Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II

Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II

H. R. Everett

The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015, 768 pages

Book Review published on: March 3, 2017

H. R. Everett’s Unmanned Systems of World Wars I and II is a tome rich in information, technical data, and over five hundred schematics, photographs, and illustrations that help readers to visualize the history of unmanned aircraft. Everett, a retired naval officer and technical director of robotics at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, harnesses the growing interest in unmanned systems to provide an episodic account of their development. It is widely unknown that the military services embarked on intense development of unmanned systems during both world wars and the interwar period.

The author provides a comprehensive look at the mechanical innovation of unmanned surface vessels, remote-controlled submersibles, unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles, and unmanned systems during the postwar transition. The book lacks a strong narrative but provides an exceptional breadth of detail on the subject. Using detailed graphics, the author discusses unmanned systems that often failed to become operational but demonstrate the impressive persistence of human ingenuity.

One of the book’s strengths is its broad scope of meticulous research. It is well suited as a textbook, highlighting the span of development of unmanned systems, and for motivating the intellectual curiosity of cadets, engineers, and military history students to conduct further research. Another strength is its examination of nearly all unmanned systems developed for the air, land, and sea domains within the given timeframe. All services can use the book as a historical reference outlining the evolution to current systems. The author’s description of air assets provided more context than the descriptions of land or sea systems. The pictures, wire diagrams, and schematics in this book are also a strength. While many schematics and diagrams are extremely technical in nature and not fully explained, the author attempts to point out areas of special interest to reinforce ideas.

The book fails to meet the mark in a couple of critical areas. First, it does not provide a solid narrative linking the systems in time, space, and purpose. This issue is rooted in the lack of fidelity regarding the unique problem each system was trying to solve and why each system was important relative to the development of systems that followed. The author does not curate a collection of example systems that demonstrate the progression of technology; instead, he gives the short story of each system within the time period regardless of its importance to future innovations. Many of these systems were highly complex and costly from the outset and were intended to be disposable weapons. Due to cost and complexity, mass production was not feasible, thus numerous projects failed to be produced beyond a few demonstration models. This thread of analysis may have provided some context to the disjointed development processes. Additionally, several anecdotes in the book fail to link to the main subject matter and appear to be entertaining but not pertinent. For example, the author discussed in detail a bi-pedal “robot” called the Westinghouse Electro, also known as the Electro the Moto-Man, from its mechanical design to its speech functions. Unfortunately, the book fails to explain its relation to either world war.

Ultimately, this book is a superb source for reference material and will spark the reader’s imagination on the potential uses of unmanned systems and prospective future research. While the title leads the reader to think the book will tie all of the systems to World Wars I and II, the book mainly looks at the development of unmanned systems during the time period, not necessarily how they supported those wars.

Book Review written by: Maj. Bishane A. Whitmore, U.S. Air Force, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Maj. John J. Sheridan, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas