Science Channel - InSCIder

17 Aug

Dark Matters: Reviving the Bat-Bomb?

Big Eared Townsend FledermausAnd no, I'm not talking about getting George Clooney to don a cape and mask again to remake the exquisitely awful 1997 flick Batman and Robin. I'm referring to an this weekend's episode of Dark Matters, which deals with what has to be one of the most bizarre weapons systems ever developed by the U.S. Military — kamakaze bats armed with tiny canisters of napalm, whom planners envisioned unleashing against Japanese cities during World War II.

The episode airs Saturday, August 18 at 10PM e/p!

As Jack Couffer detailed in his 1992 nonfiction book Bat Bomb: World War II's Other Secret Weapon, the concept originally was dreamed up on December 7, 1941 by Dr. Lytle S. Adams, a 60-year-old dentist who was driving home from a vacation at Carlsbad Caverns when he heard the radio reports about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like many other Americans, Adams felt the urge to retaliate against the Japanese. He thought back to a vision that had made a powerful impression upon him in the cavern — millions of bats suddenly taking flight — and suddenly had an inspiration.

Basically, Adams hoped to turn members of the order Chiroptera into tiny screeching, insect and fruit-eating nocturnal versions of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, the daring aviator who staged a daring surprise raid on Tokyo. He envisioned equipping vast numbers of bats with tiny, time-fused incendiary bombs, and then dumping them from bomber bays over Japanese cities. Adams figured that the bats would descend and roost in flimsily-constructed structures, which would then be ignited into flames when the time bombs went off. The cumulative effect of thousands or even millions of tiny fires would be a devastating conflagration that defenders would find impossible to extinguish.

In a January 12, 1942 letter to President Franklin W. Roosevelt, Adams explained that bats had great potential as a weapon, because of their tiny size.

An important consideration is that a bat weighs less than one-half ounce, or about 35 to the pound, which means that approximately 200,000 bats could be transported in one four-motored stratoliner type airplane, and still allow one-half the payload capacity to permit free air circulation and increased gasoline load. Ten such planes could carry 2,000,000 fire submitting this proposal it is with a fervent prayer that the plan will effectively be used to the everlasting benefit of mankind.

Roosevelt, who must have been feeling in a particularly receptive mood that day, didn't toss the letter in the circular file, but instead approved what became Project X-Ray, a research effort to develop bat-bomb technology, and recruited Adams to work on it. As this 1990 article reprinted from Air Force Magazine explains, the project was taken seriously enough that Louis Fieser, the inventor of military napalm, was called upon to design tiny incendiary devices that could be strapped to the flying mammals, including one that weighed just 0.6 ounces. Additionally, the military developed a special bomb casing that contained compartments for 40 bats instead of explosives. Researchers envisioned 10 B-24 bombers, each dropping 100 of those bat carriers over an enemy target from 5,000 feet. When the carriers descended to 1,000 feet, parachutes would deploy, in order to give the bats a softer landing and a chance to escape.

In a 1944 test on a mockup of a Japanese city built at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, the bats actually proved to be more effective than bombs. Researchers estimated that a planeload of bats had the capability to start as many as 4,700 fires, making them between 10 and 20 times more effective than conventional bombs. Nevertheless, the U.S chief of naval operations, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, canceled the $2 million project out of concern that the bat-bombers would not be ready to deploy until mid-1945. Adams was disappointed. He would later maintain that fires generated by bat bombers would have destroyed a Japanese city even more effectively than the atomic bombs that blasted Hiroshima and Nagasaki into wreckage — but without the huge loss of life from radiation exposure. "Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life," he insisted.

Since then, though, the military has continued to explore ways to use animals. Here's a 2010 San Francisco Chronicle article about the use of trained dolphins to detect explosives and clear underwater mines. And a while back, I wrote this blog post about the Pentagon's interest in implanting tiny micro-electrical mechanical systems, of MEMS, on winged insects, turning them into miniscule remote-controlled cyborgs that could be used to conduct surveillance or even to attack enemies with poisons or hallucinogenic drugs. The Daily Mail, a UK paper, recently published this update.

But bat-bombers, clearly, still have the potential to inflict much more massive damage. It might not even be necessary to use actual living bats. The University of Pennsylvania's GRASP lab recently released this video, displaying the abilities of bat-sized robotic helicopters that it is developing.


Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are working on an actual robotic bat that can flap its wings. So far, it isn't airborne.


So what do you think? Should the bat-bomb project be revived? Express your opinion below.


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