We already have "stealth" aircraft, but what about
a little of the stealth that only nature can provide?
Navy SEALs, move over – here come the Navy sharks. According to the latest
Scientist magazine, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or
DARPA, the blue-sky wing of the Pentagon, has set yet another group of American
scientists loose to create the basis for future red-in-tooth-and-maw Discovery
Channel programs. In this case, they are planning to put neural implants into
the brains of sharks in hopes, one day, of "controlling the animal's movements,
and perhaps even decoding what it is feeling." In their dreams at least, DARPA's
far-out funders hope to "exploit sharks' natural ability to glide quietly through
the water, sense delicate electrical gradients and follow chemical trails. By
remotely guiding the sharks' movements, they hope to transform the animals into
stealth spies, perhaps capable of following vessels without being spotted."
So far they've only made it to the poor dogfish, "steered" in captivity via
electrodes keyed to "phantom odors." As it happens though, DARPA-sponsored plans
are a good deal lustier than that: Next stop, the blue
shark, which reaches a length of 13 feet. Project engineer Walter Gomes
of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island claims a team
will soon be putting neural implants "into blue sharks and releas[ing] them
into the ocean off the coast of Florida." To transmit signals to the sharks,
the team will need nothing less than a network of signaling towers in the area.
This has "anti-ballistic shark system" written all over it.
Actually, it's not the first time the military has invested in shark technology.
As Noah Shachtman
of DefenseTech.org pointed out last July, "The Navy has tapped three firms
to build prototype gadgets that duplicate what sharks do naturally: find prey
from the electric fields they emit." One of them, Advanced
Ceramics Research, Inc., limned the project's potential benefits this way:
"If developed, such a capability might allow for the detection of small, hostile
submarines entering a seawater inlet, harbor, or channel, or allow objects such
as mines to be pinpointed in shallow waters where sonar imaging is severely
compromised." And then there's that ultimate underwater dream, the
Microfabricated Biomimetic Artificial Gill System, that could lead to all
sorts of Navy breakthroughs, perhaps even – if you'll excuse a tad of blue-skying
on my part – blue shark/human tracking teams, or if not that, then lots of late-night-TV
Of course, the Navy has been in nature's waters in a big way for a while with
Mammal Program in San Diego. There, it trains bottlenose dolphins as "sentries"
and mine detectors. Such dolphins were "first
operationally deployed" in Vietnam in 1971 and a whole dolphin patrol (like,
assumedly, the shark patrol to come) is now
on duty in the Khor Abd Allah waterway, Iraq's passageway into the Persian
Gulf. To the embarrassment of the Navy, a dolphin named Takoma
even went "AWOL" there in 2003, soon after the invasion of Iraq began.
As Nick Turse
has pointed out, DARPA funds research into weaponizing creatures that inhabit
just about any environmental niche imaginable – including bees capable of detecting
explosives; "eyes" patterned after those of flies that might someday make "smart"
weaponry even smarter; gecko wall-climbing and octopi concealment techniques;
and electrode-controlled rats capable of searching through piles of rubble.
In addition, between nature and whatever the opposite of nurture may be, there's
been an ongoing military give-and-take. Consider, for instance, BigDog, highlighted
in the same
issue of New Scientist. Compared to a pack mule, goat, or horse,
this "robotic beast of burden" is being developed by Boston Dynamics to haul
over rough terrain at least 40 kilograms of supplies soldiers won't need to
carry, while being able to take a "hefty kick" in the legs without crumpling
to the ground.
From sharks to robots, from hacking
into your nervous system to manipulating
the weather, the Pentagon seems determined to exert "full spectrum dominance"
especially over that top of the line primate, us. To achieve this, it sponsors
blue-sky thinking with a vengeance. Nothing that moves or breathes on the planet,
it seems, is conceptually beyond conscription by Uncle Sam into possible future-war
This is undoubtedly what happens when you have an administration that considers
the Pentagon the answer to all our problems and gives it a $439.3
billion budget to play with – and that's exclusive of actual war-fighting
money (which, for Iraq and Afghanistan, at an estimated $120
billion for the year, will come in supplemental requests to Congress). And
remember as well that the fiscal 2007 Pentagon budget does not include the $9.3
billion the Department of Energy will put into nuclear weapons or a host of
veterans-care benefits, all of which bring the budget at least close to the
$600 billion range. Analyzing the 2006 budget, economist Robert Higgs estimated
that all military-related outlays – that is, the real Pentagon budget
– totaled closer to $840
Even taken at face value, the 2007 budget accounts for more than half of the
$873 billion in federal discretionary spending – the funds that the president
and Congress decide to spend each year. For 2007, education, the second largest
discretionary budget item, amounts to just over $50 billion, a piddling sum
by comparison. But there is probably no way to put any version of the Pentagon's
finances into perspective. Militarily speaking, it throws other military spending
on the planet into the deepest shadow. As Frida Berrigan, senior research associate
at the World Policy Institute's Arms Trade Resource Center and co-author of
at War 2005," points out, "The Pentagon accounts for about half the world's
total military expenditures of $1.04 trillion, spending alone what the 32 next
most powerful nations spend together."
The United States is also by far the planet's largest exporter of weapons and
military hardware. An annual Congressional Research Service report found that,
in 2004, global weapons deliveries totaled nearly $37 billion – with the United
States responsible for more than 33 percent of them, or $12.4 billion, and it
hasn't gotten better since.
No other country puts anything like such effort, planning, and dreaming into
the idea of projecting planet-spanning military power, caught so grimly in that
phrase, "full spectrum dominance." To Pentagon minds this seems to mean: from
20,000 leagues down to 20 miles up (and everything that creeps, crawls, swims,
or flies in between). The phrase first gained attention with the release in
2000 of the Air Force's Joint Vision 2020 statement – a supposed look into a
future world of American war-making. It's one of those terms that sticks with
you – and not just because of the full-spectrum weaponry that's now on the drawing
boards, ranging from hypervelocity rod bundles meant to penetrate underground
bunkers from outer space (ominously nicknamed "rods
from god") to the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), "an
unmanned maneuverable spacecraft that [by 2010] would travel at five times
the speed of sound and could carry 1,000 pounds of munitions, intelligence sensors,
or other payloads" anywhere on the planet within two hours, or that permanent
base on the moon the Bush administration has called for by 2020 (and the
array of Star Wars-style space-based weaponry that would ring it).
Full-spectrum dominance turns out to include even the United States where,
in 2002, the Bush administration established the United States Northern Command,
or Northcom, whose Web site at present
has the following from a visit by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland
Defense Paul McHale as its reassuring quote of the week: "I'm leaving with a
clear sense of confidence in the vision and planning of NORTHCOM to deal with
any emerging threat, whether an occurrence of pandemic flu, a 2006 hurricane
… or a terrorist attack still being planned by our adversaries."
While the Pentagon quietly begins to take over tasks that once were delegated
to civilian agencies, its blue-sky weapons planning extends into the distant
future. Take, for instance, the Air
Force Futures Game '05, held for several days last October in the Dulles,
Virginia office of consultants Booz Allen Hamilton. The exercise was dedicated
to "looking at scenarios for the year 2025," especially one in which a nuclear
weapon is loose in a "Middle Eastern country" and a major war is in the offing.
Like many other Pentagon war-gaming exercises, this one was largely committed
to confirming the usefulness of as yet nonexistent or hardly existent weaponry,
especially in the areas of "space access" and "electronic warfare." According
to Col. Gail Wojtowicz, Air Force division director of future concepts and transformation,
the gamers were "also looking at one of the trickiest issues the Air Force or
another service may have to face: what the Pentagon can do on American soil."
Military analyst William Arkin wrote about these particular Air Force games,
meant to boost "laser, high-powered microwaves, and acoustic weapons," at his
Post Early Warning blog. Such blue-sky exercises, he explained, advance
new weapons systems (and their corporate sponsors) "along the familiar development
path of boosters and patrons feeding information to war gamers who feed study
participants who feed researchers who feed manufacturers. At the end of the
day, it is hard to tell whether high powered microwaves and laser came into
being because someone conceived it out of need or because its existence in the
laboratory created the need."
To support letting inventive minds roam free outside normal frameworks is in
itself an inspired idea. But I bet there's no DARPA-like agency elsewhere in
the government funding the equivalent for education 2025 or health 2025 or even
energy independence 2025. To have this happen, I'm afraid, you would have to
transform them into Northcom war games.
Now it's true that much blue-skying may never come to be. Those U.S. Navy stealth
sharks may not patrol our coasts, and a good, swift enemy kick to some unexpected
spot on BigDog's anatomy may fell the "creature," if budgetary or high-tech
wrinkles don't do the trick first – just as an unexpected series of low-tech
blows to our full-spectrum military has left the Pentagon desperate and the
Army unraveling in Iraq.
Wouldn't it be nice, though, if official blue-sky thinking didn't always mean
mobilizing finances, scientists, corporations, and even the animal kingdom in
the service of global death? Wouldn't it be nice to blue sky just a tad about
[Note: Special thanks for Pentagon facts and figures in this piece go
to Frida Berrigan of the World Policy Institute's invaluable Arms
Trade Resource Center. To keep up with the latest Pentagon full-spectrum
dominance projects, be sure to check out Noah Shachtman's entertaining as well
as useful DefenseTech Web site, heavily
mined for this piece, and William Arkin's Washington
Post Early Warning blog.]
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com ("a regular
antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the
American Empire Project and the author of The
End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold
War. His novel, The
Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.
Copyright 2006 Tom Engelhardt