business. And, at such speeds, one “burp” can put only a handful of slugs into one, single bomber.
If you try what pilots call the pursuit curve, you head for your special victim at right angles and turn in with him. This worked beautifully in the old days—five years ago. Even with today’s jets it’s all right at 35,000 feet. But try it at 40,000 plus and a small plane stalls in the thin air. That’s because a sharp turn means slowing down. And when you slow down, your jet doesn’t suck enough air—so you drop.
If you try creeping up on your target from behind, your superior speed lets you move right up. Forgetting his tail guns (as if you could), you wait for the range. Then he swerves sharply—but you can’t. By the time, seconds later, you have come about, he is out of range—or even out of sight.
At upwards of 40,000 feet, I am told by those who have been there, seeing is not necessarily believing. Things look different. At this altitude, bombers have been sighted 70 miles away by their vapor trails—in clear weather, of course.
The problem of stopping the bombers, I learned, shakes down into phases. First, catch your bombers. That means getting the pips, like glimmering apple seeds, on a radar scope. Second, intercept the attackers with defensive aircraft at the attackers’ altitude. Third, knock them down.
For the purposes of this article, I was told not to concern myself with detection or interception—no mean feats at the altitudes and speeds of our own best bombers. I was told to confine myself to the ultimate solution of that final phase: knocking down the bombers once discovered and confronted.
When I had talked to the last expert, I could not answer flatly that fighters were finished, that bombers had become invincible.
But I can say, as a reporter with no pretense to being a military or aviation expert, that the best existing fighters have an awfully bad time trying to cope with the best existing bombers—based on available statistics of performance.
It is a fact that a good big airplane now can get away from a good little airplane. But it is not a fact that the best big airplane cannot be stopped. And there simply are no facts whatever concerning a conflict between large numbers of airplanes.
New Fighters Sure to be Bigger.
We do know that visual shooting is almost obsolete. High altitudes and high speeds make airborne pistols seem silly.
We do know that some of the newest fighters are as big and heavy as some not-so-old bombers.
We can suspect that normal evolution will bring forth a defensive airplane big enough to carry detection equipment, fire-control equipment, long-range weapons, and the crew to man such a plane and such gear.
What kind of airplane will it be? The name isn’t important. Call it a fighter-bomber. Or call it a superfighter. It won’t be as big as a bomber like the B-36, but it will almost certainly be bigger than the fighters now operating, and it will have to cut the corners closer, climb fast, and catch up quick. And then what?
You can be sure that mere machine guns, or even fast-firing cannon like the 20-mm.
artillery on the B-36, won’t be up to the job. Even unarmed bombers could fly through such short-range fire with small chance of a vital hit. The best airborne boom-boom is about as effective as a drunken cowboy’s six-shooter on woodcock.
Rockets? They have the punch, all right.
But they have to be fired within a visual distance—dangerously close—and by aiming the airplane.
The guided missile seems to be the only probable weapon against the big bombers.
Eventually, its proponents claim, the guided missile will make even airplanes obsolete. There will be no need for bombers when whole coveys of these deadly quail can be flicked from one continent to another. There will be no chance for fighters, either, when ground-to-ground missiles take over.
But in the next few years, there will be ground-to-air missiles hurtling toward their targets without pilots. And air-to-air missiles that need no human hand once set.
It is these air-to-air guided missiles that will most likely make the biggest bombers gone geese. The superfighters of the fairly near future will be submarines of the air.
Early-warning radar will alert these jumbo jets. Once upstairs, their own airborne radar will track them to intercept the big bombers long before they come into visual range. They will fire their missiles, as submarines fire their torpedoes, in calculated spreads.
Once out of the tubes, the missiles will speed toward their targets. When they get within range of the homing devices in their noses, they will change course to close with the moving enemy. Finally, the proximity fuses will take over.
In this interim period between the big fast bombers and the nation-to-nation missiles that need no pilots, bombardiers, or navigators, the main problem of the defensive air force will be to provide a lot of flying killers—of types more dangerous to their flying prey.
Designers are working to meet these specifications. One hope is a jet engine to operate more efficiently at high altitudes. Another is adjustable wings. You can get more speed with either a small, conventional wing or a swept-back wing that looks like the head of an arrow, but when yon slow down to maneuver, you may stall out. So why not build a wing whose area or sweep can be altered while in flight? Can do, say experts of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
Then there is a gadget designed to give a jet a swift kick in the tail. It’s called an after-burner (PS, Oct. ’47, p. 82). It shoots a mixture of alcohol and water into the engine’s tailpipe, thereby speeding up the gases that rush out of the end and shove the plane ahead. The AF’s F-88 has one of these; also the Navy’s F7U, the Cutlass, now in production and designed to do at least 650 m.p.h. even above 40,000 feet.
But all the climb, speed, and maneuverability in the world won’t help the fighter unless it can find the target in any sort of weather. So a lot of research work is going into improving airborne radar.
We’ll still need early-warning ground radar, too; but, as a Pentagon officer put it, “A bomber crossing a radar-guarded frontier is like a fly zipping through the front door of a big hotel. Anybody can see the darn thing enter, but how are you going to tell what room he’s headed for?”
Then—most important of all—that quick knockout punch. For even with all the climbing ability and speed he’ll be packing, the pilot will have precious little time for sparring around.
Tomorrow’s superfighters will have to be Hying weapons. Primarily they’ll have to be thought of, not as planes, but as platforms to carry the biggest possible punch to the place where it will do the most good.
That’s one of the reasons the Air Force is setting up a center at Eglin Air Base to test air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons— and-the instruments needed to guide them. Aeronautics research people expect the effectiveness of existing weapons to be perked up considerably by an automatic aiming mechanism. This will be a combination of radar, to track down the bomber, and a computer to figure such factors as relative speed and course.
But, the planners say, the only sure answer to a fighter’s need for a quick, lethal blow is the guided missile. Eventually it will be the job of radar ground crews not only to detect approaching bombers but also to send pilotless missiles against them. First, though, long-range accuracy must be perfected.
Short-range accuracy, on the other hand, is relatively simple to achieve. Once we’ve got it, all we need is a suitably placed launching platform. The earth won’t serve because it’s too far away from the bomber, but a fast-climbing fighter will do nicely.
Radio Could Guide Missile.
The simplest guided missile is controlled by radio, which means that the operator must be able to see both it and the target either with his own eyes or through radar. For the job at hand, however—knocking out a bomber that may be shooting at almost sonic speed through black or murky weather —the fighter’s best bet is a missile that, once launched, needs no human control. Carrying its own gray matter, it seeks out the target with the instinct of a homing pigeon.
Such a bloodhound of the air has a sensing mechanism—commonly called a scanner —built into its nose. One type is sensitive to light; it locks onto and follows a source of light the way moths follow a lamp moved around a room. It can be made to sniff out an opaque object moving against a background of different density.
Another type can track down anything that makes noise. A third responds to heat: enter a huge hangar where a heat-scanning head is stored, and the warmth of your 7 body is enough to make it follow you no matter how fast you turn or side-step. Still another—perhaps the most useful in this case—navigates like a bat. sending out silent sound waves that obstructions reflect.
No matter what the type, the missile follows its sensitive nose to within lethal distance of the target, where a proximity fuse sets off the explosive-packed body.
By the end of World War II we were already producing such homing weapons (PS, Feb. ’46, p. 84). Most of them were designed for use against ground targets and ships, but it takes no miracle of ingenuity to fit them for work against bombers, as well. Says General Joseph T. McNarney, chief of the Air Materiel Command: Their development into operational missiles “will take only a relatively short period of time.”
You can’t put radar, and somebody to run it, or an auto-pilot to take over the controls while you run it, and mechanism to control adjustable wings, and automatic sighting devices into a fighter the size of those operating today. Planes carrying guided missiles will change some of the specifications: they won’t have to get so close to the target and they won’t have to be so maneuverable, but they will need something else—stability. Unless they are to be one-shot weapons, they will have to be pretty sizable.
The trend has already set in. The Navy’s Banshee weighs only 14,000 pounds and the Air Force’s F-84, 15,000. But the Cutlass, now being turned out, weighs 22,000, and the XF-90, now being tested, 3,000 pounds more. The last-named “fighter” is both heavier and longer than the “bomber” Jimmy Doolittle used against Tokyo.
The end is not yet in sight. Conceivably the fighter plane of the future could be much like a plane we already have, the B-47, a jet-powered bomber that recently whizzed from Seattle to Washington, D. C., in three hours, 36 minutes. Its weight is 125,000 pounds; speed, 600 m.p.h.; climb, 5,000 feet a minute; ceiling, 38,000 feet. It’s big enough to carry plenty of radar and a covey of guided missiles.
Eventually, scientific and engineering developments will make both the bomber and the fighter obsolete—maybe civilization, too. But first they seem destined to produce better and costlier fighters than ever.
To keep ahead of the fighter, the bomber will have to do some terrific humping. But don’t pin your hopes for safety on defensive armament. From the last war came this clear lesson: when a bombing attack has once been launched, no human force can stop all the planes. Some, at least, will carry out their mission.