Everyone loves science. Scientists love science, ordinary people love science, politicians love science, lying politicians love science. But perhaps nobody loves science more than generals. One of the greatest driving factors of scientific innovation in the last century has been the threat of war, as countries seek to secure themselves against the threat posed by their rivals. To that end, some truly breathtaking amounts of resources have been poured into incredible feats of construction and/or technology with the aim of defending a country from foreign aggression – a few of which we have for you today.
For the purposes of this video, what’s present on this list is not necessarily a grand project like the Great Wall of China, or how Switzerland is basically a giant bunker masquerading as a country. We don’t want to just pick relatively simple ideas that were turned up to 11. Instead, what is on this list is three national defense systems that were (or are) considered the best in the world at what they did. Without further ado, let’s begin.
The Maginot Line
Our first entry is the famous (or infamous) French interwar fortification system, the Maginot Line. After the bitter slog of World War 1, France reclaimed a territory that they had lost to Germany around 50 years earlier, Alsace-Lorraine. It was here, on the border with their German rivals, that France would build one of the most extensive and advanced series of fortifications ever constructed.
The purpose of the Maginot Line was very specific. At the start of World War 1, Germany had decided to go around France’s heavily fortified border by marching their army through neutral Belgium. France believed that Germany would pull a similar maneuver if another war broke out, and decided to prepare accordingly. André Maginot, the French minister of war, proposed building a long line of fortifications on the German border to force Germany into that same move. The French high command reasoned that, if they knew exactly what Germany was going to do, they could sufficiently prepare to counter that move. Of course, that isn’t what actually happened, but… spoilers.
The forts that were eventually built under this program were, without question, the best in the world at the time. They were made of reinforced concrete and steel, capable of withstanding even penetrating rounds designed to break bunkers. They had retractable turrets capable of sinking into the ground when not in use or under fire, and there were emplacements for anything from mortars to machine gun nests to anti-tank guns. Some of the larger bunkers were equipped with underground railroads that allowed them to be resupplied from up to 50km away. As if that weren’t ostentatious enough, the forts had good living conditions for the soldiers, with mess-hall areas and even air conditioning. The Maginot Line was so impressive that its forts served as the basis for other countries’ fortification projects, notably Czechoslovakia.
Of course, today the Maginot Line is remembered less for how impressive it was and more for how impressively useless it ended up being. It had the intended effect of forcing the German army to flank north through Belgium, but the Allied forces botched the response and ended up encircled at Dunkirk, including some of the best French divisions. From there, the Germans were free to push south through the rest of France and eventually encircle the Maginot Line, where the defenders were eventually forced to surrender. The most advanced system of forts in the world were taken largely without any fighting.
But is the legacy of the Maginot Line fairly earned? Historians aren’t so sure. André Maginot had, from the start, envisioned the line as a channel to force the Germans northward where they would be met by the French Army. However, as the forts were being built, the media hyped the construction and exaggerated the strength of the fortifications to the public, leading to a belief there and among the army that the forts were impregnable. The historical evidence suggests that Maginot himself and the French high command did not believe this. Instead, the reasons for France’s swift defeat vary from faulty intelligence to out-of-date doctrine, and not an overreliance on their fortifications. The generals saw the line as a way to push Germany into one course of action, and in that respect, it succeeded. That, at least, should be acknowledged.
THE DUGA RADAR
For our next entry, we’ll be skipping ahead a few decades to the late Cold War. In July 1976, radio operators around the world simultaneously began hearing something strange – a “sharp, repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz repetition rate”, vaguely similar to the sound of a helicopter flying through the air. It would appear without warning, and the fascination with this new sound very quickly gave way to hair-pulling frustration as it interfered with commercial broadcasts, amateur radio operators, and even commercial airline operations.
Ham radio enthusiasts, as well as NATO, quickly triangulated a vague location for the source of this new radio signal: northern Ukraine, in the Soviet Union. Suspicion fell on the Soviets as to what they were actually doing over there, as they never publicly acknowledged the issue or that the sound was even theirs. Because it was now an open secret that the USSR was causing this, the sound was informally dubbed the “Russian Woodpecker”. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this moniker would be passed down to the massive radar station that was responsible for the sound. But what did Russia need this woodpecker for?
Radar is a simple concept: shooting radio waves into the sky, having them bounce off of something, and when they return, use the time difference to measure the distance to the object. But this system has a big problem – the curvature of the Earth. Radars are limited in range by the fact that the Earth is not flat (sorry, flat-Earthers), and anything below the horizon can’t be detected by the radio waves. This is a big problem if you’re, for example, trying to tell if your Cold War rival just launched an ICBM at you. So, engineers in both the US and the USSR worked to create a solution; in the USSR, that solution was the Duga radar, a missile early-warning system and at the time one of the largest radar stations on the planet.
The Duga system was an over-the-horizon radar station, a fairly self-explanatory title. Yet how it managed to overcome the horizon limit is fascinating. You see, when radio waves hit the portion of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere, some of them refract off of it, and are aimed back down at the ground. These waves can then bounce off of a target like normal and reflect back towards the ionosphere, where they refract again and make their way back to the radar station that fired them. This interaction allows a sufficiently powerful radar to reach distances much further than a traditional line-of-sight radar could, which was exactly what the Soviets wanted. (The Americans had similar stations in Maine and Oregon.) Early tests showed stations detecting missile launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome – the site that put Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into space – at 2500 kilometers away. With some successful tests under their belt, the Soviets set about creating a proper site, and determined that three Duga radars would be built – the first of which would be located in the northern part of Ukraine, where the Woodpecker first started pecking.
Even if the Soviets had been more careful about keeping the noise quiet, NATO likely would have found out about the station right away. They codenamed the station STEEL YARD, in reference to the size of the 700-meter long, 150-meter tall transmitter. But as it turned out, the Soviets didn’t really care about whether or not people knew about the site’s existence. You see, the “skip” off of the ionosphere that we explained earlier is partly dependent on the frequencies of the radio waves being used by the radar. In international law, radars cannot broadcast on certain frequencies at certain times because they would interfere with other broadcasts. It’s kind of like traffic laws, but for radio waves. The Soviets apparently didn’t get that memo and responded to international complaints with “Huh? Sorry, what did you say? I can’t hear you over this really loud woodpecker noise.”
Some ham radio operators in America got fed up and decided to get back at the Soviets. Dubbing themselves “The Russian Woodpecker Hunting Club”, they organized themselves to send their own radio waves at just the right frequency and time to completely jam the radar feedback. Apparently, they had a great deal of success. This begs the question: who would win in a fight, a giant Soviet radar installation or a guy in Texas with a bootleg radio?
The Iron Dome
Our third and final entry also concerns the problem of missiles, specifically with shooting them down. It’s often said that intercepting a launched missile is like trying to shoot a bullet with another bullet, except it’s even harder. For that reason, anti-ballistic missile systems are the line where even the US armed forces, notorious for dumping money into dud projects, think it’s a waste of time. This was the reason why, in the 1990s when Israel floated the idea of a short-range missile interception system to stop rocket attacks by Islamist militants, American defense officials told the Israelis that it was “doomed to fail”.
As rocket and mortar attacks continued, the idea remained in consideration, and in the mid-2000s, serious resources began to be allocated to the project. The eventual system that was developed came to be known as Iron Dome, and its development from 2005 to its deployment in 2011 was quick, on schedule, and under budget. That’s a rare-enough feat in the world of military-industrial projects, but to do it for something that literally didn’t exist yet? That’s another level entirely. And if that weren’t good enough, it has a reported success rate of 95% in intercepting launched missiles and mortars. What makes this thing tick?
The system itself consists of three parts, all working in tandem: radar to detect and track incoming projectiles; a computer and software to do all the calculations and determine if the system has to act; and the actual missile launcher, utilizing the Tamir interceptor missile, which was developed specifically for Iron Dome.
Iron Dome is a uniquely fascinating defense system, a mix of surprisingly simple solutions to insanely difficult problems. As stated before, shooting missiles with other missiles is almost impossible. So, they don’t. Not really, anyway. Instead, the Tamir missile gets close to the projectile it’s intercepting, and then detonates when it gets within a predetermined range. This way, the missiles don’t need to score direct hits to successfully intercept. Another problem that needed to be solved was that the Iron Dome needed to sufficiently protect a large area from rocket attacks, all at once. To do this, the system was developed to be widely spread out – a departure from traditional C-RAM systems that generally concentrate intercepting equipment in a single place. Lastly, there’s the issue of cost, as the Tamir missiles cost $40,000 to take down $1,000 rockets. Well, there’s a modern solution to that: use lasers instead of missiles. No, that’s not sci-fi or some crazy eccentric proposal from a madman, there’s actually a laser-based version of the Iron Dome being developed as we speak, and tests showed it actually working. That’s right, people – Star Wars is almost real.
If you’re somehow still not impressed by this system, then this might win you over. The early test missiles allegedly used parts of a plastic toy car from Toys R’ Us, at least if one of the lead workers on the project is to be believed. It sounds preposterous, yet it would also be weird to lie about something like that. If nothing else, Iron Dome can be called the only air-defense system to use plastic toy parts to defend its country.
This was a short list of some of the most notable national defense systems that humans have come up with. But even though we spent the video hyping up the cool technology, we’ll end on a more somber note and say that you would do yourself a favor to remember the reasons behind why these projects were built in the first place. As technology gets better, war gets deadlier. Things like ray guns sound amazing until you imagine the context in which they’d be used.
When Richard J. Gatling invented the Gatling gun in 1861, he said he did it because he believed this new technology would reduce casualties in future wars. A century later, another new technology, ostensibly built for the same purpose, nearly destroyed the world. With that in mind, the solution may not be getting better at fighting, but working to stop it altogether.