[Note for TomDispatch Readers: This is the second post in a pre-Labor
Day "best of TomDispatch" series. The first was Chalmers Johnson's 2005 "Smash
of Civilizations." Now, we backpedal another year to 2004
and reconsider the Pentagon's ceaseless efforts to dream up and build ever
more effective, ever more invasive and destructive weaponry not just for 2010,
but for 2020, 2030, 2040, and beyond. The new model car or the next version
of the iPhone has nothing on the Pentagon, which fully expects to roll out
the next version of destruction until Hell freezes over. This makes TomDispatch
Associate Editor Nick Turse's 2004 piece – in those distant days he still signed
his posts "Nicholas" – on ways the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA) was planning to weaponize the wild kingdom as shiny new as tomorrow's
A version of this piece would later became part of Turse's 2008 book,
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, which will someday
be considered a classic on the militarization of American society and should
be in your library – yes, I mean you! It's a shame, really, that TomDispatch
pieces, now collected in a new book, The
World According to TomDispatch, America in the New Age of Empire (Verso,
2008), hold up so well. If only a better world had made them obsolete – but
no such luck. As Chalmers Johnson did, so here Turse provides a new introduction
to his old post, reconsidering a world in which, however new its weaponry,
the Pentagon is starting to look its age. Tom]
The Pentagon: Some-Things-Never-Change Department
What a difference four and a half years makes.
When I first penned "The Wild Weapons of DARPA," in March 2004, I was a new
TomDispatch writer; the war in Iraq was not yet a year old; the war in Afghanistan
had been bubbling for less than two and a half years, and I suggested that
"what's left of the USSR is a collapsed group of half-failed states, while
the U.S. stands alone as the globe's sole hyperpower." Today, I'm the longtime
associate editor of TomDispatch.com; the United States, now far from a "hyperpower,"
continues to be bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight in
either occupation; and a resurgent Russia, now an energy superpower, has only
recently invaded the hardly failed state of Georgia.
Similarly, at that time, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA),
the Pentagon's blue-skies research outfit, still looked young and vigorous.
Today, DARPA is beginning to show the stresses of age. The agency turned 50
this year and, as Sharon Weinberger reported
at Wired Magazine's Danger Room last month, "its birthday present appears
to be another $100 million in budget cuts, according to a Defense Department
document" – and this was on top of a $32 million loss
the month before.
Still, much remains the same. Despite current budget cuts, the agency is
still "both intellectually and financially, a fabulous and alluring gravy train,"
and its funding for the life sciences still offers "a fertile area to further
the science of death and destruction." For example, back in 2004, I wrote that
"DARPA has been creating insect databases while increasing efforts to 'understand
how to use endemic insects as collectors of environmental information,'" and
I asked: "How long until they start thinking about weaponizing insects as well?"
Earlier this year, I answered my own question. Not long was the reply. I reported
that DARPA was now working to create cyborg insects for surveillance purposes,
and – an even more frightening prospect – "that such creatures could be weaponized,
and the possibility, according to one scientist intimately familiar with the
project, that these cyborg insects might be armed with 'bio weapons.'"
I wish I could claim some special prescience, but that prediction was a total
no-brainer. After all, this is just the way the Pentagon operates, whatever
changes or budget cuts come down the pike. Four years later, plenty of people
have written about various DARPA projects, but most still fail to ask the most
salient question: Why does the U.S. government foster unfettered, blue-skies
creativity only in the context of lethal technologies (or those that, indirectly,
enhance lethality by aiding the functioning of the armed forces)? Some things
never change. Nick Turse, August 2008
The Wild Weapons of DARPA
by Nick Turse
When, in October 1957, the USSR launched the
first man-made earth satellite, the basketball-sized Sputnik, it caught the
United States off guard and sent the government into fits. Not only had the
Soviets exploded an atomic bomb years before the Americans predicted they would,
but now they were leading the "space race." In response, the Defense Department
approved funding for a new U.S. satellite project, headed by former Nazi SS
officer Wernher von Braun, and created, in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA) to make certain that the United States forever after
maintained "a lead in applying state-of-the-art technology for military capabilities
and to prevent technological surprise from her adversaries."
Almost half a century later, what's left of the USSR is a collapsed group
of half-failed states, while the U.S. stands alone as the globe's sole hyperpower.
Yet DARPA, the agency for an arms-race world, seems only to be warming up to
the chase. There may be no country left to take the lead from us, the nearest
military competitor being China which reportedly had $65 billion in military
expenditures in 2002 (compared to our $466 billion according to GlobalSecurity.org)
and which, only in 2003, put its first "Taikonaut" into outer space. Undaunted,
DARPA continues to develop high-tech weapons systems for 2025-2050 and beyond
– some of them standard fare like your run-of-the-mill hypersonic bombers,
others more exotic.
In an August 2003 article, Los Angeles Times reporter Charles Piller
noted that DARPA has put forth some of the "most boneheaded ideas ever to spring
from the government" – including a "mechanical elephant" that never made it
into the jungles of Vietnam and telepathy research that never quite afforded
the U.S. the ability to engage in psychic spying.
As former DARPA Director Charles Herzfeld noted in 1975, "When we fail, we
fail big." Little has changed. According to DARPA's current chief, some 85-90
percent of its projects fail to meet their full objectives. Still, Piller points
out, DARPA "has been behind some of the world's most revolutionary inventions"
– "the Internet, the global positioning system, stealth technology and the
DARPA's spectacular failure rate and noteworthy successes stem from its high-risk
ventures. For years DARPA has funded extremely unconventional, sometimes beyond-the-pale,
avant-garde research in all realms of science and technology. It is, perhaps,
the most creative place in our vast government for a scientist who wants to
stretch his or her mind in adventurous directions and be well paid to do so.
If you have a wild idea, DARPA's the place to try it out. Said Harvard University
pathologist Donald Ingber in a 2001 Los Angeles Times article, "DARPA
[has] funded things that a lot of people thought were ridiculous, and some
that people thought were impossible. They make things happen."
There's only one caveat – in one way or another most every project, however
mind-stretching, invariably must end, directly or indirectly, in the incapacitation
or death of future American enemies.
The projects are often some of the most lethal ever conceived. Over the years,
DARPA research has led to a plethora of products designed to maim and kill,
among them the M-16 rifle, Hellfire-missile-equipped Predator drones, stealth
fighters and bombers, surface-to-surface artillery rocket systems, Tomahawk
cruise missiles, B-52 bomber upgrades, Titan missiles, Javelin portable "fire
and forget" guided missiles, and cannon-launched Copperhead guided projectiles,
to name but a few.
A question seldom asked is why pie-in-the-sky creativity exists unfettered
and fostered only in the context of lethal technologies? As the U.S. continues
its mad dash into a post-Cold War, one-nation arms race, fears of a missile
gap or the menace of a technologically advanced foreign foe drop away as explanations;
nor can it just be a generalized fear of falling behind the rest of the world.
Look at the state of education in America – in 2002 the U.S. ranked 18th in
UNICEF's list of teenagers in 24 industrialized countries falling below international
academic benchmarks. Despite the poor showing, no one is rushing to set up
an Advanced Education Research Agency.
According to the CIA's annually-published World Factbook, "the US is
the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels,"
yet the Environmental Protection Agency's "National Center for Environmental
Innovation" is a far cry from a DARPA-like entity. It doled out a mere $737,500
in seven state-innovation grants in 2003. DARPA, by comparison, spent about
$3 billion on some 200 projects that ranged from space weapons to unmanned
aerial vehicles. But just because the government isn't pouring money into the
projects of scientists eager to attack environmental problems doesn't mean
environmental research is of no interest to it. Quite the opposite. DARPA has
taken up the torch and is funding a rigorous research program aimed at finding
novel ways to weaponize the natural world.
As evidenced by their Vietnam-era mechanical elephant project and a recent
grant to researchers developing a robotic canine called "Big Dog" for the Army,
DARPA might be said to have something of an animal fetish, reflected perhaps
in various projects whose very names evoke the ethos of the wild kingdom. Among
WolfPack, a group (pack) of miniaturized, unattended ground sensors
that are meant to work together in detecting, identifying, and jamming enemy
Piranha, a project to "enable submarines to engage elusive maneuvering
land and sea targets"; and
Hummingbird Warrior, a program to produce a helicopter-like vertical
takeoff and landing unmanned air vehicle (UAV).
The agency also embraces the imagery of the natural environment in its "Organic
Air Vehicles in the Trees" project, which sounds downright "green," though
it's actually a tiny UAV that will fly in the forests, over hills, and through
cities searching for enemies.
Allusions to the natural world, however, are the least of it. While the military
is well-versed in employing all sorts of creatures to do its bidding, from
Army guard dogs to Navy dolphins used for locating sea mines, DARPA is keen
on branching out from class Mammalia. One way is through its "Bio-Revolution"
program which seeks to "harness the insights and power of biology to make U.S.
warfighters and their equipment … more effective."
Willard and His Wild Pals
After all those years of warnings about sinister African killer bees inexorably
heading toward the U.S., DARPA decided to draft bees into military service.
In 2002, projects examining the performance of honeybees trained to detect
explosives and locate other "odors of interest" were launched. Since then,
DARPA has been creating insect databases while increasing efforts to "understand
how to use endemic insects as collectors of environmental information." DARPA
says it has already tested "this endemic insect system in key operational demonstrations
here and abroad." How long until they start thinking about weaponizing insects
as well? Instead of your plain old, garden variety Stinger missiles, you could
have a swarm of missile stingers.
At the University of Florida, DARPA-sponsored researchers are working on biologically-inspired
"eyes" patterned after those of flies. "We think we can use this concept to
make smart weapons smarter," says professor of materials science and engineering
Paul Holloway, the project's lead researcher. It's a safe bet that a new set
of eyes would help, since the current crop of smart weapons couldn't get much
dumber! Despite the pronouncements of U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Timothy Keating
who, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, bragged of a military "plan that …
reduces to an absolute minimum, if not eliminates, noncombatant casualties,"
nothing proved further from the case. While 68 percent of munitions used in
Operation Iraqi Freedom were precision-guided, as opposed to only 6.5 percent
in the 1991 Gulf War, the ratio of civilian to military deaths turned out to
be almost twice as high this time around, according to Carl Conetta of the
Massachusetts-based think-tank, Project on Defense Alternatives. Are fly eyes
the answer? Perhaps… at least until some rogue state develops a flypaper missile
Little Shop of Horrors
In July 2003, DARPA held a workshop to "help researchers in various disciplines
self-assemble into teams capable of developing plant inspired actuation systems
that will ultimately have application in military adaptive or morphing structures."
What's on the horizon then? Giant Venus flytrap-inspired fighting vehicles?
A brigade of Swamp-Thing warriors?
(Octo)Pie in the sky camouflage
According to the agency's 2003 strategic plan, "DARPA-supported researchers
are studying how geckos climb walls and how an octopus hides to find new approaches
to locomotion and highly adaptive camouflage. The idea is to let nature be
a guide toward better engineering." Imagine the ink-squirting, suction-cup-covered
frogman of the future!
In 2002, DARPA researchers demonstrated that they could remotely control the
movements of a rat with electrodes implanted into its brain using a laptop
computer. In 2003 and 2004, DARPA's "Robolife" program researchers will turn
their attention to the "performance of rats, birds, and insects in performing
missions of interest to DoD, such as exploration of caves or covert deposition
of sensors." Militarizing the animal world, however, carries its own risks.
Take World War II's Project X-Ray in which bats with incendiary explosives
strapped to their bodies turned on their military masters and set fire to a
U.S. Army airfield. Just imagine what an army of Army rats might do! Anybody
The Wildest of Apes
When Captain America throws his mighty shield…
Perhaps the most frightening of DARPA's weaponized science projects are those
that deal with militarily enhancing that most violent of apes – man. In its
2003 strategic plan, DARPA touted the "Enhanced Human Performance" component
of its "Bio-Revolution" program whose aim is to prevent humans from "becoming
the weakest link in the U.S. military." Lest rats, bees, and trees become the
dominant warriors, Enhanced Human Performance will "exploit the life sciences
to make the individual warfighter stronger, more alert, more endurant, and
better able to heal." Yes, what now captivates DARPA researchers once captivated
comic-book readers – the dream of creating a real-life Captain America, that
weakling-turned-Axis-smashing-super-patriot by way of "super soldier serum."
Just Say "No" to No Doze, but "Yes" to Endless Combat
The U.S. military has long plied its fighting men with uppers. In Vietnam,
medics sated soldiers' need for speed by doling out government-issue amphetamines.
In 2002, U.S. pilots under the influence of Air Force "go-pills" (which Air
Force spokeswoman Lt. Jennifer Ferrau calls a "fatigue management tool") killed
four Canadian soldiers and injured eight others when they dropped a laser-guided
bomb on a Canadian military training exercise in Afghanistan. Today, DARPA's
Continuous Assisted Performance (CAP) program is aimed at creating a 24/7 trooper
by "investigating ways to prevent fatigue and enable soldiers to stay awake,
alert, and effective for up to seven days straight without suffering any deleterious
mental or physical effects and without using any of the current generation
This is your brain on DARPA… any questions?
DARPA researchers are also at work on the "Brain Machine Interface" ("neuromics")
project, designed as a mind/machine interface, allowing mechanical devices
to be controlled via thought-power. Thus far, researchers have taught a monkey
to move a computer mouse and a telerobotic arm simply by thinking about it.
With arrays of up to 96 electrodes implanted in their brains, the animals are
able to reach for food with a robotic arm. Researchers even transmitted the
signals over the Internet, allowing remote control of a robotic arm 600 miles
away. In the future they hope to develop a "non-invasive interface" for human
use. Says DARPA, "The long-term Defense implications of finding ways to turn
thoughts into acts, if it can be developed, are enormous: imagine U.S. warfighters
that only need use the power of their thoughts to do things at great distances."
For years, the U.S. military has been improving its ability to reach out and
kill someone. What's the mantra of the future? Maybe, if you think it, they
Life (and Death) Sciences
Leonard J. Buckley, a program manager in materials chemistry at DARPA's Defense
Science Office, has said, in regard to insect-inspired optics research, "Inspiration
from nature … will allow more lifelike qualities in the system." And, says
DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker, "We're interested in investigating biological
organisms because they have evolved over many, many years to be particularly
good at surviving in the environment … and we hope to learn from some of those
strategies that Mother Nature has developed."
Poor Mother Nature! What hope has she when faced with an over $400 billion
dollar defense budget? What can she do when the most powerful impetus for free-thinking
scientists to consider her lies in the urge to weaponize her offspring? Under
DARPA, the life sciences have become a fertile area to further the science
of death and destruction in an effort, in the words of the DARPA Defense Sciences
Office, to overcome the "Frailties of Life" to achieve "Super Physiological
Performance." How wonderfully Nietzschean!
Such is the state of government-sponsored innovation in our land. If you're
a researcher in crucial fields and want the time, funding, and latitude to
be creative, your work must benefit the Pentagon in its race to make sure that
the next Saddam can be, in the words of Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, "caught
like a rat" by Capt. Ben Willard of the Army's rat patrol.
Other than finding new ways of circumventing international law (e.g., bypassing
violations of national airspace with space-launched weapons), which the U.S.
already does quite well with current technology, or the mountain climber's
mantra "because it's there," it's hard to fathom why the government is still
locked in a Cold War-style arms race in a single hyperpower world. The only
explanation available lies in the driving will of the ever-expanding military-industrial
complex, first named by President Eisenhower back in 1961. This would certainly
help explain why we have no educational or environmental DARPAs. For today's
researchers, DARPA is, both intellectually and financially, a fabulous and
alluring gravy train, the only agency that puts real money into and rewards
creative and maverick thinking. The freedom to dream and create, DARPA's mandate,
is seductive and exceptional and, as such, so dangerous that we have to ask
ourselves whether war-making isn't now America's most advanced product.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com.
He has written for the Los
Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Adbusters,
the Nation, and regularly for Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration
of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by
Metropolitan Books. His Web site is Nick
Copyright 2004 & 2008 Nick Turse