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DARPA: Weapons of the Future

When Alfred Loomis gathered America’s brightest scientific minds at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, the result was advances in radar technology that many say won World War II. Then came the atomic bomb — which ended the war, and secured America’s place as the world leader in military science.

But a little over a decade later, the Russians launched Sputnik, catching Americans off guard. In response, Congress created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — or DARPA. Its mission: to make sure America was never again beaten by technological surprise.

To learn more about the agency behind today’s most cutting-edge military science, American Experience spoke with Annie Jacobsen, author of The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency, which was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History. The book is based on exclusive interviews with 71 people affiliated with DARPA over the years.

By Cori Brosnahan

Artist’s concept of robots competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Photo courtesy of DARPA.

From MIT’s Rad Lab to the Manhattan Project, World War II mobilized America’s greatest scientific minds in the service of military technology. DARPA is created in 1958, over 10 years after the war ends. Are the same people involved?
They were absolutely pulling from the same well. A number of years had passed since the end of the war, so the older scientists were essentially too old. But many of the original DARPA scientists were Manhattan Project scientists — the younger ones, the ones that were pulled out of Ph.D. programs in universities across America, some of whom I interviewed for my book. When you look at Defense Department scientists, you get this real sense of longevity across the decades.

The Vietnam War is the first battlefield DARPA enters. What is the result?
Many of the most controversial programs of the Vietnam War — including Agent Orange and the hearts and minds campaign — originated at DARPA. Many of the most ubiquitous weapon systems of today — including stealth, night vision goggles, laser guided bombs, unmanned drones and sensor surveillance — also originated during the Vietnam War as DARPA programs.

In the aftermath of the war, there were calls to get rid of DARPA. Its director, Stephen Lukasik, goes in front of Congress and says that DARPA is going to be a neutral, non-military, non-militaristic agency. He says they’re going to create science programs. They’re going to do “pre-requirement research.” What Lukasik meant is that once you need a weapon system, if you don't already have it, you’re dead. And that is the essence of DARPA today; it’s always 20 or 25 years ahead of the curve.

One of the major DARPA ideas you write about is sensor technology. How did that develop over the years?
I think sensor technology is one of the most remarkable concepts to come out of DARPA. It’s the idea that you can line the battlefield with electronic versions of eyes, ears, and hands to do what soldiers have been doing for millennia — look, listen, touch — and have them report back.

Sensor technology was actually born of the nuclear weapons age. Right before the Vietnam War started, DARPA was creating sensors to put in satellites. They wanted to see if the Russians were cheating on their nuclear weapons tests — which you would be able to see from space. They were also creating sensors to put underground is places like Norway that would be able to tell them the same thing.

Suddenly, the war was on in Vietnam. DARPA needed to create something capable of battlefield results. So they created these giant hearing sensors — three-foot long darts, if you will, that that would be hurled out of helicopters or aircraft and land on the floor of the jungle, where they would hopefully listen to Viet Cong fighters.

During the Vietnam War, DARPA encouraged the use of Colt AR-15s, proving the model’s effectiveness. The military would adapt the AR-15 to create the M16, which is standard-issue in the U.S. military today. Photo courtesy of DARPA.

That sensor, that three-foot long dart sitting in the mud, would then relay its information upward to an aircraft flying overhead. That aircraft would in turn relay the information back to a control center in Thailand that housed these giant computers. And that computer would try to make sense of that information, to figure out patterns of how the Viet Cong jungle fighters were moving down the trail.

It's crazy to think about even trying to do this in 1960, but they did. That same acoustic sensor in your iPhone began as a three foot long sensor in the Vietnam jungle. And that's just one example of sensor technology. Very quickly, the government started experimenting with infrared sensors, thermal sensors, electromagnetic sensors. It just ballooned.

DARPA also experimented with unmanned drones during the Vietnam War. How did that technology develop?
The drones in Vietnam were these massive systems that didn't have any weapons on them. They operated almost like the commercial systems that you know about today. You had a guy in a jeep sitting at the edge of the enemy line — so dangerous — with giant racks of AV equipment trying to talk to this drone, to get eyeballs on the jungle.

After the war, the DARPA guys started thinking: what if we could weaponize those drones, and put more distance between the drone and the Jeep with the rack of AV equipment on it? And that's what they worked on over those two decades between the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. The idea was to control the battlefield without having to put our own guys at risk.

Once the First Gulf War does arrive, how do DARPA technologies fare?
To DARPA, the Gulf War represented a slam dunk success. It represented going to Congress and saying, look what your money resulted in: we won the war in a matter of days. We destroyed the Iraqi military — which was considerable in the 90s — through DARPA technology. It was all what became known as “offset technology” — this idea that you could watch the war from over here. This idea that you could literally look at a screen and see what was going on. That didn't exist in Vietnam. And suddenly in the Gulf War, the generals could do that.

Artist’s concept of an unmanned aircraft. Photo courtesy of DARPA.

DARPA was created so that America would never be defeated by technological surprise. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military forces faced Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This is not advanced technology, but it still catches U.S. forces off guard. How does DARPA approach that kind of guerilla warfare?
I think that’s the single threat they don't yet have a handle on. The enemy was spending $25, $100, on an improvised explosive device, and taking out tens of millions of dollars [of equipment] and untold numbers of human lives. That is classic guerrilla warfare that could beat a superpower like the United States. We didn't know what to do with it, how to beat that threat. And that is where you really see the birth and rise of robotic warfare. In that moment, the funding for robotic warfare just went through the roof.

DARPA's plan through 2038 (and these are nonclassified plans — you have to hunt and search to find them, but they're not classified) states without question that the Pentagon is moving is towards robotic warfare. They want to have hunter killer drones that can swim, crawl, walk, run — drones that can fly 13,000 miles an hour, which is 22 times faster than a commercial jet, to get to a target really quickly.

Wow. That sounds a little scary.
It’s a conundrum. One of the most interesting problems with unmanned systems that I found from interviewing combatant commanders and drone operators is that they do not trust unmanned systems. They do not believe that the Pentagon should move singularly forward in that arena because these weapon systems do not have morality, and too many mistakes are made by machines.

But for as much as anybody complains, or worries, or thinks about the ramifications of robotic warfare, having interviewed these EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) techs — The Hurt Locker guys, if you will — and hearing their stories about a human going up against an IED, you just think of what that involves and how many guys are dying just being blown to bits. And then DARPA says, ‘Hey, we're sending in robots.’ They could not have been more grateful for that. But it’s complicated.

What about the scientists themselves — do they worry? There was a lot of debate amongst the Manhattan Project scientists about the nature of what they were creating. And as you write in your book, some of the scientists who worked on the hydrogen bomb called it an “evil thing.” Does that culture of questioning exist at DARPA?
If you look at who kept their jobs and continued working, i.e., making a living and supporting their family, it was the scientists who figured out pretty quickly not to discuss those questions. The ones who insisted on keeping discussing it — the Oppenheimers — they lost their jobs.

The real problem is that the individuals who are responsible for deciding what weapon systems are being financed and created in these classified DARPA programs are the very CEOs of defense contractors who stand to financially benefit from these contracts.

There’s a group called the “Jason scientists” that have served as DARPA advisors for 40 years. I interviewed a number of them for the book. They were all full time professors. They would gather in the summers to work on DARPA projects and then they would think about them throughout the year, while they were teaching physics or mathematics at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT — wherever.

They worked like this all the way through the War on Terror, until they started to get pushed aside. In their place has emerged a new group called the Defense Science Board. They are a group of scientists inside the Pentagon. They are not full time professors. They are all retired or current defense contractors.

But DARPA itself does not deploy any weapons whatsoever. DARPA provides their partners across the Army, Navy, and intelligence services with weapons and weapon systems. After testing and fielding, those partners make the ultimate decision about whether or not to deploy them.

Tuxedo darpa maars.jpg
The Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS robot) can kill targets from nearly two miles away. U.S. Army.

Where does that leave DARPA in the web of the military industrial complex?
I would say DARPA is the driver of the military industrial complex. You could say that’s not as sinister as it sounds, or you could say it's super sinister. People that I was interviewing for the book, different scientists, would often say to me, ‘How would the American public feel if Iran, if Russia, if a dark horse like Saudi Arabia came out with some weapon system, some technological surprise that the United States could not compete with? Everyone would say where is DARPA?’

How are all these DARPA projects financed and run?
DARPA gets its three billion dollars a year from Congress. Adjusted for inflation, that's roughly what the budget has been since day one. That’s its white budget — its budget that’s known. In other words, there could be more money for DARPA that’s hidden.

What's interesting about [the way DARPA is run] is that unlike the military, it does not have a huge bureaucracy. There are only roughly 120 DARPA program managers who divvy up that three billion dollars among the projects that they lead. It's very flexible. Those program managers can suddenly, if they have a need, put a whole bunch of money into one program and shut down another. They don't have to deal with the red tape of anything going to Congress.

Does DARPA’s original mission statement still hold true?
One-hundred percent. And I'll leave you with this thought. Today, DARPA, an agency that has been very secretive throughout the decades, has a presence in the modern press. You can read about DARPA, but it will always be these stories on the beneficent access — like DARPA’s working on a cure for Alzheimer's, or DARPA’s sending robots into the Fukushima nuclear site.

But what I will tell you, and it's absolutely true, is that DARPA's mission statement from 1958 in its statement to Congress is exactly what it is today. And that is this: to create vast weapon systems of the future.

Published January 2018.

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