Metal Gear is a series that’s (at least partly) about giant mecha and Cold War drama. It may be pure fantasy, but in the early 1960s, the US did actually build a giant two-armed military machine: the “Beetle”.
This story was originally published in June 2010.
Built by Jered Industries in Detroit for General Electric’s ominous — and very Metal Gear-sounding — Nuclear Materials and Propulsion Operation division, the Beetle was a mechanical terror designed for the Air Force Special Weapons Centre, initially to service and maintain a planned fleet of atomic-powered Air Force bombers. According to declassified Air Force reports, work began on the “mech” in 1959, and it was completed in 1961.
Unlike the fictional Metal Gears, the Beetle didn’t try and walk on two legs. It was piloted, and not an AI. It never tried to destroy the world, either. But its history, design, construction and operation are all so eerily similar to that of “actual” units from the Metal Gear universe that fans of the series should find it fascinating, especially given the timeliness of the Beetle’s existence in parallel with the Shagohod, from Metal Gear Solid 3's Cold War drama.
Shagohod was a giant Soviet war machine, and like the Beetle, was a product of the Cold War. It shared a focus on nuclear weapons and an obsession with the promise of the atomic age, was piloted by a single man, heavily armoured, shrouded in secrecy and also ditched cumbersome legs in favour of a more down-to-earth propulsion system, though Shagohod employed “screws” instead of conventional tracks (the Beetle, meanwhile, was built atop the treads and body of an M-42 “Duster”, a mobile anti-aircraft vehicle).
While Shagohod was a threat to world peace – especially given plans to export the vehicle overseas to enemies of the US – the Beetle’s role was more supportive. Shagohod’s primary purpose was to serve as a launch platform for nuclear weapons. The Beetle’s was to…repair and maintain engines, and when the atomic aircraft project was cancelled in 1961, it was earmarked by the US military for a role in cleaning up the debris caused by a nuclear explosion, adding some shades of Fallout to this Metal Gear tale.
Because the Beetle was first conceived to fix aircraft engines that would be soaked in radiation, it had to be nuclear-proof. Because these would be big aircraft, with large parts that were high off the ground, the Beetle had to be big as well. And because the actual duties it was to perform would require a great deal of precision and finesse, the Beetle was given two arms with pincers for “hands”, which is where the “Beetle” name originates.
All of which explain why the Beetle was a colossal 19 feet long, 12 feet wide, 11 feet high and weighed a ground-shaking 77 tons. The pilot was shielded by an inch of steel armour on the outside of the unit, half-an-inch inside and a minimum of 12 inches of lead plating around the cabin, which would keep him shielded from all but the most intense blasts of radiation. On top of all that, the cockpit glass was 23 inches thick, and was made up of seven individual panes of leaded glass.
To actually drive the Beetle, then, the pilot couldn’t just pop open a hatch and jump in. The canopy, which weighed 15,000 pounds, had to be raised by hydraulic lifts then lowered onto guidance rods, a process which took several minutes. Once inside, despite cramped conditions, the pilot had some degree of comfort, with a small TV set, air conditioning and even an ashtray, should the stress of dealing with the remains of a nuclear holocaust get a little much from time to time.
Powered by a 500hp engine, the Beetle could, on a hard, flat surface, reach a top speed of…eight miles per hour. Any faster – not that it could go much faster – and the vibrations damaged some of its finer instrumentation and mechanics. That’s painfully slow, yes, but speed had been traded off for power, the robot’s bulk meaning it had 85,000 pounds of pull in its arms, strong enough to either punch clean through a thick concrete wall or, should the need arise, grab a wall and tear it clean off a building or bunker.
Yet despite this raw power, it could also – thanks to its roots as a servicing platform – perform incredibly delicate operations. At a public demonstration in 1962, for example, the Beetle was able to roll up to a carton of eggs, pick a single egg up and hold it in its pincers without breaking it.
In a final and — given the appearance and scale of the Beetle — unexpected twist, the robot was also capable of reaching great heights. The cabin, which housed the cockpit and arms, was able to be raised on four hydraulic pistons, and when fully extended the Beetle stood an imposing 27 feet off the ground, more than high enough to pick through the rubble of a decent-sized apartment building.
All of which sounds amazing, you’re probably thinking. It’s like a mech, only real! Why don’t we have these today? Why aren’t US military personnel going to war in Metal Gears, instead of tanks, which are just so twentieth century?
Well, for all its promise and science fiction appeal, the Beetle just didn’t work very well.
At the same 1962 demonstration it managed to pick up an egg – for Popular Science and Life magazines - it also, over the source of four days, “operated seldom”, the Beetle plagued by hydraulic leaks, broken arms, dead generators (the cockpit instrumentation had its own engine) and countless short circuits. Internal testing conducted by the Air Force was even more damning, citing constant mechanical failures and an impossibly high standard of maintenance required to keep the Beetle in good working order.
Perhaps its biggest failing, however, was that it was utterly unsuitable for active duty. The Beetle had been designed as a maintenance platform, which would operate from the confines and relative safety of an Air Force base. With the demise of the atomic aircraft program, however, the other potential roles planned for it would have required a more active deployment, something its size, weight and most crucially unwieldiness (it took several minutes for a pilot to get in and out) simply could not stand up to.
Future efforts of this type were thus focused on making military robots smaller, both so that they would be lighter – and thus easier to maintain – and also so that they could be operated remotely, rather than having to provide such extreme protection measures for a single pilot. In 2010, you can see the legacy of the Beetle in remotely operated vehicles such as the TALON, recently made famous from the movie Hurt Locker, and the very Metal Gear-looking “Big Dog”, commissioned for the US Marine Corps but ultimately abandoned.