Obituaries: Peter Swerling

April 9, 2001

Peter Swerling, who died on August 25, 2000, at his home in Pacific Palisades (Los Angeles), California, at the age of 71, was probably the most influential radar theoretician of the second half of the 20th century, not only in the United States, but in the entire world.

Swerling's enduring fame was assured with the publication of his "Probability of Detection for Fluctuating Targets," written as a RAND report (March 1954) and later included in a special monograph issue, "Studies of Target Detection by Pulsed Radar," in the Transactions on Information Theory of the IRE (later IEEE) in April 1960. This landmark paper introduced the statistical classification of radar targets, which have been known ever since as the Swerling Cases I, II, III, and IV, and it determined the effect of these target statistics on radar-detection performance.

Beyond his epoch-making papers on the statistics and accuracy of radar target detection from the 1950s and 60s, Swerling remained at the forefront of radar technology for the rest of his life. He was one of the most important contributors to highly classified work on stealth technology. He served on many high-level U.S. government panels, and was a founder and CEO of two corporations specializing in radar technology.

Peter Swerling was born in New York City on March 4, 1929, the son of Jo and Florence (Manson) Swerling. The family moved to Southern California, where Jo (senior) became a leading Hollywood screenwriter. This part of the family tradition has been maintained by Peter's younger brother Jo (junior), a successful Hollywood movie and TV producer. Mathematically precocious as a child, Peter expressed the wish on his tenth birthday to meet Albert Einstein. This was actually arranged, and the hour-long meeting made a lasting impression on the boy.

At the age of 15, Peter Swerling entered the California Institute of Technology, receiving a BS in mathematics three years later (1947). He then went to Cornell, earning a BA in economics in 1949, before returning to southern California as a graduate student and teaching assistant in mathematics at UCLA. He was awarded an MA in 1951, and a PhD in 1955, with a thesis titled "Families of Transformations in the Function Spaces H^p" in which he considered certain families of bounded linear transformations in Banach spaces.

Swerling's association with the RAND Corporation actually began in 1947, while it was still Project RAND of the Douglas Aircraft Company, after he received his BS from Caltech, and lasted until 1961. He then spent several years (1961-64) as a department manager with Conductron Corporation, in Inglewood, California, before forming Technology Service Corporation, headquartered in Santa Monica, in 1966. With Swerling as president for 16 years, TSC grew to more than 200 employees. (It had a successful IPO in 1983, and was acquired by Westinghouse Corporation---then a DOW-30 company---in 1985. Later still, TSC was reacquired by its employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan; it continues to specialize in radar studies today.) In 1983, he co-founded Swerling Manassee and Smith, Inc., of Canoga Park, California, and served as its president and CEO from 1986 until his retirement in 1998.

Swerling was a member of the International Scientific Radio Union and a Fellow of the IEEE, and was elected in 1978 to membership in the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. For several years, starting in 1965, he was an adjunct professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California, teaching advanced seminars in communication theory and serving on doctoral committees, one of which he chaired.

The special studies, task forces, and panels of the Department of Defense on which Swerling served covered such subjects as tactical communications R&D for the U.S. Army, the vulnerability of AWACS to electronic countermeasures, the vulnerability of the PATRIOT missile, and AEGIS Warfare Capability, among many others. In 1975, the chairman of the committee on AWACS vulnerability, Harold P. Smith, Jr., described Swerling as "the country's leading theoretician on radar and its applications." This opinion of Swerling's pre-eminence was widely shared throughout the radar community for the rest of his life. In April 1999, he was the banquet speaker at a large international IEEE conference on radar in Boston, in what turned out to be his last public appearance.

Closely related to his many influential papers on radar, Swerling's work at RAND in the mid-1950s, and papers based on this work published in IRE journals in the early 1960s, largely anticipated the procedure that was later refined and publicized by Rudolph Kalman and that came to be known as "Kalman filtering." Swerling's original applications were to optimal estimation of orbits and trajectories of satellites and missiles from available tracking data.

Swerling is survived by his wife of 42 years, Judith Ann (née Butler), three children (Elizabeth, Carole, and Steven) and six grandchildren, and his brother Jo.

Solomon W. Golomb, Communication Sciences Institute, University of Southern California.


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