From the People Who Gave Us the Internet, the Amazing and Appalling Story of DARPA
Imagineers of War is a history of the Defense Advanced Research and Projects Agency, or DARPA, the obscure government enterprise that (to oversimplify only slightly) gave us the internet, Agent Orange, driverless cars, armed drones, and a host of lesser accomplishments ranging from the sublime to the sinister to the absurd.
Founded in 1958, DARPA has funded scientific research and development in support of the U.S. national security mission for 60 years. While asserting accurately that DARPA “changed the world,” author Sharon Weinberger withholds judgment on whether DARPA changed it for better or worse. The answer is not obvious, which is what makes Imagineers such an interesting book.
DARPA was born in the wake of the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. With a little encouragement from elected officials, Americans grew fearful and then hysterical that the world’s first global orbiting vehicle was built by communist scientists.
“Soon they will be dropping bombs on us from outer space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses,” said Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.
The Advanced Research and Projects Agency (ARPA), established in February 1958, was the answer: a government agency that would empower scientists to dream up new ways to defend the country and its allies from a rival superpower. (“Defense” was added to the name in 1972, supposedly to protect it from congressional budget-cutters.)
Advanced rocketry was an early focus. DARPA scientists developed the Saturn rocket booster that would eventually take American astronauts to the moon. But in 1959, the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) took Saturn away from the agency. Such poaching has afflicted DARPA ever since.
Following the political breezes, DARPA turned its attention to Vietnam in 1960. The United States was supporting the pro-American dictatorship in South Vietnam against the nationalist insurgency of the Viet Cong, who were backed by the communists of North Vietnam. DARPA took the lead in the new field of “counterinsurgency,” offering two practical ideas that had terrible consequences.
One was the idea of the "strategic hamlet." To choke off the insurgency, DARPA proposed moving the residents of rural villages to fortified government compounds where the Viet Cong would not be able to agitate and recruit. Of course, Vietnamese peasants hated forced relocation from their ancestral homes. Agricultural production dropped, and the people often fled at the first opportunity.
DARPA’s scientific solution wound up reinforcing the Viet Cong’s message that the Americans were foreign interlopers who did not have the interests of the people at heart. “That it failed miserably is beyond dispute,” said one DARPA assessment.
To deprive the communist forces of ground cover, DARPA offered advanced methods of chemical defoliation. The result was Agents Purple, Pink, Green, Blue, White, and the most popular variation, Agent Orange. The United States proceeded to drop 10 million gallons of the toxic stuff on Vietnam, exposing hundreds of thousands of civilians and service members to cancer-causing chemicals and obliterating the country's wildlife.
(The story hit home for me. In the 1990s, my brother’s Vietnamese girlfriend died of a rare stomach cancer at age 32. The daughter of a Vietnamese military officer, she blamed her disease on exposure to Agent Orange in childhood.)
Test Ban Treaty
But just when you think DARPA was a laboratory for war criminals, Weinberger recounts a story with a different moral. In the early 1960s, a DARPA program known as Vela developed sophisticated seismic detection technology that could identify an underground explosion of a nuclear bomb anywhere in the world.
Vela’s effectiveness gave President John F. Kennedy confidence that the United States could enforce a limited test ban treaty forbidding nuclear explosions underground, underwater or in outer space. DARPA’s assurance muted Pentagon objections and helped JFK push the treaty through the Senate in the fall of 1963. Thus DARPA helped make possible the first superpower agreement aimed at reducing the balance of terror.
Then came a succession of “damned fool” projects, drolly recounted by Weinberger, which never went anywhere.
DARPA developed a jet pack that would supposedly enable soldiers to fly above the battlefield. With a flight time limited to a few minutes, the jet pack proved influential on the authors of comic books, while useless for real combat.
A proposed “megadeath beam” would have used high-energy particles to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. Nuclear explosions under the Great Lakes, explained one DARPA genius, could generate the necessary hydropower to fuel the weapon. Needless to say, the megadeath beam died a deserved death on the drawing board.
And sometimes the genius was hard to discern. To improve command and control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the 1960s, DARPA funded research into interactive computing. The result was ARPANet, the first network of linked computers. In October 1969, the system crashed midway through the world’s first email message. But ARPANet, nurtured by government funding, evolved into the internet of the early 1990s, which transformed the world.
In a quest to develop surveillance drones in the 1980s, DARPA funded an Israeli engineer who created an unmanned aircraft that could fly for a-then-unheard-of 56 hours straight. No U.S. military service was interested and the project was dropped. A decade later, the CIA bought a variation of the Israeli design that turned into the Predator Drone, which ushered in the current age of remote control warfare.
Sometimes the menace was obvious. In the late 1990s, DARPA launched Information Awareness Office, by John Poindexter, who had been fired as Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser during the Iran-contra scandal. Poindexter, a computer scientist by training, wanted to collect and sift massive amounts of data, looking for patterns that would disclose planning for mass terror attacks. The idea was immensely attractive after 9/11, and Poindexter’s budget doubled.
“The picture from the outside probably looked different from how those inside [the agency] saw it. The Information Awareness Office had as its head the bÃªte-noire of Iran-Contra, an office seal that featured an icon of Illuminati-inspired conspiracy theories, and an ambitious vision for a centralized database,” Weinberger writes.
The resulting furor killed Poindexter’s project and nearly killed DARPA.
Drive My Car
The agency was rescued by the driverless car. In 2003, DARPA sponsored a Grand Challenge for computer scientists seeking to develop a car that could drive itself. The competition was a bust, with the most successful car navigating only 7 miles of the 150-mile course.
A second competition in 2005 was won by a Stanford University team with a car that averaged 19 miles per hour. The third challenge in 2007 was an international media sensation, proving the concept was viable. Congress was glad to fund such glamorous work and so was the private sector. Google picked up the Stanford technology, followed by a host of Silicon Valley startups. When you see your first driverless cars next week or next year, you can thank DARPA for jump-starting the future.
If there is one theme that runs through Imagineers of Wars, it is the unintended consequences of technology. Even the failures of DARPA’s counterinsurgency research in Vietnam in the '60s would inform U.S. counterinsurgency wars a generation later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the most ingenious science can have terrifying applications.
“Is it a genius factory?” Weinberger asks of DARPA. “A Pentagon boondoogle? A refuge for crackpots?"
Maybe the best answer is: all of the above.