Oral-History:Merrill Skolnik

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About Merrill Skolnik

Skolnik came to Johns Hopkins late in World War II, and then worked in an associated lab on proximity fuses and electronic warfare countermeasures. He then went to MIT’s Lincoln Lab, working on radar. At the same time he taught a course on radar Northeastern University, whose course outline became his 1962 book on radar, The Instruction of radar Systems. His research at this time included working on communications systems for spacecraft, learning about antennas, phase arrays, etc. while working for the Electronic Communication company, and learning about penetrating ballistic missile defenses, and countermeasures, while at the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA).

Ca. 1965 Skolnik became Superintendent of the Radar Division of the Naval Research Laboratory, where he stayed until his retirement in 1996. There he learned to become a successful bureaucrat, staying in touch with technology. Research at the NRL during his tenure included over-the-horizon (OTH) radar, space-based radar (unsuccessful), Relocatable Over-the-Horizon (ROTH) radar, Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (adapting earlier periscope detection radar), Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) work, and trying to figure out why little waves in ocean cause a radar echo. He notes that AWACS technology originated as OTH radar to be based abroad and peek into USSR, detoured through an attempt to adapt it to strategic defense, and only switched to tactical use at the end of a long peregrination. He notes that the Naval Research Laboratory had relatively little influence within the Navy, compared with other service research labs. He notes that radar funding is down lately, partly because the WWII and post-WWII scientists who built it up technologically and administratively are now retired; and partly because it is (apparently) a mature technology. He hails doppler weather radar as an unsung, recent accomplishment. He hails Dave Barton’s reorganization of the Radar Systems Panel in the AES as an effective shake-up, and also hails Barton’s role in the development of radar. He believes a lot of good European radar is being done lately. He notes that current contributors to AES Transactions include significant numbers of Chinese. He has kept up teaching a graduate course on radar, since 1970 at Johns Hopkins. He joined the AIEE in 1944 as a freshman, then joined IRE as a graduate student around 1947 and dropped out of the AIEE. He was on the Proceedings editorial board, and its editor for four years in late 1980s.

Describing the Soviet radar effort, he notes that it was not just a copy of US radar, because that would have left the USSR permanently behind the US in technological research. The Soviets differed, and were in some ways superior to the US, in their ABM technology (which the US ended up copying!) and their Patriot- and Aegis-equivalent technology. Such similarities as there are should be attributed to similar goals at least as much as to espionage. Soviet technological style favored cheap, brute-force, quickly-produced technology with redundancies in case of breakdown; US technology was the reverse.