Prepare for my weirdest post ever:
As you know I love secret projects, and when I came across this video I was just as wowed as when I see a new stealth drone emerge from the shadows. Disney’s Imagineers have taken a fantasy of every young kid, and many old kids as well for that matter, and made it a reality. Short of a real Jurassic Park, this massive animatronic flying dragon, complete with fireball breathing capability, is nothing short of stunning. I don’t just take the video as evidence of this, I actually had a contact, one in the aerospace business infact, who was there at the grand opening of The Magic Kingdom’s expanded Fantasy Land that told me it was one of the coolest things he has ever seen.
I would guess that this is a very elaborate animatronic puppet mounted on a para-glider or something, yet still the size of this thing and the amount of articulation involved would seem like it would have had to have been designed under very tight weight tolerances, which is not a normal feature of traditional Hollywood mechanical puppets. You also have to control it, at the very least having it run on a program loaded onto an on-board computer. Then you take into account that this machine is flying over a very densely populated high-profile event at low-level, which once again does not lend itself to a rickety balsa wood and glue type of design, the liability would be just too high. Additionally, being that it is supposed to be a dragon, and has a long and articulated tail, wings, neck and head flapping around, making for one heck of a wild ride for whoever is up there flying it, if there is anyone up there at all…
Although Disney, a company more known for their animated charters and well themed rides, not visionary aerospace design, pulling off such a lifelike flying dragon is worth a post in itself, there are some lessons to be learned here when it comes to combat aviation and geopolitics as well (do not laugh just yet!). The ability to fly an incredibly lifelike dragon over a crowd of tens of thousands of people, and still have the average grownup amazed is an accomplishment that those in the aerospace defense world, especially many often wrong but highly published journalists, should take note of. Once again, Disney is not an aviation company, but their Imagineering team is known to be able to do amazing things with relatively small amounts of money. They know exactly what they can get away with and what they cannot when it comes to tricking a person’s senses and perceptions. As masters of using techniques like creative lighting and forced perspective, they can literally make something mundane appear grand, and even menacing, without actually paying for what it would cost to build the actual subject in full. In fact during interviews WED designers have often said that being tied to tough budgets, often too small to conventionally achieve the objective at hand, usually ends up in a better product, both fiscally and visually. But who cares about all this in the military aviation world? Well we all should and here is why:
A.) Because often times what we see is not exactly as it may appear. A large part of warfare and strategy is making your potential enemies think you have something that you actually do not. Although we already know for certain that dragons are fictional creatures, the dragon displayed over the Magic Kingdom does appear real, especially under the controlled setting of the event. We only see and hear the parts of it that the designers and producers of the display intended us to consume, the detailed areas lit up by the spotlight below, its articulating appendages and the sound effects and music track masking any prop sound from above etc. In other words, seeing is not necessarily believing. At the same time, lets say for hypothetical reasons a real dragon does exist and this fake was modeled upon its rumored appearance. Now that a man-made explanation has been put forth for sightings of such a beast, would a real live dragon sighting get the interest and investigation it clearly warrants? Probably not. Magic is an interesting thing because it is totally synthetic in nature and its greatest trick may be its ability to desensitize its viewers to events that are actually authentic in nature although they may border on the unbelievable or unexpected.
What I am getting at here is that disinformation and illusion can be just as effective of a deterrence as actually possessing the real McCoy itself, all at a fraction of the cost of pursuing the authentic alternative. Countries like China, with their new pair of stealth fighters, adolescent aircraft carrier capability, and shadowy DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, could be using this tactic in spades to get potential adversaries spending ridiculous sums of money to counter and stay ahead of such perceived threats, while our ability to quantify the true effectiveness of these capabilities is questionable. Historically, the same can be said for Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons, which never actually existed although almost every western intelligence agency believed they did. In the controlled, Disneyland like setting of an Iraq under Saddam’s total control, an elaborate production was put on for UN Inspectors and friendly and adversarial spy agencies alike, to make it appear as if Saddam was a credible threat, although we know now he was largely neutered as a military power in the region at the time. Similarly, Soviet nations, even North Korea today, paraded elaborate dummy ICBMs in front of the world to instill fear and technological response from their foes. During Operation Allied Force, Milosevic’s forces built plywood MiG-29s for allied forces to bomb, while hiding his real prized fighters for later use. Seeing as NATO new how many MiG-29s he had in inventory, once they were all destroyed it was assumed that they were just that, but the reality was much different. Historically, even the US has admitted to have used the UFO craze to its advantage to protect and cover up secret aircraft programs. Even the F-117s sitting dismantled in their hangars at Tonopah Air Base as a war reserve may very well be buried in the Nevada dirt by now, only existing as a hollow warning to future potential aggressors. All these events, as well as countless other examples throughout the history of warfare, are “flying dragons” in their own right, potentially showcasing the appearance of something that really does not exist at all.
In the still dawning age of the internet, the ability to fortify a technological or operational ruse on a large-scale is only fortified by viral “marketing” techniques and elaborate “alternate reality games,” where false information of a detailed and mysterious nature, such as found footage and forged documents, are inserted into the global flow of digital information. At this time, the use of such cutting edge marketing techniques has mainly been the territory of Hollywood mega-blockbusters, JJ Abrams’ “Cloverfield” being one of the most engrossing “ARG” campaigns as of yet, although there is no doubt that militaries and intelligence services worldwide are taking notice and are planning on using such subversive “marketing” to their own disinformation advantage in the future. For instance, China could “unveil” a new aircraft that does not exist in reality at all, a cutting edge stealth long-range bomber for instance. Seeing as it is a secretive technology to begin with and its operations will be shrouded in darkness long after its public unveiling, seeing is literally believing as no other corroborating information will be available to assess its true authenticity If such a disinformation event was also backed by a viral campaign of “leaked footage” and “secret documents,” declaring the authenticity of such a claimed machine becomes much more complex and murky. Even Disney attached a viral marketing campaign to its never-seen-before dragon, complete with “witness footage” and grainy photographs leading up to its unveiling. Simply put, the impact of something that may be of total fiction can be largely intensified by using modern viral marketing techniques. Just look at China’s slow visual unveiling campaign of the J-21, a flow of photographs of increasing quality and proximity to the subject that appeared to be individually driven but were really controlled entirely by the state. Even the RQ-170 Sentinel appears to have been “leaked on purpose” over time to segue the capability from highly classified to operating semi-openly in the “gray world.”
Sure, all this is just classic military tactics, a ruse, a bluff, disinformation, whatever you want to call it, but in a day when there is so much information at our fingertips at any given time, and our ability to scientifically analyze almost anything in great detail is trusted almost empirically by the populace, I think Disney’s Dragon is a good, albeit unexpected, reminder of the power of this classic tactic in relation to the many “threats” we are facing today. In other words, we must look twice at everything, and think beyond the technological conclusions that seem so apparent at the time, as we are often only being shown what “they” want us to see…
B.) Because it shows that an incredibly creative small group of individuals can build something unprecedented, even with limited funds and a relatively minuscule knowledge base. Disney’s Dragon is obviously not a 100% solution as it most likely relies on commercially available off the shelf technology, in other words, very simple forms of propulsion and lift, but it really does not have to be any more complex than that does it? When paired with cheap supplementary atmospherics such as sound effects and projected lighting, the impact to the viewer is greater than the sum of its parts. With all this in mind, I think that many in the aerospace industry and especially the US Department of Defense greatly underestimate their competition and potential foes’ ability to innovate and make due without the vast resources of the US Government or the know-how of legendary design houses like Lockheed’s Skunk Works. Maybe their way of addressing a certain mission or concept is not the same as ours, and their final product is not as potent, but that does not mean it is in any way irrelevant and could potentially offer greater “total force” capability if fielded in larger numbers or by being developed for much less money than its US counterpart. By doing so, precious resources could be used in other areas or not spent at all. Remember, a nation’s sovereignty is eroded with every dollar it borrows, by reaching a 75% solution for one-third of the cost of the US alternative, while keeping their nation out of debt in the process is just as relevant of a strategic goal as building the best fighter at any cost, in fact it may be much more relevant in some expert’s view.
Some of the most innovative capabilities do not have to be realized via cutting edge technological trends at all. By thinking outside the box an asymmetric view of warfare can be highly effective against a technological and economically superior enemy. Just take North Korea and Iran for instance, North Korea knows it cannot compete in the technological realm with South Korea, so it has built up its low-tech capabilities to a point that they are simply daunting. Instead of a developing a stealthy aircraft or cruise missile to penetrate the South’s defenses, it is rumored that the North has stockpiled a large force on cloth winged AN-2 biplanes. During the opening salvos of a total conflict with the south these aircraft will fly low to the ground at night, packed with North Korean special forces (a cult suicide force really) on a one way trip to drop them deep behind enemy lines to cause total chaos. The AN-2s flying low are hard to detect due to their largely fabric and wood structure, and they are cheap and totally expendable. Iran also knows full well that our Navy’s ability to project power decreases with proximity, therefore they have built a large force of fast attack boats used to swarm US surface combatants in the tight spaces of the Persian Gulf, a technique the Navy is just beginning to get a grasp on countering.
There are countless examples of asymmetric warfare throughout history, starting with David and Goliath, but still, as a technologically obsessed society we must begin to come to terms that more complex and more capable is not always better, especially if such assets are only procured in small numbers. In some ways I would love to see what the USAF’s “flying dragon” would have looked like and cost compared to Disney’s if both teams were given the same goal: Make a 40′ dragon appear real as it fly’s through the air at night at a few hundred feet above the ground. I have a good idea the USAF’s Dragon would have cost tens of millions of dollars and would not have been ready for Disney’s big unveiling, although it would have been needlessly powered by a jet engine, been unmanned, cruised a 25,000ft, and had the ability for the remote operator to control a swarm of other dragons although none exist and such a capability was never asked for in the original goals. In the end I believe this old saying rings true: Beware the man with a limited budget and an unlimited imagination…
UPDATE! LEAKED SHOTS OF DISNEY’S DRAGON IN TESTING IN CALIFORNIA, APPARENTLY IT IS ITS OWN TYPE AND EVERYTHING.