In every war, the countries involved pushing their ingenuity to the limit to launch stronger attacks on their enemies. And wishing to destroy their rivals more quickly, governments often contemplate every option that places them in a better strategic position. However, there have been cases in which some nations have put their trust in unorthodox weaponry projects. Maybe they were ahead of their time, or their designs just did not make any sense, to the point that their creation was not viable. In this article, we will see ten weapons projects so impressive that they could have changed the course of known military confrontations.
Towards the end of World War II, Nazi Germany’s Ordinance Office gave the German scientist Joachim Hänsler the task of designing a prototype of an electromagnetic railgun. This machine would exceed the firepower of any other weapon of the time. Tests of the first LM-2 prototype began in 1944 and resulted in the firing of an aluminum projectile at 1,080 meters (3,543 feet) per second. That was 200 meters (656 feet) per second faster than the best German anti-aircraft weapon ever built. Faced with such success, Hänsler’s superiors ordered him to create an improved prototype that could double the muzzle speed. But the war ended before the LM-2 was perfected, and the Americans finally captured the weapon. Years later, a report from 1947 showed that firing the railgun would require the energy needed to light up half a city.
Super V-2 Missile
Once World War II ended, the French Ministry of War created the Center for the Study of Guided Missiles, to analyze and use German propulsion technology for its rockets. The institution emphasized the technology of the Nazi V-2 missile, and 30 German scientists were recruited for its program. The program began in 1946 with the construction of the rocket. Around 75 percent of the parts of the V-2 missile needed to build the new weapon was acquired in France. Meanwhile, the engine tests would be carried out in the Alzou Mountains (France), and the test flights would be performed in Algeria. The first test flights were projected for 1952, due to the difficulty to obtain pieces for the missiles.
The Super V-2 was expected to have the same size and shape as its original counterpart, but with a more powerful engine. The largest version of the Super V-2, which would later become the A-9 missile, had a nuclear warhead of 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) and a flight range of 3,600 kilometers (2,237 miles). It used kerosene and turbo-charged nitric propellants, plus two additional engines for takeoff. The program continued until 1948 when the French government withdrew its budget due to a lack of interest, and then the project of the Super V-2 missile was canceled.
During the 1980s, the former company British Aerospace teamed up with the American agency DARPA to create a STOVL (Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing) aircraft, to replace the famous fighter jet Tornado. One of their most advanced, resulting designs was the BAe P.125. This aircraft was going to be manufactured in two variants, the non-STOVL version and the STOVL one, both with a propulsion system equal to that of the modern F-35 jet. However, the STOVL version redirected air from the central engine compressor to two nozzles under the fuselage. The most remarkable thing about this vehicle is that its fuselage was built in one single piece, without canopy or windows.
It was highly aerodynamic, to make the plane completely stealthy and protect the pilot from Soviet attacks with anti-aircraft lasers. In that way, the pilot was inside a closed cockpit, reclined to reduce the impact of the G-force over his body. Several cameras outside the aircraft sent real-time images to screens inside the cockpit so that the pilot had a large field of vision even when he remained locked entirely, using a technology called “synthetic view.” The project was finally discarded in the early 1990s with the approval of another project called “Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter,” which would lead to the creation of the F-35 aircraft.
Boeing YAL-1 Laser
After 16 years of construction and a budget of $5 billion, the U.S. Air Force developed a high-energy laser capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. It was mounted on a Boeing 747-400F plane and tested on the field for the last time in February 2010. The so-called “YAL-1” was an air-to-air combat laser, designed to knock down missiles in mid-flight, by compromising their structure with intense heat. The tests of the device began in 2009 and continued until 2010. The device destroyed two missiles during field tests, but the laser had redirection failures and did not bring down all of its targets. For this reason, the project was discontinued in 2011, and the Boeing plane was sent to dismantling.
Convair Model 49
A competition of the U.S. Air Force between 1966 and 1967 requested a proposal for a stable and heavily armed battlefield-support aircraft. Therefore, a division of the currently closed Convair Company presented a non-traditional, air vehicle project: the Model 49. The aircraft consisted of a cockpit for two crewmen, linked by a joint to a circular fuselage with two counter-rotated propellers in the center. It was powered by three engines located in the outer face of the fuselage. This gave the vehicle three modes. First, it could take off vertically and stay suspended in the air like a helicopter. Then, the aircraft could rotate the cockpit 90 degrees upward and become a plane while flying to its destination.
And third, it could turn its cockpit again to put the structure in a vertical position and attack targets while still hovering in the air. Some of its weaponry combinations included grenade launchers, machine guns, cannons, and rockets. All weapons were connected to articulated joints that allowed the pilots to redirect them during a flight to attack several targets. The fuselage was resistant to projectiles up to 12.7 millimeters (0.5 inches) in size, and the aircraft was expected to weigh 9.5 tons when fully loaded. In the end, the Model 49 lost against its competitor -the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne helicopter- for the contract with the U.S. Air Force. Anyway, both projects ended up being equally rejected, and the famous AH-64 Apache helicopter took their place.
Landkreuzer P1000 Ratte
In 1941, the German company Krupp performed studies on heavy Soviet tanks. Thanks to this, in the following year the Nazis conceived the idea of a super-heavy tank of more than 1,000 tons, with the weaponry and protection of a naval battleship. Thus, the “P1000 Ratte” was born, a vehicle Germans referred to as a “land cruiser” and not as a conventional tank. The P1000 Ratte was characterized by being a battleship on wheels, measuring 35 meters (115 feet) in length and 11 meters (36 feet) in height. It was powered by eight Daimler-Benz engines that would give it 16,000 horsepower and a top speed of 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour. The minimum crew required to operate it was about 20 people.
The weapons this tank would probably have were two 280-mm naval guns, one anti-tank gun, eight anti-aircraft cannons, and two automatic cannons. Its maximum weight was estimated at 2,000 tons, and its armor could reach a thickness of 360 millimeters (14 inches) at the front. The tank had a limited functionality at best -by its weight it would shatter the ground while advancing, and by its height, it could not aim at the closest targets. So in 1943, the Minister of Armaments Speer ended up canceling the project Ratte, which only reached the pre-prototype stage, despite Hitler’s interest in this machine.
Project Defender (BAMBI Devices)
After a successful attempt by the Soviet Union to launch its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in 1957, the United States began to develop a defense program to neutralize the threat posed by this new weapon. Once the failed “Nike-Zeus” project was dropped, the nation began working on the Project Defender in 1958. Thanks to the work of the best scientists in the country, the main program within the Project Defender consisted in launching hundreds of satellite stations into space to hit ICBMs in orbit.
These devices (officially called BAMBI) would deploy a net around them to increase the probability of collision while detecting the ballistic missiles through infrared sensors. However, the program BAMBI was canceled during Kennedy’s presidential administration in 1962, for three main reasons. The nation was now focused on the Apollo program, the BAMBI stations would have been very vulnerable to anti-satellite attacks, and the technology needed to create them was too advanced for that time.
CAM Walking Truck
In the final stage of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army asked the company General Electrics to create a versatile vehicle capable of supporting heavy loads, specially designed to move through difficult terrains. So in 1968, General Electrics presented a vehicle called Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machine (CAM), more commonly known as Walking Truck. This machine had a height of 3.3 meters (11 feet) and a weight of more than 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds). It could walk thanks to four mechanical legs powered by hydraulic pistons, controlled from the inside by a single operator.
The vehicle worked with gasoline and reached a speed of 8 kilometers (5 miles) per hour thanks to its more than 90 horsepower. The maximum load it supported was around 227 kilograms (500 pounds). The operator controlled the movements of the machine through stepping levers that gave him a sense of connection with the vehicle as if those were his own limbs. Finally, the project was canceled by General Electrics due to the high complexity of handling such a machine; it was very exhausting to try to control the vehicle.
Tupolev Voron Drone
In November 1969, a Lockheed D-21 drone of the U.S. Air Force suffered a failure and crashed in Siberia (Russia) after flying over China for surveillance purposes. Then, the Soviets recovered its parts to examine them. The company Tupolev Design Bureau realized that the aircraft offered solutions to the construction of fuselages with more advanced materials, able to withstand supersonic speeds. So it decided to reverse-engineer the D-21 and build its own version. Thus, in March 1971 the creation of the Tupolev Voron was officially approved. It was going to be a supersonic reconnaissance drone, having a more advanced technology than any other airplane of the time. The Voron had a length of 13 meters (43 feet), an innovative, tailless triangle shape, and a weight of 6.3 tons.
The aircraft was able to reach speeds of up to 3,800 kilometers (2,361 miles) per hour, while its maximum attainable altitude was more than 26 kilometers (16 miles). It was equipped with a panoramic camera that transmitted data to ground equipment. The drone would be launched into the air from a Tu-95K bomber, although the possibility of a ground-based takeoff was also studied. However, the data processing equipment at the time was not good enough to take advantage of the potential of the Voron’s spying ability at high altitudes. Also, progress made in espionage mechanisms from space diminished interest in reconnaissance drones, and the Voron project was canceled, reaching only initial testing stages.
The following project was similar to the Project Defender, although much more radical. Any space weapon would require a vast energy source to work correctly. Therefore, about ten underground nuclear tests were conducted since 1980 to determine if it was possible to concentrate the energy of a nuclear explosion in a single X-ray beam, to disintegrate targets. This allowed the development of the project Excalibur, a defense system within the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) during Ronald Reagan’s administration. It consisted of a device placed on a space platform, where a nuclear explosion was concentrated through metal rods. This generated an X-ray laser capable of destroying intercontinental missiles thousands of kilometers away. The initiative had an annual budget of $200 million. But the project Excalibur was eventually canceled in 1992 and its research resources were redirected to the development of other suborbital weapons.