Global Policy Forum

The Wild Weapons of DARPA


By Nicholas Turse

March 4, 2004

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 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 Pillar 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% 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 computer mouse." 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 them: WolfPack, a group (pack) of miniaturized, unattended ground sensors that are meant to work together in detecting, identifying and jamming enemy communications; 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 take-off 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

Killer Bees

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.

Fly Boys

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% of munitions used in Operation Iraqi Freedom were precision-guided, as opposed to only 6.5% 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 Carol 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 fly-paper missile defense shield.

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 Fly-trap-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!

Remote-Control Robo-Rats

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 an U.S. Army airfield. Just imagine what an army of Army rats might do! Anybody remember Willard?

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 of stimulants."

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 an 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 will die.

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 life-like 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 is 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 its 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.

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