Animals have been a part of warfare for as long as humans have fought wars, so it is no surprise that animal-based weapons systems are a recurring theme on this blog. While a veritable zoos worth of animals have taken place in human conflicts over the centuries, the modern tendency is to use animals not as weapons in themselves but as delivery systems or to mount espionage devices.
For example, in WW2 the US Army tested a bat-based delivery system for incendiary bombs. The idea was that bats released over Japanese cities would go to roost within the wooden structures common to the country. Then when the incendiary devices detonated, the resulting firestorm would easily wipe out vast swaths of Japanese cities with little or no risk to American air crews. The concept was eventually scrapped, as the delivery systems for the bats never worked quite right and more conventional methods of destruction had already wreaked full scale slaughter on Japan anyway.
Another animal based weapons system came out of World War 2 and America’s ongoing effort to use her technological superiority to defeat her enemies and minimize casualties. The man who proposed the system was none other than B.F. Skinner, the psychologist famous for his work with operant conditioning, the idea that reinforcement and punishment can modify behavior. He submitted the idea that the humble pigeon, one of his favorite test subjects, could be trained to accurately deliver explosive payloads. In effect, Skinner wanted to design a bird based bomb guidance system. And the US military (and General Mills) though the idea was just crazy enough to work.
Operant conditioning as practiced by B.F. Skinner allowed him to mold animal’s behavior using rewards and punishments. The system worked typically by rewarding some random behavior–say, pecking a screen–with food every time it occurred. Over time, the animal would perform the rewarded behavior intentionally in order to get the food, and then the response would become almost automatic.
This simple premise was what lay behind Skinner’s bird based guidance system. He taught his pigeons to peck a dot on a glass screen. As long as the dot was kept centered, the pigeon would get its reward. Initially, Skinner bought 64 pigeons–40 normal and 24 homing pigeons–from a pet shop to test his idea. All of the birds earned their wings, as it were.
While the idea may seem preposterous today, it was taken at least somewhat seriously by the military, who gave the psychologist $25,000 to develop his research. The interest in the project mostly centered around the fact that then primitive electronic guidance systems could be easily jammed by enemy interference, while a pigeon encased in a warhead would suffer no ill effects from jamming efforts. What resulted was a snub-nosed craft called “The Pelican.” Capable of carrying 500lbs of explosives, the craft housed three pigeons, each with their own screen to peck. The three working together would compensate for any errors. An electroconductive coating on the glass would translate the pecks into electrical signals that would guide the craft.
Despite initial success with the project, the military could not seem to overcome the inherent ridiculousness of using pigeons as kamikazes, and pulled the project’s funding in 1944, citing that it could be better used on more promising projects.
However, four years later, the Navy took up Skinner’s research with renewed interest. The Cold War was in its infancy, and the influx of German rocket technology after WW2 was changing how strategists saw the future of warfare. Missiles could potentially be used to bombard enemy targets with conventional or nuclear explosives from vast distances, much like how the Nazis used their infamous V2 missiles to bombard London in WW2. For all their expertise, the Nazis never did find a very accurate guidance system, and again the guidance systems of the day could be easily jammed by enemy action.
Looking for an answer to this problem, the Navy turned back to the idea of using unjammable pigeons as guidance systems. Skinner worked with the Navy for five years to develop such a system, under the auspices of a program dubbed “Project Orcon” (“orcon meaning “organic control.) While the pigeons sported an impressive 55.3% accuracy, problems with using animal-based guidance systems soon became apparent. The pigeons “flew” their bombs based on sight, and while a pigeon’s eyesight is impressive, using simple optics limited the system to being used only during daylight and good weather. In addition, the pigeons could only see so far unaided.
By 1953, the writing was on the wall. The Navy scrapped the program in favor of electrical guidance systems, which had vastly improved since WW2. The electroconductive coating used to coat the screens the pigeons pecked would later be used in radar screens and other applications. While the US would call on animals to serve in other odd capacities as weapons of war, the humble pigeon’s venerable military career had ended.
“1940—Project Pigeon (1948—Project Orcon)–B.F. Skinner (American).” CyberneticZoo.com. December 27, 2011. http://cyberneticzoo.com/bionics/1940-project-pigeon-1948-project-orcon-b-f-skinner-american/
“It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” Army.mil. September 17, 2013. US Army. March 5, 2015. http://www.army.mil/article/111511/It_s_a_bird__It_s_a_plane_/
Lehman, Staci. “The Pigeon-Guided Missiles and Bat Bombs of World War II.” Gizmodo.com. December 5, 2013. Gizmodo. March 5, 2015. http://gizmodo.com/the-pigeon-guided-missiles-and-bat-bombs-of-world-war-i-1477007090