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If you grew up anywhere near the Monty Python era you’re bound to know the title of this post. The quote comes from The Life of Brian. When John Cleese asks the question “what have the Romans done for us?” the answer he ends up being forced to say

All right, all right … apart from better sanitation, and medicine, and education, and irrigation, and public health, and roads, and a freshwater system, and baths, and public order … what have the Romans done for us?

The Life of Brian is an irreverent, irrelevant and, er, well, I’m out of “irr’s” but I’m sure you get the idea. It might be odd, but I think the Cold War has a little in common with this scene.

The Cold War was a time filled with fear and mistrust. Military and political advantage was all-important, but if you ask the question “What Have The Russians Ever Done For Us?” at least a couple of the answers have a distinctly John Cleese air to them.

Take, for example, the SR-71 Blackbird: one hundred and fifty thousand pounds of thundering Mach 3 surveillance platform. Its prime protection from missiles was speed, the pilot simply accelerated and waved goodbye. Partly because of this, and unlike the U-2, no SR-71s were lost to enemy action. Though it has to be admitted the U-2, the aircraft it was designed to replace, is still in service and the Blackbird was retired years ago.

So what about the SR-71 had any connection to the Python’s? Well, to meet its weight goals the SR-71 had to be built from titanium, a strong and light metal. It’s common stuff these days, but in the late 50s/early 60s, global production was pretty low, and the SR-71 was a closely guarded secret.

Titanium production was so low that Lockheed and the CIA set up long and tortious routes to procure large amounts of the metal without raising suspicions. This was important not only because the aircraft was developed and operated in secret, but because much of the titanium was bought from the USSR. In true Monty Python fashion, titanium was purchased from Russia, only to be returned a couple of years later in the form of a fully built spy plane.

Ok, So I hear you saying

“All right, all right … apart from titanium, and spy planes, what have the Russians done for us?”

What indeed.

The SR-71’s shape was intended to reduce its radar cross section (ie make it less likely to be detected by radar). In the end the aircraft was still easily detected, but the US knew stealth was important, even before the idea had a buzzword.

Lockheed worked on various ideas until in the 70s it was approached to design an aircraft with a truly low radar cross section. Dick Scherrer, Denys Overholser, and Bill Schroeder put together the outline of an aircraft made of flat surfaces that looked like a diamond. This was a shocking shape for an aircraft, and completely counter intuitive. In fact, famed Lockheed designer, Kelly Johnson believed that drones the company had built would have a lower cross section that the “hopeless diamond” (a play on the aircraft’s resemblance to the Hope diamond).

However, Overholser had an ace up his sleeve. Or more to the point he had a copy of a paper titled “Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction.” This work, describing as it did the scattering of electromagnetic waves, was consider essential reading by some people. Those people weren’t Russian, however.

The paper was published in 1964 by mathematician Pyotr Ufimtsev, at the time chief scientist for the Moscow Institute for Radio Engineering. Within the USSR his work was considered irrelevant, and he was warned that continuing would hinder his career, but he persisted. With no military value, the Soviet machine allowed Ufimtsev to publish his work internationally, soon attracting the attention of the US.

Ufimtsev’s work, refined by Overholser, and Schroeder, led to the secret experimental Have Blue aircraft, and in 1983 the first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk. Much like the titanium and the SR-71, Soviet mathematical concepts led to the F-117, and every stealth aircraft since.

So, as John Cleese would say,

“All right, all right … apart from titanium, and spy planes, and the principles of electromagnetic wave diffraction, and stealth aircraft … what have the Russians done for us?”

I’m all out now, but if you have anything else you’d like to tack on Mr Cleese’s speech, let me know 🙂


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