History | November 20, 2022 5:00 pm

The U.S. Military Once Experimented With Pigeon-Guided Missiles

The plan never came to fruition

The latest in precision technology.
Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

In a 1991 article exploring the technology that had played a key role in the first Gulf War, the New York Times put the spotlight on laser-guided bombs. “Precision weapons like laser-guided bombs have greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the attacks,” wrote Malcolm W. Browne — and also pointed to the technology having the effect of reducing harm to civilians.

Long before that instance of the U.S. military heading into combat, a very different method of precision targeting was attempted. Here’s a hint: it has two wings, a penchant for cooing and can be found in numerous parks around the country, hunting for breadcrumbs. Evidently, there was one point in history when pigeons were seen as a viable candidate for missile guidance.

Writing at Task & Purpose, Max Hauptman delved into the history of this unlikely experiment. Apparently, the project began in 1940, with psychologist B.F. Skinner working with homing pigeons. Skinner believed that he could train the pigeons to look for a particular target — a ship, for example. Place the pigeons in the cone of a missile, send the missile towards the target, and — so the thinking went — the pigeons would be able to guide the missile towards its intended designation.

Unfortunately, this process would not end well for the pigeons involved.

According to the article, the Army began looking into the idea in 1943 — but abandoned it a year later. The Army told Skinner that they would prefer to focus on initiatives with “more immediate promise of combat application.” It wasn’t the last time that the U.S. military would toy with the idea; later in the decade, they attempted another variation on this before abandoning it as well.

Pigeons weren’t the only animals to be enmeshed in American strategic initiatives in the 20th century. There’s also the saga of Operation Acoustic Kitty, in which the CIA attempted to use a cat to spy on the Soviet embassy. This one got a little further along, but ended up reaching a literally catastrophic conclusion before the cat in question reached its intended destination.