From Platforms to Control: #Reviewing Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines for Its Macro-History of the U.S. Air Force

Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History. Tomas Rid. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Thomas Rid's Rise of the Machines has been reviewed multiple times since its 2016 publication, including on this site, but this review focuses on how the work provides an important macro-history of the Air Force by highlighting its relationship with machines since World War II. Moreover, it explores the Air Force’s relationship with cyber. I often hear people say something akin to, “I don’t get why the Air Force thinks it owns cyber.” Rid’s account provides some insights into how deeply cyber has been woven into the Air Force’s fabric, although his intent is much broader.. Because, of course, Rise of the Machines is not a history of cyber but a history of cybernetics. Yet cyber emerges from cybernetics, which can be understood as human-machine interactions.[1]

As such, Rid dates cyber not, as many do, to a work of science fiction published in the early 1980s but rather to the study of cybernetics, which arose shortly after World War II.[2] If the first Industrial Revolution saw muscle replaced by machine, the Second Industrial Revolution would see human brains replaced by machines, or so advocates for cybernetics believed.[3] Rid’s work thus grounds cyber in a longer and deeper tradition of both fear and optimism surrounding human-machine interactions. This review, however, focuses almost exclusively on Rid’s treatment of the Air Force that receives substantial yet episodic analysis throughout Rise of the Machines.

Rid’s work is a history of technology melded with culture, particularly in his emphasis on the power of myth to undergird how we think about technology. While most myths rely on references to the past, technology-centric myths claim to peer about two decades into the future, with the suggestive promise of not being “fiction or prediction” but rather “a hard fact that hasn’t happened yet.”[4] As such, Rise of the Machines dovetails nicely with Lawrence Freedman’s recent and well-received Future of War: A History¸ forcing the reader to think carefully about how often we have been wrong in trying to predict the future. By exploring the assumptions and myths society as a whole has internalized about technology, we can think more clearly about current debates about artificial intelligence, robotics, and related issues. Rid’s focus on the last seventy-five years also highlights that none of these discussions is novel, although we often act as though they are.

As correctly pointed out in a previous review, Rid largely keeps his own views largely out of the work, thus Rise of the Machines lacks an overpowering thesis.[5] One of the main arguments, however, is somewhat paradoxical: much of the future vision of technology will be achieved, albeit not as soon as we think. In the meantime, though, we are trapped in technology’s powerful myths. The reader is warned early on that these myths can either be the “way out” or a “trap.”[6] I have deliberately reordered the way he uses those words, as I think they better characterize his cautionary approach. Paradoxically, though, both are simultaneously accurate, as mankind tends to shift between bouts of optimism and deep depression regarding the future of technology.[7]

Cybernetics originated in the sweeping changes in control and communication that warfare in World War II required.[8] These twin factors of control and communication remain central to how the Air Force conceives of itself contributing to national security; indeed, it could be argued the Air Force considers these responsibilities as its key roles.[9] Thus, although Rid’s work is not intended as a history of the Air Force, in many ways it provides an origin story that challenges the Air Force’s dominant narrative. Traditional Air Force history tells a platform-centric story wherein bombers arise only to be replaced by fighters that go on to be substituted in turn at some point in the future with a blend of manned and unmanned platforms. Rid’s work, by contrast, reveals the ongoing story of how and why the Air Force seeks to control the first pillar of cybernetics.[10] In this account, the Air Force began the journey because it needed to shoot down airplanes.[11] Humans could not keep up with the speed of enemy aircraft on their own; they required machines to make calculations for them.[12]

Rise of the Machines thus starts with the Battle of Britain in the summer and fall of 1940, although not by detailing yet again the epic Spitfire battles over the English Channel. Rather, Rid highlights the necessary relationships between humans and machines required to defend Britain through early computing as human brains needed machines to think for them.[13] Rid then jumps to 1944 and Germany’s introduction of the V-1 and the V-2 missiles to explain how the number of people used to defend against machines dropped as automation took on more responsibility for defense. From twenty people manning an air defense battery, the number dropped to three or four by the end of the war.[14] Rid sums up this evolution as autonomous machines “‘shooting down’ ‘autonomous machines,’ or the ‘first battle of the robots.’”[15]

Even as defensive weapons required less manpower, air forces faced increasing targeting challenges. For the British, a fortuitous limitation of the V-1 was its predictable trajectory; by contrast, the V-2’s ballistic characteristic made its speed deadly and unpredictable.[16] World War II thus ends not only with the dropping of the first atomic weapon in Hiroshima but also, in a figurative sense, in London, because those defensive challenges were central to the coming decades.[17] This geographical addition to the standard narrative adds nuance to our thinking about the continuities between World War II and subsequent conflicts. The Battle of Britain is not just a feel-good story of a few brave fighter pilots but a preview of Cold War-era air warfare.

Spitfire and V-1 (

And, as Rid notes, the weapons used in those cities--theV-1 and V-2 in London and the atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki--were “practically made to be combined.”[18] This observation might benefit from hindsight; but what is more interesting is that Rid does not subsequently tell the story of how the Air Force developed the inter-continental ballistic missile. Rather, he recounts the less familiar tale of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), the Air Force’s attempt to create a defensive system to track the melding of the technologies used in Hiroshima and London. At this point in the 1950s, a system of control took center stage as SAGE morphed into the “largest data transmission network the world had ever seen.”[19]

Such a substantial command and control system helps explain the slow shift toward the centrality of control and communications to the Air Force, with the institution increasingly stressing it as its primary mission.[20] The Air Force tends to view these challenges as “‘problems of man-computer interaction’” and thus within the tradition of cybernetics.[21] But there are other approaches. John Boyd, for example, stressed command and control as largely a problem of interactions between people rather than people and machines.[22] This view highlights interactions between people, an emphasis often downplayed due to the Air Force’s techno-centric vision. Its bases, for example, showcase planes more than people.[23]

In light of indications that the Air Force has begun stressing command and control as its primary mission as well as its institutional culture rather than kinetic effect, it is important to consider Rid’s cautionary notes regarding technology.[24] The myths Rid details also stress the Air Force’s tendency to seek technology for the understandable but false promise of certainty it provides.[25] Of course he is not the first to do so, but he provides a useful reminder of this tendency.[26] Likewise, Rid puts the brakes on assessments of how fast technology will change, reminding us that we tend to see “foresight over failure.”[27]


Rid next returns to the Air Force in highlighting a lesser-known period in the 1970s and 1980s, claiming Air Force engineers created “virtual space,” which he characterizes as a “ space distinct from real physical space—what later became known as ‘cyberspace.’”[28] This invention resulted, again, from the need to improve human-machine interactions, especially in aging fighter aircraft.[29] By engineering a more human-like machine, the Air Force helped its pilots sort through an overwhelming amount of information.[30] A subsequent iteration even led to pilots “doubl[ing] [their] kill ratio.”[31] The result was a sophisticated helmet that provides a precursor for the frequently derided cost of the F-35’s $400,000 helmet. Today’s helmet is a descendant of the Air Force’s long and enduring relationship with human-machine interfaces. Likewise, Rid asserts that John Boyd’s famous OODA loop can be understood as emanating from a cybernetic tradition, based as it was on a pilot’s relationship with his F-86.[32]

For those familiar with the traditional narrative of U.S. airpower history centered on the Air Corps Tactical School’s development of bomber doctrine followed by its application against Germany during World War II, Rid provides a jarring but useful counter-narrative focused on human-machine interactions. If platform-centric accounts of Air Force history tend to keep us at a nice cruising altitude of about 30,000 feet, exploring Rid’s treatment of the Air Force in Rise of the Machines pushes us up higher where we can more clearly see the Air Force’s trajectory as well as the myths that continue to undergird it. As a result, we can view the institution more holistically. Note that this view, indeed the review as a whole, reflects my own application of this to Air Force history more than it reifies the author’s intent. By contrast, more recent attempts to trace key cultural threads sponsored by the Air Force identify five different stages, many of which overlap.[33] In some ways, Rid provided a neater, more intuitive solution.

That institution is indeed worth contemplating deeply, because Rise of the Machines ends with the fall of those same machines as cyberwarfare enables control to be “taken away.”[34] My students at Air Command and Staff College often challenge the Air Force’s definition of airpower for including cyber and space, finding it more institutionally self serving than anything.[35] There is merit to their argument, but focusing on the portions of Rid’s work detailing the Air Force’s historical evolution provides a more cohesive understanding of the links between all three domains rather than viewing claims to space and cyber as blatant power grabs. All of these points are important reminders in considering where the Air Force has been and where it is going.

Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: SAGE Sector Control Room (US Air Force Photo/Wikimedia)


[1] Thomas Rid, Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), Kindle location 57 of 8407.

[2] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Location 28-72.

[3] Rid, Rise of the Machines, page 82; location 1390.

[4] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Location 123 of 8407.

[5] Danny Steed, “Reviewing The Rise of the Machines,” 6 March 2017,

[6] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Location 131 of 8407.

[7] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 96; location 1612.

[8] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 2; location 163 of 8407.

[9] Valerie Insinna, “What’s the end game for the US Air Force’s command and control overhaul?,” C4ISRNET, 21 May 2019;

[10] For an example of this approach, see Brian Laslie, The Air Force Way of War (University Press of Kentucky). Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 47; location 844. The other pillars are “feedback” (p. 47; location 852) and a “tight relationship between humans and machines” (p. 49; location 868).

[11] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 12 of 415; Location 307 of 8407.

[12] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 37; location 689 of 8407.

[13] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Location 64 of 8407.

[14] Rid, Rise of the Machines, 37-38; location 702-709.

[15] Rid, Rise of the Machines, 38; location 709; 41, location 762.

[16] Rid, Rise of the Machines, 41; location 764; 43, location 776.

[17] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 73; location 1240.

[18] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 73; location 1242.

[19] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 81; location 1372.

[20] Insinna, “End Game.”

[21] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 144; location 2372.

[22] Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2004), Kindle location 3541-3580.

[23] Jeff Donnithorne, Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), Page 121.

[24] Insinna, “End Game;” U.S. Air Force, Air Force Future Operating Concept, Sept. 2015, Page 14; available online at

[25] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 347; location 5654.

[26] See, for example, Carl Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

[27] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 351; location 5712.

[28] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 195; location 3185.

[29] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 196; location 3207.

[30] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 197; location 3223.

[31] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 204; location 3338.

[32] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 299; location 4883.

[33] See Paula G. Thornill, “Over Not Through”: The Search for a Strong, Unified Culture for America's Airmen, 2012, available online at

[34] Rid, Rise of the Machines, Page 341; location 5564.

[35] For this definition, see U.S. Air Force, “Airpower,” Volume I: Basic Doctrine,