War

The Crimean War (1853-1856) became the first war where people at home knew what was happening. This was largely because of a new underwater telegraph cable – news could reach London in a few hours. The editor of the Times sent William Howard Russell (1820-1907) who made himself intensely unpopular by describing the conditions in vivid detail. He was perhaps the first war correspondent. His appeal for nurses led directly to Florence Nightingale sailing for the Crimea with thirty-eight nurses. The Crimean war was also the first war to be photographed.

Throughout history warfare has been an all too familiar theme. War seems to be as old as mankind. Like all of us, engineers have to reconcile three factors about warfare. First, that the taking of human life is wrong. Second, that individuals, groups, cities and nation have a duty of care to defend their citizens and defend justice. Third, that sometimes protecting innocent human life and defending important moral values requires the use of force and violence. The concept of a ‘just war’ –bellum justum – usually divides into two parts. The first is jus ad bellum or justice of war or under what condition is it justifiable to go to war. The second is jus in bello or what are the moral constraints on how a war is to be fought. These two parts are not unrelated although absolute pacifists will claim there are no moral grounds at all for war – even in principle. The science and engineering of nuclear weapons of mass destruction and instruments of torture graphically illustrates the ethical duty of engineers.

Engineers make the weapons and the targets of warfare. Primitive clubs, axes, and spears have given way to swords and shields, then to battering rams, catapults, longbows and crossbows, then to gunpowder in cannons, guns, bombs and mines. As science has developed so has our capacity to engineer more and more powerful weapons. In modern warfare we use tanks, torpedoes, radar, sonar, nuclear and chemical weapons, drones and missiles controlled by computers and GPS. Nowadays warfare can sometimes seem more like a computer game with large scale consequences – for example when remote autonomous drones target individuals or weapons of mass destruction threatened to kill large numbers of people in one strike.

The word engineer (or French ingeniator) was first used to describe the people who made war engines. One of the first in England was Ailnolth – overseer of royal buildings for Henry II for over 30 years from 1157. Leonardo da Vinci was appointed by the Duke of Milan to be Ingenarius Ducalis (the Duke Master of ingenious devices).

Gunpowder weapons changed everything – but only gradually. Around 960 AD, China started to produce gunpowder using saltpetre, sulphur and carbon. Soon gunpowder was being used for firecrackers or attached to spears to burst on impact. By the 12th century, the Chinese were using crude hand grenades and an early form of rocket and cannon. The oldest hand gun has been dated as 1288. Cannon eventually replaced the siege engine capable of throwing huge stones and even dead horses. 17th century English ships were equipped with cannon that fired 15 kg solid shot that could penetrate solid oak from 90 m. away. William George Armstron was perhaps the inventor of modern artillery- he gave his gun patents to the government and was the first engineer to enter the House of Lords. He developed a hydraulic crane and up a business to manufacture them and other hydraulic equipment. Armstrong knew of the difficulties the army had in manoeuvring heavy field guns so he designed a lighter, more mobile field gun, with greater range and accuracy.

The first atomic bombs were tested and used in war in 1945 – fortunately since then no nuclear weapons have been used that way. The engineering of rockets and missiles were a precursor to the exploration of space. A Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky pioneered rocketry and astronautics and the idea of reaching outer space. Space stations started in 1969 when two Russian Soyuz vehicles were linked in space. The construction of the International Space Station (ISS) began in 1998 – helped by the first reusable spacecraft the Shuttle. Until recently the ISS was only available for governments but new opportunities now exist for commercial and academic use facilitated by the Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). The International Space Station took 10 years and over 30 missions to assemble.

Whether Rome in ancient times, Great Britain in the nineteenth century or present day USA, global power is supported by a network of military bases used to deploy infantry, air and naval forces quickly. They are the major targets of war. Military barracks and airfields like Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, medieval forts and castles or civilian infrastructure such as transport links, broadcasting stations and telephone exchanges, factories serving the military and energy power plant. The Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions was drafted to protect civilian targets within a ‘just war’. To be legal an attack has to be justified by military necessity i.e. on a military target and any harm to civilian property must be proportional. A war crime is when an attack on civilians is intentional.